Rose Pastor Stokes, Advocate “for the People, not the Profiteers”–A Review of “Rebel Cinderella”

Hochschild, Adam. Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.

Reviewed by Sara Paretsky

Rebel Cinderella, Adam Hochschild’s study of Rose Pastor Stokes, draws the reader into the early decades of the twentieth century when reformers and radicals sought to shape public policies concerning immigration, slum housing, birth control, eugenics, and labor’s right to organize. This study fits within a body of progressive writing by Hochschild, a founding editor of Mother Jones, who has written of the Americans who fought in the Spanish Civil War. In his acclaimed King Leopold’s Ghost (1998), he connected colonial Belgium’s atrocities in the Congo to the 1994 Rwanda genocide. 

With an eye for the compelling but overlooked story, Hochschild understood that at the height of her fame Stokes garnered more press than any woman in the country. Today, the radical women who were her contemporaries, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, and Ida B. Wells, find a place in history. But where is Rose Pastor Stokes? We are grateful to Hochschild for taking up the question.

Twelve-year-old Rose Pastor arrived in the United States from Poland via London in 1890. The oldest of seven children, she was almost immediately set to work in a Cleveland sweatshop, rolling cigars for 70 to 80 hours a week. She worked there for eleven years. Pastor had lived briefly in London; how a largely self-taught, Yiddish-speaking, factory operative become a gifted writer and speaker in English remains something of a mystery. In any event, a letter she wrote in 1903 describing the working conditions in her sweatshop became a series of articles that brought an invitation from the Yiddisches Tageblatt to come to New York to report on women who lived in the tenements of the Lower East Side. Her articles were an immediate success. Then, while doing a feature on the University Settlement, she interviewed James Graham Phelps Stokes. 

Graham, as he was called, belonged to the Stokes-Phelps-Dodge clan, real estate barons with substantial railroad holdings and controlling interests in southwestern copper and coal mining operations. The family summered in a hundred-room Adirondack “cottage,” said to be the nation’s largest private home. 

Cleveland’s shoreline as it must have appeared to Rose Pastor Stokes. “American Steel and Wire Company’s Plant, Cleveland,” (ca. 1901), Detroit Photographic Co., Yale University Library.

After college Graham lived part-time at the University Settlement, which provided immigrants with access to public baths and showers, classes in English, the arts, and athletic programs. After meeting Rose, Graham pursued the vibrant reporter, eight years his junior. She may have been intoxicated and perhaps perplexed by a robber baron who introduced her to socialism and radical friends.

On April 6, 1905, the upper crust was stunned by a headline that appeared in the otherwise staid New York Times: “J. G. Phelps Stokes to Wed Young Jewess.” The marriage of a poor Jewish girl to one of the nation’s richest young men dismayed a family ranked among New York’s “400.” Afterwards, however, Graham and Rose were seen traveling abroad with his parents. The doings of the fairytale couple naturally became a staple of the society pages. 

Among the writers, artists, activists, and labor organizers within Graham’s circle were a number of women under whose influence Rose acquired the confidence, voice, and analytic skills that allowed her to confront the issues of the day. What Graham acquired was a private island in Long Island Sound. He called it Caritas, reflecting the link between socialism and Christian charity, and here he built the mansion where he and Rose lived along with her mother and siblings. Among the visitors were Eugene V. Debs and Emma Goldman; some who dropped in stayed on for years.

From this scintillating group, Rose emerged as a brilliant orator. A critical event in her life was the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, when 146 (mostly) young women jumped or burned to death because the exit doors of the loft where they worked had been locked shut. Rose now emerged as highly visible labor activist and organizer, battling for improved wages, hours, and working conditions. In the years before World War I she seemed to be everywhere—addressing a capacity crowd at Carnegie Hall on birth control, denouncing the First World War, and defending the leadership of the Wobblies, America’s most radical labor group. She preached the gospel of socialism not just to working people, but also to proper Middle-Western clubwomen and college girls. (Although Hochschild mentions the matter only in passing, it should be noted that Rose, who was acutely aware of the lynching and brutal racism of the era, demanded, unsuccessfully as it turned out, that her Socialist brethren treat Black Americans as their equals.) 

Garment workers striking in New York, circa 1913. Wikimedia Commons.

At first she and Graham grew ever more radical together. But her popularity also meant spending more time on the road, and while Graham could run for the state assembly on the socialist ticket, she was the one in the spotlight. He came to resent her fame.

By the beginning of the First World War, Graham began wearing his old ROTC uniform and taking part in military exercises. Meanwhile, Rose’s socialism evolved into the Bolshevism which moved her to openly denounce the war and call for resistance to conscription. Under the Espionage Act, Rose, Emma Goldman, Kate Richards O’Hare, and Eugene V. Debs, among others, were put on trial. When Rose received a ten-year sentence, Graham posted the $10,000 bail and kept her out of prison until the government dropped the case. By then the war and the marriage were over. Graham and Rose divorced in 1925. 

Divorce, one might imagine, would have been liberating, but afterwards Rose quickly retreated from public life, choosing instead to work quietly to establish the American Communist Party. She refused alimony and died at 53 of cancer, while living in extreme poverty.

Cinderella Rebel serves as an inviting primer on the history of radical politics and the inequities that continue to define and divide America. But after reading this eminently helpful book, certain tantalizing questions remain. What was Graham thinking? Married to one of the nation’s most famous and increasingly notorious radicals, he clipped coupons from union-busting Phelps Dodge mines and railroads and managed the family’s hefty real estate portfolio. And what was Rose thinking? By marrying the prince, our Cinderella escaped devastating poverty, but unlike most princesses she maintained her abiding concern for those doing the dirty work. How could she so readily resist the blandishments of wealth? Instead of becoming a society hostess, she spearheaded the 1912 strike of 5,000 waiters, bus boys, cooks, and maids working in the city’s restaurants and hotels. One of the largest of those hotels, the Ansonia, was owned by Graham’s Uncle Will. Why did she disappear after the war? Did she need Graham for moral support and as a foil for her political work? Did she withdraw because her Bolshevism so alienated Jazz Age America? Hochschild points out that the couple’s extensive papers reveal little of their feelings for each other or the complex motivations and contradictions behind their politics. Did Hochschild delve into Rose’s Yiddish-language papers? This case is not closed.

Your reviewer would be remiss if she failed to disclose that Caritas—both the island and 14,000 square foot home along with the private harbor and helipad—were put on the market last spring at $14.5 million. The Stamford Advocate, announcing the availability of the property, referenced a scion of the House of Morgan as a former owner, but there was no mention of that young woman, the cigar maker from Cleveland, who yearned for a country that worked “for the people, not the profiteers. ” No need for history to jeopardize a sale. We are indebted to Adam Hochshild for summoning up the ghost that haunts the castle.

While Sara Paretsky is best known for her novels in English about Chicago detective V.I. Warshawski, she shares Rose Pastor Stokes passion for easy access to reproductive health care, for workers rights, for easing access to immigration, for ending Sedition and Espionage Acts. She is a pale simulacrum of Pastor Stokes, down to marrying a non-wealthy WASP, whose 1923 Canadian birth certificate lists his mother’s race as “English.”

Featured image (at top): Star-crossed lovers Rose Pastor Stokes and James Graham Phelps Stokes. “Rose Pastor Stokes” (n.d.), Bain News Service, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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