Adam Hochschild renews my faith in biographers and the art of biography. Rebel Cinderella models the very best of this sort of intellectual investigation, recounting the story of a life as it intersects with moments of historical significance. Hochschild introduces his readers to Rose Pastor Stokes, then entwines her impoverished childhood and subsequent Cinderella marriage to a wealthy New York scion with the momentous role this unusual woman played in the early twentieth-century rise of American socialism. Not only did I learn a lot about a woman I had never heard of; I also learned a lot I didn’t know about the Gilded Age and those socialist leaders who rebelled against societal and income inequality.
Rose Pastor Stokes was indeed a “rebel Cinderella.” Born in Russia, she came to the United States when she was a youngster. To help support her family, she dropped out of school and worked as a cigar roller in a Cleveland sweatshop, earning pennies per day. At the same time, she began sending self-help articles and inspirational poetry to a Yiddish daily in New York City. When the editor offered her a full-time job there, she jumped at the chance. One of her first assignments took her to a nearby settlement house to interview James Graham Phelps Stokes, the heir to an enormous fortune who served on the board of the University Settlement. It was love at first sight. Almost instantly, the tabloids began calling her Cinderella, as she started the uncomfortable transition from Jewish sweatshop émigré to ostentatiously affluent bride.
Graham was himself a bit of a rebel, and initially, the two saw eye to eye about what they considered the evils of conspicuous consumption. His family was taken aback by the couple’s politics, which grew increasingly radical. Rose had to learn to negotiate their expectations while simultaneously playing a stronger and more visible leadership role in socialist political circles. She became an accomplished public speaker whose close friends were memorable figures like Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, Big Bill Haywood, John Reed, and Eugene Debs. Because of her intense involvement in causes like birth control, suffrage, worker’s rights, the I.W.W., labor unions, and pacifism, she participated in many of the prominent political uprisings of the 1910s and ‘20s and ‘30s. She was arrested countless times, even convicted once and sentenced to prison, though an appeals court overturned the decision.
Hochschild does a masterful job of focusing the “rebel Cinderella” narrative on what is important, both in Rose’s life and in the movements she was spearheading. Unlike some biographies, this one never bogs down in trivial pursuits. Every informative page centers on the person as she joined the major political upheavals of her generation. Reading Rebel Cinderella, I realized how my early schooling had sanitized this period in American history. Hochschild humanizes it instead. He also humanizes Rose and Graham’s slowly disintegrating marriage; a dissolution played out in tandem with her increasingly prominent partisan role.
Given current political interests in democratic socialism today, I found it most informative to learn more about the underpinnings of the socialist movement in America and its international roots. Hochschild clearly sympathizes with his characters’ instincts, but he does so in a scholarly rather than politicized manner. He has written, I think, the very best sort of personal and cultural biography, one that very successfully spans the gamut of Rose Pastor Stokes selves, described in Rebel Cinderella’s subtitle as “Sweatshop Immigrant, Aristocrat’s Wife, Socialist Crusader.” Her passionate story is well worth reading. — Ann Ronald
Also available by Adam Hochschild: King Leopold’s Ghost; To End All Wars; Bury the Chains; Spain in Our Hearts; The Unquiet Ghost; The Mirror at Midnight; Half the Way Home; Lessons from a Dark Time; Finding the Trapdoor; Airplanes, Women and Song; Infra: Photographs.
Bookin’ with Sunny enthusiastically supports Independent Bookstores and Public Libraries.