The invitation from the California-based American Jewish University arrived early this Quarantine Spring: “Join us online to discuss the classic Jewish-themed short story: ‘Address Unknown’ by Kressmann Taylor.” The session would be led by my friend Lisa Silverman, a longtime librarian living in Los Angeles who, I soon learned, had already facilitated similar discussions of the work face-to-face many times. How was it that I, with an above-average acquaintance with both American short stories and Jewish-themed fiction, had never heard of this “classic” tale—or its author?
Initially published in September 1938 by Story magazine, “Address Unknown” unfolds as an exchange of letters between a San Francisco–based Jewish art dealer named Max Eisenstein and his German friend and business partner, Martin Schulse. The opening letter, sent from Max to Martin and dated November 12, 1932, appears under “Schulse-Eisenstein Galleries” letterhead. We learn that Martin and his family have only recently returned to Germany after some time residing in the City by the Bay. The warm, affectionate letter laments the Schulse family’s departure for the gap it leaves in Max’s social life. It provides an update about the men’s shared business, which “continues to go well.” And it mentions Max’s actress sister, Griselle: “She has the lead in a new play in Vienna.” We discover some rocky romantic history between Max’s sister and his good (and married) friend Martin, but Max assures him that for Griselle, at least, “there is no bitterness left there.”
I refuse to spoil this astounding work before readers can experience it for themselves. Suffice to say that bitterness indeed accrues—slowly, stealthily—as the months pass, the Nazi regime takes hold, and Martin embraces it. The men’s friendship deteriorates. Someone dies. Eventually, a malicious strategy unfolds. Everything unspools through the letters.
In 2020, most readers with a basic grasp of history will perceive the potential stakes fairly quickly. A friendship (and business partnership) between a Jew and a non-Jewish German in the 1930s? A Jewish actress flitting around Europe? Cue the foreboding.
But imagine yourself in September 1938, when the story was published—and even earlier, when the author was writing it. Hindsight helps the writer of historical fiction; the job is infinitely more complicated when the subject is contemporary politics, or current events.
After reading the story, I immediately wanted to know more about Kressmann Taylor. Google told me at once what was initially and deliberately obscured: Born in Oregon in 1903 as Kathrine Kressmann, the author, aka Mrs. Elliott Taylor, published “Address Unknown” under a byline comprising her maiden and married surnames.
According to her son and literary heir C. Douglas Taylor, writing in a foreword to a 2016 print edition he made available via print on demand, it was Elliott Taylor—also a writer—who showed the manuscript to Story editor Whit Burnett. The two men “decided that the story was too strong to appear under the name of a woman, and assigned Kathrine the literary pseudonym Kressmann Taylor, a professional name she accepted and kept for the rest of her life,” largely, the son explains, because of this story’s success.
How, then, did the story take shape? Again, the son explains, this time quoting his mother:
A short time before the war, some cultivated, intellectual, warm-hearted German friends of mine returned to Germany after living in the United States. In a very short time they turned into sworn Nazis. They refused to listen to the slightest criticism about Hitler. During a return visit to California, they met an old dear friend of theirs on the street, who had been very close to them and who was a Jew. They did not speak to him. They turned their backs on him when he held his hands out to embrace them. How can such a thing happen, I wondered. What changed their hearts so? What steps brought them to such cruelty?
Such questions persisted. Kathrine went to work: “I began researching Hitler and reading his speeches and the writings of his advisors. What I discovered was terrifying. What worried me most was that no one in America was aware of what was happening in Germany, and they also did not care.” (Here, I can’t help but think of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who managed to flee to the United States in 1937 and 1938. Here, I’m compelled to pause and marvel over what today we might term this non-Jewish woman’s stunning “allyship.” Here, too, I convey what her son recently shared via email when I brought up this point: “She had several Jewish friends, but I think would have reacted similarly whatever the race or religion of those maltreated or snubbed.”) The story’s genesis continued when Elliott Taylor noticed a news article recounting correspondence between some Americans who had returned from studying in Germany and their German peers.
When “Address Unknown” finally appeared in Story, the first printing of that issue sold out within 10 days. Reader’s Digest reprinted the story for its much-larger audience, and in January 1939, Simon and Schuster published it as a small, 63-page book, ostensibly because, as Whit Burnett wrote in a foreword to that edition, the stunning response suggested that it “ought to have a good substantial binding on it and its own independent, and perhaps permanent, place on the country’s bookshelf.”
Every writer might wish for the reviews that followed. Some excerpts:
- “This modern short story is perfection itself. It is the most effective indictment of nazism [sic] to appear in fiction.” (Stanley Young, The New York Times Book Review).
- “A tremendously powerful piece of work, with a wallop at the end of the kind that Poe, Maupassant, Ibanez, Bierce and O. Henry made famous in their time.” (Joseph Henry Jackson, San Francisco Chronicle)
- “What must be emphasized here is that this is no merely sound journalistic piece. It is a great story regardless of time or place or immediate circumstances. It is a great story because it contains all the elements of storytelling that have gone to make great stories from time immemorial.” (Fred T. Marsh, New York Herald Tribune)
- “Simple, warm, human and tremendously touching. It will take hold of both head and heart.” (Los Angeles Times)
Hamish Hamilton’s British edition followed, and work on translations began. Then came the Second World War. “The Dutch translation disappeared,” writes C. Douglas Taylor in his 2016 foreword, “and the only other European appearance of Address Unknown was on the Reichskommissar’s list of banned books.” In the United States, attention continued with the 1944 release of a movie adaptation directed by William Cameron Menzies that, from the clips I’ve seen, departs considerably from the original text.
In his foreword, the author’s son attributes the work’s postwar neglect—apart from its “inclusion in an occasional anthology”—to the idea that “any further indictment of the Nazis seemed no longer necessary.” Indeed, when I conducted an informal survey on Twitter, one of the few respondents who knew the story recalled discovering it via an anthology assembled by novelist and editor Hallie Burnett (Whit Burnett’s widow). If Address Unknown remained on America’s bookshelf at all, as Whit Burnett had prophesied, it seems to have spent decades there gathering dust.
In 1995, however, in tandem with the 50th anniversary commemorations of the liberation of Nazi camps, Story Press reissued Address Unknown in book form. By then, the author was 91 and had been twice widowed (Elliott Taylor died in 1953; John Rood, the sculptor and University of Minnesota professor whom she married in 1967, died in 1974). She participated in publicity activities, writes her son, “happily signing copies and granting television and press interviews.” She was “gratified” by the work’s rediscovery, “this time with the stature of a classic of American literature.”
She died the following year, shortly before her 93rd birthday. She had lived not just one life, but, according to C. Douglas Taylor, several successful ones: as a wife and mother to four children, as a popular teacher of composition, literature, and creative writing at Gettysburg College (becoming in 1954 one of the first women to receive tenure), and as the author of four books and a dozen short stories. Address Unknown, meanwhile, has lived on—this time, notably, abroad. A subsequent French translation has sold, Taylor tells me, more than 600,000 copies. Translations have appeared in two dozen languages in 30 countries. The work has also been adapted into audio books, radio productions, and live-theater performances.
One aspect of a story’s greatness is its ability to speak to readers of different ages. So it is with Address Unknown, which spoke to me at a time when my newsfeed provided references to “autocrats” and “complicity” and images of political rallies filled with inexplicably large and ominously chanting crowds.
Perhaps before long I’d have discovered both the work and its author after all. In corresponding with C. Douglas Taylor, I’ve learned that Address Unknown will be reissued in the United States by Ecco Books in May. I’m hopeful that we’ll all be running across it again soon, and that, at long last, it will reclaim its place on that American bookshelf.
An excellent and faithful podcast version of “Address Unknown” has been produced by the Los Angeles–based Parson’s Nose Theater, which, like the American Jewish University, has launched new online options in the era of Covid-19.
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