A century ago, The New York Times was even more sober than it is today, seldom deigning to cover the titillating stories of love or scandal that fueled its lowbrow competitors. But on April 6, 1905, an extraordinary headline greeted readers at the top of the paper’s front page: “J. G. Phelps Stokes to Wed Young Jewess.” Other newspapers across the country and the world were no less enthralled. The San Francisco Chronicle’s story, “New York’s Most Interesting Romance,” was framed by drawings of two winged cupids. The religious press weighed in as well, The Christian Advocate’s account titled “Hearts Making Havoc of Conventionalism.”
In the America of 1905, intermarriage between gentiles and Jews was indeed unconventional. But something else made this match even more startling: the enormous gap in class between bride and groom. We feel the same fascination with inter-ethnic and rags-and-riches marriages today. Would most of us, for instance, even know who Meghan Markle was if she had not married into the British royal family?
If American royalty existed, the Phelps Stokes dynasty was it. At 33 years old and six feet four inches tall, James Graham Phelps Stokes, Graham to his friends, was its crown prince. Several Phelps Stokeses were among the legendary 400 people—the capacity of Mrs. William Backhouse Astor Jr.’s ballroom—who constituted New York’s Gilded Age high society. The roots of the clan’s fortune went back to colonial times and included Manhattan real estate, a Nevada railroad, and the Phelps Dodge mining empire. A decade prior to Graham’s engagement, his parents had built a 100-room summer “cottage” in the Berkshires, at the time the largest private home in the United States. A story had it that one of Graham’s brothers, in the class of 1896 at Yale, telegraphed his mother that he was bringing “some ’96 men home for the weekend.” The apostrophe failed to appear in the telegram, and his mother replied, “Many guests here already, don’t bring more than 50.”
The woman Graham chose to marry, auburn-haired, 25-year-old Rose Pastor, was from the most different kind of family imaginable. With less than two years of formal schooling, she had gone to work at the age of 11, spending the next dozen years laboring in cigar factories. By the time she was in her 20s, that work provided the only earnings to support herself, her mother, and six younger brothers and sisters who had been abandoned by Rose’s ne’er-do-well stepfather. It wasn’t enough, and several of the children were placed in foster care. Moreover, Rose was a refugee in an America as roiled by hostility to immigration as it is today. When she was a small child, she and her mother had fled the spate of pogroms that followed the assassination of Russia’s Tsar Alexander II in 1881.
No American match of its time won more attention—or more enthusiasm. An effusive editorial in New York’s Evening World called it an “amazing marriage” and praised Graham: “All honor, in this generation of idle, rich and spendthrift young men, to one who has the courage of his convictions, the fervor of his faith and the daring of his devotion!” When the two appeared in public for the first time after news of their engagement broke, at a speech Graham gave at New York’s Municipal Ownership League—not normally a venue for displays of great emotion—the crowd waved handkerchiefs and cheered for minutes before they would let him speak.
Why such joy? Surely one reason is that we always want to feel that love conquers all, and the nation of 1905 had a deep divide to be conquered. While robber barons enjoyed yachts, mansions, and private railroad cars, millions of new immigrants lived in grimy tenements without hot water. Hazards ranging from collapsing mine tunnels to exposed gears and moving belts that snagged the limbs of exhausted factory laborers claimed the lives of roughly 35,000 workers annually. Legal protection for labor organizing was almost nonexistent, and the National Guard and armies of private detectives put down labor revolts: 200 workers were killed and nearly 2,000 injured in this domestic warfare every year.
In celebrating the marriage of Graham Stokes and Rose Pastor, wealthy Americans could comfort themselves into thinking that maybe the country wasn’t so divided after all. Working-class women could hope for their own Prince Charming. And to idealistic radicals, what could better symbolize human brotherhood than such a marriage of rich and poor, native-born and immigrant, gentile and Jew?
From the moment the press learned of their engagement, Rose and Graham lived in a blaze of unrelenting publicity that would last nearly two decades. Reporters chronicled their every move, and some readers were so fascinated that they compiled scrapbooks about the couple. A thick one full of brittle, yellowing newspaper clippings can be found at the New-York Historical Society today. And then, some dozen years after they married, a series of events that no one anticipated put Rose Pastor Stokes in the news even more. Over a three-year period, she became the woman whose name was most often mentioned in the nation’s press (only five Americans—all men—received more coverage). The journalists of the time would have paid Rose even more attention had they known that a close relative of Graham’s was covertly trying to have her arrested and deported. But this is getting ahead of our story.
Rose Pastor at the age of 15, third from left in the back row, with other cigar factory workers. She did the work for a dozen years. (Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Despite the deep dismay of Graham’s family, the couple did marry, in July 1905. After a long honeymoon in Europe, they returned to New York. Graham, who had been involved in various do-good reform groups, and Rose were determined to work together to attack the vast social problems of the day. These ills were nowhere more glaring than in the city’s dilapidated tenements.
Hundreds of men, women, and children were squeezed, five or six to a room, into each six-story walkup. In these buildings, where about two-thirds of New York’s population dwelled, 350,000 rooms had no windows at all, or ones that opened only onto an air shaft so narrow, you could reach across and shake a neighbor’s hand. The bottom of the shaft was typically filled with stagnant water and rotting garbage, and in warm weather the stench, added to air already ripe with horse manure and coal smoke, could be overpowering. Outside, wrote one observer, a person on foot “had to pick and nudge his way through dense swarms of bedraggled half-washed humanity, past garbage barrels rearing their overflowing contents.” Hungry, sharp-eyed children roamed the streets scavenging coal and wood scraps for family stoves.
For some months, the newlyweds were unsure what they should do. One of Graham’s sisters invited Rose to several meetings of the National Flower Guild. This consisted, as Rose later put it, of wealthy women who “were supplying the poor in the tenements with window-boxes ‘at a very low price,’ and sending their no-longer-fresh boudoir bouquets to the sick in the hospital wards. The spectacle filled me with a fierce impatience.” Traditional charity, she said, was like a small boy with a tin pan trying to empty a pool of water fed by an unseen fountain.
In 1906, they thought they had found a way forward: both Rose and Graham joined the Socialist Party. As with the kingdom of heaven promised by Christianity, socialism was a blueprint of a yearned-for future, always seen in the most glowing terms. Because the people would own and control the economy, there would be no more of the boom-and-bust cycles that regularly threw millions of Americans out of work. There would be no more concentration of wealth at the top while the bottom half of the population remained miserably poor. There would be generous pensions, care for the elderly, and free kindergarten. And, of course, there would be no more war, for solidarity among workers throughout the world would transcend national rivalries. Other problems of all kinds would be solved: under socialism, Graham declared, a police force “would hardly be necessary.” A headline in a socialist newspaper Rose would soon be writing for declared, “Socialism Would Cure Tuberculosis.”
The party was delighted to embrace this celebrity couple and quickly conscripted them to campaign for its candidate for governor of New York, John Chase, a former shoe-factory worker. The three traveled across the state together, calling each other “comrade” on the platform. Rose spoke as a worker who had experienced injustice firsthand, Graham as an intellectual who had studied different visions of society and had found socialism the best. Chase, a skillful raconteur, kept audiences laughing with funny stories. “It was a great night for the workingman,” reported the New York Sun of one campaign rally, “and the capitalists got many a hard wallop.”
Chase won only a small percentage of the vote, but the campaign proved a turning point for Rose. For the first time, she fully discovered her talent as a public speaker. She realized something else as well: she could connect with audiences in a way that the Yale-educated Graham could not. On the platform, one witness remembered, “he hemmed and stammered and made grotesque gestures.” Rose, on the other hand, had an instinctive sense of how to hold a crowd’s attention. “I made no notes and had no set speech,” she later wrote. “I coined my words as I stood and faced the audience. Speeches differed in approach as my audiences differed. … I [was] determined to learn to think on my feet.”
In this era before radio and TV, the best way to reach an audience was public speaking. Rose and Graham were soon doing so sometimes three or four nights a week. They spoke to men’s clubs, women’s clubs, church suppers, a meeting of 60 clergymen, a demonstration of the unemployed, the Odd Fellows, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, as well as to distinctly unsocialist groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution—who were as curious as everyone else about this remarkable marriage.
The range of their audiences thrilled Rose. “I felt I could remove mountains,” she later wrote. “Nothing was too difficult, no campaign so hard and trying, but that I could come through it stronger and more buoyant.” When she talked to middle-class suburban groups, she evoked her life in inner-city tenements and sweatshops. When she spoke to workers, she told how happy she had once been to hear a factory owner flatter her for rolling cigars so fast, only to realize that she had provided him the excuse to drop the piece rate. When she spoke at the religiously oriented Chautauqua Institution summer colony in upstate New York, she likened “the wolves of Wall Street” to the thieves who fell upon the man on the road to Jericho.
“Mrs. Phelps Stokes made quite a hit at Barnard last night,” a worried Republican wrote to the president of Columbia University, suggesting that the college invite someone to speak against socialism. “She is immensely effective as a speaker,” reported The New York Times. “Her voice is vibrating and high. It is not strong, but by very distinct enunciation she makes herself heard perfectly.” She widened her own sense of America on these tours, seeing new parts of the country, learning from those she spoke to, entering a coal mine in Pennsylvania to see the dark, cramped tunnels where the miners worked.
In the fall of 1908, Graham ran as a Socialist candidate for the New York State Assembly. Despite his militant denunciations of the “able-bodied men who live idly upon the product of the toil of others,” this lanky, gaunt figure did not set alight the “comrades” he spoke to. Campaigning for Graham at dozens of rallies, however, gained Rose more experience before crowds that ranged from a meeting of 3,000 women workers to impromptu gatherings she addressed from a fire escape or the back of a wagon. She spoke in English or Yiddish as the occasion required. “She is as much at home on the stump,” observed one newspaper, “as she is in her study or on the lecture platform.”
To the mainstream press, Rose remained Cinderella. The radicals who flocked to hear her may not have been completely immune to the Cinderella dream, but this couple who so obviously loved each other symbolized a future where all barriers of class and ethnicity would be dissolved. When the two appeared together, audiences often went wild. After they both spoke to an election rally at Rutgers Square on the Lower East Side, an enthusiastic, shouting crowd unhitched the horses from the open carriage carrying Rose and Graham and pulled it several times around the square themselves.
Eugene V. Debs was the Socialist candidate for president that year, and Graham was on the platform when he addressed a New York throng of 7,000. During his visit, New York Socialist Party leaders held a banquet. When it came time to pass the hat for funds, a clergyman mounted a table to better address the 500 diners. Rose then seized the headlines when she, too, climbed onto the table. She had no money with her, she told the crowd, “but I and many women here are wearing jewels which we really do not need.” She placed a large pearl stickpin on the table and then added, “I have a brooch at home and I never wear it. That, too, I’ll give.” This unleashed “great applause,” the Times reported, “and then from several parts of the room women cried out their gifts. A gold purse, a ring, a gold watch, a chain. … Mrs. Stokes was so overcome that she burst into tears.”
A few years after the couple married, a wave of strikes began that would deeply shake the United States for a decade to come. One of the first upheavals was a 1909 walkout by New York garment workers. Rose backed them enthusiastically, going often to court to help organize bail for arrested strikers. At one point, strike organizers dispatched her to two clothing factories on Broadway between 12th and 13th streets. As she tried to persuade a woman strikebreaker not to cross the picket line, a reporter was on hand to record a rare occasion when someone got the better of her in an argument.
“What is there in the future for you without the union?” Rose asked.
“I’m in hopes that some rich man will come along and marry me,” the strikebreaker answered. “Things like that occasionally happen.”
A strike in a different industry, however, would gain Rose even more attention.
Across the street from Grand Central Terminal was one of New York’s most elegant hotels, the Belmont, adorned with frescoes, crystal chandeliers, and marble pillars. On the evening of May 7, 1912, a waiter in the Belmont’s bar brought a black whistle to his lips and blew a loud blast, immediately answered by whistles from the hotel’s several dining rooms. Patrons were startled, but the waiters, in white shirts and black coats, napkins over their arms, knew what to do. Organized by the “Wobblies,” the Industrial Workers of the World, “one hundred waiters noiselessly departed into the streets,” reported The Evening World. “Guests waited in vain while sautés cooled and salads withered and wine grew warm. A strike was on.”
A long list of grievances led at least 5,000 waiters, busboys, dishwashers, chefs in tall white toques, and aproned chambermaids to heed whistles in some 50 other New York hotels and restaurants as well. Rose jumped into the fray immediately, serving on the strike committee, running some of its meetings, setting up a food kitchen for picketing workers, speaking at a gathering of black waiters to urge them to join the union, writing leaflets, and making daily phone calls from union headquarters to the socialist New York Call in time for the paper’s deadline.
In notes she scribbled to herself during these weeks, you can feel her simmering outrage. Most hotel employees ate on the job, but the food was often “trimmings, refuse, leavings unclean and unwholesome. … Everywhere the ordinary bill of fare is hash and stew—so the boss may use up the scrapings and leavings from the plates of the patrons.” Sometimes the menu was horsemeat. “Coffee in ‘Help’s Hall’ is usually brewed from yesterday’s grounds.” The sleeping quarters for women workers were “bunks, one above the other. Ten, fifteen, crowded into one room … No ventilation; rarely a ray of sunlight.” In one hotel, the women had to wash themselves and their clothing in the same tub where meat and poultry were cleaned. Worried hotel managers distributed photographs of Rose to front-desk clerks in case she tried to register as a well-dressed guest and then begin organizing the staff.
At the Amsterdam Opera House, 3,000 striking waiters and hotel workers rallied while another 2,000 stood outside. “Rose Pastor Stokes was greeted with applause when she entered the hall, and another outburst came when she rose to speak,” reported the Sun. “Half way through her talk she was interrupted to receive a big bouquet of American Beauties and a smaller bunch of white roses.” Cheering men raised their hats high as she swept down the aisle after her talk. It is striking, the bouquet: there is no mention of other women speakers at the rally receiving one. These workers seemed to recognize that Rose, born one of them, now lived in a world where flowers were abundant, but she was still on their side.
One object of the strike was the Ansonia, a luxury hotel that stretched—and, reborn as an apartment building, still stretches—for an entire block on Broadway, between 73rd and 74th streets. This immense, turreted, white-brick-and-limestone edifice, frosted with Beaux-Arts balconies, cornices, scrollwork, and satyrs, was said to be the largest hotel in the world, and possibly its 2,500 rooms made this true. Its owner was Graham’s uncle, William Earl Dodge Stokes, a real-estate mogul with a handlebar mustache.
Uncle Will, as Rose and Graham called him, was a notorious playboy always getting into the news: a paternity suit, a messy divorce, a child custody battle, a dispute with two women the press euphemistically referred to as “chorus girls,” one of whom shot him in the leg. Stokes was well known for carrying a pistol or two, laying them on the table beside his plate as he ate.
An ardent follower of the eugenics movement, Uncle Will believed that America’s Anglo-Saxon gene pool was being corrupted by immigrants from places like Italy, Eastern Europe, and Russia. He was enraged to find his hotel employees on strike—with his nephew’s wife as one of the organizers. He fired off a choleric letter to Rose:
You have upset the minds of thousands of waiters, buses [busboys] and cooks who came here from distant lands, some, perhaps with the honest intention of becoming good American citizens. You have made them dissatisfied, unhappy and caused them to lose their positions. … The sooner this country gets rid of this rotten trash the better.
His next attack on her would be far worse.
Rose Pastor Stokes in 1906. She was just finding her voice as a member of the Socialist Party, speaking on behalf of the poor. (Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
As Rose Pastor Stokes played an ever more prominent role in events like these, her husband now seldom appeared on the platform with her. Even in the excitement of their first years of touring together, he enjoyed it far less than she. “At the ends of meetings,” she would later write, there were always “workers pressing forward for a handclasp and a word. … To me the experience was like healing. … But Graham always wearied. I could not understand how it was with him. ‘Come on, Girlie, I am tired to death!’ he would moan.”
Graham Stokes now lived a peculiar double life. A Socialist candidate for public office several times in all, he also served on the party’s seven-member national executive committee, writing letters on party business that closed with “Fraternally Yours.” Yet at the same time he dutifully helped his father in managing an array of businesses, among other things traveling to Nevada once or twice a year to check on the family’s railroad and gold and silver mines there. He seemed able to compartmentalize the strangeness of it all, appearing with Eugene Debs before wildly cheering workers one day and heading for his office near Wall Street the next to deal with leases, mortgages, audits, and insurance. Even in the midst of that 1908 election season, when he and Debs were on the ballot together, the family sold a large mine in Nevada, where a local newspaper identified Graham as “the moving spirit” behind the deal.
By 1914 or 1915, friends began noticing signs of tension between him and his wife. But a disagreement burst into the open only in late 1917, after the United States entered the First World War. Unlike most other socialists, Graham and a small group of his friends in the party, almost all of them similarly wellborn, were vocal enthusiasts for the war; Graham’s ardor was so strong that he enlisted. To his frustration, he was too old at 45 to be sent overseas, but he spent several years in uniform in the New York National Guard. Rose, however, came to feel that the United States should have no role in this battle between rival capitalist powers and that it was making a huge mistake.
“Mrs. Stokes and I still have the same ideals, the same aims,” Graham judiciously explained to a reporter from the New York Tribune, “but we differ on the means of attaining them.” They greeted the journalist together in front of the living room fireplace in the Greenwich Village townhouse they had recently moved into, but Rose went upstairs while Graham described his position on the war, and he did the same while she laid out hers. Despite the blazing fire, it sounded like a chilly occasion.
For the first time in her life, Rose now embarked on a campaign totally opposed to what her husband stood for. By early 1918, she was on the road, speaking out against the draft and the myth, as she told one audience, “that this war is being fought to make the world safe for democracy. It is being fought to make the world safe for capital.” Some crowds hissed and booed, sometimes people walked out—unusual experiences for her—but she continued undaunted.
Meanwhile, the government used the war effort as an excuse to crack down brutally on organized labor, breaking strikes, raiding every IWW office in the country, and shipping Wobbly organizers to Chicago in sealed freight cars, where more than 100 of them were put on trial.
Some 75 newspapers or magazines either had issues banned by the government or were shut down altogether. With Justice Department encouragement, vigilante groups broke up antiwar or left-wing meetings and hunted down suspected draft dodgers. A mob wrecked the Socialist Party office in Boston. In Tulsa, hooded men captured 17 Wobblies and whipped, tarred, and feathered them. A crowd in Collinsville, Illinois, seized a coal miner who had the bad luck to be German born, stripped off his clothes, wrapped him in an American flag, marched him to a tree outside town, and hanged him. When 11 members of the mob went on trial, a jury deliberated for 45 minutes and voted to acquit them of all charges while a military band played outside the courthouse.
Graham’s Uncle Will enthusiastically shared this martial spirit. For months he had been firing off letters to government officials, passing on to them wildly unreliable tips about sinister Jews who might be disrupting the war effort. Finally he wrote to Assistant Attorney General Charles Warren, an influential Boston Brahmin who shared his enthusiasm for eugenics, about one Jew in particular. “My nephew, J. Graham Stokes … married Rose Pastor. He is as fine a young man as ever lived, but he is married to a woman who was born under a cloud with a grievance, and she is dangerous.”
Using the draconian new Espionage Act, the government wasted little time in prosecuting prominent leftists who spoke out against the war effort. Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, and Wobbly leader Big Bill Haywood—all friends Rose had worked with—were sent to prison. Rose’s turn to be arrested came when she was on a speaking tour in Missouri. The pretext was a letter she had written to the editor of The Kansas City Star, saying, “No government which is for the profiteers can also be for the people, and I am for the people, while the government is for the profiteers.”
Graham rushed to Kansas City and hired a lawyer, who won his wife’s release from jail on $10,000 bail. “It was a bitter thing for me,” Rose wrote to a socialist comrade, that she had to depend on his money. Graham made his own political position clear by announcing that he was spending another $10,000 to buy war bonds.
When Graham joined her in Kansas City—leaving neither of them home at the townhouse—his uncle telephoned the New York office of the Bureau of Investigation (the predecessor of the FBI), which logged his call: “Agent received word from W. E. D. Stokes that … if a search was made of the premises some valuable information could be secured.” The next day, two agents searched the house.
Ten days later, when the couple returned to New York, Uncle Will fired off another letter to the Justice Department saying that he had talked to both of them. Graham, he reported, “thinks she has gotten a good scare. … She, on the other hand seems to covet jail or anything else for the good of her cause.” What the government needed to do, he insisted, was deport her: “Do you suppose … that she could be given a passport to go to Russia, the country from which she came, and let the matter end there?”
Rose’s trial lasted only three days. Channeling the xenophobic spirit of the day, a prosecutor reminded the jury that she was an immigrant, speaking of “the venom that is in the heart of this foreign-born woman.” Rose was asked, “Do you believe in patriotism as defined in Webster’s Dictionary as the love and adoration for one’s country?”
“I love all countries,” she replied.
She was found guilty. He was horrified by the verdict, but Graham’s response was not without grace. “There is compensation in everything,” he told a Kansas City reporter. “Mine is that I think more of her than I ever did in my life.”
He promptly headed back to New York to march in a parade with his National Guard regiment. A few weeks later, Rose was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Still out on bail, she appealed the verdict. It was now the summer of 1918. From a Europe bled dry by four years of brutal fighting came reports that trade unionists and left-wing legislators in the Allied countries were pushing for a peace conference—anathema to their governments, which wanted no negotiations short of a German surrender. Graham managed to persuade the State Department to let four members of his small group of pro-war socialists travel to Britain, France, and Italy to lobby their European colleagues to abandon their calls for peace.
His National Guard service kept him in New York, but the delegates set off across the Atlantic, and soon he was receiving upbeat telegrams about successful meetings in London, Paris, and Bologna. “Dangerous tide pacifism turned back,” said one. However, the real tide now turned back was the all-or-nothing attack into which the German army had poured its last remaining manpower, aiming to capture Paris. As the Germans retreated, an Allied victory seemed assured, and so interest in a peace conference evaporated. Nevertheless, Graham proudly believed that his small group had played a key role in boosting Allied morale. When the delegation returned, he wrote, “President Wilson personally invited me and half a dozen of my most intimate associates … to meet him at the White House where he extended to us a most cordial expression of his gratitude.” Has there ever been a case where one member of a couple was received in the Oval Office while the other had just been sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison?
Nearly two years after Rose’s trial, the U.S. Court of Appeals declared that the evidence against her was convincing but found fault with the judge’s instructions to the jury and remanded the case to the lower court. For the Justice Department, this meant a new trial. The attorney general asked the president whether to proceed. “I believe that Mrs. Stokes is one of the dangerous influences of the country,” Woodrow Wilson answered, but he did not want to prosecute her again. “I think the country feels that the time for that is past.”
By now, the political paths of Rose and Graham had completely diverged. Serving in the National Guard gave him a focus that his life had previously lacked. In correspondence, his secretary and even people not writing on Guard business began referring to him as “Major Stokes.” He abandoned all interest in progressive politics and joined a number of military and patriotic societies.
Rose, meanwhile, moved steadily further to the left, joining what would become, after a confusing period of doctrinal feuding and name changes, the Communist Party. In 1922, as an enormous parade of soldiers, workers, trucks, artillery pieces, and lance-carrying cavalrymen trooped through Moscow’s Red Square to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power, Rose was among the guests of honor. She was an American delegate to a congress of the Communist International, which was addressed by Lenin in the gold-and-white marble hall in the Kremlin that had once been the throne room of the tsars.
Back in New York, she found her marriage now stiff and uneasy, with many subjects off limits. Others tried to avoid getting caught in this minefield. “I have been intending to write to you and apologize for not accepting your invitation to come to dinner,” the novelist Upton Sinclair wrote to Rose. “I should have felt so unhappy about meeting Graham under the circumstances existing. I am very fond of Graham personally, and I should like to sit down and have a heart to heart talk with him, but to meet him and not refer to the subject of politics—I just wouldn’t know how to do that.”
They parted finally in 1925, when Rose stormed out of the house and did not return. “We are active soldiers in opposing armies, you and I,” she wrote to Graham. “We cannot set up for ourselves a peaceful tent in No-Man’s-Land.” Yet at some level neither of them wanted to separate. One of Graham’s letters begged her, “Come back, Girlie.” And Rose, too, felt torn. “I passed Graham on the street,” she wrote to a friend 10 months after she walked out. “He did not see me. But I caught the look in his face, his eyes; and I have been weeping myself blind over it.” This was the last time she would ever see him.
Their divorce put them briefly back on the front pages, but following that, the couple dropped out of the news. It was their unusual marriage that had made them celebrities. Without it, Graham was merely a wealthy, aging former radical with no particular profession, and Rose was a true-believing Communist at a time when, in the America of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, that movement was minuscule.
Furthermore, something took Rose by surprise when she stalked out of their red-brick townhouse forever. She seemed to lose all interest in political work. “As I look back at the last few years,” she wrote to her best friend, “I verily believe that, if it had not been for Graham’s hard opposition I’d have given up long ago my intensive activities. … Now that the break with Graham is complete … I haven’t the least desire to get into crowds, to go to meetings, public or private.” Her 20 years of campaigning came to an end. “I am not very active now, Comrade,” she wrote to a Communist Party official. “I look forward to the day when I can get into the fight as usual,” she added, but that day never came.
As a matter of principle, Rose refused to ask for alimony. For a time, she shared a $40-a-month flat with a roommate, and then, moving to a small, heavily mortgaged cottage in Connecticut, she took in a boarder and a child for whose care she was paid $15 a week. For the first time in a quarter century she sometimes went hungry; at one point, after borrowing a few dollars from a sister and a brother, she owed money to the grocer and possessed only 36 cents in cash. She finally found a secretarial job at a small, Communist Party–connected relief agency.
She and Graham each married again, Graham to a much younger woman who was the daughter of a railroad executive, Rose to a penniless Jewish immigrant from Russia and fellow Party member. In early 1930, a reporter went looking for the woman to whom the nation’s press had once devoted hundreds of thousands of words. He found her living back in Manhattan with her new husband and her 10-year-old stepson in a cramped fourth-floor walkup flat on Second Avenue near 13th Street. Several newspapers picked up the story—“Once Rich ‘Ghetto Rose’ Now Reported Destitute,” read one headline—and also revealed that she was suffering from cancer.
As the news spread, old friends and admirers sent messages of support, and from one doctor came an offer to treat her without payment. Upton Sinclair and other friends—almost certainly without Rose’s knowledge—appealed to Graham to help pay for her cancer treatment. “I am now assured by friends of hers in New York, that sufficient funds for her care for a year have been raised,” Graham replied to Sinclair’s plea. “If I could help her without helping her work, much of which appears to me to be so very abominable, I should gladly do so, but I don’t see how I can.” Rose died in 1933, one month before her 54th birthday. Graham would live until the age of 88, dying in 1960.
But Cinderella-like dreams live on. “The Cinderella story,” wrote Tennessee Williams, “is our favorite national myth.” Today, Rose and Graham Stokes are long forgotten, but during their 20 years on the national stage they embodied that myth in a more dramatic and haunting way than any other Americans, before or since.
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