The Salome Ensemble

Syracuse University Press   2016

 

The four women of The Salome Ensemble—all immigrants born in the late nineteenth century who freed themselves from poverty and what were for them the stultifying demands of Orthodox Jewish women—are related by way of Salome of the Tenements, Anzia Yezierska’s1922 novel of a young woman desperate for beauty that she believes only wealth can buy.

Any reading of The Salome Ensemble must begin with the novel. Yezierska’s protagonist Sonya Vrunsky (the Anna Karenina echo of Vronsky is intentional) is modeled largely on Rose Pastor Stokes (1879-1933), a playwright, journalist, poet, social worker who married a wealthy gentile socialist, John Phelps Graham. Stokes was one of the founders of the American Communist Party; her fierce dedication was too much for Phelps and they divorced in 1925. Sonya Levien (1888-1960) became an editor of Metropolitan magazine where she published stories by Yezierska—they came recommended by Stokes. Levien wrote the screenplay for Salome of the Tenements and went on to become a prolific, Oscar-winning screenwriter. Unlike the first three women, who were Russian Jews, Jetta Goudal’s (1891-1992) roots were Dutch. An actress characterized in the press as “a cocktail of temperament,” she played the role of Sonya in the film.

That the four women compose an “ensemble” is the creation of Alan Robert Ginsberg. Did all of them ever meet as a group? Not likely, though Ginsberg in his passionate dedication to the story he gives us, would like to imagine they did: “It is possible that [they] sat one evening in December 1924 in a darkened private screening room in New York City with other Paramount Pictures insiders, friends, and family, watching the newly completed film . . . .”

While the film no longer exists, the screenplay does. It differs significantly from the novel, in which Sonya divorces John Manning (the character modeled on John Phelps Graham) because of the independence she is forced to give up in marriage: the film has a happy ending to the marriage between Sonya and Manning. Levien’s focus is “about a female immigrant’s assimilation and upward mobility through intermarriage to a wealthy American man.” If they had watched the film together, Ginsberg writes, “Levien and Goudal would have reacted positively; Yezierska and Stokes would have dismissed the film as superficial mush for mass audiences.” Unlike Levien, Yezierska was conflicted about assimilation into American culture. Ginsberg quotes the critic Carol Schoen on Yezierska’s being “torn between her love for her heritage and her resentment at its demands; she would always feel the pull to become part of American life, yet rail at its materialism and hypocrisy.”

It is the differences and similarities among these women, set in the context of American social and literary background that distinguishes The Salome Ensemble. For example, Ginsberg compares Sonya to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, Wharton’s Lily Bart in The House of Mirth: “all were outcasts, outsiders, others, and foreigners who longed to belong and longed to be love. They questioned authority and quested for the status of personhood.” Sonya differs from Lily Bart and Anna Karenina because of a strength and “capacity for self-preservation” that the others lack.

There are passing accounts of the relationships but until now, Ginsberg writes, no one has fully explored the essential connections between them. For him, it has been a calling. His scholarly and deliberately-paced book is belied by what at time feels like hyperbole: “individually [they] require and repay passionate attention. Together they impart depth and wisdom about each other and their historical moment . . . their connections are an untold story that cries out to be told.” Ginsberg writes of the independence and interdependence of these women as though they were “frontier individualists at a barn-raising or a quilting bee.” His aim has been “to rectify that failure [and] redress that omission.” And he does.

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