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The History Behind a New York City Subway Beauty Pageant

Monday, July 16, 2018 | Permalink

Plastic surgeons. Wireless data plans. Personal injury attorneys. These are some of the advertisements New Yorkers and tourists see while riding the New York City subways.

Starting in the 1940s, however, and lasting until the mid-'70s, next to the ads for shaving cream and savings bonds would have been a photo of a pretty girl.

Welcome to the world of Miss Subways.

I learned about the Miss Subways contest while listening to a story on NPR several years ago, and I was blown away. A beauty pageant on the subway? Really?

I had worked in advertising for years so I thought this slice of New York City history was fascinating. And I knew immediately upon hearing the story that I wanted to write my next novel about it.

But first, I had so many questions: How did the contest come to be? Who were these Miss Subways winners? What compelled them to enter the contest in the first place? What was it like to win? And how did winning affect the rest of their lives?

My first step was research. I started with the book Meet Miss Subways: New York’s Beauty Queens 1941-1976 (Seapoint Books, 2012). The authors, Amy Zimmer and Fiona Gardner, painstakingly researched the history of the contest. From this book along with articles I read—from outlets ranging from The New York Times to LIFE—I learned about the history of the contest, how it worked, who was involved, its position in the NYC zeitgeist, and what it meant to a young woman at the time to win.

In the early 1940s, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) wanted to increase rider morale and draw attention to the advertisements. So they hired noted advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, which came up with the idea of a monthly beauty contest. The famed John Robert Powers modeling agency judged the women, and the winner’s photo, along with a brief description of her ambitions and hobbies, were printed on thousands of posters that were seen by millions on their subway travels. Over the contest’s 35-year existence, 200 women would hold the title of Miss Subways.

Zimmer and Gardner also investigated the whereabouts of all 200 winners, located 41 of them, and photographed and interviewed the women, uncovering rich details of their lives before, during, and after the contest.

Winning the title of Miss Subways was a celebrated achievement and the winners often became sought after—mostly in their own neighborhoods but, on several occasions, nationally as well. Mona Freeman, the first Miss Subways in May 1941, went on to have a storied Hollywood career. Ruth Ericcson, Miss Subways December 1941, received 278 marriage proposals, and Dorothea Mate Hart, Miss Subways June 1942, received 200 tea bags.

What was revolutionary was that the Miss Subways posters relayed the winners’ ambitions, quite unlike any other beauty pageant of the time. Eileen Henry, March 1944, wanted to be a radio director. Mary Radchuck, August 1944, was studying to be an interpreter. Anne Peregrim, July 1950, hoped to become a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps. Sure, there were just as many winners who sought a career as an elementary school teacher or wanted a large family and a home in the country. But the contest was notable for celebrating women for more—okay, maybe just a little, but still—than just their appearances.

In addition, Miss Subways winners reflected the melting pot of races and religions of the city from whence they came. And though the selection of the first black Miss Subways winner, 1948’s Thelma Porter, didn’t occur without tension and racism, it’s still notable in that the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, wasn’t crowned until 1984, almost four decades later.

And many of the Miss Subways winners were Jewish: Ruth Lippman! Patti Freeman! Enid Berkowitz!

The most fascinating part of my research was interviewing a handful of Miss Subways winners, now in their 80s and 90s, to learn firsthand about their experiences and how winning impacted their lives.

The resulting novel, The Subway Girls (St. Martin’s Press, 2018), follows two story lines: 1949’s Charlotte Friedman (who’s named after my grandmother) competes in Miss Subways. And 2018’s Olivia learns about Miss Subways while doing research for an advertising pitch. The storylines intersect and that’s when the fun begins.

Susie Orman Schnall is the award-winning author of The Subway Girls, The Balance Project, and On Grace. She’s a frequent speaker, and her writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, HuffPost and Harper’s Bazaar. Susie grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and lives with her husband and three teenage sons in New York.

Miss Subways ad at the New York City Transit Museum by Wcnghj via Wikimedia Commons

New Reviews July 16, 2018

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New Reviews July 9, 2018

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Interview: Mark Sarvas

Thursday, July 05, 2018 | Permalink

How would you describe Memento Park in a tweet (280 characters)?

A man tries to recover a looted painting that appears to have belonged to his family but in order to do so he must recover the lost story of his family, reconnect with his own neglected Judaism, and repair his broken relationship with his father.

What do you have on your desk?

An action figure of Bojack Horseman, my spirit animal. A few candles. A chipped bulldog statuette from a Paris hotel. A photo of my daughter. Several to-do lists.

What are your favorite novels that center around a painting?

Top of the list would be John Banville’s “Frames” trilogy – The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, and Athena. I also love Peter Carey’s (underrated) Theft and John Berger’s A Painter of Our Time. And one cannot exclude the urtext of art novels: Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

What are your favorite art museums?


My god, so many. MOMA in New York City is close to the top, though the crowds can be exhausting. I adore the Musee Marmottan in Paris and the Phillips Collection in DC. I recently got out to Mass MOCA for the first time and was enthralled by the place. But I also love smaller spaces like the Neue Galerie and L.A.’s own Norton Simon Museum (which features in my novel).

What are your favorite cases of artistic fakes and forgeries?

I’m pretty fascinated by the life of Eric Hebborn, a noted art forger who is believed to have made around $30 million in the eighties. He was finally exposed and wrote some remarkable books after that, including a memoir and a veritable how-to manual. I wished I could have used all that material more prominently in my book, and I suspect it’s something I will return to one day. You can watch a documentary about him here.

What is your favorite underappreciated Jewish book?

Not underappreciated, perhaps, but not read anywhere near as widely as it deserves to be is Jenny Erpenbeck’s brilliant The End of Days.

Sarvas headshot: Yanina Gotsulsky; photo of Eric Hebborn via Artnet News

New Reviews July 2, 2018

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New Reviews June 25, 2018

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New Reviews June 18, 2018

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New Reviews June 11, 2018

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I Used To Be a Witch

Friday, June 08, 2018 | Permalink

Dorothea Lasky is writing here as part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Whenever I finish a book of poems, I get a little wistful, a little romantic and sad. The book has become what it is, just like the way when something or someone dies, everything that they were becomes what it was. Books and their meanings are absolutely malleable to their future readers, but to their writers, they become a little fixed, especially right after they’ve taken their place in the world. What they could have been, when there was still time to change them, is over. They are what they are. Right now Milk is what it is.

For me, poetry is always tied up with my spirituality, which is a rotating sense of the world, the other world, and my place within these things. I am Jewish, but not exactly practicing. I was raised as a reform Jew (I was bat mitzvahed, confirmed in Sunday School, and even taught Sunday School at my temple for a while). For too many reasons to list here, I have become a bit estranged in my daily life from this background.

My mother, a brilliant and vibrant artist, was raised Jewish in Los Angeles and has spent much of her life revisiting her relationship to her own sense of the spiritual world. My father, a great man, was raised as an Orthodox Jew at the beginning of last century in St. Louis, but became reform in his adult life. We never talked too explicitly about it, but he hinted at preferring to come to his relationship to Judaism in his own way.

In my daily life now, I have come to Judaism in my own way. For me, my Judaism is so tied up with my poetry that they have become in many ways the same thing.

People often want to know what books mean, but I don’t think a poetry book has to have one strand of meaning. I think that poetry books have themes they are working with, and I think that Milk’s themes are motherhood, creativity, and the occult. Originally, Milk was going to be an occult text—a book of spells—based on the moon. I think I will write that book one day, but I knew when I was working on Milk that it wasn’t that book.

Still, in original versions of the book, I had many poems that dealt explicitly with spirituality. Here is one of them that didn’t make it in:

I used to be a witch

I used to light the candles in the hallway and say your name

Say it was what it was supposed to be

Say love me love me I used to say love me

I used to wear a long black coat

And swab my staff at everything

I used to sing and sing and it was for nobody

Except the ghouls who peered at me from under the bed

I used to kill off the dead

Until they were my lovers

I used to pin the legs above the head

Until I could have my way with the dead

I used to take your spirit out and put it my pocket

And ride a horse that did not exist

I used to go in, with a dark cat

And mix a thousand herbs together

But it was the new year

And the cats, instead of keeping still

Wanting to cry into the morning

I used to sit alone, I used to be a witch

Then you came along

I used to be only what the nighttime knew

But now you’re the witch, little thing

And on a golden broom, I’ve sent you flying

Through the stars

And the moon

The people will now look at you

And this time

The spell will only be

For living

This poem was written to my then-newborn daughter (who was meant to be the new “good witch” at the end of the poem). In my previous books, particularly the one before Milk, I feel that I have taken up themes of spite, envy, and revenge. I wanted Milk to be quite frightening, but basically “about” love. I wrote this poem because after the birth of my daughter, life became about love for me, and the real power of it.

The poem didn’t make it in because it was explicit in some ways that I didn’t like. Although some of my spiritual practices now resemble a type of witchcraft, I didn’t like the flattening of the way I used the word in the poem. Especially because there are connotations now of the word "witch" I don’t like, that popular and internet culture has taken up in sometimes a flippant way.

As I grow older, I long for some relationship to my Jewish ancestors who I know did so much so that I could be here, writing these books and writing to you now. They were poets and witches, too. This poem is about being done with a solitary kind of spiritual practice and infusing my relationship to the other world with the idea of creativity and new life through the future iterations of the word.

These days once I have finished something, I just start thinking of the next thing I need to do, rather than celebrating what I’ve done as I probably should.

Maybe even writing that I should is a kind of celebration. Maybe it’s time now to celebrate.

So, let’s raise our glasses of whatever water now. To Poetry!

Dorothea Lasky is the author of five full-length collections of poetry: ROME (Liveright/W.W. Norton) and Milk, Thunderbird, Black Life, and AWE, all out from Wave Books. She is also the author of several chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Ducking Presse, 2010). Born in St. Louis in 1978, her poems have appeared in POETRY, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Columbia Poetry Review, and Boston Review, among others.

Creating Coherence Out of Formlessness

Thursday, June 07, 2018 | Permalink

Steven Zipperstein author photo and the cover of his book, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History

Professor Steven Zipperstein's new book, Pogrom, is about the massacre of Jews in Kishinev in 1903. Bob Goldfarb spoke with him recently about his findings.

Bob Goldfarb: In Pogrom, you document how Pavel Krushevan, an anti-Semitic newspaper publisher in Kishinev, fabricated the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”—and you uncovered some facts about his life that were previously unknown. It’s quite a breakthrough. What led you there?

Steven Zipperstein: It was really accidental. Many authors of the first books about the “Protocols” had no idea that the Kishinev version had even been published. Later an Italian scholar demonstrated that the word endings in the book version of the “Protocols”indicate quite clearly that it had originated in or around Bessarabia. I was able to connect that version to the pogrom. A superb German scholar, Michael Hagemeister, mentioned to me that a Moldovan Jewish journalist in Brookline, Massachusetts had something, and I was in Boston on my way to Moldova the next day. I called this man and asked him if I could come by. I’m sitting in his living room, and from a shelf in his living room, he takes a large white folder, massively packed with documents, and I begin to leaf through it. What I discovered are treasures.

BG: What was in the folder, and where did he get it?

SZ: The archive came to the journalist because he was writing a history of an insane asylum at the edge of Chisinau (Kishinev), and he had befriended a nephew of Krushevan’s. The nephew admired his uncle, and Krushevan gave the nephew his most sensitive papers, documenting financial misdeeds, shenanigans, bankruptcies. Still more surprising was his diary, written at the age of 15 or 16. He’s staying with relatives in Odessa, and he’s having joyous sex with a Cossack—they come in only one gender. And he declares that he wishes he had been born “a lady.”

BG: Did the documents shed any light on the man he became?

SZ: Krushevan is one of the great totems of anti-capitalist, homophobic, anti-Semitic attitudes. I also discovered that Krushevan’s life was spent in close proximity to Jews. His stepsister had run off with a Jew, moved to Baltimore, and is pictured in a Russian-language newspaper as an Orthodox Jew living a Jewish life with her husband. What’s more, from the age of two, Krushevan was raised by a stepmother who was Jewish.

BG: You write that there was not a lot of overt anti-Semitism in Kishinev before the pogrom, that the populations lived relatively amicably together. It calls to mind more recent cases of pogroms, or genocides, where the same was true. In Jedwabne, Poland, Jews and Poles knew one another intimately, yet the Poles savagely murdered their Jewish neighbors. In Rwanda, Hutus and Tutsis lived side by side, intermarried, and then the Hutus perpetrated genocide against the Tutsis on an incomprehensible scale. Shouldn’t familiarity bring sympathy and understanding?

SZ: In the Kishinev pogrom we have a good many instances of Jews under attack who run into the courtyard of Gentile friends, expecting their protection and not infrequently being protected. But there is a relationship between familiarity and outright ferocity, as Jan Gross argues in his book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. That serves as a cautionary note with regard to the notion that knowing someone better—as liberalism would like to believe—moderates negative feelings.

In Kishinev, one woman was raped by a man whom she had suckled when he was an infant. A shoemaker was attacked by a man one week after the shoemaker repaired his shoes. Another sobering example is that of Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Plehve, whose hatred for Jews seems to have deepened as a young boy growing up in Warsaw in a neighborhood close to Jews. He attributes some of his animosity toward Jews to that proximity.

BG: Is there any lesson to be drawn from this?

SZ: For me, the most sobering lesson to be drawn is about what we now call “fake news.” So much of what resonated about the pogrom were myths, fictions. Myth and fiction have a kind of coherence history doesn’t have. History is full of loose seams and odd edges. With Kishinev, here’s an event that’s probably the best documented in all of Russian Jewish history, and at the same time the most mythologized. The massive amount of documentation does relatively little to unsettle the myths over the course of the last century.

BG: The Hearst newspapers played a large role in publicizing the Kishinev massacre in the United States. The Hearst newspapers also whipped up fervor in favor of a war with Spain in 1898 by fabricating atrocities. The Kishinev pogrom did happen; the Spanish atrocities did not. If a story has the same power whether it’s true or not, it gives one pause, doesn’t it?

SZ: I would go even further. The made-up stories have greater power than the actual stories. They’re fuller, more zaftig, than the news can possibly be. The so-called Plehve letter surfaced a few weeks after the pogrom, and it seemed to furnish empirical proof that the Russian government was behind the pogroms. The letter was a forgery. Yet, it had considerable impact on facilitating mass migration by Russian Jews to the U.S.

BG: Speaking of myths, you conclusively demonstrate that the “Protocols” is a fraud. It’s another great example of the persistence of myth in the face of fact.

SZ: It’s striking that the “Protocols” is really the only anti-Semitic text—among so many anti-Semitic texts that have been published—that continues to have a real life. It actually provides a voice, albeit a false voice, of the “Elder.” One reason for its success is its redundancy. You don’t need to read more than a page to get what it’s about. Somehow this text, which is profoundly localized, ends up speaking to so many different audiences in so many countries.

BG: One of the myths that helped inform the pogrom in Kishinev is that Jews drained the blood of Christian children. It seems to be another example of people believing what they want to believe, so it becomes a kind of “truth,” like the other myths we’ve been talking about.

SZ: You’re right. Disproving something that doesn’t exist is extraordinarily tough. Every time there was a ritual-murder accusation, the coroners set about testing whether the body was drained of blood. The act of disproving the murder serves to validate the notion that ritual murder exists! How do you disprove an absurdity?

BG: You talk about how Kishinev has vastly disproportionate prominence in people’s memory. Many, many more people were killed in pogroms in subsequent years. Yet, despite the hundreds of thousands of casualties in later years, Kishinev stands out. Why?

SZ: This is the first pogrom in a new century. And it’s institutionalized: in Zionist memory, in Socialist memory. It’s adopted by the now-powerful Yiddish-speaking Left in New York. It’s introduced not only into politics but also into plays, synagogue ritual, and arguably the best poem in a Jewish language in modernity, Bialik’s “City of Killing.” It inspired the very play that introduced the notion of the “melting pot.”

There’s also an interplay with the relatively small number of Jews who were killed, all of whom can be pictured in a single photograph, shrouded before their burials. It’s impossible to photograph 600 dead, let alone 200,000 dead. We’ve discovered over time that unthinkable catastrophes are best concretized in small numbers.

BG: You point out that the impact of Kishinev went well beyond the Jewish community. News of Kishinev affected Booker T. Washington, and at least indirectly led to the founding of the NAACP. It’s hard to imagine how a distant atrocity could have such impact.

SZ: In some ways it’s precisely because it’s hard to imagine it that it had the impact that it did. It dominated the headlines for weeks, and was denounced by Theodore Roosevelt. It changed the way lynching is discussed in the U.S. The outrage over Kishinev, in contrast to the lack of outrage over lynchings in the U.S., was itself felt to be outrageous and sparked a corrective on American soil.

BG: Reading history, one can’t help but look for some sort of redemptive lesson: if pogroms could bring about a movement for social change, perhaps that’s a kind of comfort. Yet the pogroms were also followed by the rapid growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the U.S., and the massacre of Armenians in 1915, so the anti-lynching movement is only part of a larger picture.

SZ: One of the most extraordinary aspects of history is its formlessness, and the way people try to create a coherence out of this formlessness; that’s what I study. I leave moral lessons to others. What came to intrigue me at the outset is how this particular episode stuck so resolutely, while others—arguably more important—have disappeared. If I’ve explicated that, I’ve done what I set out to do.

Author photo: Tony Rinaldo