The ProsenPeople

New Reviews July 23, 2018

Monday, July 23, 2018 | Permalink

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

Monday, July 16, 2018 | Permalink

New Reviews July 9, 2018

Monday, July 09, 2018 | Permalink

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

Monday, July 02, 2018 | Permalink

New Reviews June 25, 2018

Monday, June 25, 2018 | Permalink

New Reviews June 18, 2018

Monday, June 18, 2018 | Permalink

New Reviews June 11, 2018

Monday, June 11, 2018 | Permalink

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.