• Review
By – May 3, 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 (18791933), 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 (18881960) 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 (18911992) 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.

Relat­ed Content:

Mer­rill Lef­fler has pub­lished three col­lec­tions of poet­ry, most recent­ly Mark the Music. A physi­cist by train­ing, he worked in the NASA sound­ing rock­et pro­gram, taught Eng­lish at the U. S. Naval Acad­e­my, and was senior sci­ence writer at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land Sea Grant Pro­gram, focus­ing on Chesa­peake Bay research.

Discussion Questions