Yiddish Theater: Don’t Forget Molly Picon

Yiddish is not beautiful.  Harsh and gutteral, it makes you twist your face to get the sounds out. Many of its words are bastardized from German, Slavic, Polish, Hebrew, English, French, you name it.  And worse, Yiddish today is rapidly dying.  Millions of people spoke it  a few decades ago– the Jewish national tongue — but today it has grown largely irrelevant.  American Jews speak English, French speak French, and Israelis speak Hebrew.  Even the old Jewish Daily Forward, once the largest Yiddish-language newspaper in the world, still survives but now publishes also in English.

But Yiddish can also achieve beauty and depth.  It can be hilarious and harmonic, even if you don’t understand a word. The backdrop of countless family stories, its phrases live on in dozens of American slangs.  But disappearing with the language today is also our access, in original form, to an amazingly rich literature: books, theater, newspapers, music, and, yes, movies.  And that brings us to Molly Picon.

Molly Picon — born Malka Opiekun in 1898 in New York City’s Jewish enclave on the Lower East Side — loved comedy.  Look at her prancing around the kitchen in the film clip above from her popular 1938 hit Mamele.  (The subtitles are Polish, but that hardly matters.)  Molly Picon started acting at six years old and became star of the New York Yiddish stage of the 1920s and 1930s, pioneer of Yiddish film, and, later, as times changed, a lifelong familiar face of English-language TV and film  — including a regular spot on the 1960s show Car 54 Where Are You? (see clip below).


Molly Pico Theater in 1931.

New York alone had three daily Yiddish newspapers back in Molly Picon’s prime, the 1920s and 30s.  Its fourteen Yiddish stage companies — mostly huddled together on lower Second Avenue — produced everything from slapstick comedies to cabarets to sappy immigrant stories to Yiddish translations of Broadway hits and Shakespeare classics. With hundreds of thousands of Yiddish speakers in New York and millions more still living in pre-WWII Eastern Europe, theater troops from NY often toured Warsaw and vice versa.  It was big business and very profitable.

Molly Picon quickly became a favorite on Second Avenue.  By 1931, she and her husband — fellow actor Yankel Kalich — had enough money to lease the Yiddish Folks Theater at 12th Street and Second Avenue for her own productions.  (She had to leave later than year, though, when the owners sold it in foreclosure.  This was, after all the Depression.)  The building still stands today as a movie house.   (Click here to take a visit.)

She starred in one of the first Yiddish-subtitled silent films, 1922’s East and West, then in the 1930s became a favorite in Yiddish talkies.  She traveled to Poland to shoot what became her best known film, Yidl Mitn Fidl (see clip below), a sentimental comedy about a young girl disguising herself as a boy to join a group of traveling musicians, but then falls in love with another band member.

Molly kept acting her entire life — even after the Yiddish stage stated fading way in the 1950s.  She would appear regularly on pioneer TV shows from Dr. Kildare to Trapper john, M.D. to The Naked City.  Fittingly, she would win a role in the film Fiddler on the Roof as Yenta the Matchmaker.  She would live 94 years before Alzheimer’s disease caught up with her in 1992.

But I like her best as the young star of Yiddish stage and film in the 1930s, taking those hard-edged words and giving them warmth,  depth, and humor, even if you can’t understand more than a syllable.

BTW, two of Molly’s early Yiddish films are now listed on Netflix Mamele and Yiddle with his Fiddle.  Enjoy.

Guest Post: David Taylor on Anzia Yezierska, Part II

Anzia Yerierska as a teenager in 1910s New York.
Anzia Yezierska paid a price for being a renegade.  During the Depression, when popular tastes turned against stories about immigrants, her career guttered, and she had few reserves in terms of money and contacts to keep her afloat.  But even down and out, she nurtured her rebel side.
Depression / Federal Writers Project
In the 1930s, dwindling finances forced her to take government relief, but Anzia turned to the Federal Writer’s Project,to help make some money and practice her craft. Here she found a dazzling community of talent that I talk about in my book Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America.
Anzia later described one encounter she had in the WPA cafeteria with a young Richard Wright after he won a prize his fiction:
Richard Wright in 1939.

“He handed me a copy of Story magazine… with the announcement that the first prize of the WPA Writers’ Contest was awarded to Richard Wright…  ‘Five hundred bucks!… And they’re going to publish my book!’

“In his eyes I saw my own elation thirty years ago when my first story was published… I knew the double-edged thrill of his triumph. It was not only recognition for his talent, but balm for all he had suffered as a Negro. I thought of Hollywood, when I’d been as intoxicated with the triumph over my handicaps as Wright was now… He would know how to take success for what it was worth and not become rattled by it as I had been…”
Anzia enjoyed the limelight again briefly in the 1950s with her memoir, Red Ribbon on a White Horse.  After that, though, she was mostly forgotten. She continued to write and live in New York City, dying in poverty in 1970.
Anzia Yezierska has influenced generations of writers who managed to discover her work.  The late Grace Paley, another brash and wonderful Jewish writer of short stories who grew up later in the East Bronx, was one. “I loved them,” Paley said of Yezierska’s stories in a telephone interview. “I read her later. When I got away from ‘literature’ I became close to the literature that I had to do.” That is, with an ear to the language of the neighborhoods.”

In 1998, the critic Margo Jefferson ranked Yezierska’s Salomé of the Tenements among seven novels demanding to be filmed. Saloméwas inspired by Yezierska’s friend Rose Pastor, who championed socialist causes, protested World War I, was tried and convicted of violating the espionage act of 1917 with her writings against the war (her case was dismissed in 1921), divorced, and later became a successful dress designer.
Yezierska’s own life story, rising from poverty to literary success, still strikes people today. Kyle Semmel, a writer and translator, invoked her immigrant story when he applied to a nonprofit that helps first-generation college students. Like many first-generation immigrants, she lived with her impoverished family and helped support them, selling items to vendors while studying English in night school. When everyone else in the family was asleep, she would crawl up to the roof “and talk out my heart to the stars. Who am I? What am I? What do I want with my life?”
“Yezierska’s case is a distinctly American one,” Semmel wrote, “and it mirrors the situation many young people find themselves in today: talented, eager and hard-working, but ultimately uncertain about their future because their families are in lower-income brackets.”
Hollywood and Broadway
Now in 2014, both Hollywood and Broadway are about to present striking glimpses into Anzia’s world – 1920s Manhattan and its strong woman burdened by hard life and hard choices.

 The Immigrant, a new film starring Marion Cotillard, got a standing ovation at Cannes last spring and gets its U.S. debut soon. The Village Voice called the film, about a Polish

Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant.

immigrant new to New York, “a story about the way determination can mutate into a kind of rough magic.”

On Broadway, Rebecca Hall (Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona and Iron Man 3) will debut in a revival of Machinal, a 1928 play by the journalist/playwright Sophie Treadwell, inspired by the true story of a woman driven to murder. (The same murder provided the seed for James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity).
Anzia Yezierska’s set a model decades before what became known as the women’s movement.  The 1920s were very much the modern world,” says Amy Bloom, author of the bestselling novel Away, whose protagonist (like Yezierska) escapes pogroms in Russia to face the trials of the New World. “We had cars and telephones and radio and movies. And I think that the struggle within women—between what is expected of them, discovering their own natures and trying to make their way in the world and be reasonably successful in whatever world they choose to be in—is always an issue.”

For Bloom, who gave voice to Yezierska in the 2009 documentary Soul of a People, which Andrea Kalin and I produced, Anzia’s hungry spirit and her characters would always slam against society’s norms. “By and large, women didn’t design the norm,” said Bloom, “so it doesn’talways suit them.  But it doesn’t mean they don’t want to try to make their way in the bigger world.”

When Rebecca Hall and Marion Cotillard step into the footlights, they may remind us of another pioneer from that era still waiting in the wings.
David A. Taylor is a Washington, DC-based writer of prize-winning books, articles and films. His books include Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America and The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy. Twitter: @dataylor1

Guest Blog: David Taylor on Anzia Yezierska, America’s Immigrant “Hungry Heart” of the 1920s




Publicity photo of Anzia Yezierska from Goldwyn studio period, circa 1922.
Click here for Part II on Anzia, her legacy on Broadway, on more. 

You’ve probably never heard of Anzia Yezierska.  But not too long ago, this foreign-sounding name was the toast of New York publishing and Hollywood films.  Anzia Yezierska got attention because she wrote in a voice that demanded it.  She spoke not only for the flood of new immigrants flooding New York’s lower East Side in the early 1900s – Jews, Poles, Italians, and the ethnic strangers to Old America – but also for women carving out a strong new role.

Even if you haven’t read her books (click here for her Amazon page), you certainly know her characters.  This winter, Hollywood and Broadway give us two striking glimpses into Anzia’s world of the 1920s, a fitting tribute a century later, but more on that in Part II of this Post.
Anzia directly confronted the bastion of white male writers dominating American letters in the 1910s and 1920s.  Speaking out in the prestigious New York Times Book Review for a foreign-born author denied a university job in 1922, she openly threatened the cloistered old regime: “The generations that went before in America have little to say to us,” she wrote. “They could not begin to imagine the new world of the Melting Pot.”
Her Novels:
Scene from film version of Hungry Hearts, 1922.

Anzia Yezierska made her name through critically acclaimed novels set in Manhattan’s impoverished Lower East Side – her immigrant world — that earned her the sobriquet “Cinderella of the Tenements.”  Her stories like Hungry Hearts and Salomé of the Tenements featured tough, independent characters.  Her 1920 Hungry Hearts—tracing the lives and loves of Jewish immigrant women—became a well-reviewed Hollywood film in 1922 for the Goldwyn Company, the first time this Jewish-owned firm tried to show actual lives of Jewish people. (Click to see a clip.)

Born in Poland and reaching New York as a child in the 1890s, Anzia had to create her destiny by fighting both poverty and tradition.   Her parents refused to send her to college, so she sent herself.   Anzia’s daughter, writing years later, described how her mother “withheld from her wages enough money to pay for a year at the New York City Normal College.” Anzia ironed clothes in a laundry before and after classes.  Ultimately, she won her college degree. But having to defy her parents made her feel like a nomad. “She wrote about this as homelessness,” her daughter Louise wrote, “being lost between her parents’ Old World and the new world.”
Notice how, in the newspaper drawing, Anzia’s
Jewish features — nose and eyes — seem to disappear.

Her voice:

Anzia’s prose could be clunky and melodramatic, but she had an ear for tart dialogue and vivid characters.  In her story “Hunger,” a young woman balks at her uncle’s complaints about the meal she’s made for him: “What a fuss over a little less salt!” she cries. When the old man says the Talmud gives a man the right to divorce his wife for not salting his soup, the young woman fires back: “Maybe that’s why Aunt Gittel went to the grave before her time – worrying how to please your taste in the mouth.”

Yezierska didn’t enter the limelight to please.  Among other targets, she took  on the state of male-female relationships: “American Man Must Be Nearly 60 Before He Really Loves, Says Novelist,” sounded the NY Evening Telegram in a profile of her in early 1923. 
Yezierska’s rollercoaster fame finally rode her to Hollywood, where she received $200 a week as a studio-employed screenwriter.  It was a fortune at the time, but it gave her vertigo.  She felt lost in California, cut off from her stories and people. She left after a few months, writing “This is What $10,000 Did to Me” for Cosmopolitan.  She married twice and ended both marriages, raised a daughter, had an affair with philosopher John Dewey, published five more novels and another collection of stories, and struggled.
In 1964, speaking at Purdue, Anzia described just how the Lower East Side’s voices first inspired her to write:
http://www.amazon.com/Hungry-Hearts-Penguin-Twentieth-Century-Classics/dp/0141180056/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1389994008&sr=1-3&keywords=anzia+yezierska“What started me on [my first] story was the sight of a crazed mother, looking among the pushcarts for her lost child. ‘People! My child! Find me my child! My Benny! My best child from all my children!’
“And when a policeman came, leading a frightened, pale-faced little boy, the way that mother slapped and cursed her Benny, her best child of all her children! “A fire should burn you! The waters should drown you! Thunder and lightning should strike you! Haven’t I enough worries over my head, without you getting lost on me?”
It was this voice that she turned into literature – and in portraying complex characters in a society contorted by change, she offers a model of courage for all of us today who call ourselves writers.
Next: The price of being a renegade, and the legacy.
David A. Taylor is a Washington, DC-based writer of prize-winning books, articles and films. His books include Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America and The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy. Twitter: @dataylor1

Continue reading “Guest Blog: David Taylor on Anzia Yezierska, America’s Immigrant “Hungry Heart” of the 1920s”

More from Alice Longworth’s scrapbook.

German newspaper clip shows Alice socializing with ladies aboard the steamer Schiffes in 1905. 
Click here for
As promised, today a few more clippings from the wonderful overstuffed scrapbook of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, irrepressible oldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt — a fantastic find at the Manuscript Room of the Library of Congress.
Last time, we showed you news photos that Alice saved from the 1904 surprise announcement of her wedding engagement to “suave” “debonair” Congressman Longworth (R.-Ohio).  Today, we have a mix of clips, some from just after the wedding, others from Alice’s life later on.
Hope you enjoy them.  There’s more to come.
Alice with her stylish fur and feather hat,  all the rage in 1906.
Alice kept piles of cuttings from the White House press office, which used service like this one in London to assure global reach — here a story from Berlin via the London Herald.
Alice and Nick arriving in Paris was a great event for the local society.


Alice in the 1930s with her only child, daughter Paulina.  Born in 1925, Paulina’s father was understood to be not Nick Longworth, Alice’s husband, but rather Senator William Borah (R-Idoha), with whom Alice had an affair.  Sadly, Paulina suffered from a chilly relationship with her mother complicated by what doctors back then called “melancholy,” and died of a pill overdose in 1957 at 31 years old.   Her husband, Alexander Sturm, had died of hepatitis in 1951.   
This is my personal favorite:  Alice wrote a memoir in 1933 called CROWDED HOURS, published by Scribner.s,  and, like any good writer, she tracked her sales and royalties like a hawk.  Here’s one of her statements.




Alice Roosevelt and Nick Longworth: The actual engagement photos

Alice wasn’t shy in saving photos of herself.  This spread filled two full pages of the oversized scrapbook.  

It’s easy to like Alice Roosevelt Longworth, oldest daughter of TR and owner of Washington, D.C.’s sharpest tongue for 96 years (1884-1980).  Among others she’s credited with–

                “If you have nothing nice to say about anyone, come here and sit by me.”

                “My simple philosophy:  Fill what’s empty.  Empty what’s full.  And scratch what itches.”

                “The secret to eternal youth is arrested development.”

                On Calvin Coolidge:  He “looks as if he was weaned on a pickle.”

                And on Thomas E. Dewey:  “The little man on top of the wedding cake.”

Her father, Theodore Roosevelt, famously added this: “I can be President of the United States, or I can control Alice.  I cannot possibly do both.” 

Recently, I spent a day rummaging through her scrapbooks in the Manuscript Room of the Library of Congress. What a pleasure!!  They contain a treasure trove of newspaper clips, full of gossip, politics, old smudgy snapshots, so on.   

I’m not sure yet what to do with them yet.  (The research was part of my endless quest into the story of cantankerous old House Speaker “Uncle Joe” Cannon, a project that has become my own personal White Whale.  I’ll catch that damn whale some day.) 

In the meantime, I’d like to share some of the photos with you, spread out over the next few weeks.  To start, in 1904, Alice made herself the glamour sensation of the country by announcing her surprise, sudden wedding engagement to young Congressman Nicholas Longworth, scion of the richest family in Cincinnati.  Nick and Alice had met early that year year on a diplomatic mission to the Phillipines hosted by then-Secretary of War William Howard Taft.  Newspapers loved the story, and Alice clipped them all.  Here are a few–


Taft (all 300+ pounds, on right) posing for photos in Manila with Alice and other diplomats.

A full-page newspaper fashion sketch of Alice. 
Photo of the Manila delegation. Alice is front and center. Nick is second row on left with hat.
Cupid wins. A typical newspaper take on the weeding announcement.
Nick, the lucky man, shakes hands till it hurts.

Luck in politics? Ask Nick Longworth (R-Ohio), Speaker of the House,1925-1931.

Page from 1887 Longworth scrapbook, Manuscript Room, Library of Congress.

Click here for
    —  Alice and Nick’s engagement photos
    — More photos from Alice Longworth’s scrapbook

“I’d rather be lucky than good.”  That’s what NY Yankee pitching ace “Lefty” (Vernon Louis) Gomez famously said about baseball back in the 1930s, but it goes just as well with politics.  And when a politician is both lucky and good, it takes real skill to see it and recognize which is which.

Longworth and soon-to-be-future bride Alice Rosevelt in 1905.

Take Nicholas Longworth, Speaker of the US House from 1925 to 1931.  People today in Washington, D.C. remember Longworth mostly because his name is attached to one of its most familiar buildings, the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill.  Beyond that, he’s mostly a blank, which is a shame.

All you need to know about Longworth is this:

Like too many politicians of his day, Longworth got that stupid twinge of guilt when he was about to die in April 1931.  He ordered his family to destroy all his personal papers.  The only things saved (available today in the Manuscript Room of the Library of Congress) were a few scrapbooks, speeches, and letters from famous people.

One of these old scrapbooks, though, contained a gem.  It was from 1887 when Longworth was an 18 year-old junior at Harvard.   Nick loved playing poker with friends, and, in his scrapbook, he actually saved the five cards he drew in a game one night that December: a royal straight flush.

Longworth as the well-dress House Speaker.

Today, a century and a quarter later, that royal straight flush is enshrined as Nick Longworth’s permanent monument, more fitting than any building, statue, or round of boring speeches.

Longworth understood his luck.  “Suave.” “Polished.” “Affable.” “Easygoing.”  That’s how people usually described him.  “Longworth is a gregarious creature who loves his friends and who can find loveableness in his most pronounced political enemies,” one newsman wrote.  He wore morning suits, spats, and often carried a gold-handled cane.  That, and, according to the same reporter,  he could “wear spats and look as if he had been born into them.”  Partly, this is because he was.

Nick Longworth’s luck started early.  His parents were scions of one of the richest, oldest families in Cincinnati.  They sent him to Harvard, then Harvard Law School, then had him finish his law degree back in Ohio.  They helped him launch a political career that sent him to Washington, D.C.  as a Congressmen just four years out of school.  There, young Nick Longworth managed to win the heart of the city’s most sought-after bride, Alice Roosevelt, the vivacious oldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt.  This made him an instant celebrity and power.

Longworth House Office Building, opened in 1933.

Longworth lost his House seat in 1912.  He had broken a cardinal rule that year by siding against his own father-in-law, Roosevelt, in that year’s Presidential election.  Alice never forgave him.  But Nick re-gained his seat two years later and resumed his climb as if nothing had happened.

Combine luck with charm and some skill, and by 1923 Longworth had risen to become the House Republican Majority Leader, the most effective in years, then Speaker in 1925.   Calvin Coolidge reigned in Washington back then, and Longworth, a staunch conservative, fit right in.   He reasserted the powers of the Speaker in ways unseen since the fall of Joe Cannon in 1910, and also forged a close friendship with Democratic leader John Nance Garner, himself a future Speaker and Vice President.  Garner, Longworth, and a floating clique of friends met regularly in a secluded Capitol hideaway office they called the “Board of Education” where booze flowed freely despite Prohibition. “I was the heathen and Nick was the aristocrat,” Garner liked to joke.  It resulted in a Congress that got its work done.

Many House Speakers are utterly forgotten after they leave office, but, even here, Nick Longworth got lucky.  In his final years as Speaker, he had the good fortune to preside over planning of what would become the second House Office building, which would bear his name until today.  He died in 1931, shortly after losing the Speakership to his Democratic friend John Nance Garner.  His wife Alice would live another 50 years, a favorite Washington solon until 1980.

Luck is good.  Enjoy it when you have it.  And if you happen to draw a royal straight flush, save it.  Don’t be stupid and throw it away.

Health food claims? Nothing new here.



From the New York City’s Jewish Daily News, July 12, 1926.

“Zeit Gezunt!” says the headline.  “Be Healthy!”

This quarter-page ad for the “Natural Health Food Store” comes from the July 1926 Jewish Daily News, a favorite among Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants on New York’s crowded lower East Side back then, almost 90 years ago.  But the ad could have come from any health food store, then or now.  People have always wanted to eat well, eat healthy, eat smart.  But back then, long before claims were checked by any government agency like the US Food and Drug Administration, the chance of being fooled by smooth-talking nonsense was much greater.

“Eat Natually Healthy Food!” this ad says — using phonetic Hebrew letters to spell out English words like “naturally” or “specialty” or “rhumitism,” words with no Yiddish equivalent that immigrants barely understood.  Still, they sounded wonderful, just like the handsome, bare-chested young man in the drawing and the gorgeous-looking plate of grapes, bananas, pears and apples in his hand.

For just $3, the Natural Health Food Store offered you a wonderful meal that, among other things, would cure diabetes, stomach flu, kidney disease, and over-eating.  How did you know?  Because they said so.  And perhaps hopefully because nobody who ate there got sick before walking out.

People today may complain that government regulators sometimes are too strict or intrusive in demanding honest disclosures about what we eat.  Sometimes too much information causes confusion or can be misleading, or there are honest diisagreements about the underlying science.  But don’t forget the big picture.  Given the choice, I’d still rather have an FDA and all the other government watchdogs, with all their faults, then none at all.

But that’s just me.      (And a well-earned thanks to my colleague Dick Siegel of OFWLAW for his help in deciphering the Yiddish.)

FAMILY HISTORY: Anniversary- One hundred years in America.

Copy of the original ship’s manifest.  Our family is listed at lines ten through fourteen.  From Ancestry.com.

I can’t let this September go without marking an anniversary for my own family.  It was exactly one hundred years ago this month that my father, Bill Ackerman, landed in America.  My mother would come a few years later, in 1926, and they would meet on the lower East Side of NYC.  The rest, as they say, is history.

My Dad was five years old at the time.  (In the photo below, taken in Poland, he is the baby sitting on his mother’s lap.  On the ship’s manifest above, he is listed on line 14 under his Yiddish name, Meier Zev.)   Their ship, the SS Main,  left Bremen and landed in New York on September 19, 1912.   On their reasons for the trip, see A Love Story from Poland – Sheah and Yetta Akierman.

Photo taken shortly before leaving Poland, circa 1910.  The children Ruchel, Bill (Meier Zev), and Chafa and Feiga are left to right, with Yetta (Yachel) seated in the middle and Abe, the oldest son, standing behind. 

Here’s how my Aunt Rachel (the little girl Ruchel standing on my Dad’s right in the photo above) described the trip many years later in her self-published memoir Horseradish: Jewish Roots.  Enjoy-

“In 1912 we were ready to leave for America.  From our little town we took a horse and cart to Yanow. From there we took a train to Warsaw.

“In Warsaw I met my father’s mother, who I had never seen before. We stayed overnight with them. My grandmother was straight, tall and very quiet. She kissed us and cried because she was an old woman and knew she would never see us again. Aunt Geitle Vlotover gave us presents from her store to take along with us on the train to Hamburg. In the morning we took the train to Hamburg, Germany, to reach the ship, the Main, that was leaving for America.

“We sailed on the Main for thirteen days. We traveled 3rd class. It was very crowded and we had to stand in line with tin plates like animals to get food. Most of the people got seasick and stood by the rails all day vomiting or rolling on the decks, too ill to get up.

“My mother and Hannah were very, very sick. Fanny, Bill and I were the only ones who were okay. Bill was too young to remember anything.

“While I was on the ship, I missed my friends and thought about the little town that I had left. I remembered how we used to do the wash by a little brook. You had to lift your skirts not to get wet, then kneel by the rocks and wash the clothes with soap and then bang them with the rocks.


The Main, the ship that brought my family to America in 1912.

“After a few days on the ocean, many people began to get very, very sick – in addition to the sea sickness. Some of them died and were buried at sea. The waves looked so high to me that they seemed to reach the sky. We were very frightened. My mother and sister Hannah got very sick also. We cried because we were afraid they would die and be thrown overboard like the other dead people we saw. Hannah was delirious and had a high fever. So did my mother.

“On the 12th day out we were on the deck crying and the sailors were talking to us. They told us that, in a couple of hours, we would be in sight of land. They knew this because they could see birds flying.

“While we were standing there a miracle occurred. We saw our mother and Hannah coming to us on the deck from the sick bay. We started to scream and shout in disbelief.

“My mother told us later she had a dream while she had the fever, and Hannah had the same dream at the exact time. They dreamt that my mother’s dead brother, Moses Zies, had come to them. He gave them a piece of veal to eat and even told them to suck on the bones. They dreamt that they did what he told them to do, although in reality they had been throwing up since coming aboard the ship. The dream meat tasted delicious, they said. As they told the story, they vomited one more time, but from that moment on they were well.

“One of the funnier things that happened to us on the ship took place earlier in the voyage. The sailors pointed out to my mother that we were passing London. My mother’s half-brother, Jack Baumiel, lived in London. Although there was no land in sight, my mother made us line up at the rail and wave “hello” to Uncle Yankle.

“I remember the food they gave us was so salty you could hardly eat it. We used to take a walk to the upper decks to see how the 1st and 2nd class passengers lived. There were tables and fancy dining rooms, and we were jealous.

“We landed on a beautiful day in September. We passed the Statue of Liberty and landed at a place called Castle Gardens [the US government immigration station on the lower tip of Manhattan]. We were among the first ones off the ship.
“We got off the ship and all the immigrants were herded into a big building on the water’s edge. The first thing that happened was an eye examination by doctors. Anyone who had a disease was sent right back to Europe.

“As we stood in the line waiting, my mother prayed that they wouldn’t find anything wrong with us. We all passed. After that, we waited less than ten minutes before my father, my aunt Nettie, my sister Helen, and Nettie’s husband the policeman, all appeared to greet us. By now, Helen had gotten married and had a little six month-old girl named Florence.

“They took us to my aunt Nettie’s store where she had rooms in the back. The address was 24 Second Avenue in Manhattan. We couldn’t believe we were on American soil. Everyone talked English at us and we couldn’t make out what they said. I thought they were talking about us.  …..”

GUEST BLOG: Civil War- Antietam 1862 and its terrible general, George B. McClellan

Oil painting of General George Brinton McClellan, from a photograph by Matthew Brady.


With all attention these days on the national political campaign, let’s not forget another big item this month, the 150th anniversary of Antietam, the bloodiest single-day battle in American history.  With 23,000 casualties, Antietam marked a turning point in the Civil War, prompting President Abraham Lincoln to move ahead with his Emancipation Proclamation while also ending the military career of the Union’s controversial general, George Brinton McClellan.  McClellan’s refusal to chase the enemy, either before or after the battle, finally would led Lincoln to take away his command.

In the new book The Maryland Campaign of 1862:Vol.. II: Antietam, Thomas Clemens brings us a newly edited and annotated version of the original intimate account from Ezra Carman, a Union officer who commanded the 13th New Jersey Volunteers at Antietam and became the country’s leading scholar on the battle.  In this excerpt, he focuses on McClellan’s hesitancy the day before the big shootout.  (Click here to see the book trailer on YouTube):

    During the afternoon and night of the 15th McClellan’s forces moved to the positions assigned them, but it was not until after daybreak of the 16th that the great body of them were in their designated places, some brigades did not get up until noon. Hooker’s (First) Corps was in the forks of the Big and Little Antietam. Sumner’s (Second) Corps was on both sides of the Boonsboro and Sharpsburg road, Richardson’s Division in advance, near the Antietam, on the right of the road. Sykes’ Division was on the left of Richardson’s, and on Sykes’ left and rear was Burnside’s (Ninth) Corps. Mansfield’s (Twelfth) Corps was at Nicodemus Mill or Springvale. Pleasonton’s cavalry division was just west of Keedysville.7

      Near midnight of the 15th two companies each of the 61st and 64th New York, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Nelson A. Miles, passed along the rear of Sedgwick’s Division and some distance along the bluff below the “middle bridge”, then turning back reached the bridge just as a party of Union cavalry came riding sharply over it from the south bank. They informed Miles that the enemy had fallen back and that there were none in the immediate front of the bridge. Miles crossed the bridge to the west side of the creek, and marched cautiously west along the highway. 

It was then daybreak. A heavy fog prevented vision for more than fifteen or twenty feet; the dust in the road deadened the sound of the footsteps and silence was enjoined. Miles who was in advance, had reached the crest of the ridge about 600 yards beyond the Antietam, and was about to descend into the broad ravine where the Confederates were in position, when he ran upon a Confederate crossing the road, whom he captured and from whom he learned, that he was very near the Confederate line. The command was faced about and moved back with as much silence and celerity as possible, and recrossed the bridge before the fog lifted, but long after daylight of the 16th.  
        There has been much criticism on the failure of McClellan to attack Lee on the afternoon of the 15th or at least early on the 16th. We have referred to the failure to do so on the 15th. The situation, inviting prompt attack on the morning of the 16th, is well stated by General F. A. Walker in the History of the Second Army Corps:
“If it be admitted to have been impracticable to throw the 35 brigades that had crossed the South Mountain at Turner’s Gap across the Antietam during the 15th, in season and in condition to undertake attack upon Lee’s 14 brigades that day with success, it is difficult to see what excuse can be offered for the failure to fight the impending battle on the 16th, and that early. It is true that Lee’s forces had then been increased by the arrival of Jackson with J. R. Jones and Lawton’s divisions [also Walker’s—inserted by Carman], but those of Anderson, McLaws and A. P. Hill could not be brought up that day. A preemptory recall of Franklin, in the early evening of the 15th, would have placed his three divisions in any part of the line that might be desired. Even without Franklin, the advantages of concentration would have been on the side of McClellan. When both armies were assembled the Union forces were at least nine to six, of the Confederate six only four could possibly have been present on the 16th. Without Franklin the odds would still have been seven to four.”

       It is evident that McClellan had no idea of fighting Lee on the 15th. There seems to have been no intention to do it early on the 16th, certainly no orders to that effect were issued, nor did he make any preparations. In fact he expected Lee to retreat during the night of the 15th.  
       At 9 o’clock on the morning of the 16th, after telegraphing his wife that he had 
no doubt “delivered Pennsylvania and Maryland,” McClellan dispatched Halleck: 

“The enemy yesterday held a position just in front of Sharpsburg. This morning a heavy fog has thus far prevented us doing more than to ascertain that some of the enemy are still there. Do not know in what force. Will attack as soon as situation of enemy is developed.”

       Halleck replied to this dispatch:

”I think however, you will find that the whole force of the enemy in your front has crossed the river. I fear now more than ever that they will recross at Harper’s Ferry or below and turn your left, thus cutting you off from Washington. This has appeared to me to be a part of their plan, and hence my anxiety on the subject.”

       When this dispatch was read by McClellan, during the afternoon of the 16th, contempt was written on his face as he remarked, “the idea of Halleck giving me lessons in the art of war.”

       When the fog lifted he missed S. D. Lee’s guns, which had been moved to the
left, or, as he reports:

”It was discovered that the enemy had changed the position of his batteries. The masses of his troops, however, were still concealed behind the opposite heights. Their left and center were upon and in front of the Sharpsburg and Hagerstown Turnpike, hidden by woods and irregularities of the ground, their extreme left resting upon a wooded eminence near the cross-roads to the north of Miller’s farm, their left resting upon the Potomac (sic in McClellan’s report.) Their line extended south, the right resting upon the hills to the south of Sharpsburg near Snavely’s farm.” This changed position of the batteries is given by McClellan as one of the reasons for not making the attack before afternoon, for, he says, he was “compelled to spend the morning in reconnoitering the new position taken up by the enemy, examining the ground, finding fords, clearing the approaches, and hurrying up the ammunition and supply trains, which had been delayed by the rapid march of the troops over the few practicable approaches from Frederick. These had been crowded by the masses of infantry, cavalry and artillery pressing on with the hope of overtaking the enemy before he could form to resist an attack. Many of the troops were out of rations on the previous day, and a good deal of their ammunition had been expended in the severe action of the 14th.”
       From the time of McClellan’s arrival on the field until Hooker’s advance in the afternoon of the 16th, nothing seems to have been done with a view to an accurate determination of the Confederate position. From the heights east of the Antietam the eye could trace the right and center, but the extreme left could not be definitely located, nor was the character of the country on that flank known. It was upon this flank that McClellan decided to make his attack and one would suppose that his first efforts would be directed to ascertain how that flank could be approached and what it looked like. This was proper work for cavalry, of which he had a good body available for the purpose. Pleasonton’s cavalry division was in good shape and elated with its successful achievements, culminating in the discomfiture of Fitz-Hugh Lee’s Brigade at Boonsboro, the day before, and confident of its capacity for further good work. But it was not used.

       As far as we know, not a Union cavalryman crossed the Antietam until Hooker went over in the afternoon of the 16th, when the 3rd Pennsylvania cavalry accompanied him. Nor can we discover that the cavalry did any productive work elsewhere. It did not ascertain that there were good fords below the Burnside Bridge, leading directly to the right-rear of the Confederate line, and we know of no order given for its use, save a suggestion to Franklin, to have his cavalry feel towards Frederick. The part taken by the cavalry this day is very briefly told by Pleasonton, in his report: “On the 16th my cavalry was engaged in reconnaissances, escorts and support to batteries.” If any part of his command, except the 3rdPennsylvania, was engaged in reconnaissances and supporting batteries we do not know of it.
         The first movement of the day was to crown the bluff east of the Antietam with 
artillery and cover the Middle Bridge. This bluff, which, south of the bridge, almost over-hangs the Antietam, recedes from it north of the bridge for a short distance, then approaches it. It rises 180 feet above the stream and commands nearly the entire battlefield.

       The Reserve Artillery, which arrived late in the evening of the 15th, was put in position, early in the morning, by General Henry J. Hunt, chief of artillery. Taft’s New York battery, and the German (New York) batteries of von Kleiser, Langner, and Wever were placed on the bluff north of the Boonsboro road, Taft’s Battery relieving Tidball’s which rejoined the cavalry division. Von Kleiser relieved Pettit’s New York battery. The four New York batteries had 20 pound Parrott guns and were supported by Richardson’s Division. South of the Boonsboro road, and about 9 a. m. Weed’s Battery (I, 5th U.S.) and Benjamin’s Battery (E, 2nd U.S.) were run up the bluff in front of Sykes’ Division. Each battery, as it came into position, opened upon such bodies of Confederate infantry as could be seen, and upon the Washington Artillery and Hood’s Division batteries, on Cemetery Hill, and the batteries on the ridge running north from it, and the reply was prompt and spirited, during which Major Albert Arndt, commanding the German artillery battalion, was mortally wounded.

       As the Confederates were short of ammunition and the range too short for their guns, Longstreet ordered them to withdraw under cover of the hill. General D. H. Hill says that the Confederate artillery was badly handled and “could not cope with the superior weight, calibre, range, and number of the Yankee guns. An artillery duel between the Washington Artillery and the Yankee batteries across the Antietam, on the 16th, was the most melancholy farce in the war.”  …..

Check out at Amazon.com or from the publisher at SavasBeatie.com 

Guest Photo: Roger Staubach and J. Edgar Hoover


To celebrate the return of NFL football this week, our friend Sally Mott Freeman has given us this gem of a photo showing none less that Roger Staubach, star quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys during the 1970s, standing with J. Edgar Hoover, Director-for-Life of the FBI.  The man wearing glasses on the left is Sally’s Dad,  then-retired Navy Rear Admiral William C. Mott, who happened to be the one who brought them together.

How?  Here’s what the official FBI photo caption said:  “On December 15, 1965, Ensign Roger T. Staubach, United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, was photographed with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover during his visit to FBI Headquarters.  Ensign Staubach was accompanied by Rear Admiral William C. Mott, USN (Retired), Executive Vice President, United States Independent Telephone Association, Washington, D.C.  Shown in Mr. Hoover’s Office, left to right, are: Admiral Mott, Ensign Staubach and Mr. Hoover.”

But, of course, there was more to the story….

Hoover was a huge sports fan — especially fond of horses at Pimlico and boxing at Madison Square Garden.  And Roger Staubach in 1965 had just graduated Annapolis a huge star.  He led Navy football to a 9-1 season in1963, back-to-back wins over Army, a 41-0 thrashing of Cornell, capped by winning the Heisman Trophy.    He also took his military duties seriously.  Drafted in the 10th round in 1964 by the Dallas Cowboys, Staubach insisted on first serving his promised three years in the Navy, including a one-year deployment in Viet Nam.

As for Admiral Mott, according to what he told his daughter Sally, he had been serving in the early 1960s in the Pentagon as the Navy JAG (Judge Advocate General) when Hoover sent agents over to alert him that the FBI had uncovered evidence that could potentially embarrass the Navy.  Hoover had learned that the Philadelphia mafia had infiltrated the concession stands at the Annapolis football stadium, with possible attempted bribes to some people in the Naval Academy athletic department.  (We don’t know if anyone ever actually accepted the bribes.)  The FBI was preparing to announce prosecutions and wanted to avoid blind-siding Navy officials.

Hoover’s team apparently rooted out the bad guys quickly, and Mott got to know The Director.   A few years later, when the Naval Academy Foundation, a non-profit athletic and scholarship endowment program, had a meeting in Washington, Mott was more than happy to repay the favor by bringing the Navy’s young football star for a visit.

Roger Staubach would play eleven seasons with the Dallas Cowboys (1969 through 1979), lead them to nine winning seasons, four Super Bowls, and play in six Pro Bowls.  Known for his calm in engineering breath-taking endings, he managed to lead the Cowboys during his years as quarterback to 23 game-winning drives (15 comebacks) in the fourth quarter, including 17 in the final two minutes or overtime.

I have not checked yet whether Hoover kept a file on Staubach once he started playing with the Cowboys (or for that matter one on Admiral Mott).  Somehow, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Happy football watching.  Go Skins !!!  How about that RGIII !!!