by Sarah Pusteblume | Jun 12, 2020 | Contemporary (1914 - today), North America, USA |
In light of the current protests going on, today’s article is about a woman who was a community organizer and activist for black rights in America during Prohibition, as well as a successful gangster/businesswoman that stood up to the Mafia and the corrupt police system. Did I mention she was an immigrant too? Making a living as a black woman wasn’t easy from the get go, but not only did she build her own business and defended it for years, but continued fighting for a better chance in life for her community as well as those who came after her. Meet Stephanie St. Clair, Harlem’s Queen of Numbers.
From what we know about Stephanie’s childhood, she was born in Le Moule, Guadeloupe on Christmas Eve 1897. Some biographers cite her year of birth as 1887 – a whole decade earlier – however the best researched source, a book by Shirley Stewart, is certain of the one I went with in the first place. However it is interesting that there would be a dispute about this as she was a well-educated woman and would have known her birthday …unless she wanted this confusion. You’ll see why that’s more than likely in a moment.
So, Stephanie was born mixed, French and African, and grew up with her single mother who worked hard to ensure a good education for her daughter. That way she learned her native French as well as English – in reading and writing as well as speaking, although some biographers state she learned the latter only when she was already in the US. In 1911, when she was 13 years old, Stephanie left her home on a steamboat for America. Arriving in New York the same year, she initially passed through and worked as a domestic servant before returning to the US five years later. The biographies aging her a decade state she spent time in Marseilles, France, before coming to the US, however this claim has been disputed by Stewart. Stephanie herself never disputed this claim though and speaking French, had no problem passing it as truth. And doesn’t it sound glamorous? And Stephanie was all about glamour for sure.
Whichever way she went, it is certain that she eventually settled in Harlem, New York, fitting right in with the growing African-American community. Arriving just a few years before the Great Migration when millions of black people fled the confederate South to settle in more liberal cities like New York. So the city was her playground, and it didn’t take long until she had her own gang: The 40 Thieves. Her main goal was to make a bunch of money fast and coercion and scams really seemed to work. By 1923 she was able to invest $10.000 to develop a numbers racket. The start of a lucrative career.
A short interlude to tell you about numbers rackets in case you’re as confused as I was. Other names for it are policy banking or just numbers game. It’s basically a mix of lottery, gambling and investment where the person betting had to guess three numbers to win after paying a fee to enter the draw. There were different ways on how these random numbers were “generated” and I don’t know which one Stephanie used, but the winner was determined the day after the bets were placed. While the practice was illegal, it was one of the few opportunities for the working class to invest their money and it was even more important to the African-American community. You see, at the time there were very few banks accepting black customers, so the policy banking was more or less their only investment option. While, yes, it certainly wasn’t the most honest of professions, it did provide the black community with a surprising amount of wealth and jobs.
But back to our story. Stephanie teamed up with another famous black gangster called Bumpy Johnson and, making him her lieutenant, her business bloomed. For the next few years Madam St. Clair ruled the numbers rackets in Harlem, becoming rich herself but also giving back to the community. She paid her workers well and funded projects to help immigrants like herself to not only learn English but also give them a network and a sense of belonging. One of her main strategies was to put out newspaper ads – full-page and often with a big photo of herself attached – educating her community on their rights, advocating for voting rights and protesting police violence as well as the corrupt legal system.
You see, she was quite and extravagant person with an eccentric, opulent fashion sense and well-respected by the Harlem residents who were the first to call her Madam. Others called her Queenie. While contemporaries describe her as sophisticated and educated, she was also arrogant and known for her temper and occasionally foul mouth (in several languages!) It was that particular mix of character traits that make her story so interesting though. Like that one time she was arrested for her ads, publicized the trial and right after she was released after eight months of prison, she went to the higher ups, not only telling them how she had bribed officers but also how many of them were actually customers of hers. Many officers were fired that day. The Queen lived a lavish lifestyle and, earning an annual income of about $200.000, she amassed a small “personal fortune around $500,000 cash and [owned] several apartment houses.” She resided at 409 Edgecombe Ave in Sugar Hill, a renowned address of the Harlem Renaissance, alongside more reputable black citizens. Still she never made a secret of her occupation and nonetheless remained a major figure in her community. And she loved it.
With the Great Depression in 1930 and the end of Prohibition two years later, the (predominantly white) Mafia in the surrounding areas saw their profits dwindle and decided that Harlem would be a pretty good addition to their turf. One mobster in particular was determined to take over Madam St. Clair’s business: Dutch Schultz, a brutal man with a violent temper who would become her arch nemesis for the years to come. And he wasn’t subtle about his entrance. He would beat up and straight up kill numbers operators who refused to pay for protection. And when Madam St. Clair refused, he started a personal vendetta against her, threatening her via phone, kidnapping and killing her men and bribing the police wherever he could. He even got her arrested at one point! She responded in the same fashion, killing his men, destroying his businesses, tipping off the police and having his property raided by the police. One such raid cost him $12 million (which would be around $172 million today!) Then she wrote about it in her newspaper ads, because that’s just how extra she was. You might think that’s a pretty stupid move, but actually she used her writings as insurance against potential attacks on her life. By recording the threats against her in the paper, everyone would know who to turn to should something happen to her. Still it was a bloody war with at least 40 people dead.
Slowly this feud pushed Queenie out of the game though. With the police’s eyes constantly on her, she had to watch her every move. In the mid-30s she turned most of the business over to Bumpy Johnson who in turn protected her. And again she used the newspaper to her advantage, this time posting ads that catalogued her activities as a defense against any criminal charges. And for that she had to keep her nose clean. Ironically it was then that the fight against Schultz finally ended …with him being shot. It was a Mafia thing and Madam St. Clair had nothing to do with the assassination whatsoever but she couldn’t miss the chance for one last taunt. It was only a small bible verse that arrived on his deathbed in the hospital via telegram: “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” It was signed “Madam Queen of Policy.”
But even with Dutch out of the way, Madam Queen retired from the numbers game and instead focussed all her energy on her activism. She also met and married Sufi Abdul Hamid around 1936, an eccentric activist who ran a mosque as well. He was also very anti-semitic and because of this (and the fact that he was often seen wearing a Nazi-style shirt combined with a cape and turban) he was dubbed Black Hitler by the press. Madam St. Clair and Abdul Hamid were certainly a match in regards to their eccentric characters and flamboyant fashion, as well as their fight for black rights. However their marriage was a stormy one from the start and ended abruptly in 1938 when she shot him.
…or at him anyway. Abdul survived and went on to marry his mistress, a black fortune teller who went with the name Fu Futtam and somehow claimed to be Asian. The couple had already tried to establish quite a few businesses with Stephanie’s money and at some point she snapped. What followed was a sensational trial of Madame St. Claire vs. Abdul Hamid.
Throughout it all she maintained that “if [she] had wanted him dead, he would be dead.” Eventually her lawyers got him to admit that his name was actually Eugene, that he wasn’t from Egypt but from Philadelphia as well as tell them all about his affair. Still, in the end Madame St. Clair was found guilty by the all-white jury and sentenced to prison.
The duration of her stay there isn’t completely certain and ranges from 2-10 years and her trail gets a little faint afterwards. Just like with Dutch Schultz, fate seems to have had a strong dislike for those giving her trouble: just a few months into her imprisonment, Abdul Hamid died in a plane crash. After her release in the early 1940s it seems that she steered clear of criminal enterprises and once again fully focussed on her activist work. Continuing to use her newspaper ads, she publicized the discrimination against black people in her community as well as police brutality and the often illegal tactics employed in the name of justice. She kept campaigning for black voting rights and educating her peers on their civil rights until she died in 1969, quietly and still rich, shortly before turning 73. Four years earlier, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act had been passed which finally gave black people equal voting rights.
Stephanie St. Clair was a complex and fascinating woman, shifting between gangster and community advocate as she pleased. But this duality is what makes her so interesting, we can see her motivated by a genuine wish for socio-political advancement just as easily as by the desire for riches and publicity. She was in the middle of a fight against racial inequality and she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. Her style of activism shaped future generations and shows just how creative especially marginalized groups can get when it comes to advocacy. Especially in these days her story is so important as it shows how exposing injustices and educating the community matters. It also shows that informal (and, let’s be honest, often illegal) networks are essential in organizing a successful protest against a corrupt system. So let’s learn from this incredibly smart woman and let’s make sure to continue her fight against police brutality.
1: Photo of Stephanie St. Clair in her youth. Book cover of “Madame St-Clair, Reine de Harlem” by Raphaël Confiant – via Wikimedia Commons – Link
2: Harlem Numbers Banker Madame Stephanie St. Clair. (Courtesy of Morgan and Marvin Smith Photographic Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture New York Public Library) – via the African American Intellectual History Society – Link
3: one of Stephanie St. Clair’s newspaper ads in The Amsterdam News – via Rejected Princesses – Link
4: African-American religious and labor leader, Sufi Abdul Hamid with his wife, Harlem mob boss, Stephanie Saint-Clair, in formal dress, January 23, 1938. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images) – embedded – Link
5: “Stephanie St. Clair Hamid in Custody” (fair use image) – via BlackPast.org – Link
by Sarah Pusteblume | Apr 24, 2020 | Asia, Contemporary (1914 - today), Kazakhstan |
This week I’m taking you to Soviet Kazakhstan, when World War II was just beginning, and one girl was determined to fight for her Motherland. Even though she was rejected at first and later only assigned clerk duty, she taught herself how to use a machine gun and eventually became Hero of the Soviet Union. That was not only the highest military honor, but she was the first Kazakh woman to receive it. Her name is Manshuk Mametova and I want to take you along on the wild ride that was her life.
In 1922 in Zhaksus, a small village in the steppe of the Ural Region in Kazakhstan, a shoe maker and his wife welcomed their fifth child into the world, a daughter they named Mansia. Little Manshuk, as her mother affectionately called her, spent her childhood learning to ride before she could even walk and spending long nights around the yurt’s hearth, listening to stories about heroes and heroines, adventures and fairytales. Sometimes her aunt Amina would visit from Alma-Ata, and tell stories of a city built of stone. When she was around three or five years old, her parents sent her to live with her aunt as it was custom. (Well, it was custom to send the child to its grandparents, but they had died already, so she was sent to her aunt instead.) It seems that soon after her parents died, or maybe they died before and she was adopted then – sources are unclear. What is certain however, is that her aunt took her with her and she grew up in the capital.
Her childhood in Alma-Ata seems to have been a very happy one, filled with the scent of apple trees growing all over the city. Her aunt was a strict but loving woman and every word of appreciation would make the little girl beam with joy. And when she was old enough to go to school, she soon felt like she had gained a second family. She loved to learn and the other girls loved her for her enthusiasm and kindness. In the picture you can see her on the top right with two of her classmates. As the years passed by, Manshuk learned more and more about her nation and learned to love its vast beauty. Especially Moscow stole her heart and she would dream of walking over the Red Square for years to come.
After graduating, she entered a medical school program and later the Alma-Ata Medical Institute. At some point in her medical education, she took a job at the Secretariat of the Council of People’s Commissars, which aimed to fuse Kazakh culture with Soviet values. Life was good. She had a job she liked, friends and family she adored and soon, soon she would finally see Moscow! It was the Summer of 1941 and 18-year-old Manshuk was planning to go see a sports parade. But it was not meant to be. Nazi Germany had bombed Sevastopol, Odessa and Kiev and was now approaching Moscow.
Even though the war was still far from Alma-Ata, Manshuk was one of the first to volunteer at the local recruitment office. Inspired not only by her love for the Soviet Union and her country, but also by the countless stories she grew up with, Manshuk wanted to take an active part in defending her homeland.
Even though the Red Army accepted women into their ranks, her request to go to the frontlines was rejected. But she persisted. It took one year until she was finally accepted into the Army – however only as a desk clerk instead of a warrior. It was a first step though and so Manshuk became a secretary and later a nurse as well. But still she dreamt of being a warrior. And so, between her administrative duties and her work in the local field hospital, she taught herself how to shoot a machine gun. Eventually she was asked to show her skills to her superior and she didn’t miss a single target. Impressed, her commander assigned her to the 100th Rifle Brigade and finally, in October 1942, she was on her way to the frontlines.
Her Regiment fought well and soon Manshuk had earned not only the rank of Senior Sergeant but also the respect and trust of her comrades. Never did she part with her beloved gun. But it wasn’t only battle that happened on the front lines but life as well. Manshuk made friends and shared stories of home with them. Sometimes she would get a letter or a parcel from home and it would remind her of the sunny days in an apple-scented city that she so passionately defended. However she did find something on the front that she didn’t back home: she fell in love. In a letter to her sister she wrote about fellow machine gunner Nurken Khusainov and how it was impossible now to act on her feelings. Apparently Nurken thought the same and so it remained unfulfilled. For their next assignment would mean death for both of them.
On October 15, 1943, Manshuk and her regiment fought to liberate the city of Nevel on Russia’s western border – a difficult battle from the get-go, as the Germans occupied higher ground. The Soviets still weren’t able to advance after hours of battle, but continued to suffer heavy casualties, Nurken among them. To find a better spot to attack and to give the Germans another front to worry about, Manshuk and another machine gunner broke away from their unit. Soon they found what they were looking for: a small hill on the flank of the German army with a barricade for machine gunners on top. They quietly killed the enemy soldiers occupying the post and opened fire. The unexpected attack broke the German counter-offensive and finally the Soviets were able to advance.
Crawling between three different machine gun posts the two gunners relentlessly fired on the enemy, trying to avoid being hit themselves. At some point Manshuk was knocked out by a mortar shell, but regained consciousness and continued her assault. More than once her comrade asked her to retreat, but she refused. She knew that as soon as they stopped shooting they will be overrun and everyone else will die as well. The battle had waged for an hour when a grenade hit their post, immediately killing her comrade and mortally wounding her. Even so, Manshuk would not let go of her gun. With her last strength and nothing to lose, she occupied the best possible position and continued shooting until her last breath. It might have been her who finally turned the tides of the battle and without her the Red Army would not have been able to liberate Nevel.
Her body was recovered after the battle, her hands still clutching her gun, and buried in the city’s cemetery. For her bravery, she was posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest honor in the USSR. There are also a bunch of statues, one in Nevel for example and one in Almaty (that’s what Alma-Ata is called now), and streets and schools are named after her (including her former High School) and there are songs about her! Even though she wasn’t able to return to her beloved hometown, I think Manshuk Mametova would have been proud to know she is remembered for making a difference. And maybe that she now has her own folk tales as well.
by Sarah Pusteblume | Feb 21, 2020 | Africa, Chad, Contemporary (1914 - today) |
This week’s article is mostly about the death of our heroine and the time shortly before that. She only lived to be 33 year old and much of her early life is unknown, but in her lifetime she made a true difference in her country, going from elite soldier to rebel, opposing a dictator and exposing his inhumane treatment of prisoners. This week I want to tell you the story of Rose Lokissim.
Rose was born around 1955 in a small and remote village in Chad, to one of her father’s wives. Not much is known about her childhood, other than that she was a calm and peaceful child with a strong will. By the time she was twelve, she was able to hold back her father in a fit of fury. Hardworking and ambitious, she refused to let her gender hold her back and by the time she was around 23, she joined the Chadian Army and went on to become one its first female elite soldiers.
When she joined the army, there was a civil war in full swing. The former President had been killed ca. three years prior and around one year later in 1979 rebel forces led by Hissène Habré took the capital, collapsing any kind of authority structure in the country. Now there were armed groups contending for power, the French colonialists (who just had to give up Chad as a colony in 1960 when it gained independence) rapidly lost influence and the whole country was in chaos. Until in 1982, supported by the USA and France, Hissène Habré officially became President of Chad. Violently crushing his opposition he quickly turned his reign into a dictatorship. Soon everyone who dared speak against him was persecuted and the people lived in fear of denunciation. Around 40.000 people were killed during his eight years in power. By 1984 Rose realized she could not be a part of this army any longer.
She began to smuggle information to rebel forces and to speak out against the regime, hoping to gain international attention to remove Habré from office. However on December 14th of the same year, Rose and several others were arrested by the DDS, Habré’s secret police. The arrest was painful, involving electro shocks and a fair deal of violence. They were brought to La Piscine, an underground swimming pool that had been turned into a windowless prison. Rose was seen as a real threat by the DDS as only a day later she was taken to Les Locaux in N’Djamena, a prison for notorious criminals (mostly meaning political prisoners), and instead of a women’s cell was taken to a cell to share with 60 men. Its real name was Cell C but it was known as the Cell of Death as few prisoners made it out of there alive.
Rose survived. It was in that cell that she began to encourage her fellow inmates to endure to see a world after Habré, to continue to fight for this future. As she was tortured, she would not move and being returned to the cell, she would continue to be friendly with everyone, always helping out when she was needed and never loosing her cheerful nature. After eight months she was transferred to a women’s cell, in 1985. She would be the one to unite her fellow prisoners, keeping their hopes for a better future alive. They had friends in the prison too: there were officers who were willing to pass on messages to their families, letting them know they were still alive – or how and when they died. Rose was instrumental in smuggling out those messages.
At some point, the prisoners were given soap by one of those officers and Rose had an idea. She asked her friends to keep the soap boxes intact and give them to her. It were 15 boxes in total. On them she started to write about her experiences in prison in excruciating detail. She chronicled death, burials and torture. She recounted the officers who came to see the prisoners. And she described the abuse, the torture, the beatings, the sexual assault and the deprivation of food. After running out of soap boxes, she continued to write on scraps of cigarette paper and anything else she could find. Despite all warnings of the consequences these notes would yield not only for her but for all the women in her cell, she was determined to leave evidence of the inhumane treatment she and her fellow prisoners had to endure. For one year she kept on writing in secret, hiding even from her friends.
In 1986 Rose was due to be released. However she was betrayed and word about her documentation reached Habré. Immediately her writings were confiscated and she was transferred back to Cell C. Shortly after, on May 15th, she was dragged out of her cell to be questioned. She was executed the same day, only 33 years old, and buried in a mass grave known as Plain of the Dead. However she did put up quite a fight and might even have managed to escape if only her henchmen had not underestimated her and brought more bullets – she stole their gun and wounded two of the five men before her ultimate death.
Finally in 1990, Habré was overthrown by the current President, Idriss Déby, but it wasn’t until 2016 that he was sentenced to life in prison for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during his rule in a charge led by the victims of his regime. Among the documents that sealed his conviction, found in the abandoned DDS headquarters, were files on Rose Lokissim. There was proof that in the two years she was imprisoned, Rose had never faltered, never given in on her position, instead she was vocal about it and considered a true threat by the secret police, even as she was in prison. The files also contained her final words:
“If I die, it will be for my country and family.
History will talk about me and I will be thanked for my services to the Chadian nation.”
So let us talk about Rose Lokissim, a brave woman who stood up in the face of injustice and stayed true to her values, even in the darkest of times. She gave hope to those who had lost theirs and told the story of those who didn’t dare to. Remember her story and pass it on!
If you want to hear more of her story from the people who knew her, many of them fellow prisoners who survived, there is a documentary on Rose that continues her mission of showing the world what happened in Chad’s prisons in the 80s. It is fittingly titled Talking About Rose.
1: MiradasDoc, International Documentary Film Festival, Synopsis for Talking About Rose – Link
2: Screenshot from Talking About Rose, dated approx. in the 70s, Min. 15:05 – Link
3: Screenshot from the Documentary, retrieved from Afrocultureblog – Link
by Sarah Pusteblume | Feb 14, 2020 | Africa, Contemporary (1914 - today), Tanzania |
This week’s heroine is known as the mother of East African taarab music. Starting a career as a woman over 30 in a male-dominated field held her back just as much as being from a poor family that didn’t speak the “right” language – that is to say, it didn’t hold her back at all. Her name is Siti binti Saad and this is her story.
Born in 1880 to a farmer and a potter in Fumba, Tanzania, she was first named Mtumwa – ‘slave’ – as that was where her parents came from. She grew up learning her mother’s craft and soon was sent to sell their pottery on the local markets. It was there that she first learned that her voice was an unusual gift, carrying over quite a distance. But selling pottery was all that a girl could do at that time. Being under Arab rule at the time, there was no shortage in schools, but those were reserved for boys. Encouraged by a friend who had recognized her potential, Mtumwa moved to Zanzibar in 1911 to pursue a career in music.
Her friend had taught how to accompany an instrument with her voice, but at this time it was still seen as indecent for a woman to join a band and become a musician. She was lucky however and soon after arriving in the city she met Ali Muhsin, a taarab singer whose band even played for the Sultan. He was impressed with her voice and after training her further, introduced her to his band. They must have liked her, because they immediately started organizing concerts and before she knew it, she was invited to play for the Sultan and other rich Arab families.
This might be when she got her name, or rather title. She was called ‘Siti’ (‘Lady’ by an Arab lady at one of the festivities her group played at. That title combined with the patronym ‘binti’ and her father’s name, Saadi, made up what she would be called from now on: Siti binti Saad.
Although Siti was illiterate in Arabic and Roman script, she possessed an outstanding memory that allowed her to sing any song in any language as soon as she had listened to it a few times. Although her popularity began to rise for real when she began applying the same rhythmic and poetic structures to her native Swahili, inventing an entirely new art form. Swahili was also the language that most of the Tanzanian population spoke, as Arabic was reserved mainly for the upper classes, thus she made taarab music accessible for the lower classes as well.
Soon she had made quite a name for herself and in 1928, when she was 48 years old, her big break came. Columbia Records and His Master’s Voice, both famous record labels, had heard of her and offered a trip to their recording studio in Mumbai to record some of her songs. And not in Arabic either but Swahili (although she did do some Arabic songs as well.) Not only was she the first East African person (person, not woman!) to make commercial recordings, she was also incredibly successful, selling more than 72.000 copies in the first two years, which is a lot compared to the average of 900 in the same time. She was so popular in fact, that in the ten years that followed several recording studios would open in Zanzibar, just for her.
Her stay in India held other advantages too. There she was able to attend several concerts herself, absorbing Indian music and dance. She also met with Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, who sang one of her favourite Arabic songs, Khaif. Inspired by all these impressions, she introduced an element of dance and mime to her performances that became known as natiki, which probably comes from the Hindu term ‘natak’ – ‘play, drama.’ Turns out she had quite a talent for drama too and her eloquence in Swahili captivated her audiences.
Siti’s career thrived and she continued to make music well into old age. In her songs she was not afraid to make political statements, opposing class oppression and the abuse of women as well as corruption and the legal system. Often she would sing about actual events and everyday life in Tanzania, including the experiences of her working class audiences – a group that she herself grew up in. Over the course of her career she produced over 250 songs and more than 150 78-rpm records, although only few original recordings remain.
On July 8, 1950 Siti binti Saad died at the age of 70. Shortly before her death, she was visited by Shaaban Robert, a famous writer and poet, who interviewed her in order to write down her biography. The book, Wasifu was Siti binti Saad (Biography of Sinti binti Saad) was released six years after her death and is still part of the Tanzanian curriculum today. Although her passing left a huge gap in taarab music, she had paved the way for other female artists after her and turned taarab into the music of her people, while majorly contributing to its international success.
That is why she is known today as the Mother of Taarab.
You can find some of her recordings on youtube – below is one of them. Enjoy!
1: Street in Zanzibar, 1928 – Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R30020 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
2: Siti binti Saad and her musicians, ca. 1930 – Link
3: Siti binti Saad; cropped version of the image before – Link
by Sarah Pusteblume | Sep 8, 2018 | Contemporary (1914 - today), Europe, North America, UK, USA |
I would like to start with a little warning: This article covers a number of uncomfortable topics like rape, World War II and its aftermath, PTSD, alcoholism, and to a certain degree child abuse. Please only proceed if you feel safe to do so.
Lee Miller is certainly one of the most interesting people I have yet encountered in my research. She led many lives, reinventing herself time and time again. At first as a model in the 20s, then as a photographer and war correspondent in World War II. On the other side lay trauma and self-destruction and a broken relationship with her only son. Let’s dive into this multifaceted story of a fascinating woman.
On a spring day in 1907 in the city of Poughkeepsie in New York, little Elizabeth was born as the second child of Theodore and Florence Miller (after brother John who was two years her senior). Three years later the youngest, Erik, was born. Their father was an engineer but his passion and hobby was photography and as Lee was his favourite child, he introduced her to the medium at a very early age and took many pictures. Then when the girl was only seven years old, the first traumatic event transpired, as she was raped and infected with gonorrhea. Throughout her life, Lee would never talk of the incident, even keeping it a secret from those she was closest to. Disturbingly only one year later her father would start taking nude photographs of her and continue to do so until well into her twenties. It has never been found out or made public who the perpetrator of her abuse was.
Her story picks up again in 1925 when she travelled to Paris to study art. However her stay only lasted a year. 19-year-old Lee returned home, called back by her father. She did not give up on her art career though, enrolling in the Art Students League in New York City. And that’s when fate hit her – in the form of a car. Well, it was about to hit her when she was saved by Vogue publisher Condé Nast. Intrigued by her beauty and recognizing her potential, Condé introduced her to the modelling world, making her a Vogue covergirl in 1927. Lee was the perfect embodiment of the emerging “modern girl,” a look that would make her one of New York’s top models for the next years to come. But only two years later she had enough of the business, the shallowness of it all boring her. And she escaped to Europe again.
Lee arrived in Paris in 1929 with her mind set on becoming the apprentice of Man Ray, who was already a distinguished photographer and artist at the time. After making her way to his Montmartre studio, she introduced herself by announcing that she was his new student. Insisting at first that he did not take any students, he eventually succumbed to her charms and accepted her, although she became more than just his student. She went on to be his muse, his model and valued collaborator and finally his lover too. Soon she became an avid contributor to the surrealist movement, opening her own studio and living the Bohemian dream, befriending artists like Max Ernst, Picasso and Paul Élouard and becoming a muse to many. Jean Cocteau, the author of Les Enfants Terrible, was so fascinated by her beauty that he made a plaster cast of her to use as a statue in his movie The Blood of a Poet.
Despite their IT-couple status, she often didn’t know where their next meal would come from, but she was happy, stating that she had never felt more alive then at that time. Her little brother Erik visited her once during this time, sharing her fascination with photography and learning from her. But as with many dreams, this one ended abruptly and in a huge fight. Man Ray found her when she was working on negatives he had discarded and threw her out of their apartment. She bought a ticket home, leaving him depressed in the realization that he had lost her, spending the next to years on a painting of her lips.
Back in New York City, she opened a portrait and commercial photography studio in 1932, this time in cooperation with Erik as her darkroom assistant and with the help of a loan over $10,000 (which she seems to have been able to pay back). Lee also rented an apartment next to her studio which became her home. Business boomed and many illustrious clients went in and out of her studio. Within the same year, Lee was included in the Modern European Photography Exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York and in the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition International Photographers, receiving favourable critiques through the bank. One year later The Julien Levy Gallery gave her the opportunity to host a solo exhibition – the only one in her lifetime.
In 1934 though, she abandoned her flourishing studio to marry Egyptian businessman Aziz Eloui Bey and, after a honeymoon at Niagara Falls, moved to Cairo with him. While she did not continue her career there, she didn’t stop taking photos and even partook in exhibitions. The desert inspired her and she created quite a few surreal motives there, one of which you can see to the right. And her pictures in turn continued to inspire her artistic friends; Magritte’s Baiser was modelled after one of her photos of the desert. Nonetheless life in Cairo did not seem to satisfy her and by 1937 she once more took off to Paris, where she met British surrealist painter and curator Roland Penrose. Together the pair travelled to London, Athens and later wandered the Balkans, photographing the village life in remote areas. In 1938 she returned to her husband, but only one year later Roland came to visit and she was excited to show him her beloved desert. In love with Roland, she parted ways with her husband in June 1939 and moved to London with Roland, right when World War II was about to begin.
Living in Hampstead, London at the time, she witnessed the bombing of the city first hand. Instead of returning to the US, as friends and family begged her to do, she became a freelance photojournalist for British Vogue, documenting the London Blitz. She also squeezed in two more exhibitions in London in 1940 and 1941. After the US entered the war in 1942, she was made an official war correspondent for the army, once again working for Condé Nast. She was the only female photographer given permission to travel independently in the European war zones. In this role, teaming up with American photographer David E. Scherman, she went to the front lines of the Allied advance from Normandy where she recorded the first use of napalm at the siege of St. Malo in 1944 (see picture). She witnessed the liberation of Paris and the Battle of Alsace and eventually her regiment reached Germany.
On April 8, 1945 Langenstein, a part of the Buchenwald KZ was liberated by Allied forces and Lee was there, documenting it all. 21 days later she was there when the Dachau KZ was liberated as well, still taking photos, despite her deep shock. The next day, her troop marched into Munich, where they found the private apartment of Adolf Hitler. One of the first to enter, tracing the mud from the KZs she had seen into his home, she had David Sherman, who still accompanied them, take a picture of her in Hitler’s bathtub. Only a few hours later, in a bunker in Berlin, Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun would commit suicide. When their deaths were announced, she was more or less living in his apartment, having really bathed in his tub and slept in his bed.
Writing about this incident to her Vogue editor she recounted:
“Well, alright, he was dead. He’d never really been alive to me until today. He’d been an evil-machine-monster all these years, until I visited the places he made famous, talked to people who knew him, dug into backstairs gossip and ate and slept in his house. He became less fabulous and therefore more terrible, along with a little evidence of his having some almost human habits.”
In her role of documentary photographer she also travelled to Vienna and then to Hungary, where she took pictures of life after the war, of death that was ever present and finally of the execution of Prime Minister László Bárdossy, the driving force behind Hungary’s affiliation with Germany.
Finally, after four years of either being in the middle of war or witnessing its aftermath, Lee was able to return back home to London, moving in with Roland Penrose again. The things she had seen left a toll on her, she suffered from severe posttraumatic stress and depressive episodes and turned to alcohol for comfort. Still she kept working for Vogue for two more years, mainly covering fashion and celebrities in her photos. Roland accompanied her to a trip to the US in 1946, where she not only visited family and friends but also Man Ray who had moved to California during wartime and with whom she had by now formed a deep friendship. The picture shows the couple in Sedona, Arizona.
Back in London, upon discovering that she was pregnant at age 40, she divorced her husband and married Roland Penrose on May 3rd, 1947. Four months later her only son, Antony Penrose, was born. When he was two, the little family moved to the Farley Farm House in rural Chiddingly, East Sussex. The sky blue, brick red and sunny yellow they decorated the house with seemed to fit more into Southern France than the south of England and it quickly became an artistic hotspot. Among their frequent guests the likes of Miró, Henry Moore and Picasso (whom baby Antony really liked – and once bit in the finger. Look at that sweet photo Lee took of them!)
However, it was not a happy family. Lee’s alcoholism was hard to deal with for the boy, his mother switching from caring and sensitive, to sniding and verbally abusive. Roland was kind, but distant, having grown up the same way.
Generally their relationship was a very unconventional one. During her time as a war photographer, Lee has had a relationship with her partner David, while afterwards Roland’s first wife moved in with them. Furthermore both had affairs with many of the artists that visited the homestead regularly, sometimes separately, sometimes together. Amongst Lee’s conquests was Picasso who painted her six times! But all this attention made her feel isolated at times. “I looked like an angel on the outside. That’s how people saw me,” she wrote. “But I was like a demon inside. I had known all the suffering of the world since I was a very little girl.” In the meantime little Antony spent most of his time in boarding schools, growing to resent his mother.
But Lee was a fighter and eventually she overcame her addiction, reinventing herself once more in 1960. This time she became a gourmet cook. Yes, you read that right. While still modelling and taking pictures occasionally, oftentimes for Vogue, her focus now lay on the recreation of historical dishes with a surrealist touch: blue spaghetti and green chicken were only a few of the creative and colourful meals she served. The relationship with her son however remained tumultuous and Antony left home as soon as he was able too. Even though he most likely wasn’t aware of it at the time, this parallels his mother’s actions when she went to Paris for the first time, over 50 years ago. He travelled the world and eventually married in New Zealand. It was his wife Suzanna who reconciled mother and son, with them forming a grudging affection for each other, and in the spring of 1977, she held her first grandchild, Ami, in her arms. Three months later she died in her homestead. Her ashes were spread in her beloved herb garden.
If you think this is the end of Lee’s story, you are wrong. Not long after her death, Suzanna found a bunch of negatives, prints and articles while cleaning out the house’s attic and showed them to her husband. Antony has had no idea about his mother’s past as a photographer or about her time in Paris with Man Ray or about anything that has happened before the war really. And he was determined to find out more. In writing about her, he found a way to get closer to her and still he dedicates his life to preserving her legacy.
further reading and images: http://www.leemiller.co.uk/
and you can visit her home at: https://www.farleyshouseandgallery.co.uk/
1: Lee Miller, Vogue, March 15, 1927: Georges Lepape – Link
2: Lee Miller and Man Ray in her Studio, 1932 (© Lee Miller Archives) – Link
3: Lee Miller by George Hoyningen-Huene, 1932 – Link
4: ‘Portrait of Space’ by Lee Miller, Egypt, 1937 – Link
5: ‘Fall of the Citadel, Aerial bombardment’ by Lee Miller, St. Malo, France, 1944 (© Lee Miller Archives) – Link
6: Lee Miller in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub, Munich, 1945, by David E. Scherman (© The LIFE Picture Collection) – Link
7: Roland Penrose & Lee Miller, Sedona, Arizona, 1946 – Link
8: Picasso and Antony Penrose by Lee Miller, 1950 (© Lee Miller Archives) – Link
9: Hallway [Hiquily sculpture] at Farley’s House (© Lee Miller Archives) – Link
10: Dining room fireplace (detail) at Farley’s House (© Lee Miller Archives) – Link
11: ‘Picnic’ by Roland Penrose, clockwise L-R, Nusch Éluard, Paul Éluard, Lee Miller, Man Ray and Aby Fidelin, Île Sainte-Marguerite, Cannes, France, 1937 (there is a picture taken by Lee with Roland sitting instead of her as well) (© Lee Miller Archives) – Link
12: Lee Miller Grocery Shopping – Link
by Sarah Pusteblume | Aug 24, 2018 | Chile, Contemporary (1914 - today), South America |
Thinking of poetry in Chile, the first that comes to mind is Pablo Neruda. But there was another important poet before him – and she was a woman. Enter Gabriela Mistral, who overcame many, many obstacles to become a famous writer, eventually earning the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Latin American to ever do so.
But before she became Gabriela Mistral, she was Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, a girl of Basque and Indigenous heritage born on April 7, 1889 in the city of Vicuña in northern Chile. Before Lucila turned three, her father, a teacher with the heart of a traveling poet, left the family for good and his abandoned wife moved herself and her two daughters to the Andean village of Montegrande. You can see the family’s home below.
There she found work as a seamstress and the older sister, Emelina Molina, was employed as a teacher’s aide in the same school that Lucila soon attended. But despite their hard work, their life remained a humble one. As their money was running out, Lucila had to be taken out of school when she was only twelve, but she did not give up learning and with her sister by her side, she was able to feed her thirst for knowledge. By the time she was 15 she even got a position as a teacher’s aide in the seaside town of Compañia Baja and soon she taught in the near La Serena school as well. Around the same time she published her first poems in the local newspaper, using different pseudonyms such as Alguien, Soledad and Alma.
In 1906, when she was 17, she met her first love, a railway worker named Romelio Ureta. Only three years later the young love ended abruptly, as Romelio took his own life. This had a huge impact on her life, turning her to poetry even more and melancholy and the feeling of loss should become recurring themes in her work. It was then that Gabriela Mistral was born – a name chosen in remembrance of the archangel Gabriel and the warm Mistral wind of the Mediterranean. Or maybe it was a combination of the names of two of her favourite poets, Gabriele d’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral.
She was determined to pursue a higher education, but was turned down from attending the Normal School without explanation. Later she found out that it was her writing that had blocked that path, Gabriela’s advocacy for universal access to education did not agree with the conservative views of the school’s chaplain. Undeterred, she decided to become an educator instead. Her task was made easier by the significant lack of teachers in the country. With the help of her sister’s contacts she got hired quickly and climbed the ladder utilizing her reputation as a published author and being willing to move wherever she was needed. By 1911 she was teaching several schools at primary level and worked as an inspector as well, often in remote areas. One year later she was hired to teach at a high school in Los Andes, near the capital of Santiago, where she would stay for six years. It was there that she wrote her “Sonetos de la Muerte,” her Sonnets of Death, in memory of her lost love, processing her grief. These Sonnets were what brought Gabriela to the attention of the wider masses when they won her the prestigious National Flower Award in 1914, aged 25.
When her stay in Los Andes ended, she moved on to a high school in Punta Arenas and then to Temuco in 1920, where she met and taught the young Pablo Neruda. The next year she was elected the director of Santiago’s newest and most prestigious girls’ school, so she moved back to the capital. Not everyone agreed with her nomination though and to escape the controversy, she accepted a job offer in Mexico only one year later to work with the Mexican Minister of Education to reform the national education system.
All the while she had been publishing her work and had acquired a considerable reputation as a journalist and public speaker. In 1922 she brought out her first book, “Desolación.” And she didn’t just publish it anywhere, she did so in New York! She was just getting started though. The next year she finished another text, “Lecturas para Mujeres,” Lectures for Women, celebrating Latin American culture. Her second book came out the year after; it was a children’s book of stories and lullabies, called “Ternura,” Tenderness. This one was published in Madrid, Spain! For she had left Mexico for Washington and then New York to tour Europe.
While she was a brilliant writer, she was not very good at taking care of herself; housework wasn’t really her thing and neither were finances, she didn’t like to cook and above all, she couldn’t stand being alone. Interestingly she still never married but preferred to live with women, all of them highly intelligent as herself and accomplished in their fields. One of them was Palma Guillén, a Mexican diplomat and educator, whom she met in 1922 during her time in Mexico. The two women should stay together for more than 15 years.
After a year of travelling she returned home to Chile in 1925 and retired from her teacher’s life at 36 years old. And not a moment too soon, for a law had just been passed that required teachers to have finished training at university. She had however been awarded the title of Spanish Professor by the University of Chile two years prior, although she had not had any form of formal education past the age of twelve. This shows what a remarkably intelligent woman she was and how determined to fill her head with all the knowledge she was denied by the system. This secured her a pension for life.
When she was invited to represent Latin America in the newly formed Institute for Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations, she moved to Marseilles, France with Palma and the couple adopted adopted the infant son of Gabriela’s half brother after his mother had died. Little Juan Miguel was physically disabled, which is why his father could not take care of him, but Gabriela did not care, she loved the boy as if he was her own. She supported their small family first with her journalism and then by giving lectures at universities in the US as well as Latin America. She also took up consular work, mainly in Italy and France but also in Spain, Guatemala and Brazil among others. In 1935, she was named consul for life. While working at the consulate in Madrid she once again met Pablo Neruda and was amongst the first to discover her fellow writer’s talent and originality.
All the while she kept writing and publishing her work in the Spanish-speaking world, with the help of her confidantes, the presidents of Colombia and Chile, as well as the First Lady of the US, Eleanor Roosevelt. And finally in 1938 she returned to Latin America, albeit not her home country, but Uruguay and Argentina. Her second major volume of poetry, “Tala,” was published in Buenos Aires that same year, with the proceeds going towards children orphaned by the Spanish Civil War. The book itself once more celebrated Latin American culture and heritage, but also the traditions of Mediterranean Europe – a fusion of different cultures, reflecting Gabriela’s own identity as both, European Basque and Native South American.
While they were living in Brazil, 17-year-old Juan Miguel took his own life in 1943. Gabriela was grief-stricken for she felt like she had lost a son and she blamed herself. Just one year before, her close friends, the Austrian couple Lotte and Stefan Zweig, writers who had taken residence in the city of Petrópolis like her, had chosen to end their lives as well. Furthermore her mother and sister had died not too long ago. All those wounds had not yet healed and now they were torn open once more. In 1946, Palma married a man, although she did continue to be Gabriela’s secretary and to support her emotionally. Gabriela, unable to move on, stayed in Brazil. And she remained there until two years later, when word arrived that she had won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Latin American to ever do so, and only the fifth woman. Just as bad things seem to only come in packs in her life, so did the good. In that same year her path crossed with that of Doris Dana, a beautiful and bright young woman from New York. Doris admired the poet, who was 31 years her senior, and although Gabriela did not remember their first meeting, Doris decided to write to her. A correspondence, and eventually a friendship, ensued.
Having found herself again, she once more felt restless. And so she packed her bags and moved to San Francisco, a delegate of the United Nations and soon also a founding member of UNICEF. She then took off to Los Angeles and later took up residence in Santa Barbara, California. In 1948, Gabriela finally invited Doris to visit her, after two years of regular correspondence. Soon the friendship turned romantic and Doris, then 28, decided to stay with the poet who was 59 at the time. Soon the two women travelled together to Mexico, where Gabriela was awarded a plot of land in Veracruz to build a house on (which the couple did.)
Oh, she also snatched a doctor honoris causa from Mills College in Oakland, California in 1947 and the Chilean National Literature Prize in 1951.
Although their relationship was very happy, Doris frequently had to return to her family in New York and every time she left, Gabriela feared that she would never return. But each and every time she did. Together they left Mexico around 1950 and spent the next two years in Italy, where they met Palma again. Doris and her became fast friends and she was only too happy to have a little help in handling Gabriela’s affairs. In 1953 the poet’s health began to decline and she realized she would not be able to travel anymore; after all she was 64 years old already. She wanted to spend the rest of her life with Doris but knew that her love could never call any other place than New York her home. So they settled on a compromise.
That same year, Gabriela set out for one last triumphant visit to her home country, with Doris accompanying her of course, and she was welcomed enthusiastically. And then the couple returned to their new home. Because Gabriela hated New York City, they settled in Roslyn Harbor, not too far away. There she continued to represent Chile in the General Assembly of the United Nations and, of course, to write. One year later her final book, “Lagar,” Winepress, was published and in it were all the grief over her son, the tension of World War II and more. It was the last one to be published in her lifetime. In early 1957, Gabriela was admitted to Hempstead Hospital in New York, where she died only a few days later on January 10, aged 67. Doris had not left her side.
Below a bonus picture of the two lovebirds because they were so darn cute:
Nine days later Gabriela’s body was transferred back to her hometown of Montegrande, just as she had wished. Hundreds of thousands Chileans attended her funeral and paid their respects and the country declared three days of national mourning in her honor. At the same time her “Messages describing Chile“ were published posthumously. According to Gabriela’s testament the proceeds of her book sales in South America were to be used to help the impoverished children of Montegrande, one of which she had been too, so long ago. The proceeds from the sales in the rest of the world were supposed to go towards Doris Dana and Palma Guillén, who decided to give their parts to Chilean children in need as well. At first it looked like this wish could not be carried out as there was a law against inheriting profits yet to be made, but the decree was repealed and so her final wish came true. Doris was also the one holding all her literary legacy and she is the one who translated a selection of her poems into English and managed their publication.
Gabriela Mistral’s legacy can be found in many names all over the country. Within months of her death, a museum was opened in her birthtown of Vicuña. In 1977 an order for teaching and culture was named after her and in 1981 a private university was founded that bears her name. Once she had mentioned, jokingly I presume, that she would love the Hill of Montegrande to be named after her one day and indeed, on the day that would have been her 102nd birthday, on April 7, 1991, the street Fraile Hill was renamed Gabriela Mistral. Practically every major city in Chile has at least one street or plaza named after her. She certainly has left her mark and will not be forgotten.
1: “House of Gabriela Mistral, Montegrande, Valle del Elqui, Coquimbo Region, Norte Chico” – © Educarchile – Link
2: “Manuscript Los Sonetos de la Muerte” – © Educarchile – Link
3: “Gabriela Mistral,” 1923 (© Archivo General Histórico del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores) – Link
4: Palma Guillén and Gabriela Mistral, undated – Link
5: “Gabriela Mistral (1889 – 1957)” – © Educarchile – Link
6: “Gabriela Mistral and Doris Dana in the garden of their house in Long Island” – © Educarchile – Link
7: “Gabriela Mistral reading on her terrace” – © Educarchile – Link
8: “Gabriela Mistral and Doris Dana on the Beach” – © Educarchile – Link