She may be forgotten now, but Rose Pastor Stokes was a big name in the early 1900s. Her Cinderella story filled the front pages of newspapers: Young Jewish immigrant escapes the toil of a Cleveland cigar factory for success as a journalist, then celebrity as the bride of a member of New York City’s high society. She got an island as a wedding present. What other socialite uses her island as a haven for Socialist Party activists?
In “Rebel Cinderella,” noted historian Adam Hochschild dusts off the story of this rags-to-riches-to-rags firebrand. Rose Pastor and Graham Stokes were an “it” couple: good looking, well-meaning, save-the-world types. They were leading socialists at a time when the Socialist Party was embraced as a remedy to the abuses of capitalist Robber Barons. Their unlikely love captured hearts and minds and audiences. Rose was a fiery speaker and fundraiser, an inspiration even to Eugene V. Debs. “I wish our side had you,” one anti-Socialist lecturer told Rose. “You’re the most dangerous one they’ve got.”
Gradually, Graham chafed at being the supportive husband back home. Then World War I happened. Add the Russian Revolution, and socialists and pacifists were no longer popular in a nation seized by patriotism.
Rose’s work on the Socialist speaking circuit got her arrested, tried and convicted under the new Espionage Act. Under strain at home and surveillance outside, she lost her following but never her hope that the Bolsheviks would bring about the new world order that inspired her life.
This book contrasts with other Hochshild works, including “To End All Wars” about World War I and “Spain in Our Hearts” about the Spanish Civil War. In those masterful histories, he tells the big story through the experiences of people involved.
Here, he goes in the opposite direction, focusing on a single character and painting the context around her. This smaller frame doesn’t match the power of the others. But in Hochschild’s hands it remains a compelling read about a fascinating time in American history, one that bears some resemblance to today.
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