Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

You Can't Beat (1903)

Jun 19, 2023 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


   From time immemorial, relationships have often been expressed through gifts. Some, like Eve’s apple and the Trojan Horse, proved unkind to those who received them, while others  have been odes to romance. Few women have received as wondrous a present as Cosima Wagner did when Richard composed the Siegfried Idyll for her birthday. Tsar Alexander’s Fabergè egg gained mileage with his young bride, as did Burton’s 68-carat diamond to his ladylove. Resplendent as the symphony, the egg, and the ring may be, nothing could rival a son’s tribute to his mother.

       In 1865, Frenchman Frederic Auguste Bartholdi conceived of a giant statue to send across the sea to commemorate the centennial of America’s freedom from monarchy. The robed figure represented the Roman goddess Libertas, and the seven spikes of her crown symbolized the seven continents and the seven seas. Her rib cage was an engineering marvel of Gustave Eiffel while her face was a portrait of Charlotte Bartholdi, the sculptor’s mother. He baptized his lady Liberty Enlightening the World.

      The game plan was for France to absorb the cost of their creation and the United States to pay for its pedestal; however, many Americans were not convinced they needed a gigantic, European statue. Joseph Pulitzer, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant, disgusted by the parsimony, spearheaded a fund-raiser through his newspaper, the New York World.  This campaign included an auction to bid for the works of eminent writers; Mark Twain and Walt Whitman sent in their work as an inscription for its pedestal.

       One of the authors who picked up her pen to give words to the Lady was Emma Lazarus. She was the fourth of seven children, six of them girls, born in 1849 into a secular, Jewish family who had lived in America since before the Revolution. Her great-great-uncle had welcomed George Washington to Newport, Rhode Island. They enjoyed annual visits to Saratoga and other fashionable resorts for “the upper ten thousand” of the richest families in New York. Her father, Moses, who had made his fortune in sugar, was proud of his daughter’s literary skills, and, when she was 17, paid for the publication of her poems. The book was more than 200 pages long, dedicated “To My Father,” and Moses and Emma were thrilled when a year later a commercial press issued a second edition. The publication attracted the notice of literary celebrities such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, then 65, who Emma met through attorney Samuel Gray Ward, (sister of Julia.) A line from one of his letters to the eighteen- year-old poetess indicates he would have been pleased to serve as her Abelard: “I would like to be appointed your professor.” Her indifference may have stemmed from their age difference- or something else. In the anthology she compiled in 1886, while dying of Hodgkin’s disease, she included an undated sonnet that remained unpublished until 1980. Its tone is electric with erotica, “Last night I slept, & when I woke her kiss/still floated on my lips.” Although Emerson might not have approved, Whitman would certainly have given it a thumbs up. 

      However, the majority of her work centered on something far less prurient; it explored her heritage as a Jew of Sephardic descent. She was proud of her background, in contrast to her father who tried to assimilate his family into wealthy, Christian society. She was aware members of her acquaintance referred to her as a “Jewess” and wrote she was “perfectly conscious that this contempt and hatred underlies the general tone of the community towards us.”

     Emma, when not engaged with poetry, fending off elderly suitors, or dreaming of her own Sappho enjoyed a wide circle of friends, including Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist minister, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter, Rose Lanthrop, Henry James, and Robert Browning. Her activism was ignited in the 1880s when news broke of anti-Semitic violence in Russia. Pogroms, a Russian word that means to “demolish violently,” drove 2,000 Jewish refugees on a monthly basis to New York. They had high hopes for what they called the goldene medina-the golden land, a place of hope after centuries of suffering. Not content to vent her ire in ink, she took the streetcar from her lavish brownstone on 57th Street to volunteer at the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society on East Broadway where she taught the newcomers English. She also paid them visits in their squalid quarters on Ward Island and wrote an exposé about their deplorable living conditions. In her weekly column for the American Hebrew she wrote, “Until we are all free/none of us is free.” Lazarus served as one of the first high profile Americans to publicly make the cause for a Jewish state in Palestine. In these crusader years, Jewish themes became her dominant theme. Lazarus incurred the ire of her sisters who disapproved of her Zionism and her crusade on the behalf of Eastern European Jewish immigrants who they felt were of inferior stock. After Emma’s 1887 death, her family white-washed her life and portrayed her as a “demure and feminine spinster.”

     When Lazarus was asked to write a poem to help fund Bartholdi’s pedestal, she initially balked, claiming she did not pen poetry made “to order.” In addition, she was not particularly fond of France or French society. “Take away the Louvre & the pictures & the statutes,” she wrote of Paris, “& I should never wish to see it again.” However, in a moment of clarity, she saw a way to link the Russian refuges with the colossal statue destined for New York Harbor and embraced the commission. The resulting sonnet imagined the statue addressing “ancient lands” to keep “your storied pomp!” Although concern for immigrants was not the Statue’s official message, the Lazarus’ lines resonated, and editor James Russell Lowell wrote he liked it “much better than I like the Statue itself” because it “gives its subject a raison d’etre.” Lazarus had dramatically recast the meaning of Bartholdi’s masterpiece, and her lines served as an invitation to refugees from the Old World to find sanctuary in the New: “Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand/A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame/Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name/Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand/Glows world-wide welcome….” Politicians were less enthusiastic, and her words were not read at Liberty’s 1886 unveiling. Unfortunately, it was not just Emma’s poem that was absent. Suffragettes boycotted the event: an enormous female figure would have dominance to represent liberty while her flesh-and-blood counterparts exercised none in the polling station. They chartered a boat to circle the Island to blast their protests from its deck, but their voices were drowned out by the fanfare.

           Emma passed away at age 38 and the poem she referred to as “her best work” seemed destined to literary ashes; it did not merit a mention in her New York Times obituary.  It was only resurrected when a friend of hers chanced upon it in a bookstore, and after relentless lobbying from a descendant of Alexander Hamilton, the poem ended up on a plaque on Ms. Liberty’s pedestal. It made Bartholdi’s lady “the Mother of Exiles” and her role as beacon for immigrants was launched. The United States would be the haven where newcomers would not just survive but would also thrive. Tragically, during anti-immigration hysteria the American melting pot has not always followed in her size 879 shoes.

     Lady Liberty’s beacon refused to go out even in America’s darkest days.  Talk-show host, Jon Stewart, broadcasting a week after the 9-11 attacks embodied the country’s indefatigable spirit.  He observed “The view from my apartment was the world Trade Center.  Now it’s gone…But you know what the view is now?  The Statue of Liberty.  The view from the south of Manhattan is the Statue of Liberty.  You can’t beat that.”