Zoe Anderson Norris (1860–1914), known as “The Queen of Bohemia,” was an investigative journalist, publisher and advocate of the poor immigrants consigned to living in squalid Lower East Side New York City. Her groundbreaking work, however, has been marginalized by history until now. Curator Eve M. Kahn’s new exhibition at the Grolier Club, “To Fight for the Poor With My Pen: Zoe Anderson Norris, Queen of Bohemia” (open through May 13), reveals Norris’ passion and mission through the display of her magazine The East Side and other ephemeral documents of the early 20th century.
In fall 2018, Kahn joined a Grolier Club group touring an American magazine trove amassed by the historian and neurologist Steven Lomazow. Among the huge range of periodicals, from pre-Revolutionary calls for free speech to early Interview issues, he showed Kahn a volume of The East Side, the bimonthly magazine that Norris produced at her Manhattan apartment from 1909 until her death in 1914. It documented immigrant life in the tenements, and Kahn’s collection contains what is believed to be the only known full run of the publication in private hands.
“I was astonished that no scholarship existed about this innovative, fierce writer/reformer/publisher whose name was writ large and whose multiple portraits appeared in the issues,” Kahn told me in a recent email. “I was particularly drawn to her because she and her illustrator, William Oberhardt, sympathetically portrayed recent immigrants (at a time of bitter xenophobia, not unlike our own), like my own Yiddish-speaking Ukrainian grandparents.”
Learning about this rare (and professionally designed) magazine was a huge surprise for me, since I have strong connections to this center of refugee life in New York City, where my own paternal grandparents lived until moving north to the Bronx. Also learning more about this passionate social reformer excited me on many personal and historical levels. I asked Kahn to speak to Norris’ battle with the city powers that were content to let the poor—many who turned into our ancestors—live in filth and squalor.
Zoe Anderson Norris has been in the shadows of another reformer, the journalist-photographer Jacob Riis. Was she overshadowed her for gender or for other reasons?
She can be considered “the Jacob Riis you’ve never heard of.” I know she had an influence. The child-welfare advocate Sophie Irene Loeb called Zoe a “universal inspiration dispenser,” and politicians, activists and reformers such as Bird Coler and Elbert Hubbard read her work, learned from her, praised her, met with her and gave talks to her friends to raise public consciousness and try to combat poverty and bigotry. Zoe’s differences from Riis include that she had no staff publication jobs and no major political backers; by the time she started her years of fiercest advocacy (1909–1914), she had offended or been offended by many powerful figures.
Her work appears to have had decent outlets, but she saw it necessary to publish independently. Why is this the case?
By 1909 she had been harassed, plagiarized and stiffed on writing fees by male editors at magazines and newspapers, and she was tired of kowtowing to them, as she had pumped out a firehose of fiction and journalism since around 1895. She had long chafed at her bosses’ insistence that she give them “something cheerful,” instead of documenting poverty. In the book realm, too, she had been badly burned by publishers who had censored her and bombed at marketing her work.
I’m interested in her interest in printing and typography. There is a Will Bradley look to her art nouveau work—was she also a printer/designer?
She contributed illustrations to The East Side, including parodies of Cubism and sketches of her friends, and she edited her texts to save money or fit her pages—at one point she ended up with too much room at the bottom of a page when she ran out of anything to say, and she filled it instead with a cartoon of a couple dancing! But I don’t know who designed her wonderful hand-drawn drippy or spiky fonts. I do know that she raged often about incompetent typesetters, printers and binders, mangling her magazine issues “with fiendish crookedness.”
You mention Emma Goldman as a contemporary. Were they friends, colleagues, influencees? Did Norris succumb to similar run-ins with the white establishment defenders of the rich?
Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth is one of The East Side’s few counterparts among women-run magazines of the time. I know that Zoe went to Emma Goldman’s speeches but did not share that circle’s advocacy of violent uprising in pursuit of reform. Among Zoe’s run-ins with the rich establishment, she excoriated charity leaders for splurging on themselves and publishing lavish annual reports while reneging on promises to help people as desperate as families who had relied on income from teenage breadwinners killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Also, Zoe mocked rich women suffragists, calling one “a simpering idiot in silk and velvets,” because desperate slums needed urgent help, not women’s voting rights that might elect men sympathetic to slum sufferings.
Who was in her circle?
In addition to Sophie Loeb, Bird Coler and Elbert Hubbard, as mentioned, East Side readers and members of Zoe’s Ragged Edge Klub were a colorful crowd of writers (James Corrothers, Helen Hamilton Gardener, Richard Le Gallienne, Edwin Markham, Nellie Revell and Ameen Rihani, to name a few), performers (Beatrice Forbes-Robertson, Ovide Musin), lawyers, politicians, businessmen curious about slumming, plus a few scoundrels and posers. And there are brushes with household names: Ragged Edge Klub singer Libby Blondell’s vaudevillian first husband Ed was the father of Joan Blondell, and East Side supporter Beatrice DeMille was Cecil B.’s mother.
There were some courageous progressive women in those days. Some came from wealth. How did Norris get involved and find her voice?
Her father, Henry Tompkins Anderson, was an itinerant pastor and teacher with an evangelical sect in Kentucky, and by the time Zoe was born in 1860, he had reduced his large family—Henry and his wife, Henrietta, had 15 children—to the brink of poverty. But Zoe’s parents were well-educated, especially Henry, who was fluent in multiple ancient languages. She never knew financial security with her husbands either (the first ran unsuccessful grocery stores, the second was a freelance illustrator), and I believe that gave her sympathy for people even worse off than she was. Her heart broke at the sight of every struggler like herself. She was vulnerable while writing so well about the vulnerable.