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Entries in ellen copperfield (53)


In Which Emma Goldman Served Her Time In Missouri

This is the second in a two part series. You can read the first part here.

Emma, Incarcerated


Time meant nothing. The world was immediate, without past or future. Every tree and bristly bush attained a sharp, stark clarity. Faces loomed, split by immense grins. Crisp light poured through them all, illuminating everything with an even, eternal glow. Each stored increment awaited only a release of control in order to speak its pain. - Gregory Benford

Being arrested was becoming de rigeur for Emma Goldman and her boyfriend Dr. Ben Reitman. As her interests turned to the rights of women, passing out birth control and information about it regulary led to both members of the anarchist couple being forced to spend time in jail or a workhouse. Later, Reitman served six months in prison for distributing illegal pamphlets in Cleveland.

Emma Goldman's penalties for the same crime were usually not quite so severe, and sometimes her convictions were overturned in New York courts. Given the choice between prison and a fine, she always selected the former out of principle.

But prison changed Emma Goldman no matter how long she was inside. "I don't know whether you will understand the feeling since you have never had the experience," she wrote, "but I felt more miserable yesterday and today than on the day I was sentenced and in fact the two weeks while I was in prison. However there is no time to contemplate one's feelings." Once Reitman had served his time, he begged Emma more forcefully than ever to marry him and settle in one place.

She declined the nuptials, but at the end of 1913, Emma Goldman purchased a Harlem brownstone on 119th Street. With four floors and a tremendous open feeling, this house was quite spacious. Ben suggested his mother move in with them, and Emma tentatively agreed. She may have intimated the disastrous effect having Ben's mother on the premises would have on her sex life and overall well-being.

Instead of being one happy home, the experience of living together was nothing short of a disaster. Emma's ex-boyfriends and fellow travelers used the house as their own, and Reitman grew resentful of being financially dependent on Goldman. "I am 35 years old, and I haven't a thing," he told her, "and I am only the jester, joker or clown. I don't amount to a damn in the movement and I know it." Reitman and his mother bailed and moved back to Chicago.

Ben suggested they live in a small apartment of their own, but Emma had grown tired of the domestic experiment. The house consumed most of Emma's income from lectures, and hangers-on ate any food on the premises. She moved into more spare quarters on E.125th. "I am so tired of lectures, meetings and the mad chase," she told Reitman. She asked him to go on the road with her again, and he hesitantly agreed. During that trip Reitman met Anna Martindale, an English expat who was crusading for a woman's right to vote. He began seeing Anna when Emma was at meetings or in other towns.

In 1917, Ben Reitman married Anna Martindale. Emma was distressed, but a part of her knew this was inevitable. She turned to her work, where she found that she missed her manager as much as her sexual and emotional partner. Protesting the first World War was her focus. Police arrested anyone at her lectures who could not produce a draft card. Eventually, they arrested Emma in her home. She prepared for trial at the age of 48. The charges were outlandish, but the political climate was completely against her. Goldman was accused of accepting German money, of inciting violence, and preventing draft registration. A jury aided by a deeply biased judge found her guilty and Emma was sentenced to the maximum: two years. The New York Times enthusiastically praised the verdict.

Emma avoided jail on appeal for the moment and helped her friends, many of whom were also pursued by the law. Ben Reitman served his time in a workhouse; others were deported. The post office refused to mail any of her newsletters, and she was forced to shut her magazine (Mother Earth). Emma finally thought of leaving her adopted country. She knew that it was unlikely she would be allowed back if she left for Russia, and this scared her.

Before she could flee of her own volition, the Supreme Court rejected her appeal and she was sent to federal prison in Jefferson City, Missouri. "In moments of depression I look to Russia," she wrote in a letter. "She acts like a ray of sunshine working its way through black clouds." It was a most half-hearted hope.

Missouri State Penitentiary was the biggest prison in the United States, with a population of 2300 inmates. The cells for the 100 women situated there were 7x8 with a working sink and toilet. Straw was both mattress and pillow. Prisoners spent their days manufacturing clothes in the shop; the smell throughout was pervasive. The dining hall was filled with cockroaches. Breakfast was sugar, bread and coffee. Potatoes were inedible. Twice a week, the women got oatmeal. Lunch featured beef, dinner incorporated a soup ridden with worms. Talking during meals was not permitted, and overall conditions were wretched.

Most of Goldman's fellows were mentally ill. The library would not have been much use to them anyway, but women were not permitted to have books until the prisoners appealed. Bent over a sewing machine all day, Emma suffered intense pain in her neck and spine. Going outside was only permitted on Sunday, although this brief pleasure was denied Goldman because she would not attend church. The day was still a blessing, since she was allowed to spend all morning reading and writing letters.

Upon her release from prison in 1919, Emma Goldman took a train to Chicago. She had not seen Ben Reitman in years. Traveling with her niece, she met Ben, his wife, and their daughter in that city. After leaving prison, Reitman had opened up a private practice and was researching birth control in free hours. In Rochester Emma saw her mother for the final time. She would be deported to Russia on December 21st, 1919.

Whether she was angry to be forcefully removed from the United States is not evident in her letter to Ben Reitman. "Their mad rush in getting us out of the country is the greatest proof to me that I have served the cause of humanity," she wrote. She continued:

I was glad to have been in Chicago and to see you again, dearest Hobo. I never realized quite so well how far apart we have travelled. But it is alright, nothing you have done since you left me, or will yet do can take away the 10 wonderful years with you. If it is true that the power of endurance is the greatest test of love, Hobo mine, I have loved you much. But I have been rewarded not only in pain - but in real joy - in ecstasy - in all that makes life full & rich & sparkling.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.


In Which Emma Goldman Made Fools Of Us All

This is the first in a two-part series.

Anarchical Love


We have similar systems, of course. Yours, though, appear to be keyed to your sexual identity. Internal questionings accumulate. Only by reaffirming your sexual self, by uniting with an opposite member, can you resolve and discharge these signifier problems — tensions, I suppose you would call them. Curiously, this can occur only with a small sample of the available candidates, often merely one candidate. — Gregory Benford

The first love of Emma Goldman's life was in prison for nearly killing a well-known businessman, and severe menstrual cramps made it even worse. Just 25, she went to the doctor and was diagnosed with an inverted uterus. Without a procedure, she would never enjoy certain types of penetration without pain or be able to conceive.

By the summer of 1893, three million Americans were unemployed, representing nearly triple the amount of the previous year. Emma Goldman's speech in Union Square at the end of summer encouraged her listeners to forgo organization and political work. Riots were the only rational plan: "Go forth into the streets where the rich dwell, before the palaces of your dominators... and make them tremble." Emma was indicted with a charge of "inciting to riot" on September 5th in New York City.

Her trial commenced the following month. Former mayor of New York A. Oakey Hall, fresh off a nervous breakdown, did the pro bono work on her case. In one week the jury sentenced her to a year in prison. Blackwell's Island Penitentiary was located a small land mass on the East River between Manhattan and Queens. It was easy for her friends to visit her, and she was the only woman in the sewing room who refused to go to church. She spent most of her stay in the prison hospital, first as a patient and then as an orderly.

Upon her release she sought further education in nursing, which took her to Vienna. The fact that she was proficient in both German and English immediately placed her ahead of her peers. In that city she listened to Freud and read Nietzsche, finding the latter substantially more convincing. Her return to the United States precipitated a speaking tour which would take her to California for the first time in her life. Two Ohio businessman that she met endeavored to fund her to return to Europe for medical school. She quickly gave that up and lectured for the first time in London. She did not care for England at all, preferring to spend her time in the city's slums before happily abandoning the place for Paris.

After her money ran out, she returned to New York. Her European travel allowed her to formulate her first real broadside against socialism. In her 1909 essay "Minorities versus Majorities" she writes, "That the mass bleeds, that it is being robbed and exploited, I know as well as our vote-baiters. But I insist that not the handful of parasites but the mass itself is responsible for this horrible state of affairs." Her ideas, if not entirely non-violent, had enough ammunition to disrupt her surroundings on their own. She kept a book nearby in case she was thrown for a night in jail in any given city.

Emma Goldman was getting comfortable in this new life, even going so far as to take a vacation, when one of her self-proclaimed adherents shot President William McKinley. Anarchist meetings were now target No. 1 of the federal government, and Goldman's mentors and friends had their homes destroyed; some were jailed. In order to preserve her freedom long enough to give an interview to a Chicago reporter, Emma dressed as a maid. She was arrested there and then, saying, "Am I accountable because some crack-brained person put a wrong construction on my words?"

She was in jail only a month this time before the authorities admitted they had no evidence to try her for conspiracy. She still sympathized with the assassin and wrote to defend him, even as most other observers viewed him as mentally ill. Her glorification of the act left her completely alone among other members of her sect. But she would never leave the movement, only think of ways to reformulate it anew.

Ben Reitman

She met Ben Reitman, the doctor who would become the second love of her life, in Chicago. In her autobiography Living My Life she writes, "He arrived in the afternoon, an exotic, picturesque figure with a large black cowboy hat, flowing silk tie, and huge cane. 'So this is the little lady, Emma Goldman,' he greeted me, 'I have always wanted to know you.' His voice was deep, soft, and ingratiating."

Emma was ten years Reitman's elder when they met. She often signed her letters to him Mommy, and they were usually explicit in nature, for Ben aroused a sexuality in Emma Goldman she had never tapped into with anyone else. The fact that he offered to go on tour with her meant everything to Emma, and their pairing raised Goldman's already high profile to that of a major celebrity. Policemen filled Emma's lecture hall in San Francisco before a speech to intimidate her, an act that allowed Reitman to see exactly how powerful his girlfriend's work was.

Ben Reitman

Ben became Emma's opening act, warming up the crowd with jokes before her performances. Beginning in 1908, they spent half the year on the road, and then their summers apart in Chicago and New York, visiting each other frequently. She was particularly obsessed with Ben's penis, which she refers to as W in her letters. Her oral fixation with putting the organ in her mouth was a source of considerable stimulation for Mr. Reitman. She also greatly admired his passion for cunnilingus. "My mountains scream in delight and my brain is on fire," she wrote in August of 1911. "I want to fuck you." The mother-son dynamic came up a lot as well, although it seems to be mostly a metaphorical erotic accompaniment to their love affair.

In Emma's previous relationship, she had always felt some key power over her boyfriends. With Ben she felt so completely vulnerable. "I do not want you to know how much I love you," she wrote before he left for Europe on her dime, "how much I need you, how much I long for you." Her neediness was truly its own organism, and when she and Ben were apart for periods, she despaired: but wasn't it good to have something important in your life to despair for?

During the moments they were together, she was quite critical of Reitman. As Alice Wexler notes in her biography of Goldman, "she continually reminded him of how boyish and petulant he was, and what tremendous burdens he placed on her shoulders. She never tired of cataloguing his faults, lecturing, scolding, preaching, beseeching, pleading..." He treated her basically in kind, coming onto other women and men at his leisure, in addition to the fact that he was a frequent liar. His main fault in Emma's eyes, however, was his infidelity. It is somewhat difficult for an anarchist to articulate why she believes in monogamy, a contradiction which placed Goldman in a tough situation.

Yet Goldman never did any of the things that would have ensured Reitman would feel responsible to what they had together. He begged her for a child and a marriage, and she rejected both of these entreaties.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.


In Which Frida Kahlo Is Divorced From The Moment

Spine and Back


When Frida Kahlo was three, the Mexican Revolution arrived in full force. Her father was a European Jew, a photographer who fled his home country after his father married a reprehensible woman. Young Guillermo Kahlo suffered from frequent seizures in his new home of Mexico City.

Her mother, Matilde Calderon, was Guillermo Kahlo's second wife; his first had died in childbirth. Matilde did not love her husband, but she was already 24 and suitors were not exactly at the door. For the first few years of their marriage Guillermo was a taciturn, unhappy man. He never wanted to be in Mexico.

The girl's real given name was Magdalena. She went by Frida from the very first, spelling her name in the German fashion, Fride, until the Nazis came to power. Her older sisters were her primary caregivers. 

In the revolution the Kahlos supported the Zapatas, feeding guerrillas when they could, but in the new government, her father's photographic commissions disappeared.

The family's new poverty was handled exclusively by Frida's mother, who was a devout Catholic. "She did not know how to read or write," Frida remembered later. "She only knew how to count money."

At the age of six she contracted polio. "It all began with a terrible pain in my right leg from the muscle downard," she said. "They washed my little leg in a small tub with walnut water and hot towels."

When she recovered, the prescription of physical exercise inculcated her father's interest in her. He had no son, and encouraged her to play soccer, wrestle and swim. She shucked off her illness, but as a tomboy she was made into a social outcast.

The closeness between the two extended to Frida's growing knowledge about art. It was a form of taking control. Her father also painted, and his canvases were painstakingly realistic scenes.

In 1922 she entered the National Prepatory School, the most prestigious institution of its kind in Mexico. Girls had only recently been admitted to these environs, and Frida was one of 35 individuals in a school of 2000. Unlike other students, she always wore a backpack.

with her own students

She was also estranged from the other girls. They gathered on a second floor patio, she never gathered anywhere, just appearing unexpectedly like hepatitis. She found this new place fascinating and her photographic memory ensured she did not have to work very hard to pass her classes.

Diego Rivera had the run of the school. He was massively fat then, and she soaped stairs so he fell as a prank. She had some close boyfriends and wrote them letters as her primary means of communication. When she graduated, her job prospects were slim. Frida stayed busy, keeping accounts at a lumber yard to make ends meet.

Then, in an event that would alter every day thereafter, she was riding a wooden bus crumpled by a trolley, and she was subdued under the wreckage. It was a slow, bracing kind of accident, born of fundamental stupidity. Her "first responders" removed a handrail that had gone so deeply into Frida that it emerged from her vagina. She survived after a few days where her life hung in the balance, but her spine and pelvis were broken.

She recovered in a derelict Red Cross hospital, with a ratio of one nurse for every twenty-five patients. She briefly regained the use of her legs in 1925 until some undiagnosed spinal fractures put her back in a full body cast. To entertain herself she drew her accident, but only in pencil.

Frida married Diego Rivera, twenty years her elder, twice. He slept with other woman as a matter of routine, but seemed to view his wife in a somewhat different light. Her mother called Frida's new husband a "fat farmer." While she dealt with her first miscarriage, Diego enjoyed an affair with one of his assistants.

Expelled from the Communist Party, Diego and Frida took refuge in America. She found San Francisco an unfriendly place and struggled with her English. While Diego seduced the subjects of his portraits, she found consolation in the arms of women.

with Diego Rivera

Back in Mexico, Diego planned two houses in San Ángel, one for Frida and one for himself., that would be situated next to each other for maximum privacy and maximum closeness. (This dream was realized later.) The two came to New York in the fall of 1931 when Frida's husband received a commission from the Museum of Modern Art. Detroit, in contrast, was a "shabby little village" where Diego planned to paint the assembly line as some kind of Marxist exemplar.

She miscarried again at Henry Ford's hospital. Her series of lithographs about this, titled Frida and the Miscarriage, showed her at all her most vulnerable moments. Her mother died of cancer.


Diego wanted badly to stay in America, but Frida preferred to return to Mexico. Finally out of money they returned to their native country in 1933. Diego took Frida's sister Cristina as the primary model for his nude paintings, and eventually his mistress. When his wife found out, she cut off her hair, had her appendix removed, and then underwent an abortion.

Her drinking became increasingly obliviating. She made peace with her husband and her sister after thinking it over carefully. To retaliate she took up with other male painters. She even seduced Leon Trotsky by speaking in a language his dowdy wife did not know: English.

Their flirtation faded until he was murdered with an ice pick. Frida and her sister were interrogated for fourteen hours.

She divorced Diego and her work became the center of her life. Her shows in New York were helped by an admiring Julien Levy; in Paris she learned to hate Andre Breton with a passion unknown to her. She disliked being his pet.

Viewing her paintings now, they seem utterly divorced from the surrealist moment. They are not fantastical creations - they are instead perfectly reasonable realizations of her own life. She resided in all of these places, and when she herself could not be in them, there was another woman, resembling her in almost every fashion, who could be made to take her place.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Marlon Brando.