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  • Nancy J. Rosenbloom (a1)

Sonya Levien (1888–1960) achieved a modicum of fame and fortune by writing stories and screenplays for Hollywood studios beginning in 1922 and ending only with her death. Her remarkable story began as the daughter of the immigrant working class and represents a narrative that took her from Greenwich Village to Hollywood. This essay explores her coming of age during the 1910s and, consequently, the process through which America invited those at the fringes to join in defining its national and civic creed. Herein lays the significance of Sonya Levien to an understanding of progressivism. By bridging the divides that separated Americans into groups defined by gender, class, ethnicity, and even politics, Levien engaged a number of the major issues of her day.

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1 Sonya Levien, “My Pilgrimage to Hollywood,” The Metropolitan (Sept. 1922), 36 and 114; copy in Sonya Levien Papers, Box 32(8), Huntington Library, San Marino California (hereafter cited as Sonya Levien Papers). I want to thank Tamara Hovey Gold, Larry E. Jones, Kathleen DeLaney, Nancy Noel, Alan Lessoff, and the anonymous reader at the JGAPE for their encouragement of this essay. A Dean's Grant from Canisius College provided research funding.

2 Ceplair, Larry, A Great Lady: A Life of the Screenwriter Sonya Levien (Lanham, MD, 1996). Levien also appears briefly in Beauchamp, Cari, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Early Hollywood (Berkeley, 1997); and Francke, Lizzie, Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood (London, 1994).

3 Enstad, Nan, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York, 1999).

4 Fink, Leon, Progressive Intellectuals, and the Dilemmas of Democratic Commitment (Cambridge, MA, 1997); Mattson, Kevin, Creating a Democratic Public: The Struggle for Urban Participatory Democracy During the Progressive Era (University Park, PA, 1998).

5 Mattson, Creating a Democratic Public, 11–13.

6 Fink, Progressive Intellectualist, 13–51.

7 Ceplair, A Great Lady, 6. The family lost a baby daughter at some point. Two more sons were born in America. The Levien family appears in the 1910 Federal Census and lists five children, three born in Russia and two in America, living at East 140th Street in the Bronx. Thirteenth Census of the United States: 1910—Population. In the 1920 federal Census, Levien was listed by her married name, Mrs. Carl Hovey, and reports she arrived in 1896 and was naturalized in 1902. Fourteenth Census of the United States: 1920—Population.

8 Most likely, her grandfather was a teacher. See The Christopher, Levien won this award, established after World War II by Father James Keller, a Maryknoll priest, in recognition of examples from the mass media that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” Levien to Father James Keller, Jan. 24, 1952, Sonya Levien Papers, Box 24.

9 Flora Merrill, The World, Sunday, June 28, 1925, Magazine Section, 6. Sonya Levien Papers, Box 32(8).

10 Merrill, The World.

11 Kessler-Harris, Alice, Out to Work: A History of Wage earning Women in the United States (New York, 1982), 148. Susan Glenn provides evidence of the typicality of her experience in Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation (Ithaca, 1990).

12 Shapiro, Herbert and Sterling, David L., eds., I Belong to the Working Class: The Unfinished Autobiography of Rose Pastor Stokes (Athens, GA, 1992); and Antler, Joyce, The Journey Home: Jewish Women and the American Century (New York, 1997).

13 Quoted in Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure, 81. Taken from a Rose Pastor Stokes 1902 column “Just Between Ourselves.” More on how immigrant women and their daughters adapted and accommodated to American culture can be explored in Ewen, Elizabeth, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side (New York, 1985).

14 For a brief introduction to Rose Pastor, see Judith Rosenbaum, “Rose Pastor Stokes,” Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, Jewish Women's Archive.; Shapiro, I Belong to the Working Class, 91–92.

15 See Levien to Pastor Stokes, Dec. 29, 1919, Sonya Levien Papers, Box 25.

16 Remarkably there is no official record of her in the Records of the Woman's Legal Education Society and the Woman's Law Class of New York University, New York University Archives. Despite records that show students who enrolled and who graduated, Levien neither signed her name in their enrollment book nor does she appear in the printed graduation program. According to her biographer, she could not enroll as an LL.B. candidate because she had not graduated from high school. Nevertheless she took the same courses. Ceplair, A Great Lady, 124, fn. 23.

17 Sworn Statement in the matter of the application of Sara A. Levien for admission to the Bar, J. G. Phelps Stokes, n.d., [Sept., 1909]. Sonya Levien Papers, Box 29.

18 For more on this period in Rose Pastor's life, see the Rose Pastor Stokes Papers, Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

19 See an undated photograph of Sonya Levien at the Stokes compound at Caritas, Rose Pastor Stokes Collection, Yale University Library, Microfilm Reel 7.

20 Levien began to work at Success in 1907.

21 Isabel Gordon Curtis, “A Talk with Girls on the Selection of a Career,” Mrs. Curtis Home Corner, Success Magazine, (Mar. 1910).

22 For more on Viola Roseboro, see Graham, Jane Kirkland, Viola, The Duchess of New Dorp: A Biography of Viola Roseboro (Danville, IL, 1955).

23 Frances Perkins, Notable New Yorkers, Transcript, Part I, 370, Columbia University Libraries Oral History.

24 Perkins Oral History, 371.

25 The phrase is suggestive since it was used in debates among reformers over protective labor legislation and equal rights for women; Merrill, The World.

26 Wilson, Christopher P., The Labor of Words: Literary Professionalism in the Progressive Era (Athens, GA, 1985) uses the phrase “literary professionals” to describe a variety of journal and magazine writers as well as novelists from this period. Also see McFarland, Gerald W., “Becoming Bohemia,” Inside Greenwich Village: A New York City Neighborhood, 1898–1918 (Amherst, 2001), 189191.

27 Philip Allan Friedman to Sonya Levien, Nov. 19, 1953, Sonya Levien Papers, Box 20; and Levien to Philip Allan Friedman, Dec. 4, 1953 and Dec. 10, 1953. Sonya Levien Papers, Box 24. Lewis married Grace Heggers in 1914 and Dorothy Thompson in 1925.

28 President Woodrow Wilson appointed Creel to head the Committee on Public Information in April 1917. John Collier became increasingly involved in Native American affairs and President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933–1945. Frances Perkins served as Secretary of Labor 1933–1945, and Josephine Roche held many different positions during a long career in public service. For more on the relationship between Collier and Levien, see Rosenbloom, Nancy J., “From Regulation to Censorship: Film and Political Culture in New York in the Early Twentieth Century.” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (Oct 2004): 383384; and In Defense of the Moving Pictures: The People's Institute, the National Board of Censorship, and the Problem of Leisure in Urban America,” American Studies (Fall 1992): 5254. See Creel to Levien, Nov. 26, 1913, Levien Mss. Collection, Box 1, for a typical exchange between Creel and Levien during this period.

29 Letters went back and forth between Levien and Roche. Roche to Levien, August 30, 1913, Sonya Levien Papers, Box 28.

30 Czitrom, Daniel, “Underworlds and Underdogs: Big Tim Sullivan and Metropolitan Politics in New York, 1889–1913,” Journal of American History 78 (Sept. 1991): 554.

31 Perkins, Oral History, I, 371.

32 Interview with Tamara Hovey Gold by author, Nov. 30, 2007, Beverly Hills, California.

33 Gold interview.

34 The Woman's Journal, July 6, 1912, lists Sara A. Levien as its managing editor.

35 Finnegan, Margaret Mary, Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women (New York, 1999), 4850.

36 Alice Stone Blackwell, Push the Woman's Journal, typescript with annotation by Sonya Levien indicating that she was managing editor, Ryan was the business manager, and Alice Stone Blackwell was owner and editor of The Woman's Journal. n.d., Sonya Levien Papers, Box 17. See Finnegan, Selling Suffrage, 153.

37 The Woman's Journal, July 6, 1912. For more on the possibilities of urban consumption see Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: 208–218; and Peiss, Kathy, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York (Philadelphia, 1986) passim.

38 The Woman's Journal, July 6, 1912.

39 There is no address for the apartment. Levien sent Viola Roseboro an acknowledgment for $2.50 on May 23, 1913. Roseboro at the time was at Collier's Magazine. Whether the money was in fact rent and whether Levien lived there full time when she was in New York City are unclear. Levien to Roseboro, May 23, 1913, Sonya Levien Papers, Box 25.

40 Carl Hovey, “Women and the Police,” The Woman's Journal, July 27, 1912.

41 Sonya Levien, “The Little Prophet of the Immigrants,” n.d., typescript and illustrations. A script of the original story was given to the author by Tamara Gold.

42 Levien, “Little Prophet.”

43 Levien, “Little Prophet.”

44 Levien to Blackwell, May 19, 1913. Sonya Levien Papers, Box 24.

45 William Hard to Levien, n.d., Sonya Levien Papers, Box 20.

46 Sonya Levien, “In the Militant Camp.” The Metropolitan Magazine published the article in Oct. 1913. There are two typescripts. One is seventeen pages and has the penciled title “In the Militant Camp,” by Sonya Levien as well as handwritten passages and editorial marks. The other draft is a four-page typescript with minimal edits. Sonya Levien Papers, Box 24.

47 Levien, “Militant Camp.”

48 Levien, “Militant Camp.”

49 For the People's Institute, see Russell, Edgar A., “Work of the People's Institute as Originated and Carried on by Charles Sprague Smith,” Craftsmen 10 (May 1906): 182189; Smith, Charles Sprague, “Ethical Work of the People's Institute, A People's Church,” Outlook 79 (Apr. 22, 1905): 10011003; and The People's Institute of New York and Its Work for the Development of Citizenship Along Democratic Lines,” The Arena 38 (July 1907): 4952. For a more detailed summary of the relationship between the People's Institute and progressive reform, see also Robert J. Fisher, “The People's Institute of New York City, 1897–1934” (PhD diss., New York University, 1974); Rosenbloom, Nancy J., “Progressive Reform, Censorship, and the Motion Picture Industry, 190–1917,” in Popular Culture and Political Change in Modern America, ed. Edsforth, Ronald and Bennett, Larry (Buffalo, NY, 1991), 4159; Rosenbloom, “In Defense of the Moving Pictures”; and Rosenbloom, “Regulation to Censorship.” For more on this type of liberal progressivism and the role of intellectuals, see Fink, Progressive Intellectuals.

50 Report of the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures (New York: People's Institute 1913); The Standards of the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures (New York: People's Institute, n.d.).

51 Levien, Sonya, “Hidden Sentiment in New York,” The Survey (New York, The Survey Press Bureau), Jan. 11, 1913. A typescript of the manuscript is in Sonya Levien Papers, Box 24.

52 Suggestions for a Model Ordinance for Regulating Motion Picture Theaters (New York: People's Institute, n.d.)

53 Memo to Howe, n.d., Sonya Levien Papers, Box 24.

54 Rosenberg, Rosalind, Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century (New York, 2008); and Cott, Nancy, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT, 1987). For a discussion of heterodoxy, see Schwarz, Judith, The Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy: Greenwich Village, 1912–1940, revised ed. (Norwich, VT, 1986); and Kate Wittenstein (PhD diss., Boston University, 1989).

55 Levien engagement books, 1915–1921, Sonya Levien Papers, Box 15.

56 Levien may have written the entry herself for Woman's Who's Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada, 1914 (New York, c. 1914), 487.

57 Sonya Levien, “The Federal Fight for Suffrage, or Women Militant and Otherwise”; and Levien “The Women's Invasion of the East” [1913], both in Sonya Levien Papers, Box 32(6).

58 List of United States Citizens for the Immigration Authorities, S.S. Olympia sailing from Southampton, July 29, 1914; Arriving at Port of New York August 5, 1914, p. 8 line 13. New York, Passenger Lists, 1820–1957, Roll 2358.

59 Typescript, untitled, n.d., Sonya Levien Papers, Box 24.

60 Sonya Levien, “Girls for Sacrifice,” The Metropolitan (July, 1915), copy in Clarence Day Papers, Manuscript and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. (hereafter cited as Clarence Day Papers), Box 192.

61 Sonya Levien “Theodore Roosevelt—The Great Friend,” 1919, Sonya Levien Papers, Box 24.

62 Sonya Levien, manuscript draft for “Theodore Roosevelt—The Great Friend,” 2, Sonya Levien Papers, Box 24.

63 Sonya Levien, “Birth Control,” manuscript fragment, [c. 1918],, Sonya Levien Papers, Box24.

64 Levien, ”Birth Control.”

65 Sonya Levien, “Milk,” typescript, n.d., Sonya Levien Papers, Box 24, 3.

66 Levien, “Milk,” 1.

67 Levien, “Milk,” 1. See also Libbean Benedict, “Story of Sonya Levien,” The American Hebrew, (June 19, 1925): 207.

68 Levien, “Milk,” 4. The conscription act to which Levien refers passed in July 1917.

69 Levien, “Milk,” 4.

70 Levien, “Milk,” 1–6.

71 Levien, “Theodore Roosevelt—The Great Friend,” 10–11.

72 Hicks, Granville, John Reed: The Making of a Revolutionary (New York, 1936). Mabel Dodge Luhan criticized Hicks for over-romanticizing Reed, whom she described in a letter to Hovey as “neither a hero nor a villain—nor really either a Stalinist nor a Trotskyist but a gay boy looking for an exciting time.” Mabel Dodge Luhan to Hovey, June 10 [1939]. Sonya Levien Papers, Box 25; Fannie Hurst to Levien [n.d.], Sonya Levien Papers, Box 22.

73 Israel Zangwill to Carl Hovey, Sonya Levien Papers, Box 30.

74 Hovey to Day, Oct. 1, 1918. Clarence Day Papers, Box 64.

75 For an understanding of contemporary social tensions, see Gerstle, Gary, “Theodore Roosevelt and the Divided Character of American Nationalism,” Journal of American History 86:3 (Dec. 1999): 12801307.

76 Sonya Levien, “My Pilgrimage to Hollywood,” 36. She told the same story several times.

77 Ceplair, A Great Lady, 53.

78 For more on the relationship between Famous Players Lasky and Paramount, see Koszarski, Richard, An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Pictures, 1915–1928 (New York, 1990), 6972.

79 Levien to Day, July 23, 1924, Clarence Day Papers, Box 64.

80 Tamara Gold, Interview.

81 Levien, Sonya, “Why I Decline Stories,” The Writer's Monthly 18 (Nov. 1921): 387395.

82 Levien, “Why I Decline,” 388.

83 Levien, “Why I Decline,” 394.

84 Levien to Day, July 21, 1921, Clarence Day Papers, Box 64.

85 Levien to Day, Dec. 14, 1922, Clarence Day Papers, Box 64. Day, Sr. was her stockbroker.

86 Levien to Day, July 23, 1927, Clarence Day Papers, Box 64.

87 Levien to Day, Dec. 14, 1922, Clarence Day Papers, Box 64.

88 Levien to Day, Mar. 7, 1923, Clarence Day Papers, Box 64.

89 Levien to Day, Mar. 7, 1923, Clarence Day Papers, Box 64.

90 Levien to Day, July 23, 1924, Clarence Day Papers, Box 64.

91 Levien to Day, Oct 30, 1925, Clarence Day Papers, Box 64.

92 Ibid.

93 Levien, Sonya, “The Screen-Writer” in Filene, Catherine, ed. Careers for Women: New Ideas, New Methods, New Opportunities, to Fit a New World (Boston, 1934), 433437.

94 Levien, “Screen Writer,” 437.

95 Levien to Chandler Sprague, Fox Studio, Mar 20, 1928. Sonya Levien Papers, Box 25.

96 These films are in the collection of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. Janet Gaynor starred in both Lucky Star and Delicious.

97 She described her husband in these terms.

98 Levien, Sonya, “The Franks Case Makes Me Wonder,” Hearst International 46:6 (Dec. 1924): 1819 and continued on 107–108.

99 Levien, “The Franks Case Makes Me Wonder,” 107.

100 Levien, “The Franks Case Makes Me Wonder,” 108.

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  • EISSN: 1943-3557
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