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Lives of Chutzpah

Emma Goldman & Rachel Beer

Against the chaotic backdrop of the late Victorian era, two chutzpahdik Jewish women on opposite sides of the Atlantic were taking on the world. Both did as they liked, ignoring the myriad restraints that Victorian society imposed on members of their sex. These two women, each the subject of a recent biography, could not have been more different.

In Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life (Yale University Press, $25), Vivian Gornick shows how the famous anarchist’s oversized character found her voice through radical politics. Gornick’s sassy, deep-down writing brings Goldman to life, and what a hell of a life it was. Born into poverty in what is now Lithuania, Goldman came to America in 1885 as an 18-year-old. As she eked out a miserable living slaving away in the sweatshops, she immersed herself in anarchist politics, took lovers, and began speaking publicly about whatever she damn pleased: the evils of capitalism, the oppression of workers, birth control, free love, even (gasp!) homosexuality. As an orator, Goldman found her métier. She traveled all over the country, mesmerizing and infuriating crowds with her fiery rhetoric. In between, she started a radical literary magazine, Mother Earth.

Goldman made for great newspaper copy, and the press could not get enough of her. The Queen of Anarchy, as the papers called her, was arrested several times. Finally, thanks to the zeal of newly-appointed intelligence official J. Edgar Hoover, she was deported to Russia in 1919. Except for a three-month visit in 1934, she was never allowed back into the United States. For the rest of her life she wandered about Europe, championing revolutionary movements in Russia, then Spain. But she never found the fulfillment in Europe that she had in the United States. She died of a stroke in Toronto in 1940.

Newspapers, the Victorian equivalent of the internet, gave Goldman the means to have an impact on the world. So it was, too, for Rachel Beer, the subject of The First Lady of Fleet Street (Bantam, $30), but in an utterly different way. In contrast to Goldman, Beer was a woman of immense privilege. Coauthors Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren tell the largely unknown story of this London native, née Rachel Sassoon, aunt of poet Siegfried Sassoon. Negev and Koren are superb researchers, though their account is marred by too many quotes and factual details that detract from the main narrative, which is fascinating.

The Sassoon family, merchants originally from Iraq, arrived in England via Bombay in 1857, and opened a branch of their business. The Sassoons were fabulously wealthy, as was the German-Jewish family of Frederick Beer, Rachel’s husband. Among the many assets of the Beer family was the London newspaper the Observer. When Frederick bought the Observer’s rival, the Sunday Times, in 1894, he handed over its management entirely to Rachel. By this time female journalists were not uncommon in England, but for a woman to actually publish and edit a newspaper — Times readers were instructed to address the editor in any letters they sent as “Madam — ” was unheard of. Rachel did not care. Already ostracized by the Sassoon family for converting to Christianity in order to marry Frederick — his mother was not Jewish and he had been raised Christian — she was no doubt prepared for the hostility she faced from Fleet Street. Frozen out of the old-boys journalism circle and the contacts they cultivated, Rachel Beer wrote alone from her Mayfair home.

For eight years she turned out weekly and highly opinionated editorials in the Times on news both domestic and international. Her politics were uneven, mixing genuine sympathy for the working classes and support of women’s causes with unquestioned support for British imperialism; indeed, one of the figures she admired most was Rudyard Kipling.

When Frederick Beer died in 1901, Rachel fell into a severe depression. Her brother Joseph, who along with the rest of the Sassoon family had cut off all contact with her after her marriage 15 years earlier, suddenly reappeared. He had his sister declared incompetent, which, under British law, gave him the right to administer her property. Joseph Sassoon sold the Times in 1905. When Rachel died in 1927, the paper carried no mention of her passing. Like her younger contemporary Emma Goldman, the establishment — men, all of them — had silenced her.

Alice Sparberg Alexiou, author of Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary and The Flatiron, is at work on a book about the Bowery. She is a contributing editor at Lilith.