Prostitute’s Progress

The Maimie Papers, Ruth Rosen, Historical Editor, Sue Davidson, Textual Editor. The Feminist Press, in cooperation with the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College (1977), $15.95 hardcover; $6.95 paper.

The Maimie Papers tells the poignant story of one Jewish woman’s struggle for survival. The writer, Maimie Pinzer, overcame a past of poverty, prostitution and drug addiction to embark upon a successful business career and establish her own Mission House for “wayward girls.” Readers will find themselves empathizing with Maimie —with her hopes and fears, her inner conflicts and her gradual development into a strong and dignified woman.

The remarkable account of Maimie’s life unfolds in a series of letters which she wrote, between 1910 and 1922, to Fanny Quincy Howe, a prominent Boston society lady who was devoted to humanitarian causes. A Philadelphia social worker, Herbert Welsh, had taken Maimie under his wing while she was in the hospital recovering from morphine addiction, and had suggested that Mrs. Howe contact her. Over the course of their 12-year correspondence, a bond of genuine affection developed between these two women of radically different backgrounds. As Maimie observed in one letter, “You see, when I write you, I write everything … Things that I have always had to keep to myself, for I never trusted any other woman.”

Maimie’s letters provide the nearly complete autobiography of a most extraordinary woman. Born in 1885 into a modestly comfortable immigrant Jewish family in Philadelphia, Maimie was compelled to leave school at the age of 13 because of the sudden “brutal murder” of her father. The young, studious girl bitterly resented having to assume the care of a household of five children, and began working in a neighborhood department store to earn pocket money. She soon learned that “making dates” with the young men who frequented the store yielded substantial profits. Her lengthy absences from home led her mother and uncle to commit her to prison and, subsequently, to the Magdalen Home, a mild reformatory for delinquent girls.

Finding herself unable to effect a reconciliation with her family, Maimie fled to Boston with her lover, Frank Sloan. After suffering the removal of her left eye, probably because of syphilitic infection, she married Albert Jones, a carpenter, hoping to attain a measure of financial security. Although she had continued her prostitution activities throughout her marriage in an effort to supplement the couple’s starvation income, she finally resolved to reconstruct her life under Mr. Welsh’s influence.

Maimie’s decision led her to stenography school and a responsible position with a meatpacking firm. Having separated from her first husband, she ultimately settled in Montreal, where she and a friend opened the “Business Aid Bureau,” a letter-writing and duplicating service. When wartime economic vicissitudes forced the closing of her precious business, Maimie initiated plans for the founding of her Montreal Mission for wayward girls. She married Ira Benjamin, her adolescent sweetheart, and was last known to have been living with him in a Chicago hotel.

Elements of Maimie’s inner life emerge at several points in the narrative. Hers was a strong and a colorful personality, rich in its contradictions and complexities. Serious and ambitious, she was also optimistic and resilient. She could be independent and occasionally manipulative, yet she exhibited warmth and compassion. An avid reader and correspondent, she was highly intelligent and unusually articulate, in spite of her limited formal education.

Despite her bitterness toward a family that repeatedly condemned and rejected her, Maimie continued to offer her mother, brothers and sister assistance in times of need. And, although Maimie herself clearly aspired to a better life, in which cleanliness, proper manners and elitist respectability figured prominently, her generosity extended to a number of impoverished immigrant families whom she befriended in the course of her travels.

Maimie’s autobiography to a large extent mirrors the experience of countless working class women of her generation. The circumstances leading to her involvement with prostitution followed the standard pattern observed by “Purity” crusaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They reported that most of the girls came from homes which had been suddenly plunged into poverty by the death or desertion of the breadwinner. These daughters rebelled against parental insensitivity to their needs, and very often began their “careers” as salesgirls in department stores. In fact, Maimie herself identified the lack of affection in parents’ relationships with their children as the major cause of prostitution among young women.

According to Jane Addams, a leading figure in the campaign against “white slavery,” young women entered “the life” when they recognized the discrepancy between their miserably low wages and the glamorous existence which a life of prostitution appeared to offer. Maimie described her own dilemma in the following manner: “Oh! What’s the use —for I don’t propose to get up at 6:30 to be at work at 8 and work in a close stuffy room with people I despise until dark, for $6.00 or $7.00 a week! When I could, just by phoning, spend an afternoon with some congenial person and in the end have more than a week’s work could pay me. Doesn’t that sound ugly —and it feels ugly —but they are my thoughts.”

Maimie’s story is typical of the experiences of working women in her day in other significant ways as well. In disowning a daughter who had gone astray, Maimie’s relatives reacted in a manner characteristic of many Jewish, Irish and Italian families of the time. It is also important to note that Maimie’s Montreal Mission closely resembled the other homes and clubs for working girls that proliferated in the early years of the 20th century. Finally, Maimie was a victim of sexism in the workplace, a prevalent female grievance during this period. In sum, as editor Ruth Rosen has concluded, Maimie’s life brings into sharp focus the limited options available to lower-class American women of her time —menial, unskilled labor, marriage, or prostitution.

This “autobiography” also deepens our understanding of the traumas suffered by immigrant Jewish families in the process of their accommodation to American life. The considerable involvement of Jewish girls in prostitution was but one symptom of serious family disorganization in the immigrant Jewish community. It has been estimated that between 1913 and 1930, 17% of the prostitutes arrested in Manhattan were Jewish. Maimie’s letters belie traditionally held assumptions regarding the nature of Jewish family life, and provide insight into the problem of Jewish prostitution during this period.

Yet, for all that she shared with other women of her class, Maimie was, in many respects, unique. Her origins were undoubtedly more comfortable than those of most of her contemporaries in the working world. Raised in a home where education and upward mobility were encouraged, Maimie was evidently guided by these norms. Moreover, she could depend upon substantial financial assistance and moral support from both Herbert Welsh and Fannie Howe during troubled times, which enabled her to overcome many obstacles and to succeed where others failed.

The Maimie Papers offers students of American social history valuable insight into the world of the inarticulate masses and the working-class subculture in the opening decades of the 20th century. Of particular interest is the light which her letters shed upon the attitudes of lower-class women toward their wealthier benefactors. Maimie continually sought the approval of both Herbert Welsh and Fannie Howe, and clearly internalized many of their middle-class, Protestant notions of industry, thrift and respectability. Yet she objected strongly to Welsh’s reference to her as his “work” and to her position as a “miserable parasite,” dependent upon the charity of others. Finally, Maimie discarded the more conventional philanthropic methods, which she herself had found alienating, in dealing with “her girls” at the Montreal Mission.

Editors Ruth Rosen and Sue Davidson have done a superb job of editing and arranging Maimie’s letters to present a coherent account of her life and thoughts. Ruth Rosen’s historical introduction provides the necessary framework within which Maimie’s personal drama must be viewed.

The chronological table is extremely useful, as well, for its clarification of the sequence of events.

The Maimie Papers may be appreciated not merely as a rich source of historical information, but as an entertaining autobiography of considerable literary merit. The author’s perceptive sketches of personalities and events, some amusing, some tragic, spring to life in her pages. Maimie herself is, above all, genuine. She is a character with whom readers can readily identify.

Maimie’s last known letter to Fannie Howe captures something of its writer’s essence. Maimie was both a perpetual dreamer and a hard-headed realist who was painfully aware of her own limitations: “I want to go to school —i.e., I want to take up the study of something. I am fearful lest my equipment is inadequate I haven’t discussed this with Ira, mainly because in his estimation, I know now more than anyone alive! However, I know what I have yet to know.”

Reena Sigman Friedman is a graduate student in American Jewish History at Columbia University who is particularly interested in the history of Jewish women in America.