June 1, 1947
This evening they let vs go to a film. I’m not sure what it was because only ten minutes into it, a bell rang and the orderlies came in and took us back to our roams. Excuse me, our cells. That was O.K. with me. I wasn ‘t in the mood for popular entertainment. Anyway, there was no music to accompany the black and white flickering. So I would have been bored. No letter from anyone. People forget so quickly. My memory is long. As much as I try to block out the past, especially the recent past, it just keeps gnawing away at me, like the eagle at Prometheus’s liver. But I’m not as strong as he was. I’m just a frail, second rate writer. Maybe third rate. Didn ‘t you once say I was third rate? I forgave you. Probably I deserved it. Just write me. I’m terribly lonely.
June 10, 1947
I hope this letter finds you in good health. You are wrong. No one has forgotten you. In fact, the other day I ran into Starkman at the Second Avenue Hungarian Restaurant. He was on his way back from the theatre. We got to talking about the play he had just seen and he was just about to write the review. He said he wished Ada had written the dialogue because she’s so good at it, so fluid, and realistic. He’s not the only one who thinks like that. I wish you had more confidence in yourself Mama used to say about both of us that we were our own worst enemies. I’m planning to come to Livingston Manor to see you next Friday afternoon. Joseph promised to drive me although, you know, he’s not always exactly reliable. But for you, the beautiful One, he says he’ll be on time. I hope I’m right. Visiting hours are from two to six. Please keep a stiff upper lip.
Your best sister,
These were the only two letters I found in Ada Fletcher’s portfolio at the New York Public Library Archives (Jewish Section) on that unseasonably humid June afternoon in 1973.I had just started research for my article on “Forgotten Yiddish Women Writers Of The Early Twentieth Century” to be published in an up-and-coming little feminist review. I was in the first flush of my new women’s movement sensibility and had decided that my contribution would be to rescue at least one unappreciated woman writer from the oblivion into which I believed she had been tossed through the mean efforts of patriarchal indifference. Since I had learned the Yiddish language as a child, I thought I’d go back to my roots and unearth a worthy woman who had written in my mother tongue.
Ada Fletcher’s brief biography in the Lexicon For Modem Yiddish Literature fascinated me. She was born in a small Bessarabian town in 1894 and had come as a teenager to New York City. Around 1915, she began publishing poems and short stories in Yiddish magazines and newspapers; they received rave reviews for their insight into human character and their erotic qualities. Then she ventured to write in English. It was a novel entitled Obsession and the cover advertised the book as “the work of a talented and exotic immigrant girl who after only a few years is writing in the language of her adopted country.” All this before she was twenty-five. But after the novel received a set of scathingly bad reviews, she disappeared, as the Lexicon noted, “mysteriously.”
“Most intriguing,” I thought. Who is she and what happened to her and her talent?
I began my search with the primary sources I had at hand—the two letters. But they provided me only with small bits of information: the late forties (now almost thirty years ago); a sister; some kind of institution called Livingston Manor, and two men, Joseph and Starkman. I was easily discouraged. These were sparse clues. But I persevered. So for an hour I read and re-read the letters as they lay on the cool glass-covered desk which reflected a mahogany quietness.
Putting them back into their envelopes, I noticed on the back corner of Clara’s a faded stamp which read: “Archives of the Jewish Radical Literary Society, 25 East 80th Street, N.Y., N.Y.” Luckily, I remembered reading about the Society in a recent Time magazine article. It seems a group of aged Yiddish literati still ran a reading room in Manhattan and in order to finance their labor of love, Yiddish literature, they opened a restaurant— just for lunch. The cooking team, a husband and wife, were D.P.’s from Eastern Europe who came to the United States in the early nineteen fifties. Their cooking skills and their success deeply moved the Time writer.
“Maybe they had other letters by or to Ada Fletcher at this Archive,” I speculated. “Or even better, someone who knew her personally might still be around at the place.”
I left the Public Library dizzy with hope, caught the Madison Avenue bus, and was transported within two short city blocks of the Society’s headquarters. It was already four in the afternoon. Long past lunch hour, unfortunately.
Of course, the restaurant was closed. Gingerly, I knocked. No answer. I called: “Anyone there?” in my most journalistic voice.
“Come right in, my dear,” someone said and the accent was Yiddish with faint Polish and Russian overtones. It was an accent I would recognize anywhere, anytime, awake or asleep since only my sister and I, born in the United States, lacked the Hebraic- Slavic lilt of all my other relatives.
“Good day,” I said in Yiddish, hoping instantly to establish myself as one of the younger generation who had kept faith with her ancestral language. Usually, speaking the mamaloshn brought me immediate admiration and good will.
“Ah, come in, young woman,” said an elderly man seated at a long table cluttered with books of every size and shape. The greeting was given in an eager voice.
I sat down at the table and explained haltingly why I had come: lost Yiddish women writers, Ada Fletcher, Livingston Manor, the sister Clara, a theatre critic named Starkman. During my entire explanation Agurski (many years later when we had become good friends he told me Agurski was not his real name but one he adopted in order to disguise his Socialist identity during his years in a Stalin labor camp in Tashkent) kept his eyes riveted to my face as if he was trying to figure out what I was really thinking. He was fishing for the subtext.
“I’ve known many women writers,” he said, “but I don’t know Ada Fletcher. She’s before my time. I came to New York in 1954. Starkman, I know. Amos Starkman. He still comes here to the Archives once in a while. Maybe he even gave me some of his letters and papers ft-om the thirties and forties. For hours we talk. Talk about the Yiddish theatre and what it once was. I’ve always loved the theatre. Anski, Chekhov, Ibsen. But I love the truth more.” He laughed. ‘You’ll have to meet him. Do you have time?”
“Yes,” I said, not imagining he meant right that minute. To my astonishment, he ran to the phone, and before I could stop him, he had arranged for us both to visit Starkman at seven o’clock at the theatre critic’s Riverside Drive apartment. Dinner was included.
“Are you sure this is O.K. on such short notice?” I asked, overwhelmed by the attention and feeling railroaded at the same time.
“Yes, Starkman is starved to talk about the old days. You know how old people are,” he grinned mischievously as if this was a private joke between the two of us. ‘You are lucky,” he added, “he’s still alive to tell the tale.”
“But I’m expected to have dinner with a girlfriend tonight,” I said feeling ungrateful because at the mention of possibly having another engagement Agurski lowered his eyes with such seeming dejection that I feared I had somehow betrayed him. “Let me telephone my friend,” I said apologetically. “Maybe I can change my plans.”
“Here’s the phone,” he said and he stood waiting for me to dial. No answer. I decided this rare opportunity was more important than dinner With a friend. “O.K., I’ll forget about it,” I said reassuringly. Agurski smiled.
A.S a reward he told me a joke while he gathered up a stack of magazines written in German.
“Do you know the difference between a wedding and a funeral?” he asked.
“No,” I said, puckering my lips in a mock serious way.
“At a funeral they bury only one person,” he giggled slyly.
“I’m not sure I think that’s funny,” I blurted out honestly. He didn’t seem to hear me.
“We have to leave now,” he said, “because I need to drop off these magazines on one hundred and tenth street.”
“He’s lived in this building,” Agurski said, “for over fifty years. There are still a lot of Jews left here.”
The elevator took us up to the fifth floor. Stepping out, I could see a portly, frizzled grey-haired man waiting at the end of the corridor. He held a cane in one hand and some sort of cooking utensil in the other.
Agurski ran down the hall and embraced Starkman so violently the caned man almost toppled over. The two were involved in a conversation of rapid Polish by the time I reached the door.
“Ah, such a young woman and she is interested in Yiddish literature,” he said with enough cynicism and delight to make me regret momentarily that I’d come. ‘This is going to be awkward and boring,” I thought. “Some more bad jokes. He’s going to tell me what a good looking woman Ada Fletcher was, how the men were crazy about her, and how she wasted her time dabbling in literary pursuits only to be disappointed and that drove her crazy.”
He led us into the large living room. Everything looked new except the paintings on the wall. These portraits of women were painted, I imagined, sometime in the late 1930’s by an artist in an Impressionist phase— maybe painted while the person was a student.
These are Ada Fletcher’s best paintings,” Starkman said as he observed me moving from one to the other. “Some people thought she was crazy,” he added contentiously, “but I had faith in her.”
“I knew she was a writer but I didn’t know she was a painter,” I mumbled, wondering sheepishly whether I had underestimated him. “She painted these when she was especially angry,” he explained, shaking his head as if he wanted to shake away some unpleasant memory.
“You must have known her very well. Could you tell me about her life?” I asked, my own voice sounding naive and intrusive.
“Let’s have dinner first, child,” he said. “After dinner, I’ll have the energy to talk about her.”
But as soon as we sat down at the dining room table, carefully set, he started to tell us about Ada. Words gushed out of him. I could hardly catch half the things he said. I took out my notebook to jot down the basic information but Starkman shook his head and waved his hand telling me I ought just to eat because he would tell this to me again, more, later, after dinner.
Starkman served each course as if he had been a waiter at some grand hotel in Europe. His eyes sparkled, his frizzy white hair formed a golden halo around his head, and the magic of the moment helped me imagine him as a lithe young worker intellectual encouraging the starryeyed twenty-year-old Ada some thirty years ago.
My mesmerizing host’s monologue was rapid. I learned Ada had come to the United States alone as an adolescent. There had been a scandal involving her father and a murder he may have committed in some Hungarian shtetl. She worked in a shirtwaist factory during the day and at night frequented the East Side literary cafe life. Ada lived with Clara who was supported by a rich married boyfriend. Their relationship became intolerable when the sister’s boyfriend fell in love with Ada. The young Ada swam before my eyes in vivid bits and pieces like one of Picasso’s cubistic women.
“She was very beautiful, very beautiful and extraordinarily talented,” Starkman said getting up from the table before Agurski or I finished our roast chicken. “It was such a waste, such a pity. They put her in that mental hospital, for nothing, just because she was beautiful and Clara wanted to be rid of her.”
We followed him back into the living room. He sat down on the sofa holding his hands over his face and he began to cry, deeply, not even aware that we were watching him. He looked old and brittle.
“I visited her many times in Livingston Manor,” he said when he stopped crying. “In those days I kept an exact journal because I thought everything about my life was important and I planned to write my memoirs, or a novel or something. Foolish of me. I can show you what I thought then about her.” He walked over to a large steel grey file cabinet tucked neatly away in the corner of the room, disguised by a printed piano shawl.
“It’s not here,” he said as he quickly leafed through row after row of carefully ordered manila folders. “Maybe I lent it to Zora. She was going to write something about Ada for a Yiddish magazine a few years ago. It could be she never gave it back to me.”
“Oh,” he suddenly exclaimed. “I’ve found something about Ada. “It’s a review clipping about her book Obsession,” he chortled reading it over quickly. “She must have really eaten her heart out when she read this one.”
He handed me a fragile-looking folded newspaper clipping which broke in half when I touched it. Starkman winced. “We can xerox it,” I said reassuringly.
The review was brief but deadly. It was entitled “Pessimism” and it said “Miss Fletcher should go back to night school and learn English.” Also, the critic thought the theme of the novel, the seduction of a young Jewish woman by a married Italian vaudeville musician, was both trite and unlikely. “Poor Ada, this must have hurt,” I thought. “This might have driven her crazy.”
Starkman then turned away from the file cabinet and stared at me. “You see how everything is?” he asked in a puzzled voice. “Random,” he answered his own question. “What remains is random. She deserved something better. You are the one to write about her.”
“Mr. Starkman,” I said in my most modest voice, “I want to write about her but I have to start somewhere, with concrete facts. Could we sit down and really talk?”
He turned toward Agurski and said something in Polish. It seemed to me they both immediately smiled at me in a sad way.
“Do you have a car?” asked Starkman. “Tomorrow I can take you to Livingston Manor, only two hours from the city. You’ll learn what you need to know there.”
“Mr. Starkman, this is very kind of you,” I stuttered, feeling honored yet also feeling unworthy of this man’s rich generosity and so much raw emotion. I was a little afraid. Two men I really didn’t know. Maybe I better not get into it quite this way, I thought. But I was embarrassed to say no. And Agurski and Starkman might well be the only real link with Ada Fletcher. A trip to Livingston Manor might be a true adventure. I might find her diary or even find Ada herself there, sitting in some attic room, a shriveled old lady, mad but still articulate.
“Is she still alive?” I blurted out like a child.
Starkman and Agurski shook their heads in unison.
“You missed her by just six months,” Starkman said. “Clara died in September. Joseph in December and Ada last January 5th. They were all in their eighties. It’s amazing how the body can last even when the soul dies.”
“What will I learn if I go there?” I asked, suddenly becoming sceptical.
“To see the setting. And you can talk to some of the people who knew her during her thirty years of captivity,” Starkman replied kindly.
When I got home I telephoned my friend Evie, hoping she wouldn’t be too angry I’d missed our dinner tonight.
“Where were you?” she asked. “I waited at Hunan’s for over an hour. Breaking dates with girlfriends isn’t nice. I’m going to report you to our local consciousness raising group,” she added churlishly.
I told her about Ada, Starkman, Agurski and my plans for tomorrow. About this great opportunity to rediscover a woman writer from the past.
“Take care of yourself,” she said as she signed off.
We left for the Catskills early the next morning in my white Mustang with the little sunroof Both old men wore nappy caps and plaid jackets. They sat in the back seat, talking and laughing, and acted as if I were a chauffeur. When we stopped for coffee at the Big Red Apple, a rickety but renovated cafeteria originally built in the early nineteen thirties for the then enormous summer traffic to the resorts, Starkman pulled out a map from nowhere, pointed to a place called South Upsburg and said: “Here, here, we must go here first. Camp Gornisht. Ada loved it. We went there together in thirty-five. She read her poetry on Friday night for real intellectuals. They loved her. It’s only ten miles from the Big Red Apple.”
Under Starkman’s direction, we left the highway and took a narrow, steep country road which had deep grooves and deeper potholes. My poor car jerked and wheezed. This did not bother the men as they sat in the back munching on the raspberry and lemon-filled danishes they brought with them from the restaurant; they shared a large plastic cup of coffee passing it back and forth as the car carried them closer to our first destination.
“Ada read her poetry here,” I thought. “And afterward she and Starkman might have snuck away into the woods and made love.” I blushed, embarrassed at my own erotic thoughts.
We learned from a sign at the entrance gate that Camp Gornisht (meaning Camp Nothing in Yiddish, a joke, no doubt) would not open until July fourth. There were No “Trespassing signs tacked around on several trees. This didn’t daunt Starkman. He and Agurski leapt out of the car and before I’d shut off the engine they were running down a road shouting, “Come, come, they have a lake, a lake.”
“What about Ada?” I yelled back.
“Ada, Ada, Ada,” Starkman chanted. “She loved to go canoeing, canoeing, canoeing.”
There was nothing to do but follow them. They cut through some thick underbrush and there before us was a charming little lake encircled by light green trees still fresh in the early summer morning. It was only ten o’clock. A fine mist lay on the water. Birds chirped. Paradise.
Two beautifully painted canoes were drawn up on a tiny pebble beach. Shiny azure blue with light grey stripes. Amazingly, Starkman pushed one boat into the water with his cane while Agurski held it long enough for both of them to board. With one enormous stroke Agurski pressed the oars into the shallow water and off they went shimmering toward the opposite shore. They began to sing.
“What about me?” I shouted. Silence.
I thought of taking the second canoe and following them but there were no more oars. So I sat down on the pebbles, feeling the warm sun on my face. I waited and waited. Occasionally I would stand up and wave my arms at the little boat with its two tiny men across the lake. No response.
“Shit, piss, damn. What a waste of time this is.” I felt sorry for myself.
When they got back after more than an hour I was really mad but I held it in.
“You look beautiful standing there on the shore,” Starkman said, handing me a bunch of orange wild flowers. “Remember, we’re old, we don’t have a car, we never go anywhere.”
“Did you and Ada come here?” I asked, letting out some of my pent-up frustration by using a sarcastic tone. “Ada? Oh, yes. We must leave. Livingston Manor closes for visitors about twelve o’clock,” he said, ignoring my implicit accusation.
It was a little after one o’clock when we arrived at Livingston Manor Institute For Psychiatric Rest, a large ornate brick building which probably once had served as a city hall sometime around the turn of the century. The windows were boarded up; the place was deserted. Nettles grew up the sides of the walls. There were dandelions along the edges of the building and there was the strong smell of rot.
“Ada lived here for thirty years?” I asked Starkman looking directly into his eyes.
“It’s not my fault,” he said as if he were annoyed with me. Then he kept repeating, rhetorically, again and again: “How could I be such a fool?”
Agurski comforted him by patting his back and saying: “No way you could know. Mental hospitals are supposed to last forever.”
Mournfully, we drove back to the city and I dropped Starkman off at his West Side apartment. He had been silent the entire way back but as he climbed out of the car, touching his cane against the curb, he half turned to me and whispered, “Ada was a wonderful girl. I lost so much.”
“You’re full of bullshit,” I exploded. “You never had anything to tell me.”
“Such a big mouth,” he shouted back.
“You’re a phoney, a stupid phoney,” I ranted and I felt my heart beat rapidly in disgust and embarrassment.
“You’re all alike, American-raised, no respect. No patience left in the world. Don’t come to see me anymore,” he sputtered into the car window and he turned to limp through the double doors, now manned by a black doorman in an elegant uniform.
Agurski kept shrugging his shoulders as we crossed Central Park. Apparently lost in his own thoughts, he sat next to me saying nothing. As I pulled up to the building on Madison Avenue I could see the brass glint of the sign, “Archives of the Jewish Radical Literary Society.”
“Not everything works out,” he said as he left. “Don’t be sad. There are other writers. You’ll find them.”
I drove around the corner and found a metered parking place on the crowded street. Then I walked to the corner where I bought a two-dollar double chocolate cone at the posh ice cream parlor. I ate it in the overheated car, thinking all the while that I would just forget this article.
But usually I never give up. So I got out of the car and walked back into the Archives, hoping to find Agurski and tell him I’d be willing to interview other people if he knew anyone.
The reading room was empty although the door was open and Agurski’s travelling cap and the remnants of a brown bag lunch lay on the paper-cluttered table. I heard the toilet flush down the hall and then the sound of Agurski’s quick footsteps accompanied by the little clicking sounds made by his snapping fingers. He was shocked to see me.
“No, sit still,” he said as I awkwardly jumped to my feet. “Are you in love with me?” he asked.
“You are very lovable,” I said feeling confused by this misunderstanding and by my own rush of undefinable emotion.
“You want me to rescue you. Find Ada. Write your article. Impossible. I’m too old.”
We sat in silence, weary, staring at one another. And I thought or rather I felt about Ada and how she had rotted in the Livingston Manor—maybe because Joseph loved Clara, or maybe because her one book got a bad review, or maybe because she’d slept with Starkman and he’d bought those paintings I saw on his walls and didn’t pay her enough for them and never gave them the exhibition he promised.
“I don’t want to be like Ada,” I whispered hoarsely.
“You are another generation,” Agurski replied as he shook his head. “In some ways worse, in some ways better. Don’t worry. You’ll never be like her.”
“You know, Agurski, I don’t really want to write about her,” I said, suddenly having the most wonderful sense of freedom. “Ill find another subject.”
He laughed as if I’d made a witty joke. Then he gathered the lunch bag and some books and newspapers from the table and put them into a department store shopping bag. “O.K. I have my Sunday reading material. I must go home,” he said. “Walk with me to the subway.”
“I’U drive you home,” I offered but he shook his head and said he liked to read on the train.
We walked along Madison Avenue in the June heat and turned down Eighty-sixth Street to the long blocks to the subway.
“Ada was just one. There were so many like her,” he said as we shook hands at the entrance to the underground staircase. And he handed me a large heavy envelope. Across the top it said: “Correspondence: Amos Starkman, 1930-1950.”
“Look,” I said Impetuously, “why don’t I write you a love letter?”
“Everybody writes me love letters,” he smiled like a mischievous boy. “You are a real mentsch,” he added. He was about to say something else but thought better of it as he descended into the darkness of the subway.
That night I opened the envelope and found about fifty letters from Ada to Starkman between 1940 and 1950. Bitter letters in which she accused him of seducing and abandoning her. He had taken her paintings and her dreams. He had led her into madness, she told him. There was one poem among the letters. Not her own but an English translation of a sonnet originally written by a Yiddish poet, Fraydel Shtok. Ada had translated the poem and Starkman had written in the margin: “For such a crazy lady it’s not such a bad translation.” The translation read:
You wear your heart within your
always there, to
remind me of
my many sins, that
and already bend your proud
Am I really worth those silent
eyes of yours?
I cried. I cried with my feminist sensibility and some deep part of me knew I could never rescue Ada from that oblivion into which she had been trapped. Then I thought, gratefully, maybe she has rescued me.
Norma Fain Pratt is a Los Angeles college history and humanities professor who also writes short stories and plays.