July 22, 1849 – Emma Lazarus:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’
Lazarus was an American writer of poetry and prose. She wrote the sonnet The New Colossus in 1883. Its lines appear inscribed on a bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, installed in 1903, a decade and a half after Lazarus left this wicked world.
In the summer of 1986, on the occasion of the Statue of Liberty’s 100th birthday, I appeared in a production at Seattle’s Bathhouse Theatre of the 1949 Irving Berlin musical, Miss Liberty, about the sculpting of the Statue of Liberty, then named Liberty Enlightening The World. I swear, they will make a musical out of anything. I played a singing Joseph Pulitzer and a tap-dancing train. The last stanza of Lazarus’s sonnet was set to music by Berlin as the song Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.
During World War II, playwright Robert Sherwood had been so deeply moved when he saw what the Statue of Liberty meant to American GIs who were being shipped overseas, and he wanted to write a story about this symbol of freedom. While crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary with 15,000 recruits, Sherwood was “greatly impressed by the emotion that sight of the statue generated among these soldiers”. Upon meeting Irving Berlin in England, he invited him to compose the score. The Broadway production opened on July 15, 1949 and closed on April 8, 1950, after 308 performances. Miss Liberty was directed by a gay man, Moss Hart and choreographed by a gay guy, Jerome Robbins. It was a bit creaky and old fashioned even in 1949, but as always with Berlin, the tunes are terrific.
Okay, back to that poem and the statute: Besides a writer of poetry, Lazarus was a lesbian, a socialist and a political activist.
Lazarus embraced in her Jewish ancestry when she heard of the Russian pogroms that followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Because of this anti-Semitic violence, and the poor standard of living in Russia in general, thousands of destitute Jews emigrated from Russia Pale to New York City. Lazarus advocated on behalf of the homeless Jewish immigrants. She helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute in NYC, providing job training to help the destitute Jewish immigrants to become self-supporting. In 1883, she founded the Society for the Improvement and Colonization of East European Jews. A forerunner of the 20th centrury Zionist Movement, Lazarus argued for the creation of a Jewish homeland 13 years before the to use the term “Zionism”.
So, back to her famous poem and the beautiful Lady of the Harbor who lights the way for all those immigrants that we welcome to our prosperous nation. We love immigrants, right?
Did the USA need a French statue, especially one of colossal proportions? So, I know this because of appearing in the Irving Berlin musical: the visionary French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi (1834 – 1904) thought that it did. If it weren’t for Bartholdi and his generous nature and creative idealism, there would be no Statue of Liberty. Nor would there be the The New Colossus poem by Lazarus that is engraved on the statue’s pedestal.
In 1865, Bartholdi conceived of a gigantic statue to be given as a gift to the United States of America for its upcoming centennial. As Bartholdi saw it, the French would fund the building of the statue and the Americans would fund the pedestal on which it would stand. Bartholdi even visited NYC in 1871 and found what he considered the perfect spot to display his monument: Bedloe’s Island, at the beginning of New York Harbor.
Many Americans, including many members of Congress, weren’t so sure that we needed some big French statue and didn’t feel like we should be paying for its pedestal. In 1883, Congress voted down an attempt to provide $100,000 toward the construction of the pedestal; New York state also said not to the money. This infuriated Joseph Pulitzer, who, along with his newspaper the New York World‘s star reporter Nellie Bly, were ultimately were successful in getting the words of Lazarus’s poem onto the statue’s pedestal.
Pulitzer, a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant, was disgusted by the selfishness of the American public and tried to raise money to build the pedestal through his newspaper. Pulitzer’s fundraising simultaneously helped to build readership for the The New York World, whose few thousand readers had grown to 100,000 by the time the statue was safely ensconced on Bedloe’s (now Liberty) Island in 1886. His efforts included a competition in which important poets contributed a poem about the statue and the liberty it symbolized.
One of those poets was Lazarus. Her work against antisemitism aroused the anger of powerful men who would do anything to those who tried to interfere with their plans.
Lazarus was born in New York City, part of a large Jewish family. She was the fourth of seven children of a wealthy Jewish merchant. One of her great-grandfathers on the Lazarus side was from Germany; the rest of her family were originally from Portugal but had resided in New York long before the American Revolution, among the original 23 Portuguese Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam fleeing the Inquisition.
Privately educated by tutors, she studied American and British literature, and became fluent in German, French, and Italian. She was attracted to poetry as a kid, writing her first sonnets when 11-years-old.
Lazarus also drew the ire of her four sisters, who disapproved of her Zionism and her crusade on behalf of Jewish immigrants, whom they considered to be inferior. After Lazarus’s early death, they tried to keep some of her poems, including The New Colossus from being published.
Interestingly, when Lazarus was asked to contribute a poem to the statue fund, she at first refused, explaining that she didn’t write commemorative poems. Yet, when she thought about the mistreatment of immigrants, she changed her mind, and composed The New Colossus, whose lines would become forever entwined with the statue and would be read by more people than any other American poem.
Lazarus died under mysterious circumstances in 1887, at 38-years-old. Many reports say she was taken by cancer, but others raise the possibility that she was poisoned, done in for her pro-immigrant stance.
A choked up Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, lamented the day after President Wiggy-Piggy issued his executive order on immigration:
Tears are running down the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty tonight, a grand tradition of America, welcoming immigrants, that has existed since America was founded has been stomped upon. My daughter’s middle-name is Emma, after Emma Lazarus, the great poet who wrote ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free’.
Her home on West 10th Street is included in the Women’s Rights Historic Sites. In 2009, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She was the subject of a large exhibit at The Museum of Jewish Heritage in 2012. She should be on the second generation of $20 bills after Harriet Tubman; like that is ever going to happen.