Finding Emma Lazarus – Barbara Krasner

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The plaque says:

Emma Lazarus
1849-1887
poet, essayist
and humanitarian
lived here
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses
yearning to breathe
free

I am at Number 18 with the approval of the Famous Writer who currently lives here. That’s where the wheeling and dealing came in. I found him through my MFA advisor and Emma’s biographer. I had to convince him to let me into the inner sanctum.

I’ve researched Emma for at least a decade, but my interest in her dates back many much longer than that. She, too, loved books, came from a family of mostly girls. She too was Jewish, wrote.

When an editor asked me in 2005 to write a children’s biography, Emma came to mind. Though a relatively young writer who impacted our national identity, she presented a research challenge. Early books on her insisted on a background she simply did not possess to fill in pages before they addressed her iconic words spoken from the mouth of the Statue of Liberty.

My heart beats as loudly as the hammering jacks on the street. I’m about to step foot into her home, meet my idol. I consider the building itself. Moses Lazarus, Emma’s father, was this Italianate-style townhome’s fifth owner. It was just about thirty years old when he bought it in 1883. It has four stories and a basement. The basement and first floor exteriors are brownstone; the other stories, brick. The floor-to-ceiling windows on the parlor floor match the dimensions of the front door.

Inside, I take a breath. The intake transports me to the nineteenth century, and Emma and her family begin to come to life.

Beyond the great room I spy out of the darkness the fabled two-story mahogany library. My book-collecting father would have loved this. Our whole book-loving, six-member family would have loved this. But what books lined those shelves when she was here? Would I want to read them too?

It’s difficult to tell what the current owners, Famous Writer and his spouse, have added and what was original to the Lazarus home. I suspect the sconce lighting may be added, but the chandelier or at least the placement of one is original. I want to ask questions, but no one is around except the servant staff. It was timed this way. The owners did not want to deal with visitors.

Which room was Emma’s and in which room did she die? I want to hear the rustle of bustles and skirts, the fingers rifling through all those pages. I want to hear the front door slam with news of bargains found along the Mile and the latest literary conversations with the likes of Burroughs and Rose Hawthorne at the Gilder’s Friday night salon. Mostly though, I want to hear the scratching of the pen’s nib on paper with words of that Mother of Exiles.

Despite unanswered questions, this brownstone’s physical space offers me answers to questions I didn’t think of asking. With no escort, I climb to the fourth-floor conservatory, and I sit on the divan looking out into the foliage. Emma could have found comfort, solace, perhaps also inspiration here with this little bit of urban nature. Of course, in her time, the original Andy Warhol would not be hanging on the wall. I don’t know if the elevator existed in the Lazarus home as it does now. An impressive set of Faberge door knobs and the elevator are relatively recent additions as Famous Writer informs me later. I want to believe Moses Lazarus had those door knobs installed, a demonstration of his wealth and his need to impress, that as a Jew he was still worthy of his seats at the Union and Knickerbocker Clubs and cared little for his seat at The Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, the home of Congregation Shearith Israel. I want to believe he had the elevator installed to ease the lives of his children and the household staff. Still, the fact that he bought this large house in this neighborhood is testament to his investment savvy and desire for comfort for his family.

Emma lived here only four years, not like the earlier home at Union Square, which the family vacated when they thought the area was getting too crowded. Her maiden sisters, once bereft of both Moses and Emma, sold 18 W. 10th Street in 1889 and moved to another home on the street.

I do not have free reign in this house. I cannot explore the rooms to let instinct direct me to Emma’s room. But I know somewhere in this house she constructed words that symbolize American immigration. How shrewd Constance Cary Harrison was in 1883 when she advised Emma to think about her Russian-Jewish refugees and what the Statue of Liberty would say to them. Ordinarily, Emma refused to write “to order.” Somewhere in this house she urged herself to get past her own insecurities and give words to the voiceless.

Over the last decade or so, I have been following Emma’s footsteps. I’ve perched on the corner on the “wrong” side of Bellevue in Newport, Rhode Island, where Beeches, the Lazarus “cottage,” once stood. I took in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home in Concord, where she once sat on the marble stairs and watched the Sage of Concord spin his Lazy Waldo in his study. I stalk where she’s been, trying to imagine her skirts brushing along mud, horse manure, and cobblestone, her fingers thick with ink, scribbling away while staring out the window at a cherry tree near Union Square. Emma’s gravesite in Brooklyn is tiny and the sounds of wild dogs haunt the property. I can imagine the funeral procession on a dreary November day in 1887 to what was once a bucolic resting place in Brooklyn.

I have held her handwriting in the reading rooms of Columbia’s Baker Library and Harvard’s Houghton Library. With white gloves, my fingers have traced the black borders of her stationery as she vented her disappointment in a hastily written note to Emerson, the borders signifying the recent death of her mother. I have passed Madison Square Park where she would have seen the disembodied arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty before its attachment to the torso and pedestal. I have studied all that’s been written about her and by her at the New York Public Library and the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati. I have researched some of her more prominent cousins like Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, activist Maude Nathan, and Barnard College founder Annie Nathan Meyer, and novelist Robert Nathan.

I have found shards of Emma in all these places Yet, here in this brownstone, the last place she was alive, the shreds of invited and uninvited conversations weave together. If I listen carefully enough, and shut down my own inner critic, I can hear those rustling skirts and the scratching of the pen’s nib against vellum by candlelight. I can see books piled high on the nightstand. There in the wardrobe are the nightgowns she bought for $1.95 each at A. Straus. Here in this house, I find Emma Lazarus.

 

Barbara holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches creative writing, composition, and history in New Jersey. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Nimrod, The Smart Set, South 85, The Manifest-Station, and elsewhere.

Share