Liza’s notorious mother
Hattie Glass shivered that brisk October in 1917 as she strode defiantly down Fifth Avenue with the hundreds of other women that had taken on the title of Suffragette.
But she did not shiver from the cold, but from excitement, a new energy running through her like a bolt of lightning. She was finally part of a movement that would change the world, something that she had ached for years, but had been too young to participate in.
Two years earlier, she had watched the parade from the side lines, aching to break free of a rigid German family and join them, but too terrified to defy a father she had already come to despise.
But she had gobbled up every bit of news she could find in the papers, especially the reports she had heard from England, where the movement had been much less tame – radical women taking radical actions, while women in New York had for the most part duplicated the male political model, largely to get ignored by both male-controlled political parties, which did not want to give the vote to women or put up such obstacles that it might prove impossible to ever get it.
As a small girl, she remembered the political organizing that had taken place in every borough, floats filled with women, flags or balloons, clutches of women walking from door to door in hopes of getting support from practical immigrant families – whose paternal masters were as dead set against women’s rights as her own father was.
She laughing over what her father might have been thinking, that stern German who saw no place for women in the world other than bed mates and glorified maids. Hattie despised him for the way he treated her mother, but also despised her mother for not standing up to him. As a young girl, Hattie had waited out the years for her coming of age the way a prisoner counted down days to the end of a jail sentence. All she wanted to do was flick the dust of her father’s house off her shoulders – especially after that last parade in 1915 when women marched down this very street, bearing posters filled with the million signatures of women demanding to have access to vote.
She didn’t wait out the full sentence, but fled her father’s house at age 17 to make her own way in the world, although she had no clear idea yet as to what she would be, tinkering with the idea of becoming an artist of some sort.
But by then, the world had already changed – things stirring outside the borders, revolutions taking place in remoter parts of the planet, even back in those portions of Europe that came precariously together as a confusing nation some called Germany.
Thinkers had emerged from that place that were making people free, she thought, stirring up revolutions even in places as backward as Russia.
She ached to be there. She ached to kick up the dust of her father’s world the way she had the dust of his house.
And 1917 was a magical year as news reached her from Russia where the revolution had finally come – after a few false starts.
And this with an imperialist war waging through Europe, she was in a position to begin the revolution here, through the women’s movement, and the peace movement, and whatever else it took.
Each step she took today was a step for revolution here in America, she thought, strutting even more boldly, knowing that she was doing her part to change America the way the Soviets had Russia, while at the same time, knowing that the women’s movement was at the heart of the peace movement determine to stop people from killing other people over control of world resources.
She also knew that women were winning their fight, at least when it came to the vote, even when men like her father still resisted them in Washington. Progressive places like New York had already given women the right to vote. But it was not enough, it would never be enough until the federal government passed a constitutional amendment, writing it into stone that could not be easily undone by some future bigot and would not allow pockets of resistance in backward states in the south and the west, who simply did not respect women enough to let them vote on any government.
Barely 18 by the time of the 1917 march, Hattie felt the power of her new position flow through her as she held up her placard in defiance against the thin crowds that lined the sides of the posh shopping district.
“It had been larger two years ago,” she thought, but then pushed that out of her mind to enjoy her taste of freedom.
As a young girl, Hattie had seen the early push to get the vote, the galas and the floats, the door to door canvassing that made her father furious enough to slam the door, a campaign that included cars and wagons featuring barbers’ poles or shamrocks, and petition drives, rallies that drew mockery from most men instead of support.
None of that had really excited Hattie.
Maybe it seemed like too much of the same and to no purpose, since men weren’t moved to take women seriously no matter how hard they worked or how well they imitated men’s politics.
It all recalled for her those Caroline Native Americas who looked and acted like their white counter parts, but the moment Andrew Jackson became president, they were forced to leave their homes and take to the trail of tears so that real whites could take over the land they vacated.
While some men claimed they supported a woman’s right to vote, none seemed willing to take a stand – especially Congress and the White House, both telling women they ought to win state approvals first, and in some states, such as New York, they did, but some states simply refused to budget, no many how many floats or parades women presented.
Things were different in England where women refused to be ignored, when the parliament ignored petitions and floats, women protested, and Hattie wondered why American women were so tame and thought that they might never get the vote if they kept on as they were.
And then came Alice Paul.
She changed everything, especially the way women made their positions know, and Hattie could no longer hold back regardless of what her father said. If he objected and tried to keep her in the house, she snuck out, if not quite brave enough to actually marsh in at age 15 in the 1915 march, then she got involved in other ways, working behind the scenes at the Martha Washington Hotel which had served as the headquarters for the movement in New York for several years.
She did everything possible to get close to the woman she adored, and more than anything, she wanted to be just like Mary Paul, and over time, became boulder.
The first time she got arrested for protesting, she felt ashamed under the wrath of her father’s glare, but that changed, too, and after a while, she ceased caring about what her father thought or said, she intended to become a liberated woman just like Mary Paul.
Indeed, after the 1917 march in New York City, Hattie followed Mary Paul wherever she went, and this eventually led to Washington, D.C. and the gates of the White House, where Mary Paul and others set up a permanent encampment at the gate, yelling each time President Wilson came or went, getting more bold when all he did was tip his hat.
Eventually, Hattie was arrested, and though she didn’t spend seven months in jail the way Mary Paul did, she did conduct a hunger strike. When Wilson was reelected, Hattie joined Mary Paul in a crowd of about 5,000 to disrupted his inauguration.
Federal troops responded, partly because the crowd wanted to lynch the suffragists – but it resulted in national attention, and soon Mary Paul paid regular visits on the White House until Wilson gave in.
There was more truth to the comparison of Liza Minnelli and Liza Williams than would be evident at first glance, partly because Liza Minnelli and her mother, Judy Garland, were internationally famous, while Liza Williams and her mother, infamous.
For years I had to hear from older radicals about how our generation of the New Left didn’t stack up to the left that had fought the good fight earlier in the century.
Nothing in our generation ever stood up in comparison. Our war wasn’t as significant as their war, our music didn’t stack up to theirs, our writers, poets and politics just didn’t have the stuff the generation of the Great Depression had.
Liza Williams like Liza Minnelli changed her name, perhaps not to escape the notoriety of her prominent parent, but certainly to find her own identity.
In many ways, the old left and the new left mirrored each other, and were so similar in many ways that it is hard to tell them apart after so many decades.
Both involved vast protests against a right wing establishment, both suffered significant backlash from an extreme right wing that found giving power to the people too terrifying a concept.
And in many ways, Hattie Glass Lehrman would become an icon of revolution the kind of which would have stood out in the much more media savvy 1960s than she did in the relative obscurity of the 1920s through 1950s when she did most of her protesting.
Hattie was a radical in her teens, growing up at the culmination of the women’s right to vote movement and the glorious Russian Revolution (so many people had hoped for), and came into her early 1920s as a liberated woman, a revolutionary determined to do for the American proletariat what the Russian Revolution had done for the serfs.
A lot of this may have had to do with her father, who was old school German who lorded over her mother. She was not going to let any man do that to her.
She would do what she wanted when she wanted, and let the rest of them be damned.
Which is probably why she hooked up with Katherine and Herman Scoskinki when they arrived in the United States in 1923, and may explain why she went to Europe a year later, seeking out the roots of what was to become a naturalist movement that had started in the aftermath of World War I.
But is difficult to say exactly at what point, Hattie became a nudist.
Her mentors Katherine and Herman Shoshinki arrived in the United States in 1923 from Germany where they had seen similar camps after the end of the war, and sought similar camps here, where they encountered Kurt Barthel, who was advertisting for Germans to help form a groupand eventually evolved into the American League for Physical Culture, which organized its first nudist event in a wooded area outside of New York – most likely New Jersey – in 1929.
Hattie may have encountered the same German roots during her trip to Europe in 1924, since her internary took her into Germany as well as England and France.
She set sail on the Mauretania on July 2, 1924 – luxurious cruise ship that had set the record for transatlantic crossings for 20 years, though had served as a hospital ship during the war, and delayed being returned to commercial service by a fire. While being repaired, the ship was converted from coal burning to oil – and a trial run showed it needed other repairs. Hattie boarded at Pier 54 in New York City after it had been restored to its previous speeds
She returned on the RMS Saxonia, which set sail from Southampton on Sept. 6 and reached New York on Sept. 16, stopping at Queenstown, near Cork, to pick up Irish passengers. Like almost all ocean liners of the day, the Saxonia had luxurious accommodations for first class passengers, and comfortable rooms for those in second class.
Like everything else about Hattie, even this simple trip had an air of mystery, since the ship’s manifest said she lived at 1806 E. 7th Street in Brooklyn, while her pass port said she lived at 251 Boulevard, in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey – near where several nudists camps would later set up operations, suggesting that she may have already been engaged in the practice even prior to the official establishment of the Westchester County farm by the League of Physical Culture for summer camps. This group leased gymnasiums and pools in New York in the winter.
New York had anti-nudity laws so that America’s first officials nudist camp was established at Sky Farm, just off Route 206 in New Jersey in May 1932. The Rock Lodge Club opened in Stockholm. In 1933, two more camps opened in lower New York State, not far from the farm Alexander and Hatti owned.
By the end of the decade, just prior to the collapse of the Stock Market, Hattie had hooked up with Kurt Barthel and the American League for Physical Culture and took part on its nudist event hear New York City.
In her recollections of her growing up on their farm in New York State, Liza never mentioned her mother’s nudist efforts, although she clearly took part of them in farms leased by the group until the state outlawed them and the group moved south into New Jersey years later.
As a revolutionary, Hattie was something of a hothead, and was arrested more than once, including for actions she took at the Union Square protests on March 6, 1930 when an estimated 100,000 people. She and her companions carried placards that protested the forceful evictions of people without jobs, and demanded that the city allow the unemployed to reside in public buildings. When the protest became violent, she was in the midst of it, and later hauled off to jail in chains.
Hattie would take a lead role in organizing the communist clubs that sprung up throughout New York City in the 1930s, and would become one of the leading advocates for supporting the Lincoln Brigade and its combat mission against the Fascist --- in Spain. A supporter of Trotsky, Hattie would later travel to Mexico in the mid-1930s to the enclave of Trotsky supporters that still resided there
Just when and where Hattie and Alexander met would be pure speculation. The 1930 census claims that Alex and Hattie married at some point around 1924 or 1925. His record claiming that he was 28 when he married and she was 23 or about five to six years earlier. This means they met and supposedly married at some point shortly after she returned from Europe.
Liza suggests that they were not married when she was born, and that was in September 1928, but that they did marry at some point afterwards.
Census records have known to be wrong, especially in dealing with free spirits like Alex and Hattie, who might have claimed they were married when they were merely living together.
Records show that they were at least living together leading up to the summer of 1927 when they took a trip to europe as Alex and Hattie Lehrman, it seems logical to believe that they were married at that point, and possibly on their honeymoon.
As this account will show, Liza often distorted facts in an effort to build her own mythology. And since Hattie had no trouble traveling under her maiden name in 1924, it seems logical that she would continue to keep it for the trip in 1927 if she hadn’t married.
While there is no solid evidence as to exactly when they left, records suggest that they left on the R.M.S. Tuscania, which sailed from New York to London via Plymouth and Le Havre in June 1927. The ship was commanded by Captain Robert Smart.
Liza Williams, like Liza Minnelli, had to find a way to get out from under the shadow of her notorious mother. But she could not do what many other children of radicals did, switching sides the way many of the kids of the Great Depression did, trading non-conformity for conformity, and protest for ultra patriotism.
Liza could not have known it at the time when she wandered away from home in the mid-1940s that she would brush shoulders with an even more significant revolution, and that the New Left would not only take the social and political revolutions of the 1920s and 1930s to the next level, but would create reverberations that would change the world long after the Russian Revolution faded away – and that Liza would be apart of some of the more significant moments of that new revolution.