Monday, December 5, 2011

Another Mystery Photo: The Giants of American Zionism in the 1920s -- When and Where Were They Sailing?
Actor Douglas Fairbanks Provides the Answer

Three Zionist leaders on a boat. From left: Nathan Strauss, Justice
 Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Stephen Wise.  Where were they
heading? (Bain collection at the Library of Congress)
Ninety years ago, these three men were the most important Zionist leaders in America.  They had close relations with Woodrow Wilson's White House, Britain's Lord Balfour, and Chaim Weizmann, the foremost Zionist leader.  What brought together Nathan Straus, Louis Brandeis and Stephen Wise, and on a boat no less? 

The photo file from the Library of Congress' Bain Collection does not help very much.  We're not even sure of the date. Flipping the photo shows a date of March 7, 1922 and another notation "Wise only December 29, 1925."  A picture of Straus and Brandeis has June 14, 1920 scribbled on it.

So we checked if the three were sailing together to a Zionist Congress in Europe or to Palestine, but it appears that the three did not travel together.  Brandeis, a U.S. Supreme Court justice since 1916, had been to Palestine in 1919 with Weizmann. Rabbi Wise visited Palestine in 1913, 1922 and 1935.  Strauss, the owner of Macy's and Abraham & Straus department stores, was in Palestine in 1912. 

USS North Carolina brought aid
[Straus was connected with other boats.  He was a major contributor to a 1914 special financial aid package sent to the impoverished Jews of Turkish-controlled Palestine. To guarantee delivery, the money was delivered by the American warship, the USS North Carolina.  Straus' brother, Isador, died when the Titanic sank in 1912. Believing that he was saved from being on the ship, Nathan devoted time and resources to Jewish projects in the Holy Land.]

Straus and Brandeis spoke in London in July 1920 to the International Zionist Conference, so perhaps that's why and when they were sailing.  According to the New York Times account, Straus reported at the conference on the health centers and soup kitchens he established in Palestine.  [The town of Netanya and Straus Road in Jerusalem are named for the philanthropist.]

Reports about the 1920 meeting stated that Wise refused to attend, although he had been attending Zionist Congresses since 1898 and worked with Herzl.  Tensions between the American delegation and the European/Palestinian delegation were taking their toll on Wise.

So when was this picture taken of the three men?

The American Palestine Line ship
had a song written for its first
voyage to Palestine. This was not
the ship, apparently
One possibility is that the photo was taken March 7, 1925 during a special cruise off the coast of New Jersey.  It was the "shake out" sailing of a new Jewish-owned passenger ship, the American Palestine Line's SS President Arthur.  The hundred mile cruise could have drawn the American Zionist leadership.  After all, one week later when the ship sailed for Palestine 15,000 people showed up to see it off.  Wise delivered a prayer, and a telegram from Straus was read.  The President Arthur would sail three round-trip voyages that year before the American Palestine Line went bankrupt.
Pickford, the new bride

Incredibly, actors Douglas Fairbanks and his wife Mary Pickford provide the answer when and why Straus and Brandeis were on board. 
The Library of Congress collection includes pictures of the famous actors, a movie mogul Hiram Abrams, and presidential advisor E.M. House all on board the same boat in 1920.  Ms. Pickford is holding a bouquet of flowers, like a new bride.
From left: Movie mogul Abrams, Mary
Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Pickford's
mother. Abrams and the actors had
created "United Artists" in 1919.


Pres. Wilson's advisor,
E. M. House
Indeed, Fairbanks and Pickford were embarking on their honeymoon to England.  "On June 12 [1920], they left New York on the Red Star cruise liner Lapland for a much-delayed honeymoon in Europe. As reported in the New York Times: 'Arriving in London, the pair were ‘mobbed’ to such an extent that they had to spend one week-end at Lord Northcliffes’ place in the Isle of Thanet.'"

But what of Wise?  According to his biographer, "He declined to join the American delegation to the Zionist conference that summer, and tried to warn Brandeis that Weizmann planned to undermine American influence..." 

We must conclude that Wise came to the dock to wish bon voyage to his Zionist colleagues and then got off the boat.

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