I continue north to the Roosevelt Hotel at Madison Ave and E. 45th Street. Margaret Sanger attended the Conference on Contraceptive Research and Clinical Practice that met here on December 29th and 30th, 1936. She delivered a welcoming speech on the 29th and spoke on a panel the next day which discussed technical and medical birth control issues. While The New York Times reported optimistically on the effectiveness of birth control methods available at the time and Sanger spoke proudly of the ‘56,000 women who have voluntarily appealed to us for help’, she and many of the attendees knew that the lack of access to and effectiveness of birth control remained big problems. It was still fairly expensive; anti-obscenity laws were barriers to access and information in those pre-Griswold years; and too many of the methods were only moderately effective since they were not always easy to use correctly, especially in well, you know, the heat of the moment.
But despite these problems, Sanger had reasons to be optimistic: the birth control movement had seen some successes in the twenty years since the raid of her first clinic in 1916. One of the most important was the recent decision in United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries (what a name!) in which the United States Court of Appeals upheld the decision of a lower court from earlier that year regarding a shipment of birth control devices that U.S. Customs had confiscated under the Comstock laws, which prohibited sending ‘obscene’ items through the mail. Sanger had ordered a case of unusually shaped diaphragms from Japan and requested that U.S. Customs forward them to her friend and colleague Dr. Hannah Stone. The circumstances of this shipment, between two physicians and across state lines, was arranged by Sanger and her lawyer Morris Ernst to create a test case to try and defeat the old Comstock laws. As they hoped, the Courts decided that obscenity laws, which had been broadly applied to prevent dissemination of information about contraception and the distribution of contraception devices themselves, could not be applied to the legitimate practice of medicine. But the birth control movement had a long way to go: would take three more decades before the Supreme Court weighed in on the issue of birth control, specifically.
Speaking of Roosevelt, for whom this hotel was named (I assume, based on a sculpture of him prominently displayed in an upper lobby): Theodore Roosevelt was very much opposed to birth control. He feared that the very people who should be having the most children, the most talented, intelligent, and well educated, the healthiest and the wealthiest, were the very ones who were having fewer than ever. He believed the falling birth rate could lead to what he called ‘race suicide’, and opposed any and all methods that would facilitate this trend. Though Sanger and Roosevelt both believed in eugenics principles, their conclusions were very different when it came to population issues and the right to reproductive self-determination. I explore the differences in their views which led to their different conclusions in an earlier essay I wrote as part of this series. Sanger publicly and vigorously opposed Roosevelt’s public positions on birth control and the population question. In Sanger’s article ‘Birth Control: Margaret Sanger’s Reply to Theodore Roosevelt‘, published in The Metropolitan Magazine in December of 1917, she described why she believed his views were shortsighted and ill-informed.
I zigzag northeast to the Barclay Hotel at 111 E. 48th Street, between Park and Lexington Aves. According to Robin Pokorski of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, ‘Sanger stayed at the Barclay Hotel in April and May 1938, and again in January 1939.’
I track down a listing in the Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collection Series catalog for a microfilm of a letter Sanger received from the Barclay hotel, but I don’t have access to it at the moment. It’s not available online and I’ve not yet had a chance to visit the library at the University of California at Berkeley, which has a copy. I’ll update this account if I find anything interesting in the letter when I do get over there, and if I come across any other interesting details relating to her stay here in my continued research. In the meantime, I’ll continue with my story so I can publish it in good time.
I continue on a few blocks away, heading east, to 242 E. 49th St, between 3rd and 2nd Aves, to a brownstone at Turtle Bay Gardens. Sanger founded the American Birth Control League here at her friend Juliet Barrett Rublee’s home in 1921. Rublee, the wealthy wife of an influential lawyer, enthusiastically devoted her time and money to supporting feminist, humanitarian, and artistic causes. She’s a fascinating character, an activist, a nurse, a filmmaker, and an adventurer, whose exciting lifestyle was very well funded by her enormous fortune, leaving plenty of money to lavish on such projects as Sanger’s pamphlet Family Limitation and magazine The Birth Control Review, first published in February of 1917. Rublee took an active interest in Sanger’s work since Sanger was arrested for opening her birth control clinic in 1916 and they remained the closest of friends for the rest of their lives, dying only a few months apart. They wrote to each other often in intimate and detailed letters, many of which each kept although they marked them ‘destroy upon reading’. The Margaret Sanger Papers Project describes their correspondence as among the resources that reveal most about Sanger’s inner life. As with any public figure, especially one as controversial and embattled as Sanger, it can be difficult to get past the persona, the defensive walls they feel the need to construct.
Turtle Bay Gardens Historic District stands on what once was a bay of the East River, where ships harbored, country farmhouses stood, and Edgar Allan Poe used to go diving off the rocks. The bay was gradually filled in, and the once-thriving and handsome industrial district with its breweries, mills, and carpentry shops turned into a squalid, overcrowded district packed with cheap tenements, slaughterhouses, and run-down warehouses. One part of this neighborhood was destroyed in the riots that followed the establishment of a Civil War draft conscription office here in 1863.
When Sanger established the American Birth Control League at Rublee’s Turtle Bay home in 1921, it would have very recently been renovated and turned into a place of beauty and luxury. Another wealthy heiress, Charlotte Martin, bought this and an adjoining row of rundown brownstones in 1919 and thoroughly remodeled them, with a lush garden (complete with a copy of a fountain from Rome’s Villa Medici in the center) inspired by the European gardens she had fallen in love with during her travels, to create a haven of elegance and refuge in this what was then out-of-the-way, unfashionably too-far-east neighborhood of Manhattan. And by the way, as I just discovered, one of my favorite musical artists, Bob Dylan, used to live here at #242 as well!
I backtrack on 49th and turn right to 301 Park Ave, to the Waldorf Astoria between 49th & 50th Streets. There are three occasions in the life of Sanger which bring me here.
On January 5th, 1917, Sanger participated in one of the many debates on birth control she would take part in over the years. I’ll soon visit another site where she participated in a well-publicized debate four years later; I’ve found the text of it published online where I can share it with you, so I’ll wait to discuss her debate topics and style then.
Over fourteen years later, on October 23, 1931, Sanger addressed the attendees of a dinner honoring H.G. Wells, an important influence, long-time friend, and occasional lover. Wells shared many of her views on economics and eugenics, as well as her abiding concern that too many children were born into families and communities that didn’t have the capabilities to feed and care for them properly, leading to needless suffering and death. Wells’ article ‘The Needless Waste of Human Lives’ was published in the first edition of Sanger’s Birth Control Review, which described the plight of children born into poverty and privation only to be soon forced into labor in the most heart-wrenching terms this literary star could summon. Wells supported Sanger’s work in many other ways, both personal and public, some of which she described and thanked him for in her address that night. One of the ways Wells supported Sanger was by adding his influential name to an appeal to President Woodrow Wilson to get the many indictments which had piled up against her dropped. Most importantly, however, it was the enduring friendship with this famed man of like mind which propped up her confidence and spirits throughout the years until his death in 1946.
On May 11th, 1961, the Waldorf Astoria also hosted a World Tribute dinner for Margaret Sanger, organized as a fundraiser by the World Population Emergency Campaign and chaired by the renowned evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley. It was Sanger’s last public appearance since by that time she had developed heart disease, and while the alcohol and Demerol she treated her pain with may have helped in that regard, she was often tired, confused, and emotionally volatile. The senility which would incapacitate her within a few short years may have been starting to set in as well. But she was delighted at the invitation, and she rallied what strength she could to get to New York, assisted by her younger son Stuart, and briefly deliver her thanks. Even this was too much, and she nodded off her in her chair shortly afterward. Sanger would live five and a half more years, four of those in a nursing home, dying just before her eighty-eighth birthday. She enjoyed intermittent bouts of lucidity until her last year of life and appeared to understand the significance of the Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 when she was given the news. ‘It’s about time’, she said. It seemed as obvious to her as it does to most of us today that people had a right to privacy in their sexual relationships, yet the Comstockism she had fought for so long proved tenacious in American law and culture.
My next stop is the northwest corner of 51st St. and Park Ave. According to plate 78 of G.W. Bromley’s 1921-1923 Atlas of the City of New York, the Ambassador Hotel used to stand at Park Ave and across 51st St. from St. Bart’s, as the beautiful 1835 St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church is commonly known. There’s a nondescript office highrise here now.
The Ambassador Hotel was linked to Sanger in two ways. One, she stayed here on several occasions in late 1936 after she returned from her trip to India. While there, she toured the country and discussed and debated population and poverty issues, law, women’s rights, and birth control with Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi opposed artificial means of birth control. He shared the Catholic Church’s position that sex without the possibility of procreation is a form of animal lust unworthy of a spiritual being. He believed that human respect, understanding, and true spiritual connection were incompatible with carnal desire. However, he did believe in the right of women to control their own bodies insofar as they should never be coerced into having sex and that they had full rights of refusal, for any reason, within marriage as well as without. Sanger strongly disagreed with some of his views: she believed that sexual union could be as spiritually transcendent as it was pleasurable, one of the most beautiful, intimate, and powerful ways in which human beings connect with one another. And she believed that when partners were forced to refuse sex to one another for fear of having children, it undermined harmony and romance between couples, thereby breaking up marriages and destroying families. I recommend reading her debate with Gandhi published in Asia magazine, which not held in public but fortunately preserved because her secretary Florence Rose had the presence of mind to record in shorthand. I’ll further explore Sanger’s ideas about sex, love, and interpersonal spirituality in an essay I plan to publish before long.
Secondly, the Ambassador Hotel was also the site of a special joint meeting of the American Birth Control League and the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control following the December 7th, 1936 United States Court of Appeals ruling in the One Package case I discuss at the beginning of this piece. In this decision, Appellate Judge Augustus Noble Hand (again, what a name!) upheld Judge Grover M. Moscowitz’s decision from earlier that year, which prohibited the government from interfering with mail from doctors sending medical devices and information. This case seriously undermined the Comstock laws and was an important moment in extracting, isolating, and describing the right to privacy, implied but never specified in the Constitution, in American jurisprudence.
I head next to 485 Madison Avenue, between 52nd and 51st St, to the former Columbia Broadcasting System offices where WABC radio broadcasts were recorded. The founder of CBS, William S. Paley, had taken over as president of the tiny radio network United Independent Broadcasters founded in Chicago in early 1927. The savvy Paley quickly put the newly expanded media operation, which he bought the majority share of and renamed CBS, on firm financial footing, good enough to move to new, sleek 485 Madison Avenue in New York City in 1929. He wanted his new company to be where the action was, well situated for success. CBS stayed here until it moved into its own specially designed building in 1965.
Sanger recorded a radio broadcast here on birth control, on April 11, 1935, which was distributed to many radio stations throughout the country. In it, she outlined her basic arguments in favor of birth control which we’ve already considered (the benefits to women’s and children’s health, the right to reproductive self-determination, and so on) as well as her incredulity that the United States was now the only advanced country to legally prohibit birth control on obscenity grounds, in defiance of what she perceived as a preponderance of medical opinion in its favor. (In reality, the science of reproduction was still at a very early stage and there was far less of a medical consensus that birth control is safe, effective, and on the whole, medically beneficial for women as there is today.) She also announced plans for a petition directly to the second President Roosevelt, who she hoped would be much more progressive in this matter than the first one was. Sanger had a good reason for these hopes: Eleanor Roosevelt was also a long time supporter of the right to free access to medically approved forms of birth control. However, once Roosevelt’s husband Franklin became president, she felt could no longer publicly state her views on this issue. When asked, Roosevelt would neither oppose nor support the issue, stating simply that she refused to discuss it. Sanger understood and didn’t much blame the First Lady for making that choice. Like Sanger, Roosevelt was a strong woman who spent her days working hard on behalf of progressive causes, and like Sanger, she was willing to compromise and choose her battles when she felt it was necessary.
The last site I visit for the day is the Rockefeller Center at 5th Ave and 50th St, another of New York City’s grand edifices I’ve been wanting to see. According to Pokorski, Sanger met with John D. Rockfeller, Jr’s aide Arthur Packard at Rockefeller Center in October of 1936. The Rockefeller Center is handsome outside, breathtaking inside. It glows even brighter, more golden and coppery and gemlike than the inside of the Chrysler Building. My camera doesn’t do justice to what I’m seeing since it has such difficulties in low light, but it does capture its amber-like quality.
I track down a memorandum of a conversation between Sanger and Packard dated Oct 9th, 1936, so I assume this memorandum discusses that meeting. One of Packard’s primary duties was to help select projects that the wealthy philanthropist Rockefeller might wish to fund.
A humanitarian and progressive, Rockefeller was interested in Sanger’s work and helped fund many of her projects over the years. In this case, Sanger and Packard were discussing a new form of sponge-and-spermicidal-foam birth control that Sanger had become aware of through Dr. Lydia DeVilbiss (which Packard amusingly misspelled as ‘Devilbus’) of Florida, who had been prescribing it to her patients. In addition to the further research on this method Sanger wanted to help fund, they discussed the One Package case, and Sanger’s increasing doubts about some of the long-term ramifications of the case as it was being argued. As you may recall, Sanger, Ernst, and Dr. Stone had arranged the circumstances that led to this test case purposefully so that it would be argued largely as a case about the right to practice medicine, since it involved devices shipped from doctor to doctor. However, Sanger was growing more concerned that this would focus too much on the rights of medical practitioners to make decisions in these matters and not enough on the rights of the women themselves. Perhaps the fact that it took another thirty years for the Supreme Court to base their decision in a major birth control case on the right to privacy, and hence to self-determination, is enough to demonstrate that Sanger’s fears were well-grounded.
It’s dark now, a beautiful balmy night, so I end my day’s Sanger explorations and just wander freely a bit before I head back for dinner. I still have three more days to go, stay tuned!
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Sources and Inspiration:
‘242 East 49th Street‘. Douglas Elliman Real Estate website
‘About Sanger: Biographical Sketch‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.
Arredondo, Isabel. ‘Juliet Barrett Rublee‘. Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University
Barbanel, Josh. ‘Turtle Bay Gardens House on Market for Second Time Since 1961‘, Wall Street Journal July 15, 2013
‘Birth Control Aid Received By 56,000‘, New York Times, Dec. 30, 1936, p. 10, via The Margaret Sanger Papers Project
‘CBS‘. From Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, retrieved from Wikiwand
Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992
‘Documenting a Friendship‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #3 (Fall 1992)
Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.
‘Griswold v. Connecticut‘, Oyez. Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech, n.d. Nov 3, 2016
‘History of Turtle Bay‘, Turtle Bay Association website
‘John D. Rockefeller, Jr.‘ Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
‘Juliet Barrett Rublee Papers, 1917-1955: Biographical Note‘. Five College Archives & Manuscript Collections: Sophia Smith Collection
‘Margaret Sanger and Eleanor Roosevelt – The Burden of Public Life‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #11 (Winter 1995)
‘Packard, Arthur W., 1901-1953: Biographical Information‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU, Editor’ Notes
Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.‘ Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.
Sanger, Margaret. ‘Birth Control: Margaret Sanger’s Reply to Theodore Roosevelt,’ The Metropolitan Magazine, Dec. 1917, pp. 66-67 .
Sanger, Margaret. ‘Conference on Contraceptive Research and Clinical Practice Welcoming Speech Notes‘, Dec 29, 1936. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress Microfilm, 128:0262
Sanger, Margaret. ‘Family Planning: A Radio Talk By Margaret Sanger Columbia Broadcasting System‘, Station W.A.B.C., New York, April 11, 1935, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU
Sanger, Margaret ‘Gandhi and Mrs. Sanger Debate Birth Control,’ Recorded by Florence Rose, published in Asia magazine, Vol. 26, no. 11, Nov. 1936, pp. 698-702
Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938
Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013
Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & CompanyZorea Ph.D., Birth Control
‘Tracing One Package — The Case that Legalized Birth Control‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #59 (Winter 2011)
Wells, H.G. ‘The Needless Waste of Little Lives‘. The Birth Control Review, February, 1917
Zorea, Aharon W. Birth Control. 2012, Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, Ltd.