New Podcast Episode: Margaret Sanger in the San Francisco Bay Area, California

Scottish Rite Temple mosaic, above the doorway of what’s now the Regency Center, San Francisco

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Fairly early on in my research for my history of ideas series on Margaret Sanger in New York City, I discover that she delivered one of her more famous addresses here in Oakland. Practically just around the corner from where I live, in fact!

So I’ve long had the idea of doing a follow-up Sanger project here in the San Francisco Bay Area, certain I’d find she’s been here more than once. That turns out to be the case. And not only do I discover that she visited here several times, I find that the excellent library at the University of California at Berkeley has some great resources for filling in some gaps in my information about Sanger in NYC. So, this story will have two parts: the first part is about sites associated with Sanger here, and the second part is about some discoveries I make in U.C. Berkeley’s archives following up on two NYC sites… Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Margaret Sanger in the San Francisco Bay Area, California

Scottish Rite Masonic Temple mosaic, above the doorway of what’s now the Regency Center, San Francisco

Fairly early on in my research for my history of ideas series on Margaret Sanger in New York City, I discover that she delivered one of her more famous addresses here in Oakland. Practically just around the corner from where I live, in fact!

So I’ve long had the idea of doing a follow-up Sanger project here in the San Francisco Bay Area, certain I’d find she’s been here more than once. That turns out to be the case. And not only do I discover that she visited here several times, I find that the excellent library at the University of California at Berkeley has some great resources for filling in some gaps in my information about Sanger in NYC. So, this story will have two parts: the first part is about sites associated with Sanger here, and the second part is about some discoveries I make in U.C. Berkeley’s archives following up on two NYC sites.

Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, now the Regency Center, at Sutter and Van Ness in San Francisco, CA

Stairway and elevator at the Regency Center, formerly the Scottish Rite Temple at Sutter and Van Ness, San Francisco

I: Sanger in Oakland and San Francisco

Friday, March 31st, 2017

I head first to San Francisco, a quick and easy trip on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit System, our subway/ell) across the Bay, and take a pleasant walk on this spring day from Montgomery Street station east, first along Post through Union Square, then on Sutter. December 16th, 1928, Sanger spoke at the Scottish Rite Hall in San Francisco, at Sutter and Van Ness. The Scottish Rite Masonic Temple moved into its new quarters in the early 1960’s, and this building became the Regency Center, a multi-purpose venue. In fact, I was here just a few years ago when I saw John Cale, one of my very favorite musical artists of all time, perform in the ballroom, but Sanger likely spoke in the Social Hall. It’s also likely she delivered more or less the same speech she delivered at Oakland Civic Auditorium three days later, the story of that speech will follow below. Perhaps the speeches and corrections she scribbled onto the speech, which I link to here, constitute the differences between her addresses at the San Francisco and Oakland venues.

Small upper room in the Scottish Rite Temple, now the Regency Center, San Francisco

I write to people who manage and organize events at the Regency Center but am unable to line up a day to meet soon that will work with all of our schedules.

But since I have this free afternoon on a glorious spring day, I head over anyway, in case I luck out and end up there at a good time. Turns out, the very helpful man I find here, who’s in charge of setting up events, regretfully tells me there’s just too much going on for me to head upstairs and poke around to the rooms where she may have spoken; various contemporary sources designate the venue as the Scottish Rite ‘Hall’ and ‘Auditorium’, so the exact site is unclear. So I take photos in the places he allows me to wander: the hallway, the main stairway, and a meeting room just off the main landing now converted into a small bar.

About 22 years earlier, in August of 1916, Sanger wrote to her friends Charles and Bessie Drysdale, ‘In San Francisco [on a birth control lecture tour] I had a collapse, and was three days in bed under medical care, but recovered sufficiently to hold six meetings.’ As you may recall, Sanger suffered from recurrent tubercular infections, and from time to time they made her quite ill and exhausted. I have yet to find a record of specific locations she visited or stayed in San Francisco on that trip. Sanger didn’t mention her time in Oakland in this letter, though she may have meant to include the greater Bay Area when she said ‘San Francisco’, as visitors often do. Since she delivered her Oakland speech only three days after this San Francisco tour, this may have been one of the six meetings she spoke of.

So I return to Oakland to follow in Sanger’s footsteps there.

Margaret Sanger Hotel Oakland appearance, Oakland Tribune, Thu Jun 15, 1916, evening edition, front page. For the full article, click here. The drawing looks nothing like Sanger, and what’s up with the silhouette of celery? Yes, I know it’s meant to be a vase…

Hotel Oakland Ballroom, vintage postcard via Hotel Oakland Village website

On June 15, 1916, Sanger gave a speech in the ballroom of the Hotel Oakland at 270 13th St. I don’t find a transcript of this speech, but I do find a newspaper article about this event, which includes a summary of its main points as well as a review. The speech was well received by the audience, according to Gene Baker, writing for the Oakland Tribune. He compared Sanger favorably to Emma Goldman, Sanger’s one-time friend and ally from whom, truth be told, Sanger co-opted the mantle of birth control advocate-in-chief. As Baker commented in his article, Sanger was much more traditionally ‘feminine’ than Goldman in appearance, ‘slight’ and prettily dressed. Sanger was both a committed sex-positivist and a straight woman and saw no contradictions between her feminist convictions and in making herself attractive to men. Baker also described Sanger as speaking with intensity (which indicates she was feeling better since her collapse in San Francisco) and with scientific coldness. Perhaps she did convey a sense of scientific detachment, given her habit of buttressing her calls for action with a barrage of facts and statistics, or perhaps he perceived her keen grasp of the issues and her memory for detail as unfeminine and therefore ‘cold.’

Baker also wrote of her outspoken opposition to Theodore Roosevelt’s beliefs about childbearing in this speech; she frequently published rebukes and rebuttals to the President’s public stances against birth control and in favor of large families. (Baker mentioned that she spoke out against Roosevelt in San Francisco as well.) Both Sanger and Roosevelt were eugenicists but of different types: Sanger believed in negative eugenics, in curing human ills through having less children, especially if the parents were ill, disabled, or too poor to bring up well-nourished, well-educated, and well-housed children, and Roosevelt believed in positive eugenics, improving the human race through intelligent and hardworking people having as many children as possible.

Hotel Oakland, now Hotel Oakland Village senior citizen community


Hotel Oakland Village main lounge, Oakland, CA

Hotel Oakland, vintage postcard via Hotel Oakland Village website

Hotel Oakland Historical Plaque, Oakland, CA

The Hotel Oakland, which opened as a luxury hotel on December 23rd, 1912, is now a senior community residence. Its grand edifice is little changed, but its garden is no longer so sumptuous and much of its interior is much plainer, having been stripped of its chandeliers and fancy furniture and painted plain white, though the lounge ceiling is painted a lovely antique-gold color. I sign in at the desk and walk around the first floor, greeting each person I see with a hello, a smile, and a nod, everyone is friendly and welcoming, and no one questions my presence. I take photos freely on the ground floor except in the large back room converted into an activity and physical therapy area, which, it so happens, appears to be the former ballroom I seek. I ask the person who works there if I may take pictures; she’s a Spanish speaker, and I ask in that language (unforgivably clumsily, given that I’m a California native and I should be more adept) if I may take pictures. She explains that the person that could authorize this won’t be back in until Monday, so I depart. As much as I am historically nosy, I make it my practice never to infringe on the territory of working people. They have enough to worry about without wondering if they could get in trouble on my behalf.

I do, however, take photos of the front lobby, in full view of everyone there who appears not the least concerned with my presence except to return my smile when they happen to catch my eye. Most of the residents are Chinese. This is no surprise since the Hotel Oakland Village, as it’s now named, borders Chinatown, and like the neighborhood in general, it is family-oriented, with visitors of all ages coming and going, often taking the elderly residents for local outings, such infirmities as they have lovingly supported by wheelchairs, walkers, arms, and hands. The parks in this neighborhood often contain large groups, sometimes very large, of older people going through the graceful, slow, deliberate movements of Tai Chi. It’s likely they include many of the residents of this hotel. The sight of these people, something like colorful wildflowers waving in the wind, something like windmills if windmills were endowed with personalities, intention, and rich history and could move deliberately to music, warms my heart on my morning walks.

Oakland’s Chinatown at the time of the Hotel Oakland’s heyday; many of these old houses stand today. This photo is on the wall of the Oakland Hotel Village main hallway

Margaret Sanger Speeches, Announcement for Oakland and S.F, in the Oakland Tribune, Sun Dec 16, 1928

Margaret Sanger Speeches, Announcement for Oakland and S.F, in the Oakland Tribune, Sun Dec 16, 1928

Next, I visit the Oakland Civic Auditorium, later called the Kaiser Convention Center, also just a few blocks from my house, near Lake Merritt. On December 19th, 1928, Sanger delivered the speech ‘The Necessity for Birth Control‘ here. It was a least as dedicated to eugenics-based arguments about the ill effects of ‘feeble-minded’, ill, disabled, and poor people having children to whom they passed down these traits and which they could not care for properly, as it was about preventing suffering.

The eugenics arguments and opinions she used in this speech are hard to take now, just as they were for many then. Yet to be fair to Sanger, we must remember that her arguments were informed by her experiences working as a visiting nurse in the slums where the poorest of the working poor lived in NYC, where the best efforts of public charities often seemed to hardly make a dent in relieving suffering, especially when, as Sanger believed, so much of it was preventable:

In her speech, Sanger said:

To define Birth Control, we say it is the conscious control of the birth-rate by scientific means that prevent the conception of human life. Prevent, remember. Prevent does not mean to interfere. It does not mean to destroy. There is no more interference with life through birth control than there is to remain unmarried or to live a celibate life. We also say “to control.” Control does not mean that you limit. When you control your furnace you do not have to put the fire out. When you control your motor you do not necessarily stop your car. To control the birth rate means that there shall be the same right for those who do not wish to have children as for those who do wish to have them. There are no objections to those who wish to increase the size of their families, but on the other side there seems to be a great deal of question and controversy as to the right of those who wish to limit or control the number of their children. ~ Margaret Sanger, ‘The Necessity for Birth Control’

Booklet for the Oakland Civic Auditorium and Opera House, now Kaiser Convention Center, Oakland Public Library

Oakland Civic Auditorium as it appears today

The Oakland Civic Auditorium had stood for 14 years when Sanger spoke here in 1928 and she had become very well known indeed in the dozen intervening years since she spoke at the Hotel Oakland. The Auditorium is a huge venue, as we can see in historical photos: it held Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Barnum and Bailey circus, symphony orchestras, and other large-scale entertainments. The history of this place is wonderful, with so many other amazing activists, artists, speakers, and performers appearing here over the years: Isadora Duncan, Duke Ellington, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King, Jr, the Grateful Dead… It’s no longer in use, standing empty since just before the turn of this century, but I hope this beautiful Beaux-Arts edifice is reclaimed, restored, and put to as good a use as it once was.

Buffalo Bill Wild West Show at the Oakland Civic Auditorium, photo from booklet at Oakland Public Library

II: More About Sanger in NYC at U.C. Berkeley’s Doe Memorial Library

Research & photos: gathered on various dates from November 2016 to March 2017

And now, here’s my follow-up on two sites associated with Sanger in NYC:

Margaret Sanger Letter to Noah Slee on Barclay Hotel Stationery, excerpt, from the Sophia Smith Microfilm Collection

From Day 1, Part 3‘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 finally get around to tracking down the microfilm collection, stored deep in the archives at the Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley, with the assistance of the ever- kind and helpful Nancy Oanh Tran. In looking through the microfilms of documents dated around the time of Sanger’s stay at the Barclay Hotel, I find a phone message for Sanger and many chatty letters to her husband Noah Slee written on Barclay Hotel stationery. The letters discussed visits to and from friends, a visit from her son Grant, how much less pleasant it was to drive a car in New York City than in Tucson, how disorganized she was, and so on. Most of the contents of these letters are of little interest to anyone outside of their relationship, their circle of friends, and of course, dedicated historians, except, I think, for one thing: she begs him not to join her in New York City, and not to ask her to leave her work there yet. In her second marriage, she demanded the freedom she wanted that she did not find enough of in her first, and she got it through endearments, compliments, even sappiness, so that Noah would feel loved and not abandoned; through cajoling; through explanations and arguments about the importance of her work and her need to do it unimpeded; and even through what reads to me like a guilt trip.

o I American Eugenics Society journal, Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley

From Day 2, Part 2: ‘According to Robin Pokorski’s Mapping Margaret Sanger, ‘The Hotel Astor was the site of the National Birth Control Conference of November 19 and 20, 1929. The conference was sponsored by the American Birth Control League.’ I find few contemporary references online to the talks and attendees of this conference other than a few remarks in some contemporary newspapers and a brief excerpt from Eugenics: A Journal of Race Betterment, Volumes 3-4, 1930, published by the American Eugenics Society. An article from The Capital Times of Madison, Wisconsin outlines some of the topics of discussion, such as the Comstock laws and the current science of reproduction, and lists some of the headliners of the conference, which include ‘famous educators, doctors, and pastors.’ ‘

In doing further research, I find there’s a copy of the American Eugenics Society journal also in the collections of U.C. Berkeley’s Doe Memorial Library.

Mary Louise Inman, who wrote an account of and commentary on the meeting for the Eugenics Journal, wrote:

‘Most of our adult generation can remember when [the birth control movement] was chiefly characterized by determined looking ladies selling The Birth Control Review on metropolitan street corners, Margaret Sanger being held up for her propaganda, and a general feeling in the lay breast that the whole thing was not quite respectable.

Here we see before our eyes the evolution of an idea. That the movement has undergone a decided moral, social, and intellectual transformation is evidenced by the presence on the speaker’s platform of some of our foremost religious leaders, together with eminent writers, physicians, educators and scientists, as well as other professional and non-professional men and women of the highest social standing.’ ~ Inman, Eugenics, Jan 3oth ed, p 12

As I read further, I take notes. They go:

National Birth Control article for Eugenics journal by Mary Inman, 1930

‘In his speech, one Dr. E. Bord Barrett, a former Jesuit and still a practicing Catholic, held out hope that the Church would be flexible and adaptable on the birth control issue. He was a believer in the social benefits of birth control, and based his hope on the fact that so many Catholics used birth control, that Church-mandated celibacy for priests and others indicated that the Church recognized it was not always in the best interests of individuals and communities for everyone to have children, and that the Church blessed marriages of couples who could not have children.

Dr. Hannah Stone, director of the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau and Sanger’s long-time colleague who was arrested in the raids on the W. 15th Street clinic, was among the speakers, but her talk was not recorded or described in Inman’s article.

Ministers and rabbis voiced their support for birth control on humanitarian and personal responsibility grounds.

The second day of the conference was dedicated to issues related to eugenics. They discussed the questions of whether it was desirable to ‘breed geniuses at will’, if it could be done at all; who would be qualified to decide what are ‘desirable’ human traits and types beyond those which impart health and the ability to take care of ones’ self; whether ‘spiritual values’ should be brought to bear on the issues, and much more.

Albert Edward Wiggam, worried that birth control might exacerbate a differential birth rate between those who are prudent, far-sighted, intelligent and self-controlled enough to be more likely to use birth control, and those who conceive and bear children thoughtlessly. He believed these traits were largely transmissible, predicting the likely behavior of the next generation. To counteract this problem, Wiggam believed that birth control needed to be universally and readily available as well as easy to use.’

Margaret Sanger, from Eugenics journal, Doe Memorial Library at U.C. Berkeley

The article ends by noting that Margaret Sanger could not attend the conference, which surprises me! Instead, she sent a telegram which was read to the attendees since her attendance was sorely missed given her role as a founder of the movement and the most important activist of her time for women’s rights, since the suffragists. Inman predicted that birth control would become as readily accepted in society as women’s right to vote, however controversial its past. She was mostly right. Though many Americans are uncomfortable with publicly funding birth control since we believe so firmly in the right to religious dissent, most Americans actually do use birth control, at least at some point in their lives. And as Sanger hoped, it has become readily available, easy to use, mostly every cheap, and all very safe. And she played a very significant role in bringing this about.

Thank you, Margaret Sanger.

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Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and Inspiration:

Duchsherer, Aimee. ‘Better Babies or More Babies?: Theodore Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and the Birth Control Movement‘. July 16, 2015, Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickenson State University blog.

The Hotel Oakland Village website: ‘History: Grand Hotel‘ and ‘Historical Photos

Inman, Mary Louise. ‘The National Birth Control Conference’ from Eugenics: A Journal of Race Betterment, Volumes 3-4, January 1930, pp 12-17.

Kaiser Convention Center‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

The Margaret Sanger Papers Electronic Edition: Margaret Sanger and The Woman Rebel, 1914-1916, eds. Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo and Peter Engelman (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 1999)

The Margaret Sanger Papers Microfilm Edition: Smith College Collection, eds. Esther Katz, Cathy Moran Hajo, Peter Engelman, and Anke Vass Hubbard, 1996. #Microfilm 77685 , S15:0042. Reel S15: May 1938 – Nov 1938

Brochure for the Kaiser Center, one the old Oakland Civic Auditorium, Oakland Library collection


‘The Regency Ballroom: About‘, from their website

The Regency Center‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Regency Center: Venue Overview: History‘, from their website

Sanger, Margaret. ‘A “Birth Control” Lecture Tour‘, Aug 9, 1916. Published article: Malthusian, Sept. 1916, 83-84. (Sanger’s letter to Charles and Bessie Drysdale published as an article)

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Necessity for Birth Control,’ Dec 19, 1928. Typed Draft Speech. Source: Margaret Sanger Papers, Library of Congress, Library of Congress Microfilm 130:0226

Social Hall SF: Venue Info‘, from their website (part of the Regency Center)

Tillmany, Jack. ‘Regency I: 1320 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94109‘. Cinema Treasures website

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 1 Part 3

roosevelt-hotel-exterior-view-manhattan-nyc-photo-by-amy-cools-2016Tuesday, October 18th, 2016, continued

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.

Roosevelt Hotel Lobby view

Roosevelt Hotel central lobby

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.

Theodore Roosevelt, American President and yes, a eugenicist too

Bas-relief sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt, ‘The Long Long Trail’, at the Roosevelt Hotel

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.


The Barclay Hotel, Manhattan, NYC, where Margaret Sanger stayed several times in 1938 and 1939

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.


Barclay Hotel lobby, Manhattan NYC

242 E. 49th St, between 3rd and 2nd Ave’s, Turtle Bay Gardens

242 E. 49th St, between 3rd and 2nd Ave’s, Turtle Bay Gardens. Note the turtles in the ironwork at either side of the gate

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.

Row which includes 242 E. 49th St

Turtle Bay Historic District row houses, including 242 E. 49th St. Behind these handsome brownstones is a lush, private urban garden, which you can see here.


242 E. 49th St at Turtle Bay Gardens, Manhattan

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!

Front entrance of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Ave at E. 50th St, Manhattan, NYC

Front entrance of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Ave at E. 50th St, Manhattan, NYC

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.

The front lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria. I snapped this photo in a brief moment between the stream of guests elegantly attired to attend some special event

The front lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria. I snapped this photo in a brief moment between the stream of guests elegantly attired to attend some special event

The Waldorf-Astoria on Park Ave at E. 50th St, Manhattan, NYC

Looking back on the Waldorf-Astoria in the early evening light

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.

The Ambassador Hotel once stood where this plain office building does now, across E. 51st from St. Bart's at Park Ave.

The Ambassador Hotel once stood where this plain office building does now, across E. 51st from St. Bart’s at Park Ave.


1921-1923 G.W. Bromley Atlas of the City of New York, Plate 78, showing location of Ambassador Hotel

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.

Ambassador Hotel, Park Ave, New York City midcentury advertisement

Ambassador Hotel ad; you can see St Bart’s in the foreground and to the right

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.

485 Madison Ave, NYC

485 Madison Ave, NYC, former home of CBS and recording studio for WABC (not the same WABC that exists today)

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 Rockefeller Center courtyard in the evening

The Rockefeller Center's glowing lobby

The Rockefeller Center’s glowing lobby

The Rockefeller Center's central escalator

The Rockefeller Center’s central escalator

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.


Memorandum of the conversation between Margaret Sanger and Arthur Packard, click to read the whole thing

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!

New York City rising above the Rockefeller Center's skating rink on a fall evening

New York City rising above the Rockefeller Center’s skating rink on a fall evening

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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

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 78. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

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.