John F. Kennedy Assassinated

On Friday, November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot as he rode in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas, Texas; he died shortly thereafter. The thirty-fifth president was forty-six years old and had served less than three years in office. During that short time, Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, became immensely popular both at home and abroad.

President John F. Kennedy, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front. U.S. Navy photograph, 1961. Prints & Photographs Division.

For the next several days, stunned Americans gathered around their television sets as regular programming yielded to nonstop coverage of the assassination and funeral. From their living rooms they watched Mrs. Kennedy, still wearing her blood-stained suit, return to Washington with the president’s body.

The President’s Car, Carrying the Wounded President John F. Kennedy, Speeds Toward Parkland Hospital. United Press International, Nov. 23, 1963. New York World-Telegram & Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Many witnessed the November 24 murder of Kennedy’s accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Viewers also followed the saddled, but riderless, horse in the funeral cortege from the White House to the U.S. Capitol, where Kennedy lay in state. They saw the president’s young son step forward on his third birthday to salute as his father’s coffin was borne to Arlington National Cemetery.

Robert E. Lee’s Onetime Home, Arlington House, looms above the Kennedy Family Gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, [between 1980 and 2006]. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive. Prints & Photographs Division

Television played a significant role in Americans’ collective mourning. For the first time, the majority of citizens witnessed the ceremonies surrounding the death of a beloved leader, creating a shared experience of the tragedy. Even now, television programming maintains public memory of the assassination by transmitting vivid images from those difficult days to successive generations.

Despite the intimate experience of events surrounding the death of John F. Kennedy, the nation failed to achieve closure. Oswald never confessed, and the facts of the case remain mysterious. The Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald acted alone failed to satisfy the public. In 1976, the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Assassinations reopened the investigation of the murder. The Committee reported that Lee Harvey Oswald probably was part of a conspiracy that may have involved organized crime.

Interest in the assassination remains acute. Congress enacted the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act on October 26, 1992. Signed by President George H. W. Bush, the legislation opened most government records to the public and facilitated use by designating the National Archives and Records Administration sole repository of government files pertaining to the assassination.

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An American Beauty

On November 22, 1880, “Lillian Russell” made her debut at Tony Pastor’s Theatre in New York City. Within weeks, the beautiful blonde added a prominent role in The Pie-Rats of Penn Yann to her stage credits. This spirited travesty of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance made Lillian Russell an instant star. For the next thirty-five years, Russell maintained her position as one of the first ladies of American musical theater.

Born Helen Louise Leonard in 1861, she was “Nellie” to her family—her father, an easygoing newspaperman, her mother, an ambitious social reformer and crusader for women’s rights, and four sisters. Trained in music and foreign languages, in the late 1870s she moved with her mother from Chicago to New York in order to receive advanced voice instruction. Soon, she met Tony Pastor, the vaudeville impresario who transformed the slightly seedy variety format into respectable family entertainment. Having previously only made appearances as a chorus member, Nellie Leonard, with guidance from Pastor, became “Lillian Russell, The English Ballad Singer.” She was seen at Tony Pastor’s by almost everyone in New York—-except her mother.

Lillian Russell, 1861-1922. Falk, c1901. Prints & Photographs Division

“For more than a month I succeeded in appearing in Tony Pastor’s every night, without my mother receiving so much as an inkling of my new occupation. This was easier than it sounds because mother was a busy woman…But one night at dinner I had a sudden premonition that something was wrong. I raised my eyes and found the glance of a newspaperman who lived in the same house…”Mrs. Leonard,” he said, “do you know that there is a girl named Lillian Russell, who sings at Tony Pastor’s Theatre, who looks enough like your little Nellie to be her sister?”

Lillian Russell

Charles W. Stein, ed. American Vaudeville As Seen By Its Contemporaries (New York: Knopf, 1984), 13-14.

Assured that Tony Pastor’s Theatre was “respectable,” Mrs. Leonard accepted the newspaperman’s invitation to see the show and joined in the thunderous applause following her daughter’s performance.

Hearing her sing in The Pie-Rats of Penn Yann, Sir Arthur Sullivan pressured Russell to leave Tony Pastor’s for an equivalent role in the legitimate production. She refused to break her contract with Pastor. By 1888, Russell commanded $20,000 a year headlining the Casino Theatre in New York City. There she took on some of her most acclaimed roles including Gabrielle Dalmont in An American Beauty—a title that became her soubriquet.

Entering her second decade on the stage, Russell was as popular as ever. Touring with the Casino company made Lillian Russell a household name. The turn of the century found Russell older and fuller of figure, though still highly paid and much in demand. In 1899, she moved away from light opera and toward vaudeville by joining Lew Fields and Joe Weber‘s theatrical company. At the Weber and Fields Music Hall, and with their touring company, she starred in productions including Whirl-i-Gig, Hoity-Toity, and Whoop-Dee-Doo.

The Maid of TimbuctooExternal.” Words by J. W. Johnson; music by Bob Cole; New York: Jos. W. Stern & Co., 1903. Representations of Blackness in Music of the United States (1830-1920)External. Brown University Library

Whoop-Dee-Doo starred Russell as a French countess who purchases art for American millionaires. At one point in the play she sings the Johnson and Cole song “The Maid of Timbuctoo.” From 1901 to 1906 poet James Weldon Johnson frequently produced popular songs with composer Bob Cole. Joe Weber and Lew Fields are pictured in the upper corners of the title page of “Maid of Timbuctoo.” Whoop-Dee-Doo was the vaudeville team’s last collaboration for several years.

One of America’s first celebrities, the public was as fascinated with Lillian Russell’s private life as they were enchanted by her stage presence. Although her solid middle-class background and lady-like demeanor helped elevate the social status of entertainers, Russell’s four marriages (one to a bigamist), her rumored affairs with Diamond Jim Brady and the Great Sandow, and her appetite for food and jewelry added to her notoriety.

After marrying prominent Republican Alexander P. Moore in 1912, Russell increasingly focused on politics. She presided over the opening of Progressive Party headquarters in Pittsburgh, sold Liberty Bonds during World War I, and campaigned for Warren Harding in the 1920 election.

Lillian Russell died in 1922 shortly after completing a fact-finding mission to Europe on behalf of President Harding. She was buried with full military honors.

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Clara Lemlich and the Uprising of 20,000

On the evening of November 22, 1909, a young woman named Clara Lemlich rose to address the crowd assembled in the Great Hall of New York City’s Cooper Union.

Clara LemlichExternal. Primary Sources: Photos & Illustrations. In Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory FireExternal. Online Exhibition, 2018. Kheel Center, ILR School at Cornell UniversityExternal

The event was a meeting to consider a general strike among the city’s garment workers, predominantly Jewish immigrants, to protest poor working conditions across the industry. Lemlich, like many in the crowd that night, had listened intently to a succession of male labor leaders giving speeches. Tired of all-male leadership and hours of speeches that fell short on action—and still sporting the bruises of a recent beating she’d received at a smaller strike—Clara Lemlich climbed onto the platform and began to speak in Yiddish:  “I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions… I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared now.” Her straightforward words ignited the crowd, and by the next day, a mass strike among the city’s shirtwaist makers as well. Known as the Uprising of 20,000External, this historic months-long strike involved as many as thirty thousand workers, affected more than 350 garment factories, and earned employees such concessions as a 52-hour work week, four paid holidays a year, and no fees for work-related materials. As importantly, it created new recognition of women’s work and new respect for women’s role within the labor movement.

Samuel Gompers and other political activists and labor leaders addressed Shirtwaist workers at Cooper Union November 22, 1909External. Primary Sources: Photos & Illustrations. In Remembering the 1911 Triangle Factory FireExternal. Online Exhibition, 2018. Kheel Center, ILR School at Cornell UniversityExternal

Born in Gorodok in present-day Ukraine, Clara Lemlich emigrated with her family to New York City as a teenager: Ellis Island Records, where the family’s name is listed as Lumback, show them arriving in December of 1904. Rising antisemitic violence in Eastern Europe led to a mass wave of Jewish immigration to America, starting as early as 1880, peaking around 1907, and effectively ending with the Immigration Act of 1924. In the Lemlich family’s case, the widely-publicized pogrom at Kishinev, where dozens of Jews were brutally killed by an angry mob while authorities stood by, persuaded them to journey to America.

Upon arriving in New York, Lemlich quickly found work in the garment industry. In the 1910 U.S. Census she is listed as a draper, a job that involved skilled work fitting fabric to a dress form.  At the time, the garment industry was the largest employer of Jewish immigrant workers in New York City, divided by trade into dressmakers, cloakmakers, garment cutters, and the like. Shirtwaists, such as those that Lemlich made, were the fashionable women’s blouses of their day, which also came to signal the rise of women in the workforce. Most garment workers  were employed in small factories on the Lower East Side that were operated by middle men in what was originally called the “sweating system”—from which the term sweatshopExternal derives. Long hours and poor working conditions were the norm.

Group in Sweatshop… Lewis Wickes Hine, photographer, February 21, 1908. National Child Labor Committee Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Lemlich’s own union involvement began soon after her arrival. Poor working conditions and low pay in the sweatshops led her to join the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, or ILGWU, where she was elected to the executive board of Local 25, and soon led a number of strikes. Her intellect, strong spirit, and wit quickly paved the way for Lemlich to rise in the ranks of the union. By 1909, she was known to many female workers in the ILGWU, but male labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers were not familiar with Lemlich until after her fateful speech at the Cooper Union meeting.

The tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire of March 25, 1911, brought the issues of workplace reform in sweatshops to  public attention. When fire broke out on the ninth floor of the Asch Building near Washington Square, workers found locked doors, inadequate fire escapes, and fire fighting equipment that couldn’t reach high enough to help them. Many perished from the flames, or from their desperate decision to jump from the windows. The owners of the factory, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, had refused to accept the strike terms presented by the unions in 1909-10. Had they accepted the terms, 146 lives might have been saved. The cruel and unnecessary loss of life further fueled the fight for fair and safe working conditions in the garment industry, which set the stage for the rise and longevity of the ILGWU through much of the twentieth century.

Group of Mainly Female Shirtwaist Workers on Strike… [January 1910]. Bain Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

As years passed and garment manufacturers moved overseas, the ILGWU merged with other unions, forming UNITE in 1995 and finally UNITE HERE in 2004. The ILGWU PapersExternal are now housed at Cornell University’s Kheel CenterExternal, School of Industrial and Labors Relations.

ILGWU Protest Against Apparel Imports. Bernard Gotfryd, photographer, April 1983. Prints & Photographs Division

Clara Lemlich, later Lemlich Shavelson, continued as a committed activist and organizer across a variety of causes, including the high cost of rent for working class families. In the 1930s she organized a meat boycottExternal that led to lower prices in New York, and spread to other cities as well. Among the groups she helped to found was the United Council of Working-Class Women, later the Progressive Women’s Council. She spoke out against nuclear weapons, attending conventions in Paris and Washington, D.C. In her last years, while living at a home for the aged in Los Angeles, she is said to have organized a union for the nurses and orderlies who cared for her. Clara Lemlich Shavelson died in 1982, age 96.

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