Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Miseries of Mrs. Marcantonio

An Internet search cannot produce a single photograph of her. The traces of Miriam Sanders Marcantonio across the digital landscape are faint and lead only to her death.

Such was the fate of a woman whose husband's ample legacy was systematically erased from the country's historical memory.

Although images of Vito Marcantonio's wife are hard to come by, we can begin to form one through her presence in the public record, the same place her husband still looms large, through research and memoir.

Scholastic works on Mrs. Marcantonio characterize her as a New England blue blood.

She was from Ossippee, in central New Hampshire, close to the Maine state line. The Ossippee Indians were one of the twelve Algonquin tribes. The town has history as an “Indian stockade fort” that evolved into the most prominent of its kind regionally. It is settled on rocky terrain, suitable for farming the hardier stuffs, and a regional source of gravel and sand.

Ossippee has been the birthplace of John Lovewell, a famous Indian killer; Republican Rep. Earl Merrow; and Dale Bozzio, lead singer of the 1980s new wave band, Missing Persons.

A ship bearing the town's name participated in the federal subjugation of confederate Mobile, Alabama during the Civil War.

Miriam Marcantonio, nee Sanders, was actually born in Sommerville, Mass., on March 3, 1891 to Charles and Clara Sanders. The Sanders name appears in the list of “early Ossippee families” maintained by the city.

In “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician,” author Gerald Meyer wrote that, for Sanders, Marcantonio “was the apotheosis of what she hoped could emerge, with assistance from Haarlem House and herself, from the immigrant community.”

For the East Harlem Italian, Meyer continued, “Sanders represented an unknown America, almost another country, but a country he truly loved and wanted to be a part of... More than anyone else, Sanders introduced Marcantonio to the manners and ways of the world outside East Harlem, knowledge without which he might never have achieved national prominence.”

Alan Schaffer, author of “Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress,” wrote of Sanders: “Devoid of luxurious tastes, thrifty in both person and speech, a devout believer in the social responsibility of her Protestant faith, Miss Sanders had been educated at New Hampshire University and had studied social work at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy. She did social work in Boston for a short period; then her work brought her to New York City, Haarlem House, and Vito Marcantonio.”

Marc worked in the adult education department at the venerable settlement house.

In “East Harlem Remembered,” author Christopher Bell recounts how, “It was a case of opposites attracting, for Sanders, eleven years his senior and five inches taller, was a Protestant who fell in love with the short, wiry Catholic Vito Marcantonio. They married in 1925, the same year he earned his law degree.”

In Salvatore LaGumina's “Vito Marcantonio: The Peoples' Politician,” Sanders is described as, “A social worker in the truest sense of word... a product of classic New England Puritan background, she continued to remain a staid, hermetically sealed woman, outwardly cold in appearance, but inwardly possessing a warmth impressive to close friends.”

LaGumina observed that Marc's single-minded dedication to his district meant that family life suffered.

Sanders, he said, accompanied her husband to Washington in the first few years of his congressional run, but eventually stayed home, “reconciled with her role; at least her friends never heard her complain which was in keeping with her traditional New England modesty.”

In his essay, “When Frank Sinatra Came to Italian Harlem,” Meyer noted that Sanders was among 17 “well-chosen people,” community prominenti, convened when violence between African-American and Italian students threatened the very existence of the community's emblematic Benjamin Franklin High School.

In the same piece, Meyer noted that Miriam Sanders was the “head worker” of Harlem House, and one of the local community directors of the East Harlem League for Unity, an organization formed in 1943 for the purpose of developing, “better understanding among nationality and racial groups.”

In “Spanish Harlem: Anatomy of Poverty,” Patrica Cayo Sexton described a moral invasion of local streets by Anglo-Protestant reformers such as Sanders.

“The white Protestant hegemony,” Cayo Sexton wrote in 1965, “has added, among other things, a certain sanitariness to the political and social life of East Harlem. Their presence may help familiarize the poor with this essential middle-class virtue, for the middle class is nothing if not clean and tidy.”

The sarcasm appears intended, but the virtue or lack thereon of Anglo-Protestant reformers in East Harlem is raised merely to demonstrate how Sanders was not an odd duck out of water, but part of something integral to the neighborhood.

These are all helpful historical data pinning the personality of Miriam Sanders Marcantonio in space, time, class, work and love.

But an interview with civil rights activist Virginia Durr adds pathos to her story and reminds us that, as we work to recall and revel in Marcantonio's exploits, he is ultimately a tragic figure, his “flaw” being that he represented his constituents too well.

“His wife was a perfectly lovely woman,” Durr told the Oral Histories of the American South Project, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“[S]he and I got to be great friends and I used to stay with them up in New York. We'd have such a good time because I'd go up to beg money you know for the poll tax or something. We would go out... and we would eat in these little Italian restaurants where the clothes were hanging overhead – the laundry was out – marvelous food, really delicious Italian food. But everybody knew him and he was very popular and everybody would come and speak to him. And they liked her very much. And then they would have the most marvelous breakfast in the mornings – of Italian sausages and they were a very happy couple... They loved each other and seemed to have a great respect for each other.”

There is no shortage of observers who believe the persistent and ruthless efforts to oust Marcantonio from his congressional seat killed him in the process.

When Marc died a few years after his electoral defeat, he left a yawning gap in the lives of thousands who depended upon him for practical help, legal or political advice, and inspiration.

We might expect his wife's subsequent sufferings to be great and they were, for simply too much was lost with this one man.
There was no money. “Oh, no, he just gave it away,” said Durr. “Well you see they [congressmen] didn't make but about $10,000. And he was very generous; he gave money away and helped people out.”

Durr noted that Miriam ended up living with both Marcantonio's mother Angiola, and his brother who was mentally disabled, but had been kept in the comfort of family surroundings. With Vito's death his sibling was institutionalized.


Durr accompanied Sanders to visit Marc's grave and deemed the outing, “the most painful morning I ever spent, because his old mother went with us and oh my Lord, she just went into hysterics and tore her hair and screamed and cried and threw herself on the grave. It was awful.

“Finally she had to send her to a Catholic home,” Durr recalled, “because she cried all the time, just wept, wept, wept, and wailed and when she wasn't crying she was praying – both for the son that had been sent to the retarded institution and the son that had died and not been buried in consecrated ground or hadn't been given the last rites. She was either crying all the time or praying all the time.”

Durr refers above to the fact the Catholic Church barred their cemeteries to Marcantonio's body.


“Oh and what a hell of a time did she have after he died, because she couldn't get a job, you see, that was when McCarthyism was in full flight,” Durr remembered. “Miriam didn't live very long after that. She he had an awful rough time. She worked in the Bellevue Hospital, some job under a false name.”


Sanders' “New York Times” obituary, under the lean headline, “Mrs. Marcantonio, Legislator's Wife,” informs that she died on April 9, 1965 at Sanger's Home for Chronic Patients Inc., 500 W. 57th Street. She was 74 years old and listed her residence as 196 ½ Westville Avenue, Danbury, Conn.


The uncredited clip said she was “a professional social worker” and director of Haarlem House until her retirement in 1953 [the year Marcantonio died].

On Sept. 15, 1954, in the wake of her husband's sudden departure, Sanders Marcantonio wrote a letter to W.E.B. DuBois.

It is probably one of many she penned with the same goal in mind, and we reproduce it here as a rare example of her own discrete voice in expression:

Dear Friend,

I know that as a friend and co-worker of Marc's, you must be giving earnest thought to what we can most fittingly do now, so that the great meaning of his life lives on.

I want to talk over with you and among Marc's other colleagues some tentative ideas and proposals towards this end.

Will you kindly be at the Vito Marcantonio Political Association. 247 East 116th Street, New York City, on Wednesday September 22 at 8 p.m.?

I look forward to seeing you there.

Sincerely yours,

Miriam S. Marcantonio

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this---I always wanted to know more about her---I can still see her I remember her at Haarlem House as lovely and gentle--tall and thin and always wearing tweed suits---she gave my father (Pete Pascale) an inscribed copy of "I Vote My Conscience" (inscription was "To Pete who was with us" which we had for years on the book shelf until my father in a generous mood must have loaned it to someone he was telling about Marc. I was heartbroken to lose that link to her--I wept when I saw her tombstone next to Marc---as I remember her gentleness

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