Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Modest Stein's Storied Past, and Why You Should Avoid Public Toilets in Pittsburgh

Right now I’m reading SASHA AND EMMA: THE ANARCHIST ODYSSEY OF ALEXANDER BERKMAN AND EMMA GOLDMAN by Paul and Karen Avrich. I never thought I’d be reading the biography of two early 20th century anarchists, but there is a twist: one of their closest friends in the early years was Modest Stein, who was one of the finest of pulp artists and "the" cover artist for LOVE STORY MAGAZINE.

David Saunder's web site Field Guide to Wild American Pulp Artists was the first place where I learned of Stein's background. SASHA AND EMMA has more information on Modest than any other source that I have found to date. It's also an excellent biography of Goldman and Berkman. The book was started by famous anarchist biographer Paul Avrich, but he passed away before he could finish. Before he died, he asked his daughter Karen to finish the work, and she has done a stellar job of it.

Stein, whose birth name was Modska Aronstam, was Sasha Berkman’s cousin. Prior to 1900, the three of them lived together and, for a time, Stein and Goldman were lovers. Emma, who was a champion of liberated sex to say the least, had more lovers than I could keep track of, so whether or not she and Modska had a significant relationship is doubtful. Still, she "liked his wavy brown hair, fair complexion, neat mustache, and eyes that held a 'dreamy expression.'" She continued to be intimate with Sasha as well.

Modska was part of Berkman's very elaborate plan to assassinate Carnegie Steel's Chairman of the Board Henry Clay Frick in 1892. Frick, who was known for his brutal tactics in breaking a strike at a steel plant in Homestead, had become the poster child of unfettered power and opression to Berkman. The plan was for Berkman to travel to Pittsburgh and shoot Frick in his office. If his plan failed, Modska would follow the next day and blow up Frick's house with dynamite. It took about six weeks of planning and raising the money to do the job, but Berkman, who was a determined and severe young man, was set on cleaning the planet of what he considered to be the scum of the capitalist world.

Berkman managed to enter Frick's office. There the steel magnate was sitting with a subordinate, a Mr. Leishman. Berkman fired two shots, the first grazing Frick's ear lobe and lodged under his right shoulder blade. The second hit him on the right side of the neck and embedded itself below his left shoulder. (Apparently Berkman's preparations for the act did not include target practice.) Frick collapsed, but Leishman grabbed Berkman and tried to wrestle him to the floor. Then Frick, amazingly, got up and tackled Berkman and brought all of them to the floor in a heap. Frick continued to fight, even after Berkman pulled a dagger and began to stab him. Finally, the commotion drew people into the office, and Berkman was subdued and arrested. Frick survived.

Modska dutifully arrived in Pittsburg two days later to finish the job. Unbeknownst to him, the police had been investigating, tracing Berkman's steps and through connections, learning the name of Modska Aronstam. They found out he was on his way to finish the job. And of course the press picked up the story, but screwed up the name of the suspect perpretrator-to-be. Upon his arrival in Pittsburg, Modska saw a headline:


Modska, startled and panicked, immediately discarded his dynamite in a nearby outhouse, and fled the city.

In an interview with Paul Avrich, Modska's grandson recalled: "Years later, he told me that if I should ever visit Pittsburgh, I should watch out where I took a shit, because somewhere there was twenty pounds of dynamite under a toilet."

Berkman served fourteen years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement. Most of those in the anarchist movement disapproved of Berkman's actions. Many of them were against violence in any form, and Berkman's actions, along with being against their principles, shredded whatever good will they had in the public's mind, which wasn't much to begin with.

Aronstam eventually drifted away from the anarchist movement. Art had always been his first and most important passion; he lived to draw and paint. I think it's safe to say that once he distanced himself from the movement and focused on his art, his career really took off. He was so careful about keeping himself out of the papers that he eventually changed his name to Modest Stein. He did go to Europe in 1935 and met with his former colleagues, and continued to support Emma in various ways, but as for complete support, he was finished.

This photo is from 1942, with Daisy dropping in on Modest as he works on a cover.

SASHA AND EMMA has some terrific photos of Modest as a young man, but they belong to the Avrich's collection and unless I get permission to use them, I won't.

I can only say I'm glad that Modest stopped to read a newspaper headline that day in 1892.

If you want more examples of Stein's work, go to my earlier post here.

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Walker Martin said...

Thanks for mentioning this book. I'll have to get a copy since I buy anything about the pulps and the artists.

I once owned a Modest Stein cover painting that was used on CAVALIER in 1913. I collect vintage paperbacks also and a fellow collector stumbled across the painting in an antique store. He bought it for a few dollars, recognizing that it was a pulp cover and traded it to me for 4 Jim Thompson original paperbacks.

I eventually traded it for another painting but for many years it hung in my bedroom.

Cap'n Bob said...

You always lead me down unexplored trails, Laurie, and I profit greatly from the journey.

Barry Traylor said...

Emma Goldman sounded like quite a character. Young people today who think they invented sex should read this book.