To Fight for the Poor With My Pen
Zoe Anderson Norris, Queen of Bohemia
The writer Zoe Anderson Norris (1860–1914) fell into poverty while documenting the lives of the impoverished. She has fascinated me since 2018, when I first saw an issue of her bimonthly magazine, The East Side (1909–1914), in the American periodicals collection of Grolier Club member Dr. Steven Lomazow. Her goal: “to fight for the poor with my pen.”
From her “literary sanctum” apartment on Manhattan’s East 15th Street, she called for reforms to help immigrants, mainly Italians and Eastern European Jews. She pitied and admired newly minted Americans (like my own Ukrainian grandparents), navigating trash-piled streets and adapting stairwells into pickle stands. While reminiscing about her childhood in rural Kentucky and two bad marriages, she raged against evils that persist: sexual predators terrifying victims into silence, deadbeat fathers, corrupt police harassing peddlers. She wrote every East Side word, drawing readers as prominent as the philosopher Elbert Hubbard, yet barely making ends meet. She gave herself all masthead titles: bootblack, circulation liar, bricklayer, and “the whole shebang.”
She sometimes reported undercover, dressed as a beggar, to see how passersby and philanthropists treated her—the elevator pitch for my Zoe biography in progress is “the Nellie Bly you’ve never heard of.” (I call her Zoe, by the way, since that’s what she called herself. Her relatives tell me it is pronounced to rhyme with foe, not zo-ee.)
Subscribers ($1 per year) could join her intentionally disorganized group, the Ragged Edge Klub. They held weekly restaurant dinners and mastered new dances, like the Airship Quadrille and Banana Peel Slide. Known as the Queen of Bohemia, Zoe used a wine bottle as a scepter to grant aristocratic titles. She transformed the Klub’s writers, artists, performers, reformers, scoundrels, and crackpots into the likes of the Prince of McPike (the Missouri-born cigar dealer Jack H. McPike) or Countess Ella Bosworth of Brooklyn (a respectable leader of women’s clubs).
My Zoe biography is provisionally titled Queen of Bohemia Predicts Own Death, quoting headlines on her obituaries. The East Side’s last issue described Zoe’s recent dream that she would soon head to “the undiscovered country” and detailed her ideal funeral program. She mailed it out, dined with Ragged Edgers, collapsed, and died of heart failure. After hundreds of newspapers reported on her accurate premonition, she fell into undeserved obscurity.
My 29 East Side issues—with die-cut covers, Art Nouveau typefaces and sketches by William Oberhardt (later renowned for Time magazine covers)—are the only complete run known to survive in private hands. I own dozens of other periodicals featuring her work; inscribed copies of her autobiographical novels—former owners include her relatives and Ragged Edgers; ragtime sheet music composed or performed by Klub members; and dinnerware from Klub hangouts.
Zoe typed tirelessly about “wrongs that should be righted,” amid crumbling tenements and skyscrapers “flashing back the fire of the sun.” She was brave and foolhardy, trying to change the world. Her masthead’s longest job title: “If You Want to See What She Is, Start Something.”