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Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson Hardcover – January 8, 2013
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*Starred Review* By virtue of her marriage to artist and activist Paul Robeson, Eslanda Cardozo Goode Robeson lived a life far beyond the restrictions placed on black women of her era. But she was much more than Mrs. Paul Robeson; she was an accomplished, independent woman with a drive and personality that complemented her husband’s and added to the complexities of their marriage. Black-history scholar Ransby draws on the Robeson family archives to present a portrait of a woman who grew to exercise her hunger for global travel and understanding. Essie served as her husband’s business manager and shared his controversial political beliefs, for which both paid an enormous price during the Cold War. Their turbulent 44-year marriage moved beyond infidelities to settle into an open arrangement. Ransby chronicles Essie’s life as wife, manager, and mother but puts rightful emphasis on Essie’s own career and accomplishments. She was an anthropologist and author (coauthoring one book with Pearl Buck), a women’s rights and anticolonialism activist, and, for 20 years, a freelance journalist and UN correspondent, traveling to more than 40 countries on 5 continents. This is an astonishing biography of a woman until now best known for her marriage to her famous husband. --Vanessa Bush
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Born in Washington, D. C., in 1895, Essie’s ancestral history included freed and unfree African slaves and Sephardic Jews. Her maternal great-grandfather was a Sephardic Jew from Spain. During Reconstruction, her grandfather, Francis Lewis Cardozo, was the first African American to hold a statewide office in South Carolina. Francis Cardozo High School in Washington, D. C., still bears his name. The Cardozo’s were a distant relative to Supreme Court Justice, Benjamin Nathan Cardozo.
Essie met handsome, six-four, Paul Robeson in 1919. They both attended Columbia University; she was a pre-med student (graduated with a B.S. in chemistry), and Paul attended Columbia Law School. The two often exchanged ideas concerning politics and the world. In 1920, Essie fell in love with Paul, and in 1921, they were married.
Paul graduated from law school in 1922. While employed at a New York City law firm, he experienced undue bias from office staff and quit.
Essie supported Paul in her job as the first, Black, chief histological chemist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Paul had a rich, baritone-bass voice, so she encouraged him to sing.
Paul became a renowned concert singer and actor in New York, London and Paris. Essie managed his career and traveled throughout Europe with him.
At five-three, some considered Essie abrasive and verbally aggressive. But Essie with Paul’s interest in mind, was cautious in her dealings concerning his career. She was also a devoted wife who was very much in love with Paul. In 1927, they had a son, Paul, Jr.
It is not discussed whether their frequent traveling affected their son. Essie’s mother was their son’s caregiver during their travels abroad. However, the family lived in London for several years.
Early on in the marriage, Essie discovered Paul’s non-monogamous desires. Yet Paul’s short-term dalliances had not overshadowed his career. Conscientious about his profession, he used constraint in his interracial affairs, but Essie always knew, even when he betrayed her with her friends. However, his long-term relationship with a wealthy English woman almost led to him divorcing Essie.
Essie almost caved in when he requested a divorce, but she believed in their eternal commitment, and stood her ground. Paul returned to Essie; he wanted a solidly knit relationship with her and their son. Yet without qualm, he had continual involvements with other women.
Paul’s emotional unfaithfulness exacted a serious toll on their marriage. Paul was Essie’s first love and the father of their only child. She performed a variety of important tasks, not only as his wife, confidante, and defender when necessary, but she inspired, encouraged, supported and provided an honest evaluation of his talent. She worked hard to help develop Paul’s career, and in the early years, was his manager, publicist, and agent.
Later, they reached a compromise in their marriage. They would stay together, but maintain an open marriage.
Essie and Paul traveled to the Soviet Union in 1934 at the request of Soviet Movie Director, Sergei Eisenstein.
Afterwards, there would be a series of traveling to and from the Soviet Union by Essie and Paul for over 20 years. In fact, their son would attend public school there for over a year.
They were branded un-American during the early 1950s and appeared before the Senate Committee on Un-American Activities. Essie and Paul denied being Communists. Yet they would lose their passports, finances, and some of their friends. In addition, they were watched by American and British Intelligence.
In 1936, Essie traveled to South and West Africa with her nine-year-old son. At that time, Africa was still colonized by the British, Dutch, and French. Essie became a strong advocate for decolonization not only in Africa but also in Asia. Two years later, she became a proponent against fascism after witnessing, along with Paul Sr., the ravages of war torn Spain during the Spanish Civil War.
Essie became a world traveler, trekking across continents, writing, and lecturing about colonization, and American Civil Rights, and writing a book, African Journey. Sometimes in her speeches, she paralleled racism and colonization. The British, French and the Boers weren’t happy with her visiting their African colonies. Twice she became very ill during her travels overseas. I believe her food might have been tampered with.
During the later years of her life, no longer seen or addressed as Mrs. Paul Robeson, in her own right, Essie was known as an anthropologist, activist, prolific writer, lecturer, and author.
Eslanda (Essie) Cardozo Robeson, was a good wife, mother, daughter, and loyal friend, strong, willful, resourceful, and assertive. As an activist, she fought a good fight. She stood up for the poor, the colonized and disenfranchised throughout the world during the 1930s and 1960s.
This book is chock-full of world history covering the 1920s to the early 1960s. Essie was also involved in the U.N. during its inception. She was friends or acquainted with renowned men and women such as Jomo Kenyatta, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijaya (Nan) Pandit, Lumumba, Writer and Socialist, Shirley and W.E. B. DuBois, Harlem Renaissance’s Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry, and Newspaper owner, Charlotta Bass, etc.
Essie had diaries and journals, but the autobiographer did not address her emotions concerning Paul. I believe Essie’s constant continual traveling somewhat lessened the intensity of pain by Paul’s affairs.
I gave this book five stars.
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