The Real Lives of Early 20th-Century Celebrities, as Depicted in ‘Ragtime’

“It’s possible to cut and slice history really any way you want to,” said E.L. Doctorow in 1978, three years after the publication of “Ragtime.” “History belongs more to the novelists and the poets than it does to the social scientists. At least we admit that we lie.” His kaleidoscopic novel of New York in the early twentieth century had become an immediate best seller, drawing both praise and criticism for its use of historical figures in invented situations. The point of all that real-world material, he maintained, was to create narratives that felt “true,” even as he strayed from the historical record.

In fact, dozens of the characters in “Ragtime” actually lived and breathed in the early 1900s, and most were fixtures of the front page: politicians, socialites, entertainers, intellectuals. Some familiar faces show up in the novel for a single paragraph, an efficient hit of verisimilitude and context, while others are given rich interior lives and plot-shaping action. Doctorow described consulting photographs and biographies to construct his characters, with certain details making it into the text unchanged — “for instance, the number of animals Teddy Roosevelt killed on his African safari.” (Though even some of these facts have been massaged: Doctorow combined the number of animals shot by both Roosevelt and his son Kermit, which totaled 512 on a single trip.) Other elements he treated with even greater latitude — for example, an imagined meeting between John Pierpont Morgan and Henry Ford. “People’s lives demanded to be mythologized,” Doctorow said at the time of the book’s release. “If you ask whether some things in the book ‘really’ happened, I can only say, ‘They have now.’”

“Ragtime” kicks off with the grisly aftermath of the real-life relationship between Evelyn Nesbit, a superstar ingénue, and Stanford White, a successful married architect. After a nearly yearlong affair, which started when Nesbit was just 16, a new suitor emerged for her in the volatile railroad scion Harry K. Thaw. Nesbit and Thaw married in 1905, and in 1906 Thaw shot White during the final act of a rooftop performance at Madison Square Garden, killing him instantly.

As Doctorow establishes in the novel’s first pages, the murder was a huge news story. What didn’t make it into the book was a possible motive for Thaw beyond defending his wife’s honor: the suspicion that White was responsible for shutting him out of New York society. Along with city landmarks like the Washington Square Arch, White had designed a number of clubs that Thaw was rejected from — the Metropolitan, the Century, the Players. Doctorow also skips over White’s reputation among some as a serial predator of young women. Mark Twain later recounted in his autobiography his impression of Nesbit charging White with “eagerly and diligently and ravenously and remorselessly hunting young girls to their destruction.” Twain added: “These facts have been well known in New York for many years.”

As in “Ragtime,” Thaw was eventually ruled insane at trial and sent to an asylum, from which he escaped. But as word of White’s alleged misdeeds spread, public sentiment shifted somewhat in Thaw’s favor. Upon Thaw’s formal release in 1915, one foreign newspaper declared him “the most popular hero in the State of New York.” Still, the novel’s final assertion, that Thaw “marched annually at Newport in the Armistice Day parade,” does not correspond with the facts of his life. Starting in 1917, he spent an additional seven years in an asylum for the kidnapping and assault of a 19-year-old man, then moved around regularly until his death in the late ’40s.

Nesbit, also contrary to the novel’s conclusion, did not simply lose her looks and fall into obscurity. In 1910, she bore a child whom she claimed was the product of a conjugal visit with Thaw, though he never admitted paternity. Around the time of her divorce from Thaw, she began pursuing a career in vaudeville and silent film. These efforts were not particularly successful, but her name continued to anchor headlines for years as she reportedly struggled with drug abuse, attempted suicide, drunken fights, eviction and arrests. She lived out her later years as a sculptor and ceramics teacher in California, and her fortunes took another turn when her life story was adapted for the 1955 film “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing,” starring Joan Collins. Though there’s no evidence that she ever met Emma Goldman, Nesbit’s grandson later reported that Evelyn had donated $25,000 — the Thaw family’s payment for her cooperation at trial — to the famed anarchist.

Doctorow portrays Emma Goldman as a sexual, intellectual whirlwind, hewing closely to the spirit of the real woman. One obituary called her both an “incorrigible revolutionist” and a “writer of distinction,” and she was known to defend free love and homosexuality at a time when vocal support for either was practically unheard-of.

Born in Imperial Russia, Goldman immigrated as a teenager to the United States, where a stint in a corset factory helped draw her into the burgeoning anarchist and labor movements. In 1889, she moved to New York City and met her future lover Alexander Berkman, to whom she was an accomplice in the attempted assassination of Henry Clay Frick, which is described at length in “Ragtime.” In the decade following Berkman’s imprisonment and release, Goldman struck up a tumultuous relationship with Ben Reitman, whom the “Ragtime” character Younger Brother meets at a party in her apartment. Reitman was the most passionate love of Goldman’s life; in a circa 1911 letter she wrote, “If ever our correspondence should be published, the world would stand aghast that I … should have been as helpless as a shipwrecked crew on a foaming ocean.”

At the book’s close, we’re told, “Emma Goldman had been deported,” which she indeed was — on account of her work in opposition to the draft for World War I. She returned briefly to Russia, where she was disillusioned by the despotism of Lenin and Trotsky, then lived elsewhere in Europe and Canada, continuing to lecture and write until shortly before her death in 1940. That same obituary stated that she had always considered the United States to be her real home.

Goldman’s gifts as an orator are on full display in “Ragtime,” as when she impresses Younger Brother with a rousing speech about the Mexican Revolution. He ultimately flees to Mexico to join the army of Emiliano Zapata, who led southern farmers in a revolt against the dictator Porfirio Díaz and the landowning class. En route, Younger Brother serves with the northern revolutionary forces of Francisco “Pancho” Villa, who had been an outlaw before taking up the fight against Díaz. As Doctorow’s summary suggests, both Zapata and Villa fell victim to political infighting after Díaz’s resignation. By the time Villa’s former ally Venustiano Carranza became the country’s president in 1917, both opposed him.

Upon “Ragtime’s” publication, the summit between John Pierpont Morgan and Henry Ford emerged as a favorite of reviewers; one called it the book’s “wittiest scene.” As mentioned, such a meeting is not known to have occurred, although Doctorow insisted that “everything I made up about Morgan and Ford is true, whether it happened or not. Perhaps truer because it didn’t happen.”  

Ford really did believe in reincarnation, though. In a 1928 interview, he remarked, “Genius is experience. Some seem to think that it is a gift or talent, but it is the fruit of long experience in many lives. Some are older souls than others, and so they know more.” He was also, as in Doctorow’s depiction, an unabashed antisemite, and Hitler was reported to have kept a portrait of Ford beside his desk in the years of his political ascent. Morgan, on the other hand, wasn’t known to be interested in reincarnation — he was a lifelong Episcopalian — but he did take an active interest in ancient Egypt, funding the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s archaeological expeditions and visiting the country on a number of occasions. (Morgan’s archaeologist handler from the Met once remarked that he was “sometimes quite jolly — the other night at dinner he recited reams of French poetry — and he usually has a joke on hand about something,” though he also considered Morgan a spendthrift.)

The Morgan Library, the site of most of “Ragtime’s” dramatic final section, was made a public institution by John Pierpont Morgan’s son in 1924. Doctorow lifted several descriptive details on it, like the marble building’s fitted-stone construction, from life. In the novel, as Manhattan district attorney Charles S. Whitman contemplates how the library might be entered, he ruefully notes, “You couldn’t get a knife blade between the stones.” This was precisely the trait that had inspired Charles McKim (partner of Stanford White) when he designed the library; according to a history of his firm’s work, he’d once tried to put a blade between the blocks of the Erechtheion in Athens and was unsuccessful.

Today, the Morgan Library & Museum houses a notable collection of manuscripts, including originals by Dickens, Zola and Thoreau, as well as scores by Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler and Chopin. The building also contains hidden spaces like the one where Morgan stores his contraband sarcophagus in “Ragtime”: a walk-in vault tucked behind faux-wood paneling in Morgan’s study, and two staircases that lie behind bookcases and lead to the balconies. Though Morgan used his vault only to store rare volumes, the structure does show one sign of interest in the occult. The library’s website notes that Morgan was a member of an “exclusive dining club that admitted only twelve members at a time — one for each sign of the zodiac — and the arrangement of the signs in his library’s ceiling may carry a hidden meaning related to key events in his personal life.” 

Doctorow populated his New York City scenes with many of the era’s movers and shakers, from uptown socialites like Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish to local politicians. Fish, whose birth name was Marian Graves Anthon, doesn’t seem to have actually thrown a circus-themed ball with Barnum & Bailey sideshow performers, but her hosting prowess was legendary. One 1913 party of hers was Mother Goose-themed, and for it she dressed as a fairy queen; another featured a donkey laden with favors for guests.

Charles S. Whitman’s invitation to summer with the Fishes in Newport appears to have been invented, though he did cross paths with them at least once while serving as New York’s governor. Whitman was elected in 1914, and held the office until his defeat by a Tammany Hall Democrat three years later — ironic, given his reliance on a Tammany leader to ferret out the fictional fire chief Willie Conklin in “Ragtime.” 

Whitman’s other liaison in the novel, Booker T. Washington, is not known to have negotiated to save the treasures of the Morgan Library, or those of any other museum rigged with dynamite, but would have been well-suited for the role. He was immensely popular during his lifetime in both white and Black America, referred to variously as the Wizard of Tuskegee, the World’s Greatest Orator and “a Moses to his race.” His diplomacy skills could be seen in his advocacy for U.S. involvement in the republic of Liberia at a crucial moment in that nation’s history. Midway through “Ragtime,” as the New Rochelle, N.Y., family debates the propriety of hosting Coalhouse Walker Jr., Mother points out that “when Mr. Roosevelt was in the White House he gave dinner to Booker T. Washington.” This is accurate — in fact, it was the first time a Black person had been entertained at the White House — although the event sparked a furor in the press. Ten days afterward, in a letter to Roosevelt, Washington referenced “the now famous dinner which both of [us] ate so innocently.”

Some reviewers of “Ragtime” were struck by a remark made by Sigmund Freud in one of the book’s early chapters: “America is a mistake, a gigantic mistake.” He’s just been on a whirlwind tour of the Northeast — with stops in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, Niagara Falls, N.Y., and Worcester, Mass. — and has found the country crass and sorely lacking in public restrooms. In an interview, Doctorow pointed out that Freud actually said this — “but I don’t agree, of course, any more than I agree that any other nation is a mistake. They’re all mistakes. Human life is a mistake.”

Freud’s itinerary in the novel hews neatly to what he and his colleagues really did on their trip to the U.S.: They visited Chinatown and Central Park and the Met. They made it down to Coney Island, though Jung and Freud’s boat ride through the Tunnel of Love seems to be a Doctorowian flight of fancy. And, yes, Freud complained afterward of indigestion and the scarcity of bathrooms. According to one of his friends and colleagues, “he even went so far as to tell me that his handwriting had deteriorated since the visit to America.”

Doctorow’s other European characters seem to feel more favorably about the country. Both Harry Houdini and the fictional Tateh stand in as the allegorical immigrant, the ever-striving Old Worlder who makes good in his new home. There’s plenty of evidence for Doctorow’s depiction of Houdini as such, and for other details we learn about him. He was notably overly fond of his mother and lavished gifts upon her. He learned to fly at an army parade ground outside Hamburg (although there’s no record of him showing off for Archduke Franz Ferdinand). He took up the practice of debunking spiritualists toward the end of his life.

But because Houdini is a central character, weaving in and out of the novel’s many plots, he’s especially likely to be cast in scenes that never actually took place, at least in terms of what he did and when. The interrupted performance in New Rochelle, the circus party at the Fishes’ townhouse, the eye contact in prison with Harry K. Thaw — all are contrivances that serve to tie Doctorow’s narratives together. On the day Ferdinand was assassinated, Houdini wasn’t high above Times Square, hung upside down from a thick steel cable. He didn’t even attempt that stunt until the following year, in the Midwest. And yet this striking image of suspension, with the world on the verge of the next phase of history, rings true.