239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

Day
130
 | 
August 18, 1912
Eliot, ME
Storify Feature

Hand-in-Hand with the Indomitable Kate Carew

LAST WEEK, AS WE reached the midpoint of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s journey, someone asked me what aspect of the story had surprised me the most. What immediately came to mind was ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s engagement with the issue of race. Living on this side of the Civil Rights era, it is perhaps impossible for any of us to truly understand the racial milieu of 1912, and to grasp how singular it was for a man from the Middle East to arrive on American shores and begin to enact change.

On further reflection, I realize that I have been continually surprised at how modern — or even American — ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was. He had been in exile or prison for almost sixty of his sixty-seven years, yet here he was strolling through the streets of New York, fully in sync with the hectic pace, and often improvised character, of American life. This unlikely convergence is perhaps best exemplified in his interview with Kate Carew.

Carew was an urbanite, a hard core New Yorker. In 1890 she leveraged her artistic skill and gargantuan personality to land a job at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. She would sketch the rich and famous, and interview them at the same time. First up was Mark Twain who flatly refused to be interviewed. He had a contract with a publisher that granted them rights to everything he said. But Kate took him to breakfast with her sketchbook and coaxed out an interview that launched her career. In no time, she crafted herself into a brand, complete with a pseudonym (her real name was Mary Williams), a closet full of trademark flamboyant hats, and a fearless wit.

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She called Picasso “the forerunner of heaven alone knows what in art.” The Wright brothers feared her, but, once things got going, they couldn’t stop giggling. She asked if women passengers were hard to manage. “Much better than men,” they said. She added: “And yet they deny us the suffrage.” When interviewing the controversial black boxer Jack Johnson, she asked: “Are you anxious to undermine the supremacy of the Caucasian race?” Johnson rolled his eyes and played along.

Carew went on to interview entertainers such as Ethel Barrymore and Sarah Bernhardt, politicians including Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, and tycoons such as J. Pierpont Morgan. She was quicker on her feet than any of them: a few even walked out.

So what would one expect when she interviewed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá?

Her story began in typical fashion. “I felt all sorts of mystic possibilities awaited me the other side of the door,” she wrote. “I stripped my mind of all its worldly debris . . . I closed my eyes. I attained the holy calm.” One might expect things to go downhill from there; that Carew might presume ‘Abdu’l-Bahá a charlatan, or that he would find her frivolous or rude.

But within the hour, the two of them were strolling hand-in-hand through the lobby of the Hotel Ansonia, en route to the Bowery Mission. Carew took the time to carefully convey to her readers ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s interactions with the homeless men there. She was genuinely surprised as she witnessed him distribute money to the destitute, convinced “of the absolute sincerity of the man.”

“What you don’t expect!” she wrote.

The more I think through the events of that evening, the more remarkable I find them. And I tip my hat to you, Ms. Kate Carew.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=736563072 Michael Alcorn

    Great! Thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/AlanCundall Alan Cundall

    Fascinating – where would one find Kate Carew’s article in full?

  • Anne Perry

    Well said! YES! Even (perhaps especially) people of the time were amazed by Carew’s attitude of sincerity regarding ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Thornton Chase wrote: “There you see it. The
    purifying, uplifting effect He has upon even a Kate Carew . . . There is
    evidently a certain strength, sincerity, righteousness, wisdom, knowledge, and
    nobility manifesting from him, that even our flippant and calloused news men
    are restrained by it.” When we went to visit the Bowery, I was overwhelmed with a sense of what it was like to be there with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Juliet Thompson, impoverished men–and Kate Carew! Wish we could interview her now!

  • http://twitter.com/TheStruggleWthn Malik Nash

    Fascinating reflections. Abdu’l-Baha’s life is a continual reminder that it is our qualities of mind and heart, more than any amount of talent, wealth or influence we may have, that make a lasting impact on the world.

  • SBentler

    Just as we are learning more about the people who encountered ‘Abdul Baha, appreciation for figures like Kate Carew is on the uptake. You can find a Facebook page devoted to her and learn more about her. The page also offers glimpses of a new documentary film about Ms. Carew’s life, currently under production. I like that she is under exploration by the greater community in this way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/estherbill Esther Bradley-deTally

    Fabulous!

  • http://twitter.com/MasterCopyWrite Karridine

    Like Enrico Caruso, I also have some talent… for caricature! http://bit.ly/R9HCAT
    Unlike Carew, so sadly, I had no opportunity to caricature The Master… and I’ve made it my style to ONLY caricature from life… http://bit.ly/R9HNMD
    And yet, when I read Mr Sockett’s verbal sketch of Kate and The Master, I feel in the company of a world-class essence-finder… a true caricaturist in his own wright.

  • janet ruhe-schoen

    great insights here… indeed ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s modernity was probably ahead of ours!… another amazing “modern” was Mirza Abu’l-Fadl, one of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s dearest friends, who had been sent by Him to the U.S. in 1901 to edify the community… here was Fadl, who had been a mullah in Iran and then became a Baha’i after much furious argument (on his part) to then experience chains & imprisonment, and travel all over Ishkabad and Samarkand and places like that on a mule or whatever — anyway, there he was in washington, dc, riding streetcars and meeting all the corseted ladies and pasteboard-collard gentlemen… and he was totally the witty savant as well as being an amazingly humble of servant of humanity… i guess it’s the spirit that mystics call the javanmardi, the eternal youth…