Barbara Barondess: Ellis Island Oral History
This oral history was prepared by the
Ellis Island Oral History Project
Ellis Island Museum
New York, NY 10004
and digitized by
25 Chase Ave
Lexington MA 02421
BIRTH DATE: JULY 4, 1907
INTERVIEW DATE: AUGUST 15, 1985
RUNNING TIME: 45:00
INTERVIEWER: EDWARD APPLEBOME
RECORDING ENGINEER: CONNIE KIELTYKA
INTERVIEW LOCATION: NEW YORK CITY, NY
TRANSCRIPT ORIGINALLY PREPARED BY: NANCY VEGA, 1986
TRANSCRIPT RECONCEIVED BY: NANCY VEGA, 7/1995
TRANSCRIPT REVIEWED BY: PAUL E. SIGRIST, JR., /1995
RUSSIA (BORN U.S.), 1921
PASSAGE ON "THE CELTIC"
- This is interview nurnber 019. This is Edward
Applebome and I'm speaking with Ms. Barbara Barondess
on Thursday, August 15, 1985. We are beginning this
interview at 2:15 in the afternoon. We are about to
interview Ms. Barondess about her immigration
experience from Russia in 1921. Tape one, side one.
Ms. Barondess, could you tell us a little bit about
where and when you were born?
- I was born in the United States in Brooklyn, New York
on the Fourth of July. My mother says five minutes
after midnight, and I have been very proud of the day
that I was born on all my life because it gave me a
very unusual life. When I was six months old both of
my parents, who had been born in Russia and who fell
in love with America and wanted to stay here forever,
applied for their first citizenship papers. And then
my grandfather in Russia, who was a very big lumber
merchant, persuaded my father and mother to come and
bring me to Russia for the first formative couple of
years so they could see their first grandchild and
also I would learn a little about my origin. And so
they persuaded my parents to wait for at least until
I could remember my parents. And we stayed there.
We planned to stay there about three or four years
and then come back. When I was four years old, my
mother became pregnant with my second sister.
- This is where in Russia that you had gone to?
- In, we were living in a town called Shitomir, which
is just a little way away from Kiev in the Ukraine.
- Could you spell the name of the town?
- Yes. It's, uh, S-H-I or Z-H, it depends on, of
course, how you spell it, SHI-T-O-M-I-R. And I grew
up with the curiosity of being the little American,
always pointed at as the little American. I got used
to being pointed at ( she laughs ) when I was a small
child. My father, who was the oldest son, was trying
to teach his next brother how to manage my
grandfather's business and so that was another reason
to stay for a little longer. And with my mother's
pregnancy, of course, we couldn't leave just at that
moment. And they wanted to wait until my second
sister was born and could travel because the
travelling was not easy in those days, I'm told. Of
course, I can't remember that. Anyway, with the age
of reason of seven, just as I became seven, in 1914,
the war broke out. And that stopped our leaving
immediately and very soon afterwards, of course,
there was the Russian Revolution. by then my mother
was pregnant again, and in 1918, unfortunately, my
father was shot through the throat and it was a
senseless kind of shooting, and I got the second
bullet. I got in the way of it actually, by throwing
myself at my father when I saw a man pointing a gun
at him, and I got the second bullet in my right
shoulder. It just left a souvenir of a little bump.
I was not affected, except, of course, emotionally,
- What were the circumstances of this shooting?
- Well, we were, we were wrong on two counts. We were
Jews and we were capitalists. And this was at the
height of the Revolution. The czar had just been
killed, we were hiding in the cellar for 21 days,
which was typical of those days, with pogroms and the
factions taking over the city of Shitomir. And my
family were, of course, in an uproar, and there was
nothing you could do. We tried to plan to get out,
and, of course, 1918 when my father was shot he was
taken to Moscow and operated on by one of the czar's
doctors, and they performed the first tracheotomy in
history in Russia on his throat. And he never
regained his voice completely, but he did talk a
little with a very raspy voice after that. We
proceeded and made the decision to steal out of
Russia at night. We had no papers of any kind except
a little small certificate that my mother managed to
save that had been made out by a midwife reporting my
birth on July 14th to the Board of Health in New
York. And with that little piece of paper, and
travelling at night in the hay wagon for two weeks,
with prearranged stops where we were able to sleep
all day in some farmer's barn, be fed some hot food,
and start out again at night. The five of us, a
little, my youngest sister was only two months old,
my older one was six, and I was twelve. We got out
- Your grandparents had stayed?
- Oh, yes. There were too many in the family and too
much involved and they had no way of getting here.
You see, my parents thought that perhaps their first
papers would be recorded and that they could get into
the United States. Because they had applied and
gotten their first citizenship papers. But there was
no proof except the records in America. There were no
records in Russia, as you know. This is probably why
I'm so interested in the origins of my family, my
name, and have all of it now compiled for the book
I've just finished, which is, I hope will be
published by 1986 which is the year I'm shooting for.
she laughs ) Anyway, so to go back to my life in
Russia and getting out of it. We spent, we crossed a
boundary line out of Shitomir, which is only, was
fifty miles away from Polish line at that moment.
That was 1919. Right, I'm not sure whether it was
just after the New Year or it was just before. But
it was between Christmas and perhaps the first or
second day in January of 1919 that we finally got out
at night. When we arrived in Poland, just before we
left the little town which was, I think, called
Grodno, it was on the boundary Russian line. My
parents decided that it was safer for us to steal
across the boundary line to Poland by separating. So
my father and I went in one wagon and my mother and
the two smaller children in the other. The reason
for it, they figured out, was because I could speak
Russian and speak for my father if they stopped us.
And that's what happened. We were stopped, my father
and I. We landed in a Polish jail, and the Polish
jail man couldn't have been nicer. He gave us hot
milk and I told him about my father's being shot and
that's why he couldn't speak, and I told him about,
and gave him the address where we were to meet my
mother with the other two children. And the next
morning they took us there to verify the proof of
what I had been telling. And I kept telling them
that I was an American. And that my mother had a
piece of paper but I didn't have the piece of paper.
It was too precious for me to have it. But she had
it so if they could get to my mother she could prove
I was an American and my parents were taking me back
to my country. It's hard to remember it
without . . . ( she is moved ) Funny, when you talk
about it, becomes so clear. My father and I met, we
had our reunion the next day and they sent the five
of us to a town called Rovno, which was big enough to
have the authority to figure out what to do with us.
And my father was put in jail, unfortunately. Just
to be held, as so we would be, more or less,
immobile, until they got found out what to do with
us. They wrote to the embassy in Warsaw. As you see
by the passport which was issued to me in Warsaw, the
man who was at the head of the American embassy was
the great statesman Hugh Gibson who became very
famous after that. He was a very young man. And he
was the one that finally wrote to America, got the
verification of my passport, and finally signed my
passport. But it took almost a year-and-a-half.
During that year-and-a-half, the Polish government
finally let my father out of jail. During the time
we stayed there we left, we lived in one room, there
was one bed the first six months, that my mother used
with my younger sister. And my middle sister and I,
who were getting to be thirteen and then finally
fourteen when we, I was, when we left. And my sister
was, went from six to eight when we finally got out
of Poland. My mother was busy persuading the Polish
authorities that at the time of her birth and my
father's birth, because we considered, I considered
them Russian, that actually that part of the Ukraine
where they were born, she proved to them, was owned
by Poland. So they issued them two Polish passports.
- Why had they been holding your father but not your
- Because she, the baby needed her, they couldn't, they
couldn't let a father who couldn't talk feed and take
care of a two-month-old baby girl and an eight-year-old
girl and a thirteen-year-old girl. It was
natural to let the mother, he was the only hostage.
They didn't want to lock me up. He was the only one
that they felt was logical.
- I understand.
- They weren't cruel to him, but we made sure that he
got the right food, because we were very worried
about his health. So I walked every day the two or
three miles that it took to go to the jail to bring
him the food that my mother prepared. And I would
walk back home and stay home and take care of the
children while my mother went to visit the
authorities to prove to them that we were really,
that they were Polish citizens and through, through
that period, mentally. First of all, I didn't
believe I belonged to my parents because we ended up
with three passports with three different names. My
mother and father were called Brandos, or Brandous,
which, which was the name I thought was my name in
Russia. And then finally when I saw that passport
with the name, which I had to write in English, and
in that period, from the time I was seven and eight,
and the war started and the Revolution when I was
nine, and when my father was shot and I could think,
I was convinced that I was a foundling and I was,
couldn't study English because they didn't teach
English in those days. And our schooling was very
erratic, and although I went to the Erasmus, to the
Marinsk Gymnasia and my father was a graduate of the
University of Kiev and we were a very educated
family, I was learning French and German with a
private tutor, but there was nobody to teach me
English. And my father couldn't talk by then, and my
mother didn't, wasn't that good at the little English
she learned when she was here, because she had only
been here a couple of years at the, before I was
born. All this was very complicated and very
erratic. So I was a very self-centered child who
thought of myself as being very peculiar and unusual.
First of all, I didn't belong anywhere. I didn't
belong in Russia because I was the little American.
They used to call me "Marinka Amerikanka." And I
used to think it was peculiar that I was being
pointed at and called the little American. And one
day when I said to my mother, "Why do they do that,
mama?" She looked at me and she said ,"Because you
come from that special, wonderful land. It's like
coming from the moon, and someday you'll go back
there." When I saw Armstrong step on the moon I knew
what my mother meant. I'm fortunate to have lived
long enough to remember all this. Anyway, we got
back here, finally, and I can't, it would take you a
week to tape this interview if I could tell you the
- Explain the circumstances of how you were finally
able to leave Poland to come to the United States?
- Well, we had, of course, a little gold and a little
jewelry and everything that we could carry on us, and
when we got out of Russia. There wasn't much of
anything but gold, and gold, and diamonds and a few
things that the family all gathered together and gave
to us to get out of there. Because they stayed and
they hoped, of course, that some day they'd get back
their property and everything else that was
confiscated, which they never did. Because the
Bolshevik government and that, confiscated
everything. My father finally died, my mother died
in 19, my grandmother died in 1918, and, as I showed
you and you have the souvenir of the front page
newspaper announcing her death. That is what you
have for your records. Which not only proves our
name but proves the importance of the family.
Because, obviously, in 1918 no Jewish family got on
the front page unless they were very important or
very rich. So we got on the front page of the paper.
I also learned by then, from my father, that the name
originally was of Polish origin and Czechoslovakian.
That there was a town called Brandous in 1914 and
it's in the records that the great Maharal of Prague,
whose daughter's was, name was Gittel, married one of
the Brandouses who later ended up in Russia, Poland
and Germany. And of the ancestors were my
grandfather, and Justice Brandeis, and also Joseph
Barondess, who was by then, at my birth in 1907, was
the first president of the first union in the United
States that was the Pins and Needles Union that he
formed, with the help of Justice Brandeis, who was
then a lawyer, because of the Triangle fire.
- okay, but you know what, we should .
- Now, let's go back, we go back to Poland. In Poland
when the proof came through we were allowed to come
to the Warsaw where the papers were all officially
given us and allowed to leave for the long run
through, through, uh, it was Germany and I remember
my first banana in Antwerp.
- Because your parents had finally received Polish
- Polish passports and my American passport.
- And how were your sisters travelling then?
- Uh, well, a husband and a wife could bring their
children with them.
- Okay. So you finally all had passports and you could
- We could leave Poland, and you will have the
passports. Their passports, my father's, my
mother's, the children, with them, and completely.
We were able to leave Poland and we arrived in
England and the American embassy verified all this
and we were to leave by a boat. And unfortunately as
we were walking onto the gangplank my younger sister
tore away from my mother and ran down the gangplank
and my mother ran after her and my father and I were
at the top as the man said, "What's your name," to my
father and my father couldn't speak fast enough and
they took us off. And the boat sailed without us.
- This was, in what Harbor were you?
- This was, this was in England, at Liverpool.
- At Liverpool. What boat was it that you were
supposed to get on?
- I don't know that one. I never found out the name of
it. But it was a little boat by White Star Line. We
had second class passage. When we were turned back
my, we were all horrified. Of course, we stayed in a
hotel while my mother and father went to the American
embassy and begged and told them that the wound was
not fatal, that it was only loss of speech, that we
had relatives in America. My mother gave them, by then the
Red Cross and the American embassy in Poland had
found the relatives' names and addresses in America.
- Who had made the judgement that your father wasn't
allowed to enter onto the boat to travel?
- The man who stood there and asked for the, his name
and saw that the man couldn't speak. He said, "(?)"
And I said my father's name, my mother used to speak
his name fast and be the first one in line so they
thought he was a henpecked husband. But since there
was nobody to say his name fast enough, and they
thought he had some infection. And the boat was
sailing. So while they were going to investigate we,
our luggage and everything was back on the, on the,
right there, next to the boat, as we watched it sail
away in tears. The, the drama of all this was
unbelievable. Then my father and mother persuaded,
again, the authorities, and we got on to the next
boat which was called the Celtic, White Star Line.
But there was no room second class, so we went
steerage. We were willing to get out any way. We
got onto that boat and it was very hot. And, of
course, it was very packed. But everybody by then
knew the story of the little American girl. Fourteen
years old, who was stuck in Russia those extra seven
or eight years. And so everybody always came down,
the pursar came down, and took my mother and father
and myself and everybody else up to the second class
so we could have our meals there. It was too hot and
too uncomfortable to sleep and we were too tired and
too, you know, upset to even eat the meals. And I
slept on the deck. Because sleeping crowded with my
middle sister in the bunk was too much, when we got
to New York.
- What else do you remember about the people on the
- That the pursar took me around to the first class
showed me the nicely-dressed people sitting in the
restaurant. And I could remember my very early
childhood and the opera and the ballet and the
servants and the gorgeous summer house we had, the
dacha outside of Kiev. And my grandfather's house in
Kiev and our own house which was specifically built
for us with the flat roof, I was told was like the American
houses. And so I felt like a princess. And one day
I knew I would travel first class. I was determined.
So we proceeded ( she is moved ) you know, I never
thought I'd get this emotional about telling my own
story. Anyway, because I'm supposed to be an
actress, remember, and I'm not supposed to get this
emotional about telling my own story.
- Would you like to take a break for a minute?
- Yes, for a second, please.
- Okay. Why don't we do that?
- I will never forget my father's and mother's faces as
my mother clung to my father, who couldn't speak very
well, and tears welled in her eyes and he put his
arms around her and all he kept saying in his
voiceless voice, "It'll be all right, darling. We'll
get through." And my mother used to say something,
that strangely enough, I never heard before or after.
And this was, every time we left a town or arrived in
a town she would say, translated, she said it in
Russian, and translated in English it meant, "In the
good and blessed hour, in the good and blessed hour."
And she kept repeating that as we were leaving each
town and arriving somewhere else. Their prayers and
their hopes that my little passport would get them
back to America, became the most important piece of
paper that we ever owned. Uh, we never thought about
- The piece of paper that you had gotten from the
legation in Warsaw.
- That I got from the legation in Washington, which
represented my passport, and a very unusual one
which, of course, I'm going to give to the museum.
feel that's where it belongs. When we were finally
allowed to go back by, to proceed with our trip on
the next boat, the Celtic, and we finally arrived in
New York and I saw that fabulous canyon of steel,
that skyline, I was so excited that it was the
incredible feeling of elation. And, of course,
because we were travelling third class, we had to be
processed that way. And because we were processed
third class my father was sent one way, my mother
with the children the other way, and I saw the look
on my parents' faces of despair. Because my father
would be naturally asked his name again, and that
this was going to be trouble. And the trouble became
Ellis Island. We were put on a small boat and taken
to Ellis Island. When we arrived at Ellis Island and
when were processed through and they saw, again, the
father went one way, a man went one way, and my
mother kept describing to them and telling them to
please, he couldn't talk. And the more she said he
couldn't talk, the more worried they became over why
he couldn't talk. And my piece of paper, she
wouldn't let it out of her hand. She was so worried
somebody would walk away with it and we would be sent
back. So it was a very traumatic experience. And
they didn't know what to do with us. I remember that
we were taken aside and put the, uh, line went on.
And we were put aside. And they went into a big
huddle because my passport had a different name and,
of course, these people at the, at the door who were
allowing us in, didn't speak Russian. And my mother
spoke a little English.
- Explain again why the passports had different names.
- Because the anglicized name was Barondess. And
Joseph Barondess, when he came through immigration
and was asked where he came from and his name said it
very fast and said, "Brandes, Odessa." So he was
written down as Barondess. And when I was born he
was so important my father decided to anglicize our
name in America and naturally wrote my name down as
Barondess. So my passport, on the records, was
Barondeess, and his passport with his birth name, was
Brandes, born in Poland. The papers for the first
citizenship did not materialize until after we got
into America, and while we were at Ellis Island. And
the second day they had them ready. They discovered
that by law they were void because we , they stayed
away more than seven years. And that was the law at
the time. So they didn't know what to do with us.
And the immigration had to talk to somebody more
- Can you tell me a little bit about what had happened
the first day you were on Ellis Island. What the
examinations were like, what the rooms were like?
- Well, we were, at night, by the time they held us
separately for a while, and all we remember is that
we clung together and talked, tried to explain that
the name of Barondes was my name because it was
anglicized and that I had a relative, an uncle here,
whose name was that, and that we were going to try to
get to him. And also by then my mother's brother
arrived, and they were a little worried about my
passport because the original birth certificate that,
the original certificate my mother had, still had, at
the time, gave the wife of the midwife as Circus
[ph]. And that was my mother's maiden name. So they
thought that perhaps it was a forgery. And they had
to look it up and get in touch with the woman whose
name was the same as my mother's, and it was my
grandmother who was the midwife and brought me into
the world, and she lived in Brooklyn, and she and her
sons arrived at Ellis Island. So we had the reunion
the first day we were there. It wasn't until that
night they were allowed to eat with us, which was an
enormous, you know, an enormous room with long tables
and it's, food was the least important thing at that
point. But seeing the relatives and, of course, I
couldn't speak a word of English. And my mother and
her brothers, two brothers and her mother, who were
there with us, decided that the most important thing
was to look up our most important relatives in
America. One happened to be Justice Brandeis.
- Was your . .
- Louis Brandeis. Who, with my uncle, this is fourteen
years before, with Joseph Barondess, worked on the
first union in the United States. By then Justice
Brandeis was a judge and was by then very influential
man and close to the President of the United States,
that happened to be Harding. And the two men, Joseph
Barondess came down to see us the next day. I know
that I slept on a double-decker sort of double-decker
bed, made of wire, with a pad and an army blanket.
- Where was your father staying?
- In the men's department. He slept in the men's room
department. We slept, my mother and I and the two
younger sister, my mother slept with one on one
layer and we, my middle sister and I slept on the
second layer. And the next day the, Joseph Barondess
came down to see us. Told us not to worry. And that
we would, they were going to work on it right away.
He was going to be in touch with Justice Brandeis.
Now this was 1921, November.
- This is the end of side one of tape one.
- This is side two of tape one. So you were going to
tell us about what it was like on the time that you
were staying on Ellis Island.
- When we got off, of course, we had visitors every
day. My mother's brothers and two sisters who had
lived here all their lives, who came as young people
and who had by then spent seventeen or eighteen years
of their lives here, brought us things to make our
life a little more comfortable. So I had my first
piece of chewing gum and the, actually the guards
were very nice to us. The food is really unimportant
and I can't remember it because it was the least
thing. The sleeping accommodations were clean and
clinical and not the luxury, but after two years in
Poland and sleeping on the floor with all the
crawling bugs that I had to deal with at the age of,
between the age of twelve and fourteen, Ellis Island
seemed like a clean jail. And, uh, I didn't mind it.
Particularly since they, we were such a hot potato,
the family. Uh, my father was allowed to be with us
all day and they were convinced by then that eh
didn't have a communicable disease. And my mother
was busy with the baby. The other people, it was
like, to me it was like the house of Babel. Because
there were so many languages and so many people and
everybody huddled together and it was so full of
fear. It was pathetic. Because the ones that were
being held there could be deported. And so we were
lived in the constant fear that they could be
deported. I was told that I could get off with my
uncles because they couldn't keep me, but I refused.
I said I would not leave without my parents. This
was my country and I was born to them here. I was
conceived here. I was born here. And I was going to
stay until they were allowed to come with me. I had
that much sense. And so I was not badly treated and
they would allow me to walk outside. So I used to go
and look at this beautiful, fantastic building that
as we were arriving looked like a palace and inside
looked like a bare jail. And I would ask if I could
go out because it was beautiful weather in November.
Just to see the Statue of Liberty and to see the
skyline of New York. And the guards would let me
walk. I had my first present on the fist day. An
elementary school book on English that my uncle
brought me. And I sat there trying to learn English
by myself. And I learned the first few words like
give me bread and butter. I had no accent to go by
because my mother spoke with a very thick accent all
her life. And my burning ambition was to be an
American and sound like an American, because I was an
American. And I was determined that once I got off
there I would learn to speak English. And I was
determined that once I got off there I would learn to
speak English. First, the very first ambition was to
sound like a real educated American. Well, I didn't
have to wait too long to get off. We were convinced
that some miracle would happen and we would be able
to get off. And the two influential uncles, the
Brandeis and Barondess put their heads together, got
to. President Harding, and two weeks later we were
allowed to leave. However, without terrible drama.
About three days before we were to leave and while I
was spent almost the whole night outside of the
building praying to the Statue of Liberty who I
called my first girlfriend, and saying, you know,
reaching to the sky, please reach us. My middle
sister, who I was sleeping with, was running a
terrible fever. And she was so hot I couldn't sleep
with her. And we were trying not to let anybody know
that she was running a fever. And she started to
break out and she had measles. And we were terribly
afraid that she would, that they would keep us there
because of it. And, of course, the day we were
leaving the nurse, the, somebody noticed she was
running one hundred and two fever. And the nurse
came to look at her, ad the nurse that came was a
big, black woman. And we children had never seen a
black person. Because there were none in Russia or
Poland where we were brought up. And this lovely
looking big black woman took Rosalie, my sister, and
put a thermometer in her mouth and saw her fever and
took her away from us. And this child was absolutely
petrified. She thought she was leaving us forever.
They took her to the hospital and she had measles.
She was quarantined. So the day we were to leave,
which was the next day, we had to leave without her
and we couldn't go to see her. And, of course, there
were no such things as telephone communications and
my sister couldn't speak English and the nurse
couldn't speak Russian. So this was a terrible
trauma for my sister who never got over it, and for
us. But we knew it would be all right because there
was a telegram from the President of the United
States, signed by President Harding. That said my
father was to be appointed, he was examined by
doctors, he was perfectly all right. Then Joseph
Barondess guaranteed that we would never be wards of
the State. And that he could become my guardian
because I was under age. And the husband is allowed
to bring in a wife and two children. So the law was
used that way and we were allowed into the arms of my
grandmother and her two brothers, and my mother's
sisters, and taken to Brooklyn, where we lived for
two weeks with them. And then my father went into a
little business of his own and we were on our way.
Two years it took me to go through. We moved three
times during that period. My father bought a little
business. It was a candy store with newspaper stand.
And he worked very hard and so did my mother. And I
helped when I wasn't going to school. And in one
year he made it into a very big paying business, sold
it at a profit, moved us into a decent apartment,
and . . . Do you want to stop because of that
- So you're going to tell us any other memories that
you have about the time that you spent on Ellis
- The time that I spent on Ellis Island seemed like the
longest waiting period for me, because of the
regiment. And naturally there had to be a regiment.
It was no way that they could handle that many
people, I can realize it now, in retrospect. But at
the time it was in a way a nightmare.
- What were some of the activities they had you doing
that were so regimented?
- Well, the way they were, you were regimented to take
a bath. You had to wait in line to get the food.
You had to get in line to get a blanket. And you had
to be examined physically. And they weren t unkind,
but you had no communication with the people who took
care of you. And they had so many people to take
care of. And you had no communication with the other
people that were there because everybody was so full
of their own fright.
- So you didn't play with any of the other children.
- No, we never played with other children because I had
a baby to more or less look after when my mother went
pleading for special treatment. And because we were
lucky enough to have relatives visit us, they were
with us in the waiting visiting room most of the
time. And we were allowed, because we were lucky
enough to be special, for that particular reason.
And the special thing was my American passport.
- So you would sit with your relatives in a visiting
room during the day.
- In a visiting room. And there would be other people
with visiting rooms, but not as many, because many
people didn't have visitors. Because many people
were held because they couldn't find relatives. Or
it took them several days to find the relatives. We
were lucky because our relatives were near, in New
York City, and in Brooklyn.
- Was there a guard that watched you when you had
- Well, not really. Because I don't remember any
guards because, remember that there was no way that
we could get off it. We were on an island. Unless
you threw yourself in the water. So they would let
me walk out and take a walk, because for exercise I
walked around Ellis Island and I would want to get as
close as I could to the edge so I could see New York.
This was a wondrous sight, the sight of the New York
- What did your mother and father do during the day?
- Talk about what we were going to do when we got off.
Make plans. Make plans for school. And give us
courage. Talk to us to give us courage. My father,
of course, couldn't speak much. He wrote. he gave
me his ten commandments. Told me not to blame
anybody for anything. That these are circumstances
that we couldn't do anything about. To have no
bitterness. To be grateful for the marvelous luck of
having been born here. And, of course, I never
stopped being grateful for having been born here.
One of the reasons I am so fortunate to still have my
vitality and my health is, one of the fortunate
things about being my age, is that when people say to
me, and my good friends say, "Don't tell everybody
your age, you don't look seventy-eight." I say, "I
may not look seventy-eight, but I know I am, and I
can't possibly lie about my age because if I did I
couldn't talk about remembering ( she laughs ) Ellis
Island and being grateful for being born when I was.
If I had been born ten years later I wouldn't be
here. So I'm grateful for all my blessings. And I'm
even glad for having been on Ellis Island, believe it
or not. Because if I didn't have that as a measuring
stick I wouldn't have been able to do what I did with
my life. I put all the frustrations behind me. I
have them as a commandment.
- Do you have memories of what Brooklyn looked like
when you finally got there?
- Oh, yes. I remember Brooklyn and I remember going to
school. And I remember the school I went to. And I
remember the first day I arrived at the school and
was called the greenhorn. And I was determined
because I was put into lA that those kids would
remember who I was. They thought I was a greenhorn
because I was fourteen and they were seven or eight.
And it wouldn't take the greenhorn long. I went
through public school in one year, through Erasmus
Hall High School in one year as an unmatriculated
student, and two years after I was in this country I
spoke English as I do today and no one even believed
that I had come from Russia and couldn't speak
English. I enrolled at NYU for special English
lessons and to learn how to speak and have perfect
diction. So when I was sixteen years old I decided
that I wanted to be an actress. And I got a job at a
bank, I went to college at night, and by a pure fluke
of accidental being where I was at the right time at
the right moment, I was swimming in Luna Park in the
Luna Park large pool, when I was chosen by somebody
who fished me out of the swimming pool and stuck into
a beauty contest. And won the title of Miss Greater
New York and Modern Venus and became a celebrity
overnight. I have a film of the newsreel. And in
those days we had no television. We had newspapers.
And thirteen New York newspapers ran my picture on
the front page the next day. That was enough
curiosity for the newspaper to adopt me as their
mascot because they couldn't believe that I was the
girl who got off Ellis Island just four years before.
And couldn't believe my English. And the Shubert's
put me into my first show in 1926, the year I became
Miss Greater New York, five years after I got off
- So you were how old then?
- In 1926 1 had just turned nineteen years old, four
years later. I was Miss Greater New York. I went
into a Broadway show and I never stopped learning.
have the program of the first show I was in, which
was at the Winter Garden Theater. The next show I
was in, three months later, was on 42nd Street in a
play called "Crime," with Sylvia Sydney, Douglas
Montgomery, and a great many of the fine actors and
stars of the stage and movies. The third play I was
in was "Crime" for the Sellwyns, who was big, big
producers on Broadway. I, also, in 19, November of
1927, I travelled to Paris on the maiden voyage of
the Ile de France, first class, as the star singer of
their gala night, and I have the program to prove it.
And after I came back, after singing in Paris for two
weeks at the Florida Club, I came back on the Paris
again as the star singer of the gala night. First
class. Then I was in a play and appeared at the
Helen Morgan club for three months. And went into my
first hit on Broadway, big hit, as the ingenue lead,
called "Topaz." I played in that for two years and
was invited by MGM to come to Hollywood where I made
twenty-nine pictures altogether, between silents in
New York and the first talkies. After that I decided
that I would quit as an actress and try one of my
peripheral talents, which were as an artist and
designer. I went to college and studied interior
design and architecture and I became a nationally
known interior designer in the next forty years. I
had the pleasure of doing our present President's
house, Mr. Reagan's house, when he was married to his
first wife, who was a very fine actress.
- That was Jane Wyman?
- Jane Wyman. And got my first cover of House
- What year was it that you did . .
- 1942. In 1938 I became an interior designer. I
became also at that same time I was interior
designing, I was designing fabrics for Shoemacher,
clothes for a very large firm called David Crystal.
I designed clothes for five years. Designed fabrics
for two years. Decorated for forty. And tried to
retire before I opened and started my Foundation for
the Performing Arts. I am now the President and
founder of the Barbara Barondess theater Lab for
professionals. I'm trying to pay back to the theater
and to my country. In some way I want to pay them
back with my knowledge and my experience to give the
young and the old the inspiration to keep going and
keep trying. Because everything is possible in the
United States if you're realistic. If you're willing
to work, you can be anything you want. My father
used to say, "except President of the United States."
But if he was alive he would probably see the day
when there might be a woman as President of the
United States. But I really believe that we can do
anything if we apply ourselves. And if we are
realistic about our talents. Because ambition is not
always as big as your talent. But if you are
realistic and you try, there is so much satisfaction.
And I think that this is the only country in the
world that gives you the opportunity and the
education. It's available to anybody. There are
schools to go to, night schools to go to, free
classes, books to read. And everything I own,
because of my tremendous pride at being a real
American, I earned. And my estate is divided by
percentages to all the public institutions in New
York, my city. And I am leaving all the memorabilia
that could possibly interest the Museum of Ellis
Island, to them. And they can choose anything that I
have that they want. I'm leaving a quarter of my
estate to the Public Library that I owe a great deal
to. The, I'm leaving an award that will be given to
the people who give their time to the non-profit
sector of the theater that will be distributed by the
library and the theater library at Lincoln Center.
And the New York City Museum is getting some of my
things. The clothes I designed are going probably to
the Metropolitan or Brooklyn Museum who has a clothes
collection. And everything I own will be left to
people who can go and see what I spent sixty years of
my life working on. And it's all going to happen, in
1976. And my best girlfriend, the Statue of Liberty,
is probably gonna get my ashes because I refuse to be
buried anywhere but have my ashes dropped in front of
her. What else can I tell you?
- Thank you very much. That was very interesting.
You've had a remarkable life.
- I'm grateful for it.
- That's the end of tape one, side two.