Village People: Elizabeth Fisher Read and Esther Lape
(This post is part of a series called Village People: A Who’s Who of Greenwich Village, which will explore some of this intern’s favorite Village people and stories.)
20 East 11th Street now bears a plaque, which tells us that Eleanor Roosevelt lived here while she was First Lady. It says nothing, however, about the fact that the couple who owned the building were Roosevelt’s close friends and political advisors. Elizabeth Fisher Read and Esther Lape met Roosevelt in the 1920s. They were highly influential women in their own right: Read wrote a number of books on international law, Lape taught English at various colleges and was a founder of the League of Women Voters, and both worked with the American Foundation.
Read had graduated from Smith College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and had been active in the women’s suffrage movement in the 1910s. She typified the ‘New Woman’ of the 1920s: independent both personally and financially, politically active, and emancipated both politically and socially. In the Village, she worked for a number of social and political causes while also practicing law. She was the director of research for the American Foundation, wrote a book on international law, translated and edited another book on the World Court, and helped her partner, Lape, edit a book on expert medical testimony.
Lape had graduated from Wellesley College, and taught English at Swathmore College, the University of Arizona, and Barnard College. She was also a journalist, researcher, and publicist, and one of the founders of the League of Women Voters. She and Read published a journal called City, State and Nation, and worked together at the American Foundation.
Roosevelt first met Read when she became director of the League of Women Voters’ national legislation committee in 1920. Their discussion of politics and league activities lead to a close friendship with both Read and Lape in the 1920s, when the three of them would meet in the Village several times a week as part of the New Women movement. Roosevelt was also a frequent visitor to their home at 10 East 11th Street, where they spent hours reading poetry and, of course, discussing politics.
In 1923, Lape administered the Bok Peace Prize, publishing the twenty most interesting proposals from the competition, and writing an introductory analysis. Her work received great praise, but in 1924, the United States Senate began investigating the Bok Peace Prize as a tool of foreign governments or institutions. Roosevelt and Narcissa Vanderlip were identified as two of the most influential members of the selection committee. Whether or not this would have helped is unclear: the hearings were suspended because of President Woodrow Wilson’s death, and were never recommenced.
Read eventually became Roosevelt’s personal attorney and her financial advisor in addition to being a political and feminist mentor. Roosevelt regularly consulted both her and Lape on political issues, from recognition of the Soviet Union to the 1935 Social Security Act. As First Lady, Roosevelt rented a room in their building, using it to escape the pressures of public life, and as a refuge for herself and her friends. She also spent time at their country home in Westbrook, CT, from where she wrote her ‘My Day’ column.
In 1943, Read died at the Greenwich Village apartment. Lape continued her friendship with Roosevelt, as well as her own work. Even when the Second World War brought attention elsewhere, Lape continued pushing for better healthcare. In 1955, the American Foundation sponsored the publication of her Medical Research: A Midcentury Survey.
Lape also played a large part in creating Roosevelt’s legacy after her death in 1962. In 1965, Lape was one of a group that asked the Nobel Committee to consider posthumously awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Roosevelt (which, however, went to UNICEF that year). Later, she was a source of information for Joseph Lash’s biographies of Roosevelt. She died, the last of the trio, in 1981.