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Jewesses with Attitude

Lucy Kramer Cohen: A public-spirited woman/a private inner life

Ever dream of making a film about someone you wanted the world to know more about? I did, and after ten years, I have completed A Twentieth Century Woman: Lucy Kramer Cohen 1907-2007 about the life of my aunt.  It started out as a family project, but as the years went by, I found it was a story that resonated with me and, as I learned, with others who had never known this remarkable woman. 

The daughter of Jewish immigrants from Austro-Hungary, Lucy attended Barnard College and Columbia University, where she studied with and worked for Franz Boas, one of the founders of modern anthropology. In 1931, she earned a masters degree and married Felix Cohen, who had just completed a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard and a law degree from Columbia. 

During the 1930s, they worked with and for Native Americans to correct the injustices of the past and to give Indians more control over their lives and lands as part of Roosevelt’s “Indian New Deal.”

The 50-minute film captures Lucy’s intensity, intelligence, and complexity; viewers often mention that they “want to find out more about her.” Although she shared much of her life openly with family and friends, she guarded her private thoughts and feelings. In our world of confessional autobiographies and Facebook frankness, Lucy’s reserve is unfamiliar and a bit baffling to us.

Although Lucy was a vivid and familiar presence in my life from childhood on, as I worked on the film I realized how much I hadn’t known about her. She rarely discussed her own accomplishments and almost never her own feelings; these she kept to herself. She was open and warm and, at the same time, very reserved.

Lucy Kramer Cohen was a professional woman as well as a mother of two daughters. Widowed in her mid 40s, she would come home neatly turned out in her suit, hat and handbag from her job. She also managed to be the center of an ever-expanding network of family, friends and colleagues. She organized holiday celebrations — like the annual “succos” party in the back garden that the neighborhood kids called the “circus.” She extended friendship, hospitality (and sometimes credit) to countless people.

When we asked Lucy about herself, she told us about the people she had met or visited and what they were doing. She told wonderful stories and good stories were told about her: for example, when Eleanor Roosevelt invited Felix and Lucy to a reception at the White House, Lucy appeared. “Where is Felix?” inquired Mrs. Roosevelt. “He had to stay home with the children,” she responded.

Felix Cohen was and remains a towering figure in Indian law. I wanted to explore what Lucy accomplished. I wanted to capture her energy, her intelligence, her story before it was too late. In 2000 I bought a video camera and began interviewing her. At first she was ill-at-ease, reluctant to talk about her own life. Still, I could tell that she thought the interview was appropriate, like being interviewed for a respectable book or article.  She was in charge of what and how she responded.  But when I tried to capture on video her informal exchanges with family and friends, she couldn’t stand it. She would demand that I “turn that thing off.” I was careful not to prompt an ultimatum that would stop my little project. Even in our interviews, I avoided asking questions that she might think were too intimate.

After Lucy died in 2007, I began working on the film in earnest. I read family papers and interviewed surviving old friends. I learned the facts of her life in detail, but her feelings remain her own. The viewer meets Lucy as she presented herself to me and to her family and friends. 

If you want to meet Lucy, you can order a DVD or watch a chapter-by-chapter preview of the film at lucykramercohen.com.

Lucy Kramer Cohen portrait
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Photo by Vernon E. Duroe, Lucy Kramer Cohen's teacher at Brooklyn PS 144 and a well known amateur photographer. Cohen was about 17. Image via Felix S. and Lucy Kramer Cohen Photograph Collection, courtesy Gene Cohen Tweraser and Karen Cohen Holmes.
Lucy Kramer Cohen, 1932
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Felix S. and Lucy Kramer Cohen Photograph Collection. Courtesy Gene Cohen Tweraser and Karen Cohen Holmes.

How to cite this page

Bickel, Nancy Kramer. "Lucy Kramer Cohen: A public-spirited woman/a private inner life." 10 April 2012. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 18, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/lucy-kramer-cohen-public-spirited-womana-private-inner-life>.

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