Death of writer Sarah Brandstein Smith, “Queen of the shundroman"
“Sarah B. Smith is the most beloved Jewish newspaperwoman, the first who ever served as a reporter on a Jewish paper, and the one who has triumphantly overcome the misgivings of editors who mistrusted the abilities of a mere woman writer.” So wrote The Day on December 2, 1934 in an interview with Brandstein Smith to commemorate her 20 years of writing for the daily.
Author Sarah Brandstein Smith was born in Bustyahaza, Hungary (now Bushtino, in the Ukraine) on July 15, 1888 and came to the US at the age of 15, several years before her parents and two siblings immigrated. After working for a time in a sweatshop, she began writing for the Forward in 1908 and became a reporter for the Morning Journal later that year. Her first language was Hungarian, and she rapidly immersed herself in learning Yiddish so that she could become a newspaper writer. She joined the staff of The Day, where she worked for decades, reporting on courts and crime in New York City. Her columns for The Day, called “Ver Iz Shuldig?” (Who is Guilty?), were later collected in a book.,
Irving Howe described her as the "queen of the shundroman" (soap-opera serial) in his book, World of Our Fathers: “With an eye that quickly got to the heart of the lurid,” Smith wrote quick sketches of courtroom scenes. Howe described them as “a monotone of horrors about a mother strangling her offspring, an engineer killing his wife because she mocks his taste in music, a madam crying out to the court, ‘You punish me in public and kiss me in private.’” Smith went on to write more than a dozen serials for The Day outside of her regular column and a total of twenty-two widely read novels. Howe recognized her growth as a writer by noting, “Her serials touched upon genuine problems and yearnings in the lives of her readers.”
Smith also wrote in English, including a play co-written with her daughter, Lucille S. Prumbs, called Piper Paid, that ran at the Ritz Theatre on Broadway in 1934. Taken from a real-life story she witnessed in court, the plot involved a girl who is engaged to one man, loves another, and has an incidental affair with a third. Another play written with her daughter, Ever the Beginning, was made into the film My Girl Tisa, featuring Lili Palmer, Sam Wanamaker, Alan Hale, and Stella Adler. The story about a young Hungarian immigrant named Tisa Kepes was loosely based on her own family history (Kepes was Sarah’s mother's maiden name). She was married to Max Smith, a businessman, and had two children, both writers.
Sarah B. Smith died on April 29, 1968 in Babylon, Long Island.
Her recipe for success, as related by The Day in 1934: “When you work, forget you are a woman. Don’t ask or expect privileges, don’t try to make your way with the help of dress, makeup, feminine fripperies and flirtations. Do your work competently, loyally, carefully. Be reliable. Only on the ladder of merit can one mount to success.”
Sources: “World of Our Fathers,” Irving Howe, 1976; Review of Piper Paid, “Sarah Smith Learned Yiddish to Become Newspaper Woman,” JTA; My Girl Tisa, IMDB; Review of My Girl Tisa, New York Times; Prof. Gale Antokal, Sarah B. Smith’s great-niece.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Death of writer Sarah Brandstein Smith, “Queen of the shundroman" ." (Viewed on December 2, 2023) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/apr/29/1968/death-of-writer-sarah-brandstein-smith-queen-of-shundroman>.