The New York Times remembers Madeleine Stern, “Faithful Friend”
The end of the year is a time for reflection and remembrance. We celebrate our successes, rue our shortcomings, and search for what lasts.
There can be few better examples of the latter than the life and work of Madeleine B. Stern. She and her life partner Leona Rostenberg met in 1929 at the Sabbath School of Temple Emanu-El, in Manhattan and began a journey of collaboration in living, in books, and in research, a partnership that would only end with Ms. Rostenberg’s passing in 2005 at the age of 96.
They moved in together in the 1930s in a small apartment in on East 88th Street, living there while continuing their studies. When Ms. Rostenberg’s doctoral dissertation was rejected by Columbia University in 1943, Ms. Stern gave her gift of consolation – a box of stationery embossed with the words “Leona Rostenberg — Rare Books” and a $1,000 loan to begin her own business in antiquarian books. Running the business from their apartment, Ms. Stern joined the firm the following year.
But in addition to growing into respected New York dealers in rare books (a universe dominated by men), together they sleuthed their way into the literary history of Louisa May Alcott. It had long been suspected by scholars that the bloodthirsty tales written by Jo March in Little Women had real life counterparts in Alcott’s writing life. It was Rostenberg who discovered Alcott’s pen name (A. M. Barnard) and Stern who uncovered the stories through the arduous culling of trashy periodicals of the 1860s. Together in the 1970s they published three volumes of the Alcott stories they collected.
They also co-wrote three memoirs of their work together, documenting the days and years they shared as partners: “Old & Rare: Thirty Years in the Book Business” (A. Schram, 1974); “Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion” (Doubleday, 1997); and “Bookends: Two Women, One Enduring Friendship” (Free Press, 2001). In one, they tenderly wrote:
"Our lives are our legacy, and it is a legacy dominated by the first-person plural."
Sources: “In Memoriam: Madeleine B. Stern,” Orchard House; “Madeleine B. Stern, Bookseller and Sleuth, Dies at 85,” New York Times.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "The New York Times remembers Madeleine Stern, “Faithful Friend”." (Viewed on April 8, 2020) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/dec/30/2007/madeleine-stern>.