Early in Ragtime, the characters attend a vaudeville show featuring a performer named Evelyn Nesbit. "Evelyn Nesbit," an elderly lady in the row behind me murmurs. "Didn't my grandfather tell me...?" Yes, he probably did. Like many figures in Ragtime's cast of characters, Evelyn Nesbit (1885-1967) was a real person. She was a beautiful Broadway chorine whose scandalous affair with the eminent architect Stanford White (1853-1906) made headlines that titillated and shocked all of America when her violent, mentally unbalanced millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw (1871-1947), shot and killed White -- before the horrified eyes of a packed opening-night audience at the roof-garden cabaret of the old Madison Square Garden. Evelyn was onstage at the time, appearing in a piece of froufrou called Mam'zelle Champagne. To add insult to fatal injury, the building had been designed by White's own firm.
"The Crime of the Century," as the tabloids styled it, sent Thaw to an insane asylum for several years, and drove Evelyn -- shunned by her in-laws after the details of her sexcapades with White were made public -- onto the vaudeville stage, where notoriety briefly made her a headliner. It also briefly made Mam'zelle Champagne a must-see -- though until the murder, according to the show's librettist, the performance had been going so badly that his mother thought he was the one who'd been shot. But the true tragedy of the event was that White's predilection for adolescent girls (he had seduced Evelyn when she was 16) had cut short the career of one of America's most brilliant architects. Had White lived, New York might look more like Renaissance Florence than a metropolis of forbidding glass-and-steel towers.
Nesbit isn't the woman in Ragtime with the most lurid history. That distinction would have to be awarded to Emma Goldman (1869-1940). An anarchist who preached free love and fought bitterly for worker's rights and women's independence, the brilliant Russian-Jewish immigrant was involved in all the major movements of her time. She even wrote and lectured on modern drama, campaigning as hard for Ibsen, Shaw and Chekhov as she did against child labor and sweatshops. Along the way, she found time for plenty of love affairs, chronicled lavishly in her two-volume autobiography, Living My Life (1931). The act that made Goldman most notorious, though, was one she didn't even commit and always strongly repudiated: In 1892, her lover Alexander Berkman attempted to assassinate the millionaire industrialist Henry Clay Frick at the front door of his mansion.
Despite her tenuous connection to the crime, Goldman was dogged ever after by an undeserved reputation as a kill-the-rich nihilist. In 1919, when the bigoted U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer began his "red raids," Goldman was among those deported to the new Soviet Union. Sharp-eyed as ever, she was among the first to perceive what a nightmare the "socialist paradise" would become. Within a few years she had left the U.S.S.R., finally settling in Canada. Anathema to the right, she won no friends on the left after publishing My Disillusionment With Russia (1925). It took the 1960's revival of feminism -- and Maureen Stapleton's Oscar-winning performance in the 1981 film Reds -- to refurbish her status as an icon.
Almost as controversial a figure as Goldman was Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), the most famous African-American leader of his day. Son of a slave, Washington struggled to educate himself while drudging in Virginia's coal mines; he earned his college room and board by working as a janitor. Teaching was Washington's mission and education his passion: To him it was a black American's only possible road to independence. An articulate, well-dressed, somewhat prim man, he preached moderation and slow-but-steady progress.
His approach was equally infuriating to white racists and to the rising generation of Northern, educated blacks whose chosen spokesman was W.E.B. Du Bois, and whose goal was an immediate end to the inequities of segregation. Washington withstood their attacks just as he endured the racist's invective, with dignified composure. Through the respect his integrity and calm inspired, he was able to make some enormous strides. His best-selling autobiography, Up From Slavery (1901), was most likely the first work of black literature to be read extensively in both black and white households. And he, too, made headlines, when he became the first black American to appear at a White House luncheon as a guest rather than a servant.
Both Henry Ford (1863-1947) and J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) must have had mixed feelings about Washington's brand of social progress. On the one hand, both of the era's most celebrated multimillionaires were enthusiasts for progress in the development of their own fields: Morgan's innovative diversification of his investments in effect invented conglomerate capitalism; Ford applied the assembly-line principle to offer millions of Americans easier access to motor vehicles. Politically, though, both were bedrock conservatives -- ruthless in business, resentful of government regulation, implacable foes of organized labor, and unsympathetic to the notion of equal rights for women and minorities. The more sophisticated Morgan traveled extensively in Europe, amassing a huge collection of paintings and rare books, which he public-spiritedly gave to New York. His library, now a beloved public institution, is the scene of Ragtime's most tense moments. Though even more generous in his public giving, Ford was a suspicious and xenophobic personality; the Ford-owned Dearborn Independent published antisemitic articles that aroused widespread protest during the era. He later apologized, but foreign-born and nonwhite workers were a notoriously limited part of Ford's work force until his plants were finally unionized in 1941.
One wonders if Ford marveled, like his fellow Detroiters and most of America, at the death-defying stunts of Harry Houdini (1874-1926) -- who was really Ehrich Weiss, the son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, from the neighboring state of Wisconsin. Magicians thronged the vaudeville circuits, but Houdini was a standout for his astonishing blend of physical dexterity and theatrical imagination. Though skilled in every branch of magic, he most enjoyed thinking up ever more difficult feats of escape; armchair psychoanalysts link the desire to his complex, intense feelings for his mother. Obsessed with the need to speak to her after her death, Houdini gained notoriety for his relentless crusade against phony spiritualist "mediums" who preyed on the bereaved by pretending to contact the dead. His friend Arthur Conan Doyle claimed that Houdini himself had the psychic power to do so. Still, when he died -- of an unexpected blow to the solar plexus -- he himself made no communication from the afterlife, though he had promised his friends to do so if it were possible.
Admiral Robert Edwin Peary (1856-1920) was obsessed by another type of escape -- to a land almost as inaccessible as the afterlife, the North Pole. A surveyor and civil engineer, Peary made six separate voyages, in the company of his African-American assistant, Matthew Henson, in his efforts to fulfill his desire to stand on the exact top of the globe. In the process, he mapped and surveyed much of Greenland and the North Sea, finally reaching the Pole -- he thought -- in 1909. His claim was challenged by a rival, Frederick Cook; subsequent research has verified that Peary, in fact, never reached the North Pole. But to the public of the Ragtime era, he was, like all of the show's historical figures, a hero a little larger than life-size -- just the kind of character you might want to see in a hit musical.
Chief theatre critic of The Village Voice, Michael Feingold has translated more than 50 plays, most recently Schiller's Mary Stuart, opening April 1 at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.