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Why Mark Rothko Dropped Out of Yale

An excerpt from Annie Cohen-Solal’s new biography of one of the most influential American painters of the 20th century

Jewish Lives (Sponsored)
February 24, 2015
Mark Rothko, Yorktown Heights, ca. 1949.(Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia Commons)
Mark Rothko, Yorktown Heights, ca. 1949.(Brooklyn Museum via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a sponsored post on behalf of Yale University Press and their Jewish Lives series.

How could a young man of 18 years—the image of a 1920s intellectual, with a high forehead, an intense gaze behind round glasses, and a combed-back mass of wavy black hair—who entered with such enthusiasm into Yale, this temple of knowledge, so severely flounder there? Why would this voracious student, craving intellectual debates, so confident in his abilities after his string of successes in Portland, Oregon, completely fail to find his place at this elite university? Why did the trajectory of Marcus Rothkowitz, who for the past eight years had been thrown into a dynamic, frenzied integration into American society—from Dvinsk to Portland—falter so easily at this point, in less than two years in New Haven, which would surely seem to have so much to offer him? Was it due to his youthful idealism and ingenuousness? To a matter of timing? Not just that. What, then, lay behind the dismal failures of his freshman and sophomore years at Yale?

In the 1920s, American writers, poets, and painters started extolling the beauty of the United States, which experienced a period of exceptional economic prosperity following the end of the First World War. But at the same time, the country turned in on itself. These were jittery years of heightened nationalism, tinged with xenophobia and typified by fear of “Reds” (communists) and distrust of immigrants. Consequently, Congress passed three successive, highly restrictive immigration laws: the Immigration Act of 1917, which introduced a literacy test; the Emergency Quota Act of 1921; and the National Origins Act of 1924. It was in the midst of these developments, in late August 1921, that Marcus R. began his studies at Yale, and his personal journey must be viewed through the lens of the peculiar demographics of Jewish immigrants over the previous four decades. The number of Jewish citizens rose from three thousand in the early nineteenth century to a quarter of a million in 1880, the result of the arrival of numerous German Jews who quickly and effectively assimilated throughout the country. Following the wave of pogroms in the Russian empire, the influx of Jews coming from Eastern Europe took the form of massive immigration. Between 1881 and 1920, 2.3 million additional migrants reached the “golden door” of Ellis Island. And Marcus R. was among them.

In Portland he had done everything he could to fit in, relying on his intellect to construct an identity for himself in his new country. He learned English, abandoned the synagogue, worked at menial jobs, wrote intense articles, took political stances, fought the battles of a young rebel, acquired a small amount of recognition in Little Odessa—thanks to the community network of neighborhood house and the publication of his fiery and precocious writings—and attended the chemistry classes of Lincoln High’s popular teacher Mr. Thorne (a Yale graduate). It was through Mr. Thorne that Marcus met Dr. Angier, the dean of Yale University, who had come to Portland to recruit bright, young graduates in Oregon. In a private meeting he had told the high school students that “money was no object as long as [applicants] had brains and were good students.” And so Marcus boarded the train to New Haven along with Aaron Director and Max Naimark. In fact, Yale was not all that unfamiliar to him. His Aunt Esther’s husband, Abraham Weinstein, had made a fortune in the schmates business in New Haven, and, among their nine children, four had already been admitted to Yale: Jacob, Alexander, and Daniel earned their bachelor degrees in 1908, 1909, and 1920, respectively; the last one, Isadore, was still in his junior year. Furthermore, young Marcus had stayed with the Weinsteins in their New Haven home for ten days when he first landed in the United States.

But Marcus Rothkowitz was not a Weinstein, and in the months that followed his arrival in New Haven he was to become a pariah. He soon discovered that everything he had been told about this prestigious institution was a lie. He further understood that what mattered, in fact, was not so much being admitted into the elite school, but rather being accepted there, and fitting in. In the course of a few weeks, he would learn that “the Yale social system was based more on breeding than on merit,” particularly when it came to sports. He was soon to discover the cynicism and hypocrisy of a caste-based micro-society that sought to protect and reproduce itself, in particular by excluding new, upwardly mobile immigrants who, in those years of rampant nationalism, were deemed threatening to the system. With the unpleasant feeling that he would, at best, be “tolerated” in this prestigious school, he gradually sank back into perceiving himself as a wretched stowaway, a second-class citizen, a Russian Jew, a mere immigrant.

With an enrollment of 826, the class of 1925 was the largest in the college’s history—some referred to it as a “mammoth class.” While the class size caused some panic among school administrators, they were even more concerned that the class included a record number of Jewish students. The administrators circulated memo upon memo to guard against this worrisome trend. In January 1922, Russell H. Chittenden, the director of Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School, wrote to President James Angell to deplore the increasing “number of Hebrews” enrolled in the science departments. In April of the same year, Alfred K. Merritt, the college registrar, alerted Angell to the fact that representation of “the chosen race” had grown excessively: from 2 percent in the class of 1901, Jewish students rose to 7.5 percent of the class of 1921, and now to an all-time high of 13 percent of the class of 1925. Frederick S. Jones, the college dean, summarized for President Angell the impact of Jewish students’ academic talents on their predominantly WASP classmates in these terms: “While many of these Hebrew boys are fine students, I think the general effect on the scholastic standing is bad. Some men say that they are not disposed to compete with Jews for first honors; they do not care to be a minority in a group of men of higher scholarship record, most of whom are Jews.”

In short, Marcus R. realized from the start that he was stigmatized precisely because he was bright. He had been raised in accordance with a strong model that, with his years of Talmudic education, had become his true identity: the all-powerful nature of study. As Dan Oren aptly describes it, “The Jews’ desire for college was tied to their traditional education values and to the growth of social mobility as a function of degree of formal education.” By denying him entry into its exclusive society, Yale, that pseudo-temple of learning, hampered the development of the identity of the young prodigy from Dvinsk. After conducting a detailed assessment of the Jewish students on the campus, Dean Jones found that while the majority of them belonged to humanistic organizations like the Society for the Study of Socialism, the classical music club, and the debate club, they hadn’t joined any athletic teams at a time when sports had become a powerful vehicle for social inclusion and advancement. Marcus R. remained almost entirely absorbed in politics, classical music, and debating, avoiding athletics because of his clumsiness and lack of physical coordination. Yet sports could have helped him. In fact, Russian Jews eager to conform favored basketball as the most effective means of assimilation. The case of Joseph Weiner (BA 1916) had already made a lasting impression at the time: Joseph belonged to the Atlas Club, the club for young Jews at New Haven High School, and became the first Jewish student to play on Yale’s varsity basketball team. Soon after, Weiner stated that he “felt he was shattering the stereotype of the nebbish Jew,” asserting that “no longer, would people have to pity the helpless Jew.”

Marcus R.’s situation at Yale, in contrast, deteriorated in stages. During his freshman year, he had to rent a bedroom in New Haven because his status as scholarship recipient denied him the right to live in a campus dormitory. So, with his friend Max Naimark he moved into a third-floor bedroom in the home of Dr. Herman Grodzinsky, on 840 Howard Street. Situated in the city’s Jewish ghetto, he felt like an outcast once again. Then, in his sophomore year, following the departure of Naimark, who had dropped out, Marcus R.’s scholarship was converted into a loan, which enabled him to get a room on campus, in Lawrence Hall. At this point, however, as a direct consequence of the quota, or numerus clausus, that the university had just established, he was compelled to work in order to pay for his studies, which left him disadvantaged in comparison with other students. Once again he took on menial jobs, working in the laundry room and cleaning tables as a busboy in the dining hall. When he wasn’t busy working or rushing to or from his Aunt Esther Weinstein’s, where he ate both lunch and dinner, Marcus R. buried his nose in books of English Literature, French Literature, European History, History of philosophy, psychology, economics, math, and physics. But it was already too late. Although “brilliant and scholarly,” according to his classmates, he received mediocre grades—slightly above average (C-plus at the time). First marginalized by the other students because of his origins, then handicapped by the loss of his scholarship, and ultimately disappointed by the whole experience, Marcus R. lost interest in what Yale could offer him and left.

From the outset, the young Rothkowitz was destined to be excluded from this “inaccessible club of young WASPs.” As a townie, he belonged to the 39 percent of students who, for lack of space in the dormitories, had to live off-campus. As a former public school student, he did not belong to the exclusive east coast prep school coterie. And finally, as the son of European immigrants, he lacked the refinement of the upper class. On Yale’s campus in the fall of 1921, therefore, Marcus R. bore all the wrong credentials. How could he not feel powerless? Despite his efforts, it was as if social determinism doomed him to failure.

Of course, some claimed that if the campus’s Jews were not tolerated by the elite, it was the result of their clannish behavior, their own practice of self-seclusion, their refusal to subscribe to the WASP ethos, and their display of poor civic and ethical qualities. Of course, some rationalized that discrimination had its origins in a circular process, exclusion causing seclusion and seclusion causing, in turn, exclusion: “the more desperately the Jews wanted to climb the social ladder, the more panic-stricken the others became at the idea of becoming invaded.” There were some counterexamples, like Theodore Zunder (BA 1923), born into an eminent German Jewish family of New Haven, who was elected to a fraternity in 1921. There was also John M. Schiff (BA 1925), one of Marcus R.’s classmates at Yale and the grandson of Jacob Schiff, one of the country’s most powerful bankers, businessmen, and philanthropists. When John M. Schiff arrived on campus, preceded by his family’s reputation, he was in a position to rub shoulders for four years with his WASP comrades from Taft High School, which accounted for the majority of Yale’s young graduates. Climbing the rungs of power to the top, Schiff managed the campus magazine (The Record), became captain of the varsity swimming team, and was admitted to the Beta Theta Pi fraternity—an extremely rare exception for a Jew.

The fraternities upheld the logic of social castes, and they traditionally excluded Jews. With their old and hermetic rituals, they opened up infinite possibilities at a time when the campus was underequipped, providing meals, organizing evening parties, and creating social networks—the privileged helping the privileged. While Marcus R. was no Weinstein, he was even less of a Schiff, and in addition to the ethnic discrimination of the WASPs, the social division of the Jews worked against him. Caustic and rebellious, he created with Aaron Director—in an ironic and desperate attempt to assert himself—a polemic journal, the Yale Saturday Evening Pest, which disappeared when he exited the school.

In one of his early journalistic enterprises, he taunted Yale students who “instead of talking about art and literature … spend their evenings in basketball discussion, bridge playing and dancing” and declared outright that “the whole institution is a lie and serves as a cloak of respectability for a social and athletic club.” He condemned the social conventions that, at the expense of academic values, ruled that “house of the dead,” the university. “The undergraduate cringes before fancies that were born in his own mind,” he wrote, implicitly referring to the golden calf of the Bible. He stressed the fact that Yale students worshiped an idol they had themselves built and that dictated their behavior, diverting them from essential values (work, truth, and friendship). “False gods! Idols of clay!” he exclaimed. “There is only one way to smash them, and that is a revolution in mind and spirit in the student body at Yale University. Let us doubt. Let us think …” Describing this adoration of the golden calf, Marcus R. blacklisted five deceitful “false gods”: athletics, extracurricular activities, social success (by way of the fraternities), the opinion of the majority, and grades. He also criticized the superficial and fake behaviors—flattery and hero worship—that all too often ruled campus relationships. But he reserved his most vehement criticism for fraternities, athletes, pompous academics, and the submissive majority.

Candidly wishing that fraternities would one day be “at the service of friendship,” Marcus R. valiantly expounded his vision of education—but did he really believe in it? “We shall see what is as plain as daylight—that blind conformity to the custom of the majority, to the average, brings mediocrity, and crushes genius.” In the future, he wrote, “the individual and his individualism will be respected. The atmosphere of a well-drilled army will change to one of varied interests and modes of self-expression. … The university will provide a home for romantic genius. It will aim at preparing students not to make a living but to live. … Yale will become an educational institution, with the library at its core. It will breed a race of students whose visits to the instructors will be for the purpose of discussing intellectual problems, never to find out marks. They will make their search for truth their chief aim as long as they are at the university.” These statements, echoing his previous essays published in The Cardinal and The Neighborhood, could be considered as Mark Rothko’s early manifesto.

Marcus R.’s failure at Yale is indeed ironic. When he joined the school during President Angell’s tenure, “one thousand flowers were blooming in one thousand places across the university.” And, in a place “where tradition had always governed … now acting, singing, writing, painting took on a new dignity and excitement.” But this new progressive policy developed by Yale’s president did not actually benefit the young immigrant. He would find “dignity and excitement” only in the arts and a few years later, in another context. Did these dark years signal the end to his age of innocence? At 20, Marcus R. left Yale for New York, where he found a room with relatives in Harlem, but he kept moving from one address to the next (c/o Mrs Goreff, 19 West 102nd street, New York; c/o Harold Weinstein, New Haven; c/o Kate Rothkowitz, Portland), working one menial job after another, living on a tiny income (three dollars a week), pushing himself to the limit, taking advantage of his extended family’s support, becoming a pattern cutter in the New York garment district, then accountant for Samuel Nichtberger, a relative of the Weinsteins from New Haven. Shuttling between New Haven, New York, and Portland, most often by hitchhiking, he skipped from encounter to encounter, passion to passion, brooding over society and growing bitter toward his older brother for not supporting him enough during these years of chaos.

According to the legend, Marcus Rothkowitz discovered his calling by chance or, rather, by epiphany. One day in October 1923 he visited a friend who studied figure drawing at the Art Students League. “It is the life for me,” he said on the spot, embarking immediately on two months of lessons there. He returned to Portland in April 1924 to take a stab at theater for a few months, working with Josephine Dillon, the wife of Clark Gable. His fluctuations between cities and institutions lasted for a few years. Finally, in January 1925, Marcus R. returned to New York and to painting. He first studied at the New School of Design in the graphic arts workshop of Arshile Gorky before selecting, at the Art Students League, the life drawing classes of George Bridgman, and then the still life classes of Max Weber, and finally attending an illustration workshop at the Educational Alliance Art School.

Excerpted from Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel by Annie Cohen-Solal, published by Yale University Press. Copyright 2015 by Annie Cohen-Solal. Reprinted by Permission.

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