1873 – 1961
William Sanger, painter and architect, was born 12 November 1873 in Berlin to Elias (he used the name Edward in this country) and Henrietta (nee Wolffberg) Sanger. Family lore has it that Edward was an itinerant, sailor, explorer and merchant who had come and gone several times in and out of the United States before arriving here a final time with his family in 1878. Family lore also has it that Henrietta was the daughter of the Burgermeister of Koenigsburg, in East Prussia, now Kaliningrad, Russia, but this is unlikely because her family was Jewish, as was that of her husband. William thus came from a devoutly Jewish family, though he was non-observant.
William, born Wilhelm, was educated at Cooper Union in architecture from 1893-5 and later studied architecture at Atelier Masquery and painting at the Society Beaux Arts, at the Art Students League and at the Artists and Artisans Institute. He studied pictorial composition with Hugo Ballin, Edward Simons and Robert Blum. He also studied at the Atelier Chambron in Paris and in Italy (years unknown).
In 1902 William married Margaret Higgins, of Irish-Catholic heritage and a nursing student at the Manhattan Eye, Ear & Throat Hospital, whom he met while visiting a doctor for whom he was designing a house.
Due to his wife’s poor health, they moved to Hastings-on-Hudson, New York in 1906, where he designed a house for them to live in and at least three other residences which still stand, all in the Arts and Crafts Style.
According to available records, William was a contract draftsman for McKim, Mead and White, New York’s preeminent architectural firm and helped in the design of Pennsylvania Station among other buildings during this period. Work was episodic (architecture was a highly restricted profession, and William was nominally Jewish). He designed two tenements on 213th Street. He also worked as an artisan in stained glass to make ends meet.
In 1907 and 1913 he designed bronze drinking fountains for “man and beast” for the ASPCA in New York, which were erected at multiple locations around the city.
During this period, he was an official member of the Socialist Party of America and was a delegate with Morris Hillquit to numerous Socialist Party Conventions. He helped organize the Syndicalist Education League and organized their first mass meeting in November 1912.
The couple with their three children moved back to New York City at the end of 1910. William introduced his wife to his friends, the leading radicals of New York, including Big Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, John Reed, Eugene Debs, Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. She went to work for the Socialist Party as a woman’s organizer, then for the Industrial Workers of the World as a labor organizer. She published articles on sex education in The New York Call, the Socialist Party newspaper. After the Triangle Fire, William did architectural studies to improve the safety of loft manufacturing buildings.
William ran as the Socialist Party candidate for the Board of Alderman in the 1911 elections from the 21st Assembly District and came in a distant third behind the Republican and Democratic candidates.
Together William and Margaret worked on the Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912, Margaret bringing strikers’ children to refuge in New York, and William chairing the mass meeting that greeted the children in Union Square. She was one of the organizers, with Jack Reed, Mabel Dodge and Big Bill Haywood, of the ill-fated Paterson Silk Workers Strike Pageant in June 1913. The organizers met in the Sangers’ kitchen in their Harlem apartment. William and Margaret frequented Mabel Dodge’s Salon at her Fifth Avenue apartment, where Margaret spoke about sex to the assembled guests. Mabel in her Memoir described Margaret as a “Madonna-type.”
William attended the Armory Show in February 1913 and decided that he wanted to move to Paris to paint. The couple arrived in Paris in October, 1913. William rented a studio on the Impasse de Maine in Montparnasse, next to Antoine Bourdelle. He became close friends of Modigliani, among others, and Modigliani took over William’s studio when William returned to the United States after the Great War broke out. At one point Modigliani exchanged two of his drawings for one of William’s bottles of wine. William submitted several paintings to the Salon d’Automne, but none were selected by the jury. He also prepared submissions for the Salon des Artistes Francais. He also visited Gertrude Stein.
In January 1914 he wrote to Margaret:
“I went on to call on Gertrude Stein – last Saturday. She is quite interesting – has a decided Hebrew cast – a well-modeled face – rather masculine, Byron like – high forehead – somewhat short and decidedly stout. Asked her if she intended to go to America, replied that she had been thinking of it for the past ten years but now sort of gave it up.
Her place is filled with Post-Impressionist pictures from Cezanne.
Told about Mabel Dodge and Jack Reed being here last summer – says that the “Masses” was rather the same reading always rather monotonous.
Jack Reed better get busy and make it more interesting and exciting for Gertrude – she is very witty and is liable to baffle you by her little turns side stepping. Might call on her again.”
William's granddaughter, Nora Hoppe, relayed the story of a further, not so pleasant encounter between William and Gertrude. She notes that:
“We so remember him shaking the dinner table (sometimes tipping it over) just at the mention of her name. In written form (a letter of his), there only seems to be the account of his what must have been his rst meeting with her. But at another, subsequent meeting with her, they apparently discussed politics, and GS was apparently in favor of WWI and our grandfather suddenly had one of his stormy rages in her salon, and they got into a terrific argument. She couldn’t tolerate [it] and disagreement and had to kick him out—my grandmother told me that she had heard that GS literally kicked him in his bottom with her foot out the door, because she too flew into an uncontrollable rage!
I remember this anecdote being repeated to me when I was in university, because I had a professor who was writing a book on Gertrude Stein and he was curious about our grandfather’s encounter with her. So I told him what I’d heard and asked my grandmother about it again (that was in 1975). The other tidbits I heard were that he also apparently met Picasso in GS’s salon and that our grandfather remarked that GS always wore sandals (apparently in winter, as well).”
Margaret had left Paris before him with the children in a final separation. Upon her return to the United States, she launched an anarchist newspaper, The Woman Rebel, where among other things, she called for the legalization of what she called ‘birth control’. She was indicted by the US Government in August 1914 on multiple counts of obscenity, indecency, incitement to riot and incitement to assassination. She fled the country in October 1914 rather than stand trial. William resumed his architectural practice in New York and took custody of the children.
The Federal Government, in the guise of Anthony Comstock, the government’s chief anti-obscenity enforcer, after whom the Federal and State Comstock Laws were named, devised a plan to entrap William into revealing the whereabouts of his fugitive wife. Comstock sent an undercover agent, posing as a Mr. Heller, to William’s studio at 16 East 15th Street, and claiming to be an associate of his wife’s. He asked if Mr. Sanger could give him one of his wife’s pamphlets so that he could reprint it in different languages. William rummaged through his desk and turned over the pamphlet, Family Limitation, which contained 16 pages of contraceptive advice written by Margaret before she had fled the country. William was arrested by Anthony Comstock personally and was offered a deal: reveal your wife’s whereabouts and all charges would be dropped. William refused.
William stood trial on September 10, 1915 at New York Criminal Court at the Tombs. It was a raucous affair and reported by every newspaper of the day. Acting as his own lawyer, William made a passionate plea for free speech and the primacy of medical information, stating, ”the law is on trial, not I.” He proclaimed:
“I deny the right of the State to compel the poor and disinherited to rear large families and to drive their offspring to child labor when they should be at school and at play. I deny the right of the State to exercise dominion over the souls and bodies of our women by compelling them to go into unwilling motherhood. I deny the right of the State to arm an ignorant, irresponsible and prudish censorship with the right of search and confiscation, to pass judgment on our art and literature, and I deny as well to hold over the entire medical profession the legal ban of this obscenity statute.”
In his summation, William called Comstock “a religious and pornographic fanatic” and “the victim of incurable sexophobia.”
William was fined $150 or 30 days in jail. He refused to pay the fine, stating, “I will never pay that fine. I would rather be in jail with conviction than be free at a loss of my manhood and my self-respect.”
The presiding judge, Justice McInerney said: “Such persons as you who circulate such pamphlets are a menace to society. There are too many now who believe it a crime to have children. If some of the women who go around advocating equal suffrage would go around and advocate women having children they would do a greater service.”
William spent 30 days in the Tombs Prison.
Anthony Comstock caught a chill at the trial and died of pneumonia two weeks later.
Seeing the favorable publicity her husband was receiving and sensing a change in the political atmosphere, Margaret Sanger returned from Europe to face her trial.
Three weeks after her arrival, their youngest child, daughter Peggy, died of pneumonia at age 5.
The charges against Margaret Sanger were soon dropped by the Federal Government.
In October 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in America, in Brownsville, Brooklyn. She went to jail for 30 days. She went on to found Planned Parenthood.
In May 1917 with a world war raging, William journeyed to Spain to see El Greco’s paintings first hand. He traveled around northwestern Spain and painted watercolors of the Gates of Glory at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. These, and an oil landscape of the village of Vigo, were purchased in 1920 by Archer M. Huntington for his new Hispanic Society of America in New York. William returned to New York in April 1918.
William had a one-man show of his Spanish paintings at the Touchstone Gallery in New York in 1919. This exhibit was featured in The New York Call of 9 Nov 1919 and in The American Magazine of Art in June 1921 and was widely reviewed in the press.
He was a member of the Society of Independent Artists and the League of New York Artists.
In 1920 he designed a Jugendstil-style townhouse still standing at 114 Waverly Place in New York City. Christopher Gray featured it in The New York Times of June 27, 2013.
In 1922 he painted portraits of the children of art collector T. Catesby Jones (whereabouts unknown).
After the Sangers finally divorced in 1921, William married Vidya Merz, an actress, in 1924. They lived in Greenwich Village and had a daughter, Joan, born in 1927. Vidya later was a researcher at Newsweek Magazine.
In 1930, William and family moved to Albany where he took a job as an architect for the State of New York, designing government buildings. He was asked to design a prison but refused on political grounds. He taught evening classes in charcoal drawing to the draftsmen of the state architectural office. He worked on murals for the State Capitol Building (as yet undiscovered).
In 1932 he was laid off when the Depression deepened. The family moved to Woodstock, New York, where William painted as part of the artists’ colony there, and in 1935 they moved to Brooklyn, where he became a WPA artist. He designed a mural for the Girls Industrial High School in Brooklyn, but the Art Commission of the City of New York rejected his design, after it had been approved by the Board of Education. It is unclear if any of the ancillary murals in that high school are his.
William executed many etchings during this period, for the WPA, which are to be found in museums across the country.
He traveled to Maine in the 1920s, 30s and 40s to paint, venturing as far Down East as Eastport and Grand Manan Island. Albert Pinkham Ryder and El Greco were the major influences on his work.
In the 1930s, he donated a painting of the “Gates of Glory, Santiago de Compostela” to the Avery Library, School of Architecture of Columbia University (now lost).
During the Second World War, though a committed pacifist, he designed ship interiors at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. After the war, he worked as an architect for the Board of Education and designed schools. He took one final job as an architect for the New York City Water Department, designing aqueducts for the city water supply.
He died in 25 July 1961 at his home in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, age 87. He died surrounded by copies of Daumier prints.
At his death he was working on copper etchings for an illustrated biography of Thomas Paine.
His oils and watercolors are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, The Whitney Museum, the Newark Museum, the Hispanic Society of America and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, among others.
James Waldo Fawcett, a close friend of William’s, said in 1917:
“William Sanger is an artist, not a scientist. He is a revolutionary, not a reformer. He thinks in large dimensions; his forte of expression is pen, pencil and brush…. I have never known William Sanger to express any approval of anything anti-social; I have never found him tolerant of evil, of oppression, of injustice, of bitterness, or of unbrotherly struggle. But I have always found in him a ready sympathy and understanding of misery, unhappiness and poverty. He is such a man as children love, and tyrants hate.”
In 1919, after she had seen William’s Spanish paintings at the Touchstone Galleries, Margaret wrote the following letter to be given to him after her death. He predeceased her by five years and never saw the letter.
“Staten Island - December first 1919
After I went to see your exhibition of Spanish paintings I came over here for a brief rest— and have had time to review many things & acts which the busy activities of life in New York ever prevent. I wish I could tell you what emotions & memories surged through me when I went into those rooms where your paintings were. How they danced & swirled about me — how they hugged & caressed me each stroke of your brush seemed to stand out as a word to me which only you & I understand. I was thrilled and grieved — two emotions intertwining themselves into every shade of color you used to express what you saw in Spain. I was thrilled because you had achieved what I knew when I used to sit beside you & watch you paint, you would achieve and I was grieved because I knew of the suffering you have endured in the achievement.
That I have had a part in the latter role I fully realize — that you have suffered because of me I know — but I know too that just as some have achieved a certain kind of success on the wings of love — that no great Soul has ever won lasting fame but upon the ladder of grief & pain. Tragic? — of course it is — and tragedy is expressed by you in nearly everything you do.
My life seems to have been in the hands of forces I could not control. My early days at the hospital seemed so hard & cruel at the time, but today I see how necessary they were for the accomplishment of the work I am doing today.
My marriage to you and our love and the coming of the children, the saving for a home — the building of the house — the seeking, shifting, changing, interesting life all today have meaning & full value to me in this cause of humanity to which my life is dedicated.
Often I have felt your loneliness & sorrow — often I would like to seek you & fling my arms about you & hold your aching head to my heart to tell you of my tenderness for you and my love — but — Forces stronger than physical desire — stronger than personal love held me to my task to the work I have undertaken to do. But I want you to know this — for I have told it to many — that you are to me the lover of all the world — Your love for me beautified my life and made possible the outlook on love & passion & sex — which has given me the courage & strength to go forth to do.
For this I owe you much and though my love for you is big & broad & tender it is the same today as when first we decided to go the path of life together. It has never changed. Sometimes I think it was not to be that I should love too intensely.
This letter will be given to you only when I am out into the Great Beyond — when ever that is to be but I could not let life pass by without telling you that your great love has meant much to the world — and to womankind as well as to me. I miss you in the big decisions of my life and always regret that your nature is so intense that you could not accept my friendship & comradeship when it was out of my power to give you the love you desired — But it is well. Au-revoir dear one, ever lovingly.