Eleonora von Mendelssohn was a German stage actress who emigrated to America at the time of Hitler's rise to power. She was actively involved in aiding other emigres and had much contact with the German acting community in Hollywood and New York. The collection includes personal and business papers and memorabilia of Eleonora von Mendelssohn and family members dating from 1880-1949. Papers reveal aspects of Mendelssohn's life, as well as problems, concerns and political tenor of the German emigre community in the United States during this period.
Biographical/historical: Eleonora von Mendelssohn was born in Berlin, Germany on December 1, 1900. She was the daughter of Robert von Mendelssohn and Giulietta Gordigiani. Her father, an amateur cellist, was a descendant of Moses Mendelssohn, of whose line the famous composer, Felix Mendelssohn was a part. Robert and his brother Franz controlled the Mendelssohn Bank during the early decades of the 20th century.
Ms. Mendelssohn was named for the celebrated actress, Eleanora Duse, and like her namesake became an actress herself, despite her parents' objections. She joined the company of Max Reinhardt and made her stage debut in 1921 as Jessica in “The Merchant of Venice”. She was married three times - first, to Edwin Fischer, the Swiss pianist; second, to Jedre Jessinski, an Hungarian aristocrat; and last, to Martin Kosleck, a Hollywood actor and a fellow German emigre.
Eleonora von Mendelssohn was the first of the Mendelssohn family to leave Germany when Hitler came to power. Moving to Austria, however, proved to be equally unwise since she was politically outspoken and belonged to a branch of the family that retained its Judaism the longest. In 1938 she left Austria and emigrated to the United States. Settling in New York with her brother, Francesco, Eleonora soon began aiding other refugees.
After perfecting her English, she appeared on the New York stage in a number of plays including: “Flight to the West”, “The Russian People”, “The Secret Room”, “Daughters of Atreus” and “The Madwoman of Chaillot”. Her one major Broadway success was her role in “Flight to the West” where she played a Jewish woman fleeing Germany. She counted among her friends an array of notables from the international artistic community. Among them were Alexander Woolcott, Arturo Toscanini, Noel Coward, Thornton Wilder and Helen Hayes.
Tragedy seemed a part of her life. The dissolution of her family fortune, her brother's frail mental health and her own endless search for fame were aspects of a life compounded by Hitler's rise to power and her displacement from her homeland. In 1951, again tragedy struck when her husband, Martin Kosleck, fell from their apartment window and was severely injured. A few weeks later, Ms. Mendelssohn was found dead in bed from an overdose of sleeping pills. She died January 24, 1951 in New York City.
Content: The papers of Eleonora Mendelssohn (1880-1949) are mostly personal, and reflect her life and involvement in the theatre and film industries. The bulk of the collection is personal correspondence from approximately 1930-1949 and is a valuable source of primary data on the German immigrant community, their exodus from Germany after Hitler's rise to power, and their establishment in Hollywood during the 30's and 40's. Another important aspect of the correspondence are the letters from Noel Coward and his mother. This correspondence may be of particular interest to those seeking insight into the Coward family. On a personal and highly sensitive note is the correspondence concerning her brother Francesco's emotional illness and letters from her husband, Martin Kosleck, who periodically dealt with bouts of intense depression. Included in the personal correspondence are letters dating from the 1880's which belong to her father, Robert von Mendelssohn. These letters from various friends and acquaintences make up ttthe oldest section of the papers and are all in German. Much of the content has not been determined.
Ms. Mendelssohn was active in a number of refugee relief groups and her correspondence show her activities in the aid of German Jews seeking political asylum in the United States. Subject files reveal her activities in cases on an individual basis. Much of the business correspondence deals with the problems of extricating her family's assets from German and Swiss banks during and immediately following World War II. Letters from United States creditors seeking payment of debts also make up this group of papers.
Most of the correspondence, both personal and business, is in German, Italian and French. It is mostly handwritten and difficult to decipher. The English correspondence gives insight to the livesof the Hollywood emigres, the network of the German-Jewish community in the United States and her own personal life. These papers should be of interest to scholars of social history, political and immigration history of the World War II era and historians of film and theatre as well.
The ephemera consists of sketches, photographs and personal mementos. The most noteworthy are 31 sketches, mostly of Toscanini, for whom Mendelssohn held a great affection. There are also passports, literacy certificates and naturalization papers in this series of personal articles.
Acquisition: Gift of Leo L. Lerman, 1952; additional materials transferred from Theatre Collection, April 8, 1958
Funding: Encoding funded by the generous support of the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.