Kitty Marion, from the Kitty Marion Papers,
Manuscripts and Archives DivisionResidents of New York City, members of a metropolis that somehow simultaneously operates as a small village, are all familiar with certain “characters” who frequent public spaces. Today it is the “Naked Cowboy” one can find entertaining the tourists in Times Square, the affable gentleman selling vegetable peelers in Union Square, or even the kids who perform gravity-defying acrobatics on the A train. A similar character who was surely familiar to many in the streets of NYC during the nineteen-teens through the nineteen-thirties was Kitty Marion, hawker of the Birth Control Review.
Marion, a fiery redhead, was born in Germany and emigrated to Great Britain as a teenager. In her autobiography, a manuscript of which is held in the Manuscripts Division, she tells of her early career as an actress, then her increasing involvement with the British Suffragette movement. For her efforts as a brick-thrower and amateur arsonist, Marion was arrested numerous times by British authorities. Her response to the arrests—going on hunger strike—led her to be subjected to numerous force-feedings (for a pop culture version on these, I highly recommend the Hilary Swank film Iron Jawed Angels).
Suffragette procession, Oct. 7, 1911Around the time of the first World War, Marion moved to the United States, where she soon began her career as a New York City human landmark. She became involved with Margaret Sanger’s American Birth Control League, and in 1917 began writing for and selling their review daily on the streets of the city. Subjected to verbal abuse and occasional arrests under the Comstock laws for dealing in “obscene literature,” she claimed to have been arrested somewhere between 7 and 9 times. In the July 4, 1936 edition of The New Yorker, an article featuring Miss Marion quoted her as having been force-fed a total of 232 times over the course of her activist career. In 1930, after her tenure as the “circulation department” of the Birth Control Review came to an end, Marion became a teacher of diction for students of foreign birth, and worked at two schools in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. She lived in New York until her death in 1944. For more information on Miss Marion, see the finding aid to the Kitty Marion Papers (pdf).