From Tokyo to New York, In Search of History
When the question arrived in our inbox at Ask NYPL, I noticed the email address ended in ".jp"
Mariko had approached the Asian Division of the Library of Congress. She asked if there was any possibility of finding information about her mother's employer, a Mrs. Obata, as she wanted to write about her. In 1931, Mrs. Obata had performed a traditional Japanese dance in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel "wearing a Kimono with a Shimada wig." When Mrs. Obata danced there, she was the only Japanese member of the Rubinstein Club — a women's choral group founded in New York in 1887. The reference specialist suggested that Mariko contact the NYPL as it held materials related to the Waldorf Astoria.
By way of introduction, Mariko said she had worked for the last 37 years as "a high school teacher in the Saitama Prefecture of greater Tokyo." I pictured myself in her classroom, and knew I wanted to be the star pupil by turning in a first-rate research report.
First, I reviewed a summary of the records of the Waldorf-Astoria held by the Manuscripts and Archives Division but concluded that Mrs. Obata's one appearance there in 1931 as a dancer representing Japan among the nations of the world would not make it into the Waldorf's records — which typically included stays of presidents, diplomats and the stars of stage and screen. However, I did think that a party in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria might well make it into the social pages of The New York Times whose full run is available as a database at all NYPL locations. Attempts to locate Mrs. Obata at the Waldorf at one time in the early 1930s soon failed; nowhere in the pages of The New York Times could I find her distinctive last name.
Thinking creatively, it occurred to me to consider how a reporter for The New York Times of that era might have misspelled Suechiyo Obata's transliterated name. Sure enough, on my third assay, I found one reference in October, 1931 to a: "Suyechigo Obato" as a traditional dancer of Japan. Jackpot! Under a small headline, "Pageant Staged by Rubenstein Club," I read that a crowd of 2,500 came to enjoy an "International Revue at Autumnal Breakfast Hosted by Waldorf." To learn more about the Rubinstein Club itself, I consulted the Catalog of the NYPL. The Music Division of the Library of Performing Arts held an old clippings file of newspaper articles about the Rubinstein club as well as the Papers of William Rogers Chapman, its founder. The Finding Aid noted that after its founding in 1887, the Rubinstein Club primarily performed at the Waldorf Astoria, where Mr. Chapman had also lived.
Shortly after, I informed Mariko of the verification of Mrs. Obata's performance, and included the text from The Times article. Mariko replied she might actually be travelling to the United States, as she planned to re-trace the steps of Mrs. Obata, about whom she intends to write a book.The dancing Mrs. Obata arrived in San Francisco in 1916, and returned home from New York City in 1934 after her performance at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Months later, another email arrived. Mariko had never been to New York before — much less performed library research in another language. She announced she was flying to San Francisco, then emulating Mrs. Obata's trans-continental trip via Amtrak. In New York City, Mariko wanted to see the papers of the Rubinstein Club as well as some photographs of the Waldorf's Grand Ballroom. Mariko informed me that she would meet me at the Music Division in May.
Ahead of her arrival, I thought about how I might be able to shed a little more light for Mariko on Mrs. Obata's life in New York City. Mariko had informed me that Mr. Obata had been a "successful executive" and that Mrs. Obata had taught at the Marinello Academy of Beauty and worked at its related Salon. So I went to the Microforms Division of the NYPL and quickly obtained the microfilm of the New York Telephone Directories for 1931. I was not optimistic about finding the exact address of Mrs. Obata's home as I knew that according to the 1940 Census only one in seven New York families owned a home telephone — and I was working ten years before that date. However, to my pleasant surprise (and as a result of Mr. Obata's business success) I located the Obata's telephone and home address on a fashionable, tree-lined block on the Upper West Side — as well as the address of the Marinello College of Beauty (on West 46th Street, in "Little Brazil") and its Salon in a building at 5th Avenue and 13th Street (now occupied by the New School).
On a fine spring day in Manhattan (I had arranged to take the day as my free day away from work), I escorted Mariko by taxi to Mrs. Obata's home, school and business. Mariko took a great number of photographs and copious notes for her book — and spoke with enthusiasm throughout the day of "the warmth of New Yorkers" and of the resources of the NYPL. She graciously allowed me to share her story here.