This is the third in a four-part series by Mark Hebscher for The Canadian Jewish News. If you missed earlier parts you should start reading here.
“What we need, as part of the Zionist Movement, is Muscular Judaism. A cadre of young men and women who are strong, who are going to dispel the image of a weak Jew, and who will compete against the world on the athletic field, perhaps someday on the military field.”
—Dr. Max Nordau, Second Zionist Congress, 1898
With her military training and athletic prowess, Ida Schnall was a perfect example of the Muscular Jew that Nordau was referring to.
Virtually every event she entered against other women, she won.
Often, she was the only woman competing against men—and she also still won.
Ida was so competitive that a temper sometimes got the best of her. She didn’t like to lose, especially if she felt there was an injustice being done.
She believed women were losing their battle with James E. Sullivan, the amateur sports czar, and she courageously stood up to him.
With her Olympic hopes dashed, Ida began a campaign to get U.S. women into the 1916 Games, which were to be held in Berlin. With the Suffrage movement in full swing (women would win the right to vote in 1920) Ida tried to organize a womens’ amateur athletic union, which ultimately failed.
But she continued to make headlines.
Ida Schnall became a Broadway star in 1912 as a member of The Passing Show. The revue garnered excellent newspaper reviews, which highlighted Ida and her fancy diving into a strange tank onstage at the Winter Garden Theatre during the harem scene. Al Jolson was so impressed that he took the show on the road to Boston for several weeks.
Around this time, Ida met an insurance salesman named Adolph William Schnitzer, born in 1883 in Krakow, Poland. They married on Jan. 25, 1913, and had two children within five years: Solomon Joseph and Lester Malcolm.
After the First World War, when anti-German sentiment prevailed, Adolph changed the family name to Carver. (Schnitzer in Yiddish means a carver—as in woodworker.) Even though she was still known professionally as Schnall, she became Ida Schnitzer for a time, and then Ida Carver. Adolph was Will Carver. Their boys would be known as Jay Carver and Ronald Lester Carver.
The Female Giants were becoming the talk of New York by 1913. Ida befriended a few newspaper reporters and photographers, who she would notify whenever a story seemed worthy of attention.
So, when she worked out with Giants star pitcher Rube Marquard at the Polo Grounds—wearing a full length dress, long sleeves, an oversized hat and shoes with heels—it was a picture that made all the newspapers.
The biggest story came as the result of a “practice” on May 25, between the Blues and the Reds at Manhattan’s Lenox Oval—at Lenox Avenue and 144th Street.
A few weeks earlier, the Female Giants had played in front of 1,000 people at the Westchester golf grounds, and word had quickly spread about this Sunday afternoon game in Manhattan.
According to the New York Times, over 1,500 spectators turned out—none of whom were required to pay admission.
Incredibly, the game was halted with the score 3-2 in the bottom of the 7th, two out and the bases loaded. That’s when several police officers swarmed the field, and a detective named Mahoney strode onto the mound and gave Ida a summons to appear in court the next day.
The charge: Violating the city’s blue laws by charging admission on the Sabbath. (Of course, they weren’t referring to the Jewish day of rest.)
In a Harlem court the next day, it was discovered that the ladies were handing out programs and asking for donations rather than charging admission. Insufficient evidence, said the judge. Case dismissed.
But still, Ida was convinced that Sullivan and his cronies were responsible for this harassment. She wrote a letter to the Times, published July 13, 1913:
“I read in the newspapers wherein James E. Sullivan is again objecting to girls competing against boys in a swimming contest. He is always objecting and never doing anything to help the cause along for a girls AAU. He has objected to my competing in diving at the Olympic games in Sweden because I am a girl. He objects to a mild game of ball or any athletics for girls. He objects to girls wearing a comfortable bathing suit. He objects to so many things that it gives me cause to think he is very narrow minded and that we are in the last century. It’s the athletic girl that takes the front seat today, and no one can deny it. I only wish that some of our rich sisters would consider the good they can do with only a small part of their wealth and start something like an AAU for girls and bring out healthy girls who will make healthy mothers.”
(In her memoirs, Ida admitted to confronting Sullivan on several occasions at his office and by telephone, demanding that women be allowed to compete.)
When it became apparent that the Great War would cancel the 1916 Berlin Olympics, Sullivan was under a great deal of stress, yet still refused to allow women to compete. He banned women from swimming or diving in the same pool as men. He threatened AAU members with expulsion if they allowed females to participate.
He had almost single handedly set the women’s movement back, and their athletic future looked grim.
Sullivan died suddenly in September 1914 after an emergency abdominal operation. Overwork and anxiety were listed as the causes of death. He was 53.
With their iron-fisted leader no longer alive, the AAU voted to change its rules and allow women to register for competitions against other women. Sullivan’s passing opened the doors for female swimming, diving and track and field clubs.
Ida would’ve been the favourite to win the gold medal for diving in 1916, but those Games were cancelled. (Berlin got its turn at an infamous time, 20 years later.) So, it was at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, where women were allowed to compete under the American flag.
But, by then, Ida was already a Hollywood star—and a controversial one at that.
After all, there was one thing she knew above everything else. And that was how to be a newsworthy woman…