Thursday, September 3, 2015

When Madeline Met Santa

A reader has reminded me that I didn’t follow through on my promise to share this picture. We originally planned to include it in Madeline Kahn: Being the Music • A Life, but when the time came to pick and choose, we found ourselves with more photos from Madeline’s childhood than we could use — and other photos from that period struck us as more revealing.

So here it is at last: “Madalin Wolfson,” as she called herself at the time, with Santa Claus. She liked the picture so much that she sent it out as a Christmas card in the 1990s, when she was co-starring on the show Cosby. And yes, this Santa is black. Like most white children in those days, Madeline would almost certainly have seen only white Santas — until this moment.

While Madeline wasn’t quite a “red-diaper baby,” her mother was politically active in left-wing causes for several years, and she was immensely proud of having met the singer Paul Robeson at a benefit concert. Presumably Madeline met Santa at a political event of some sort, on a holiday break from Manumit, the Pennsylvania boarding school to which her mother had sent her a few months before.

Though Paula Kahn and Madeline remained lifelong liberals, the rabble-rousing activities don’t seem to have lasted long: for one thing, it was the nature of left-wing causes in the 1940s to focus on socialism, not stardom, and stardom was very much Paula’s priority at the time, as it would be for most of the rest of her life. And because taking care of Paula would become Madeline’s priority, she seldom took part in politics.

We’ll never know what went through Madeline’s mind in 1965, when she applied for a teaching job with the New York City schools, and dutifully marked “No” in response to the question whether she or any members of her family had ever been members of the Communist or Socialist Party — and on her application she didn’t even mention Manumit, a progressive school (scandalously so, depending on whom you asked) associated with decidedly left-wing views on race, labor, and social justice.

Madeline was lonely at Manumit, and when we reached out to the alumni, not one had any memory of her there. Her father had walked out a few years earlier, and Paula’s subsequent move to New York City from Boston meant cutting Madeline off from everyone she knew. She’d hardly had time to make friends before she was uprooted once again and shipped off to Pennsylvania. But now, for the holidays, she was reunited with her mother — and she got to meet Santa Claus. And so the picture is not least a document of a single happy moment in an often-painful childhood.

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