Jews on the Western Frontier: An Overview, pt. 2

by Harriet and Fred Rochlin
from Arizona Highways, September 1985

Mary Ann Magnin (1848-1943): Single-handedly fashioned the firm of I. Magnin into a lavish shopping establishment.Mary Ann Magnin (1848-1943): Single-handedly fashioned the firm of I. Magnin into a lavish shopping establishment.

In European ghettos and shtetlach or in older, more convention-bound American Jewish enclaves, communal security took precedence over self-expression. On the Far Western frontier, where innovation was a necessity, self-sufficiency was considered a practicality, and a zestful, progressive outlook constituted a pragmatic approach to a new way of life, Jewish individuality blossomed. A number of remarkable characters -- humdingers, in the vernacular of the period -- of all kinds surfaced: eccentrics, renegades, expeditionaries, stage personalities, community luminaries, crusaders, reformers, artists and scientists. Cultivating their personal inclinations, obsessions, and talents, these one-of-a-kind personalities tested modes of behavior and endeavors few Jews could have, or possibly would have, tried before. Some earned notoriety, others acclaim. But reprehensible or praiseworthy, their pursuits widened the range of Jewish experience.

In an atmosphere where ventures spiraled or plummeted on luck, or so people believed, the "beloved madman" was often indulged. In such an atmosphere, a few eccentric Jews earned fame for their behavior and often provided a few belly laughs.

In some sections of the frontier, a man without a gun was not considered fully attired, and Jews learned to use firearms as proficiently as did their fellow pioneers. Even so, only a few engaged in gunfighting when they had other recourse. One who did, did so frequently and became widely known as a six-gun artist. His name was Jim Levy, and he was born in Ireland in 1842 of Jewish parents, who brought him to the United States when he was a young boy. Levy's first shoot-out occurred in Pioche, Nevada, on May 30, 1871. Levy, who was working as a miner at the time, witnessed a street killing. The victor, Michael Casey, later maintained he had shot in self-defense, but Levy publicly contradicted him, asserting that Casey issued the first shot. Casey met Levy at a local store and challenged the unarmed miner to a gunfight. Levy accepted the challenge, rushing off to obtain a weapon. He returned a short while later to confront Casey, gun in hand, in the alley behind the store. Levy called to his opponent, then opened fire; his bullet grazed Casey's skull. Casey dived at Levy, who shot him again, this time in the neck. When the wounded man keeled over, Levy struck him on the head with his revolver. Casey's companion, Dave Neagle, put one bullet into Levy's jaw, then turned and ran. Casey died -- Levy was arrested, tried and acquitted.

Soon after this incident, Levy gave up mining to earn his living as a professional regulator, a gambler, and, on occasion, a merchant in mining and cattle towns all over the Far West -- Virginia City (Nevada), Cheyenne, Deadwood, Leadville, Tombstone and Tucson. He survived an estimated sixteen shoot-outs before he was gunned down himself.

On June 5, 1882, Levy was gambling and drinking at the Fashion Saloon in Tucson when he and John Murphy, the faro dealer, began to argue. They exchanged a barrage of insults, which culminated in talk of a shoot-out. Levy had no gun, nor would friends who were trying to keep him out of trouble loan him one. Murphy's friends, on the other hand, urged the faro dealer not to engage in a gun battle with a skilled gunfighter like Levy, but rather to catch him unaware. Later that night, as the still-unarmed Levy was leaving the Palace Hotel, Murphy and his friends sprang at him and without warning shot him dead.

Equally distinctive and far more numerous were those Jewish individualists who came to the Far West in their youth and spent the rest of their lives cultivating a personal style that added to the color and character of their communities. One such person . . . was matriarch Mary Ann Magnin. Her offspring called her "Queen Victoria" behind her back, but face to face the doyenne of San Francisco fashion usually got what she wanted. What she wanted was to build a business selling high-quality attire to luxury-loving San Franciscans and to keep her five sons working with her toward that end. Although the family firm was named for her husband, Isaac -- a pamphlet-passing Socialist dubbed "Karl Marx" by his children -- from its inception, Mary Ann was in charge. She conceived of the elegant specialty shop, guided its growth into an important chain, and trained her sons to carry on the enterprise in her footsteps. Only genteel notions of the Victorian Age prevented her from using her own name over the door.

Born in Scheveningen, Holland, in 1848, Mary Ann Cohen later moved with her family to London, where at age fifteen she met Isaac Magnin. The red-bearded young man from Assen, Holland, was six years her senior and had already been to the United States, an adventure that included an unwilling stint in the Union Army and pushcart peddling in New Orleans. Unable to locate his father upon returning to Holland, Isaac was referred to the Cohens in London, and he soon had a bride.

Married at sixteen, Mary Ann started her family almost immediately. In 1875, when they set sail around Cape Horn for San Francisco, the entourage included Samuel, Henrietta, Joseph, Emanuel John, Victor, Lucille and Flora. All survived the rigorous sea journey, despite the lack of amenities in the ship's grubby steerage section.

It didn't take long for the Magnins to achieve a more comfortable economic standing. Skilled at wood carving and applying gold leaf -- a trade much in demand in those days -- Isaac soon went to work as a frame gilder for art and antique dealer Solomon Gump. Gump reportedly offered Isaac a substantial raise to work on the gilded ceiling of Saint Mary's Cathedral, but Mary Ann vetoed the idea, fearful that she would lose her husband in a fall off a scaffold. Having thus eliminated the family's source of income, Mary Ann went to work in a profession popular among Cohen women, that of making baby clothes for the gentry. In 1876 she and Isaac opened their first tiny business establishment, a Yankee Notions store in Oakland.

As Mary Ann's reputation for fine handiwork -- which . . . included lace-trimmed lingerie and bridal gowns -- grew, so did her ambition and business acumen. She and Isaac established I. Magnin in San Francisco in 1877, and by 1886 the store was doing business on Market Street in the heart of San Francisco's business district. During that year . . . [she] also gave birth to her last child, Grover.

From the outset, Mary Ann fashioned I. Magnin into a lavish shopping establishment adorned with Rose de Brignolles marble and expensive bronze fixtures. She was a "penny-pinching, stubborn woman who never bought unwisely," according to her grandson Cyril Magnin. She courted the upper crust of San Francisco society but had the common touch as well, playing poker with her employees on Saturday night and catering to the raunchy but rich . . . of the Barbary Coast.

As the children grew, Mary Ann, still clinging to her old-country ways despite her own considerable worldly achievements, taught them along traditional gender lines: the girls learned handiwork, the boys business. Grover later recalled that his mother trained him to identify fabric by touch alone and that during his apprenticeship he had worked in every department of the store.

In 1900, Mary Ann retired from the day-to-day operations of the company and named son John, then twenty-two, as president, passing over her older sons Sam and Joseph. (This led to some rancor, so that Joseph sold his stock in the company in 1913, soon thereafter forming his own self-named chain of department stores.) Five years later, Mary Ann sent John to New York to establish and head East Coast and European buying offices and made twenty-year-old Grover, her favorite son, the general manager. He was in that post in 1906, the year the great San Francisco earthquake leveled a six-story I. Magnin Store under construction and nearly leveled the company. But no matter -- Mary Ann responded by setting up shop in her house while new commercial quarters were being completed.

Until almost her last breath, Mary Ann Magnin still visited her San Francisco store daily, arriving in a limousine from her luxurious Saint Francis Hotel suite two blocks away. When finally confined to a wheelchair, she took to rolling down the aisles, and it has even been said that she had herself wheeled around the store on a gurney shortly before her death in 1943 at the age of ninety-five.