On January 21, 1928, the front page of the New York World featured a story about a wealthy 38-year-old widow, Grace M. Burnham, who had given birth to a baby girl and refused to name the father. It was a most curious news item. Dalliances among the well-heeled were news then as they are today, but not front-page news, not in New York, not in the Jazz Age. Only the headline hinted at what made the baby, Vera, special in the eyes of the World and many other newspapers that freely plagiarized and elaborated on its account in the weeks to come. It read: "Eugenic Baby Cheers Widow After 3 Years."
Eugenic meant "well born," and eugenics, the average reader could be expected to understand, was one of those newfangled social movements that purported to apply the precision of science to the messy affairs of humanity. Vera was "a coldly scientific venture," as the Daily News put it. Her father, according to the unnamed relative who leaked the story to the World, was "a young man of good family and good character, with proper eugenic background." In other words -- and this was a novel concept in 1928 -- he was a sperm donor who'd undergone a background check. The widow Burnham had "mated lovelessly," the News said, with a "suitable young man," who after "performing the necessary male function" was sent on his way. Half a century before Louise Brown became the first test-tube baby, science in its white lab coat had shuffled up to the four-poster bed to conduct an experiment.
For two weeks, baby Vera was a tabloid sensation, her every mewl and puke recorded with fascination. Newspapers ran man-in-the-street polls. Numerous feminists, clergymen and other self-appointed guardians and tweakers of public morality offered ready opinions about this strangest of births. Mrs. Bertrand Russell, visiting New York to promote sexual freedom, declared the eugenic mother a "courageous woman" but added, "Every child should be a product of love." The Rev. Jason Pierce, pastor to President Calvin Coolidge, thundered condemnation of Mrs. Burnham's "illegitimate relations."
It was left to none other than Clarence Darrow, the famous criminal lawyer, to cut to the quick of the affair: "That Mrs. Burnham wanted a child was a matter between her and the father and no one else. What amazes me is the nerve of the ignorant crowd that pretends to know what is best for the human race. I am glad Mrs. Burnham had the sense and courage to do as she wished without consulting anyone. It is too much to expect that the mob will have the decency enough to let her alone."
Darrow proved right. When Mrs. Burnham brought Vera back to her red brick Greenwich Village home, two burly cops were stationed at the door to hold back the newsmongers. The Daily Mirror rented an adjoining apartment, and its enterprising photographer, dangling off the roof, caught Vera being "aired" atop a fur blanket on the fire escape. "First Photo of Eugenic Baby!" shouted its banner headline of February 6. The newspaper hired a phrenologist -- a reader of heads -- to analyze the picture for signs of Vera's future. Droves of men and women loitered on railings across from Mrs. Burnham's Bank Street home, straining their necks for a view.
Mrs. Burnham, though, never came to the window. Eventually, she changed Vera's name, left New York and and died at 95 without ever revealing her secret. "Why should the public be interested in my private affairs?" she demanded of the World reporter who first intruded into her hospital room wanting the full scoop when Vera was born.
Of course, such a response did not satisfy. The tabloids were in full cry. But they missed the real story.
The eugenic baby, as it happens, is a relative of mine.
Last year, after I wrote an article in this magazine about the genetics of human behavior, my father mentioned casually that there was a eugenic baby in our family. A distant cousin, or perhaps an aunt, he thought. "Apparently the mother was homely as sin and mated with an acrobat."
A few testy relatives confirmed that a woman named Grace had been married to the eldest son of my great-great-grandfather I.W. Bernheim, a German immigrant who started out as a peddler in the 1860s and grew rich selling I.W. Harper whiskey. (In his gratitude to America, I.W. gave money for libraries and hospitals and monuments, including the likeness of Henry Clay that stands in the Statuary Hall of the Capitol. He also proposed many ill-fated ideas for assimilating Jews further into the American mainstream, such as changing the Jewish Sabbath to Sunday and referring to the synagogue as "church.")
Grace married Lee Bernheim in 1910; he and most of his six siblings changed their name to Burnham during World War I. The couple lived for a while in Louisville, where Lee grew up, then went off to New York, where they had a lot of arty friends in the Village, went the story. Then Lee died of a mysterious infection, and a few years later Grace found her acrobat, or possibly he was an actor, or maybe a railroad conductor or a circus strongman. The scandal made I.W. very angry, and someone -- one of Lee's sisters, perhaps, or the old man himself -- sued Grace for the $500,000 Lee had left her. The family was a fractious bunch -- "the battling Bernheims," my mother called them.
In today's tell-all era when transcripts of sex talk between the president and his intern are on the Internet, when members of Congress are "outed" for affairs they had decades before, and nothing, it seems, remains in the realm of privacy, the mystery and secrecy surrounding Grace and her story seemed so, well, quaint: She kept her secret and never sold it to the highest bidder.
It wasn't just that I was amazed by Grace's ability to hang onto her privacy. The eugenics angle fascinated me as well -- the paradox of a Jewish woman donating her womb to the eugenic cause. The American eugenicists of the 1920s were mostly East Coast WASPs whose status anxiety concealed itself awkwardly behind the banner of progress they waved. Eugenics was premised on the idea that humankind, like cattle, could be improved by selective breeding. In practice, the eugenicists lobbied to close the borders to "defective germ protoplasm" -- Slavic, Jewish, Italian and Mexican immigrants -- and supported the court-ordered sterilization of 35,000 people categorized as lunatics, imbeciles or pathological criminals. They encouraged healthy white women to produce large families. They even organized contests at state fairs where judges pinned ribbons to the shirts of freckled, wheat-fed children competing in the "human stock" category.
The more I learned about Grace, the harder it was to place her in this company. Still, in that period, before the Nazis' embrace of eugenics forever equated the term with mass murder, the movement had enough vaguely positive connotations to attract a variety of followers. Dancer Isadora Duncan is said to have once asked playwright George Bernard Shaw to give her a eugenic child. "Think of it! With my body and your brains, what a wonder it would be," she wrote. "Yes," responded Shaw, "but what if it had my body and your brains?" Even Margaret Sanger, the feminist barricade stormer, was something of a eugenicist. She advocated birth control to liberate women, but also as a tool to control the reproduction of the unfit and create "a race of thoroughbreds."
What Sanger missed -- and Grace, as it turned out, didn't -- was the key distinction between the two notions of birth control. Birth control was about a woman's right to privately take charge of her own body; eugenics, on the other hand, came to be about having society intervene in a private matter, in the name of progress. A few months after Vera's birth, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis issued a much-cited opinion on the essential right to privacy -- "the most comprehensive of rights," he wrote in Olmstead v. United States, "and the right most valued by civilized men." Brandeis, a Louisville native, had been a guest at Grace Burnham's home many years before, when they were both liberal reformers setting out to remake the world. I wondered whether he was thinking of Grace when he composed those lines.
In hopes of learning baby Vera's fate, I wrote to I.W. Burnham II, nephew of Grace, grandson of I.W. Bernheim and founder of the investment firm Drexel Burnham Lambert. Burnham, now 90, was dismissive. "Although I don't want to appear to be rude to you," he wrote back, "I would like to say that I have no interest in providing any information about Grace to you. I think any article about the eugenic baby would be very uninteresting because Grace was a very uninteresting person."
The family lore on the eugenic baby would prove as tendentious as the eugenics movement itself. The eugenic baby's father was no acrobat, the tryst that produced her was a passionate one, and even Grace's homeliness is questionable. She had unfortunate strengths in the proboscis and jaw, but she was tall and rangy with large, blue, magnetic eyes and a forthrightness that left people thinking she was good-looking. As Grace slowly began to come into focus, I began to see that the eugenic baby scandal was an almost comical distortion of the truth.
I got my first glimpse of Grace in an old photograph from the August 11, 1927, issue of the Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper. Two women, both in hats, one draped in a fur stole, stand arm in arm by a bus that's about to take them to a rally in Boston to protest the imminent execution of anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. The woman on the right, the tall one in the trademark fur, is Grace Burnham. The other woman is her friend and comrade in arms Harriet Silverman. Together they ran the Worker's Health Bureau, which was doing research into industrial hazards, serving as a bridge between unions and professionals in the new field of occupational health.
Grace had found her social conscience early, at the age of 8, when her father sent her to take care of demented patients, abandoned by their relatives, on the neurology ward he directed in New Haven. When she and Lee moved to New York in 1918, she went to work in a sweatshop to gain insight into the plight of working women. At the Worker's Health Bureau, she lobbied for shortened work hours for painters and auto workers to diminish their exposure to toxins. In 1925, she testified before the U.S. Public Health Service in favor of banning lead, an element the oil companies were calling a "gift from heaven" because it improved fuel efficiency. Her recommendations were ignored. In 1926, she returned from the Soviet Union with a hat-making formula that didn't require deadly mercury. The hatters ignored her. The world wasn't ready for Grace's reforms.
At the time of the Daily Worker photograph, Grace and Harriet, by various accounts, were secretly members of the Communist Party. There were other, more personal secrets involving these two women. Both were intimately connected to William Weinstone, an ambitious and handsome Lithuanian immigrant who was district secretary of the New York branch of the Communist Party. Harriet was married to him. Grace was four months pregnant with his child.
That, then, was the secret: The eugenic baby, mysterious emblem of a puritanically obsessed nation, was actually the love child of a couple of firebrands. The eugenic father was a Jewish Communist. His comrades -- with whom he was jostling, at the time, for party leadership -- all knew. With some amusement, they called Vera "the Will Weinstone eugenic baby." "Knowing Weinstone," says Dorothy Healy, a wry old lefty who has a talk show on Washington's alternative radio station, WPFW, "he probably had a lot of eugenic babies."
The comrades may have yukked it up, but Grace was beside herself. She and Harriet had been partners for a decade in the investigation of workplace hazards, and now Harriet was distraught. But if Grace felt any remorse toward Harriet, she kept it to herself. In her letters, at least, she was mainly preoccupied because the scandal effectively wrecked the Worker's Health Bureau.
The newspapers hadn't gotten it entirely wrong. There was something icy -- or single-minded, at least -- about Grace.
After I'd gone through old newspapers and searched for the eugenic baby in two archives and 50 boxes of Grace's stuff that were moldering in someone's garage in a redwood-shrouded valley of the Santa Cruz Mountains, it began to occur to me that I.W. Burnham II's gruffness may have been a smoke screen. He was the supreme capitalist, and Grace was a leftist, but their correspondence indicated that I.W. handled her finances for many years with a grudging respect -- although he repeatedly told Grace she was a fool to give away so much of her money. By telling me that Grace wasn't interesting, I.W. just may have been trying to shelter the memory of an aunt who had valued her privacy.
But his letter to me had just the opposite effect, because it included the address of the eugenic baby's former stockbroker. I sent a note to the stockbroker for forwarding. And a few weeks later, to my surprise, I got a call from none other than the eugenic baby herself. We arranged to have lunch.
On a sunny Monday, in a featureless government building in Rockville, Jan Howard emerges from an office cubbyhole piled high with pillars of documents and shakes my hand. She wears a bright-red wool dress and black pumps. At 71 years old, she seems about as eugenic as anybody else: strikingly tall, blue-eyed, raven-haired. She is a sociologist, it turns out, who studies the preventable, socioeconomic aspects of illness like breast cancer, hypertension and alcoholism. She is interested, in other words, in the kind of improvements to humankind that come about via social change, rather than parsing DNA.
We drive to a vegetarian Chinese place on Rockville Pike for lunch. And she begins to talk about her mother and the life they led in the shadow of that colossal invasion of their privacy by the tabloids. Out of loyalty to her mother, she says she isn't sure she wants her story told, but she tells it anyway. "My mother went through hell and she never really got over the consequences," Jan says. "They made it impossible for her to leave her apartment for weeks. She went to the circus and the clowns made fun of her. But the tabloids didn't get who the father was, and for that she was forever indebted to friends who knew and didn't say. Because that would really have been a scandal."
But if the eugenic baby was a cover story, who made it up, and why? And why hadn't Grace corrected it, or at least denied that she, a radical socialist, was some kind of genteel genetic determinist?
Jan shrugs. Her mother always believed that Lee's family was behind the story. "Maybe a Bernheim comes by when she's pregnant and she feels she has to tell them something, so she says she'd picked out somebody who would make a good father. And somehow the Bernheims, for reasons I don't understand, give it up to the newspapers. And then all hell breaks loose."
Baby Vera's name became Jan when she was still a toddler. The party shipped Weinstone off to Moscow to sit on the Comintern. He divorced Harriet and married again, the second of three wives. He wrote Grace long, disputatious letters full of the Communist concerns of the day, and affectionate postcards from the Black Sea.
Grace remarried as well, to a railroad unionist-turned-newspaperman named Joseph Edmund "Mac" McDonald. They moved to Chicago in 1933, then to San Jose, Calif., where Grace McDonald found her niche as a progressive Democrat in the New Deal era. She served on the state agriculture board under populist Gov. Culbert Olson and created the California Farm Research and Legislative Committee, an affiliation of half a million farmers and workers that took on agribusiness and the utilities. She fought for social justice, won some battles and lost some, made a lot of friends and enemies. She shunned the spotlight. But it kept turning on her.
Early in 1967, when Grace was out of town, a former Santa Clara County sheriff's deputy named Jerome Ducote spent a month methodically rifling the files in her basement. Her home was one of 16 buildings Ducote and his accomplices burglarized. He would claim at his trial a decade later that he was snooping on behalf of a coalition of conservative farmers, utility executives and the FBI. The other victims included Cesar Chavez, organizer Saul Alinsky and Ramparts magazine. With the leads he'd dug up in Grace's basement, Ducote unearthed the eugenic baby connection. The information made its way into the hands of a right-wing California congressman who published it in the Congressional Record. Reprints were distributed among the small farmers and clergy with whom Grace worked. "She was traumatized by the clearly political robbery," Jan recalls. "Her files were stolen, family pictures were taken and strewn all over the floor. She was old and alone, and she was scared."
In 1977, Warren Hinckle, who had been editor of Ramparts when it was ransacked, had a few drinks with Ducote and persuaded the burglar to accompany him to Grace's house to apologize. But when they got there, as Hinckle recounted the next day in the San Francisco Chronicle, Grace wouldn't open the door. Hinckle gave a glowing account of Grace's activist past in the Chronicle, but she hated the story, feeling that it distorted her politics and regurgitated old lies. Reporters for the most part, she told Jan, "are beneath our contempt."
To a degree that can be hard to understand now, Grace was indifferent to fame and jealous of her privacy. "The women of Grace's milieu were determined not to draw attention to themselves and to be judged purely on their public work," says Rosalyn Baxandall, a labor historian at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, and a "red diaper baby" herself. "You didn't talk about the private sphere. It was partly the era they lived in, and partly being a Communist, which meant keeping secrets and having a mind/body split."
Mind/body split was not a readily digestible concept to the tabloids, however. In my files I have a news story written at the time of Jan's birth, and one day, when we meet at her Potomac town house, I show it to her. It is from February 1928, when the Daily Mirror had hit on the bright idea of hiring the phrenologist to analyze the eugenic baby through a snapshot a newspaper photographer had taken from Grace's roof. Edgar C. Beall, identified as "a graduate of the University of Cincinnati," revealed that the eugenic baby was indeed a miracle of science:
She bears numerous marks of an exceptionally superior child. The broad nostrils indicate an enormous breathing power, physical and mental endurance, courage, self-control, guardedness in speech and, if need be, a talent for diplomacy. Her father is either a famous athlete, athletically inclined, or an active businessman.
"Hah!" says Jan. She's reading, seated in her living room, which, like her office -- and like her mother's house before her -- is cluttered with mounds of documents and books. The eugenic baby inherited from her mother a powerful pack-rat impulse. She also has a remarkable ability to remember telephone numbers without writing them down.
This girl will doubtless be fond of outdoor sports and a life seasoned with adventure.
"True, I was very athletic in high school."
She ought to be trained in elocution and foreign languages.
"Bosh. Never REALLY learned a language."
Her large, prominent eyes and full, wide lips denote fluency in conversation and a gift for oratory.
Her forehead is evidently very fine. The great space between the eyes and eyebrows reveals a remarkable capacity for observation and especially for estimating shape or form. With such faculties, she might excel in drawing or sculpture.
"They got that one wrong."
If she realizes the glittering career which her features naturally lead us to expect, she will certainly be an ornament to her sex and a living argument in favor of combining intelligence with sentiment in assuming the responsibilities of parentage.
"Glittering career? Well, I did all right."
Jan married young, got a PhD in sociology from Stanford University, taught at Stanford, the University of California at San Francisco, and Virginia Commonwealth University, and spent 20 years as a researcher at NIH. She had a son, who became a doctor and cancer researcher at Harvard. But the past was a complication: a red diaper wrapped in newsprint. Her father was a clandestine father, doing clandestine business. Periodically, she'd take the train to New York, where he lived in Queens when he wasn't in Moscow or in jail, and call him from a phone booth using a fake name.
"From the time I learned to talk, my mother laid down two sacred commandments: Never, never, ever use the N-word for blacks, and never, never, ever tell anyone your father's name," Jan says. "There was also an inconsistent third commandment: Never lie. I used to make up fake names for my father and then forget which kid I had told what." At 21, her mother finally told Jan about the newspaper scandal that had accompanied her birth, about the "eugenic baby" she was supposed to be. "I thought it was a scream," she says.
Later, she dodged subpoenas from the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1959 and 1960, refused to sign loyalty oaths and as a result lost a research job at Stanford. But she won it back with the help of colleagues. "Stanford would have been much happier if I appeared before HUAC and talked about my friends," she says. "Talk about your friends? No. I'd rather be dead. Literally, I'd rather be dead. I was properly raised, that's all."
Not that she was particularly in love with communism. Visiting her father one winter in Mexico, where some family friends had lived since the McCarthy era, she and Weinstone had a knockdown argument that concluded with Jan telling him, in a few choice words, that he was a doctrinaire windbag. Later she apologized -- his heart was weak, she didn't want to hurt him. Plenty of other people were denouncing their pasts and she felt no need to join the chorus. Besides, she remembered -- and still remembers -- the days when her parents were in the forefront of things that she believed really mattered: equality of the races; adequate living wages; safe working conditions; ending hunger.
"My mother and father had ideals that they believed in and worked toward their whole lives, and they were happy," she says. "I was just a workaholic."
In 1985, a year after Grace's death, Weinstone died in New York. Jan spoke at his funeral. She didn't mention their differences, but paid him the respect she felt he was due -- the man who taught her the words to the "Internationale," who took her to Yankee Stadium, which was how she learned the "Star-Spangled Banner." The funeral was a coming-out of sorts, the eugenic baby putting her legacy to rest, the obligation to keep quiet finally eclipsed by death.
Arthur Allen last wrote for the Magazine about April Oliver and the Tailwind affair.
CAPTION: Sociologist Jan Howard, at home in Potomac, recalls an era of secrecy.
CAPTION: Baby mania: Clockwise from left, two examples of contemporary tabloid coverage for a public fascinated with Grace Burnham's child; in a 1927 photo from the Daily Worker taken before a trip to a Boston protest rally, Grace stands next to her friend Harriet Silverman, who is at far left; William Weinstone addresses a 1927 New York labor rally; Weinstone in 1951; Grace in her early fifties; mother and child c. 1929.