Margaret Sanger in Tucson: Reclaiming the Spotlight

Photo credit: Arizona Historical Society

“The first thing when you opened your eyes, before actual dawn, you beheld the gold and purple and then the entire sky break into color. In the evening the sunsets were reflected on the mountains in pink-lavender shades; sometimes the glow sprayed from the bottom upward, like the footlights of a theater, until the tips were aflame. Sunset vanished as quickly as the sunrise, never lingering long.”
– Margaret Sanger on Tucson, in her autobiography

Margaret Sanger’s more laid-back years in Tucson saw her with the free time to try out new things, such as cooking and painting. Another role in which Sanger indulged was as the hostess of some of Tucson’s most lavish parties. This was partly an attempt to reclaim some of her former celebrity – she missed the attention and sought once again to be in the spotlight, if only locally.

Her parties could be star-studded affairs, and some of her more well-known guests included Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Keller, John D. Rockefeller Jr., and Frank Lloyd Wright. She threw parties on a weekly basis, each one based on different themes. For instance, at a Japan-themed party, guests would be treated to authentic cuisine from that country. Sanger collected recipes while traveling across the world and she trained her cooks to prepare these dishes for her parties, even if it meant having to fly in ingredients from thousands of miles away. In the age before the Internet allowed instant access to other cultures, the authenticity of these parties could be hit or miss, as illustrated in a letter Sanger wrote in May 1953:

[W]e had a very hard time getting Sake, but I had a friend bring some over from Los Angeles. All the guests had to remove their shoes coming into the house; I had the moist napkins and Japanese baskets passed around and everyone had to sit on the floor, on cushions. I had difficulty in getting Japanese records for music, but we got by with “Madame Butterfly” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado” – so a good time was had by all.

During one New Year’s Eve party, Sanger and her guests tried to think of a wild prank they could pull, eventually deciding to make a phone call to Adolf Hitler and give him the “Bronx cheer” (or “raspberry”). They succeeded in getting one of his secretaries on the line, but just as Tucson rancher Jack Spieden was about to issue the raspberry, the secretary realized it was a prank and hung up on them – this did not derail partygoers’ mirth.

Despite the opulence for which her parties were known, she might not have shared the spoils of her wealth with her employees. Her servants were a Russian couple; she paid them only $25 a month – with no raises until her son initiated one 10 years later – and apparently wasn’t generous in sharing her food with them, either. While no expense was spared to provide her guests with exotic dishes, the servants reportedly had to supplement their food allowances by purchasing staples, such as bread, themselves.

Margaret Sanger’s niece remembers that the parties often ended with a solicitation for money, to be put toward various causes that her aunt supported. Birth control remained at the top of her list of priorities, both for fundraising and her own activism. Even into her old age, Sanger was resolute in her beliefs and committed to effecting change.

Read more about the life of Margaret Sanger here and here.

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4 responses to “Margaret Sanger in Tucson: Reclaiming the Spotlight

  1. Anna, I love these fun facts you discovered about Margaret Sanger. I love that she threw fabulous parties. And this picture of her in front of the cactus with her cowgirl hat on is just too fun! I love it!

  2. Great posts Anna…I have enjoyed this series very much.

  3. Really enjoyed this multifaceted picture of Sanger in this phase of her life. Nice work!

  4. Serena: It’s a fantastic photo. I think I read that it was taken at local-historial-figure Ina Gittings’ house.

    Stacey and Nicole: Thank you so much!