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The Mystery Of Edith Anisfield Wolf, Founder Of Our Book Prize

edith anisfield wolf

by Lisa Nielson

Sometimes when I need serious advice, I visit Edith.

Edith Anisfield Wolf, the founder of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, is interred in the mausoleum at Knollwood Cemetery in Mayfield Heights, Ohio. You’ll find her remains in the corridor to the right of the little chapel as one walks in: #321. I track down one of the battered folding chairs scattered around the mausoleum and sit in the humid quiet. She is one of the most influential women in my life who I have never met.

When I first started getting to research the poet and philanthropist, I was shocked by the paucity of information about her. The archives at the Cleveland Public Library contain nearly every book that won the Anisfield-Wolf award, but information about the founder herself is in just a few slim folders. The files consist mostly of copies of newspaper clippings and notes, but nothing original.

Wolf was wealthy and deeply involved in the Cleveland community her entire life: Where were her letters? Her business records? As an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Fellow and music historian by training, I wished to contribute in some way to her history. I wondered if Wolf would disapprove my rooting in her past, although I am shameless in my love for the thrill of the chase.

What began as a casual interest in Wolf quickly blossomed into a full-blown obsession. I spent hours in the Western Reserve looking for correspondence, information about the family business and the awards themselves. While on a research trip in Jerusalem, I dedicated a few days to researching the Cleveland Jewish population and the rich archives held in the National Library of Israel.

Through the archives and various genealogy databases, I skimmed the surface of her family. Her father, Jechiel Jonas Anisfield, became John when he emigrated from Poland to the United States, with a stop in Vienna for gymnasium in between. A respected businessman in the textiles industry, he included Edith in the family business from the time she was 12. He was well educated and spoke several languages, and ensured his daughter had the same privileges. Wolf’s sister, Lucie, died at age 9 in 1901, and the following year, she lost her mother, Daniella (sometimes Doniella or Daniela). Her father remarried Alice Strauss of the influential New York Strauss family two years later. He died in 1929, and Alice died in 1946.

Wolf graduated from East High School in 1906 and enrolled at the Mather College for Women, but did not graduate. In August 1918, she married lawyer and Cleveland native Eugene Wolf. He helped run the family businesses and served as president of Tifereth Israel.

In addition to her business acumen, Wolf was a poet and patron of the arts, unanimously elected to serve as a member of the board of the Cleveland Public Library in 1943. The Anisfield family has an elegant little crypt in the Mayfield Cemetery mausoleum. John, Daniella, Lucie, Alice, and Eugene, who died in 1944, are all there. The Wolf family is buried nearby. There is space in the crypt, yet Edith is conspicuously absent. That raises a question: Why?

Although an extremely private person, Wolf can be glimpsed through her philanthropic legacy. In addition to the book awards, her fund also endowed the Anisfield-Wolf Memorial Award, which has been administered by the Cleveland Welfare Federation (now the Center for Community Solutions) each year since her death in 1963. Wolf left her books to the Cleveland Public Library, three paintings and other art pieces to the Cleveland Museum of Art, and her house on East Boulevard to the Welfare Federation. The Edith Anisfield Wolf Fund provided a third of the funding to endow the Silver Chair in Judaic studies at what is now Case Western Reserve University in 1964 and gave $30,000 to the Western Reserve Historical Society in 1970 to start an archive dedicated to black history in Cleveland.

There is still so much more to know. When I visit her, sometimes I wonder if she would be annoyed by my prying. That is one of the questions I ask her when I visit, and I hope she would approve. I’m certain she would speak up if she didn’t. The July 14, 1943 announcement in the Plain Dealer on her election to the Board of the CPL described her thusly: “Mrs. Wolf is by nature conciliatory and soft-spoken, but she manages to have her way.”

Lisa Nielson is an Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studies, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.

  • Charles Ellenbogen

    May 28, 2019

    Thanks for your research. That’s quite a legacy. Any indication at all why she wanted to recognize diversity in literature?

  • Jeff Archer

    January 15, 2024

    Ms. Nielson, thanks for this intriguing piece. I suggest you select a couple of Edith’s poems or essays on this website. I cannot locate any anywhere and cannot visit the Cleveland Public Library. Thanks for considering my suggestion. Jeff Archer, Austin TX

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