Watch Our New Jury Honor Our Class of 2024 In This Announcement Video


By Lisa Nielson

Almost 90 years ago, two women quietly cooked up what is to this day the only juried literary prize addressing racism in the United States.

Edith Anisfield Wolf was born to privilege in 1889, but rather than living the comfortable life of a wealthy, educated woman, she dedicated her life to philanthropy and books. That choice stems from her family legacy. 

When Edith was 12, her father called her into his office to ask her to help him best decide how to use the family wealth to help the community. Together, that’s exactly what they did. Her father, John Anisfield (1860-1929), immigrated from what is now Krakow, Poland, in 1876 at age 16. With the help of family and friends, he began working in Cleveland’s textile industry, eventually owning his own company, and later expanding into real estate. 

A philanthropist and bridge builder, he quietly and effectively helped found Mt. Sinai Hospital and started Camp Anisfield. Edith and her father also faced tragedy. In 1901, Edith’s 9-year-old sister, Lizzie, died of pneumonia, followed by her mother, Daniella, a year later.  

Edith graduated from East High and attended Mather College briefly but never finished. She married Cleveland lawyer Eugene Wolf (1884-1944) in 1918, and together they ran the family businesses after her father’s death. Edith was a poet, self-publishing five chapbooks and contributing poems to the Plain Dealer, a member of the Cleveland branch of the Pen Women Society and was unanimously elected to serve on the board of the Cleveland Public Library in 1943. 

After talking with her friend, Amy Loveman, about how best to honor the legacy and memory of her father, Mrs. Wolf started the John Anisfield Prize in 1935, later the Anisfield-Wolf prize in honor of her husband Eugene.

She endowed the Anisfield-Wolf Community Prize, which has been administered by the Cleveland Welfare Federation (now the Center for Community Solutions) each year since her death in 1963. Edith 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.

In 1964, the Edith Anisfield Wolf Fund at the Cleveland Foundation provided a third of the funding to endow the Abba Hillel Silver Professorship in Judaic Studies at what is now Case Western Reserve University. It also awarded $30,000 to the Western Reserve Historical Society in 1970 to start an archive dedicated to Black history in Cleveland, the first such archive in the country.

Mrs. Wolf loved to garden, experiment with unusual recipes, and apparently was a fine pianist. Given that her father was fluent in German and Yiddish, she herself likely spoke both languages, in addition to French and Spanish. The list of books she donated to the Cleveland Public library indicates she (and her father) had wide ranging interests in history, philosophy, and languages. 

From what thin correspondence remains from her, it seems she was an intensely private person and a woman of few words. Her handwritten notes are succinct, to the point, and written on the old-fashioned, thick-stocked note cards. Mrs. Wolf even refused to be involved in the prize she founded: “Mrs. Wolf made a great point of disassociating herself from the actual judging of the awards. She even refused to attend the annual awards ceremonies, on the grounds that she might seem to be putting herself forward too much.” 

For all her reticence, however, her presence is felt. The Plain Dealer described her as a shrewd businesswoman who can spot a “phony” from a distance. References to her are invariably respectful, calling her “Mrs. Wolf” – a designation she herself preferred. On her election to the board of the library, the July 14, 1943 announcement in the Plain Dealer reported, “Mrs. Wolf is by nature conciliatory and soft spoken, but she manages to have her way.”

If you want to visit her remains, go to Knollwood Mausoleum in Mayfield Village, Ohio. She is in crypt #321. To visit the Anisfield and Wolf families, go to the Mayfield Cemetery in Cleveland Heights.  You’ll find the Anisfields in the Mayfield Mausoleum and the Wolf family is close by.

Traces of Amy Loveman’s friendship with Edith can be glimpsed through random articles and off-the-cuff references. Given their mutual love of books, and Loveman’s importance as an editor and reviewer, their bond makes perfect sense.

Born in 1881, Loveman came from a literary family in New York City. Her maternal grandfather was the son of a rabbi. A linguist, encyclopedist and outspoken anti-slavery advocate, he wrote for The Nation. Her father emigrated from Hungary in 1850 and was a cotton broker who spoke six languages. Perhaps that is how the Anisfields and Lovemans became acquainted? 

Loveman received her BA from Barnard in 1901; interestingly, she took no literature classes because she knew her love of reading would never end. In her first job, she worked for an uncle who was revising The New International Encyclopedia. She went to New York Evening Post, and became first a book reviewer, then later associate editor of the Post’s Literary Supplement, which she helped found in 1920. 

 In 1924, Loveman left with several colleagues to found a literary magazine, The Saturday Review, where she worked for the next 30 years. The masthead listed her as an associate editor and she wrote nearly 800 book reviews, editorials, and answers to questions from readers. In 1950, she became the poetry editor.

Despite being a poetry critic, (and culling 98% of submissions) she never wrote poetry herself: “I wouldn’t dare to,” she said, “knowing how well supplied the world already is with bad verse.”

Loveman edited, proofed, and mocked up Saturday Review editions, answered correspondence, and kept her male colleagues organized. She even rescued the paper on several occasions by locating missing items. Once she traveled to the dump to rummage in the trash to locate a missing photo. On another occasion, she and editor Norman Cousins spent hours frantically searching the warehouse for a missing manuscript to avoid legal repercussions. They found it behind a desk in the offices and the threatened lawsuit was dropped.

Along with the Saturday Review, Loveman was vital to the Book-of-the-Month club. She joined the reading committee in 1926 shortly after it was founded, then later became head of the editorial department in 1938, eventually joining the board of judges in 1951. Colleagues describe her as an optimist, kind, an elegant writer who adored Jane Austen, and corresponded with every great writer at the time. She was widely respected, to the degree that when her colleagues tried to throw a small surprise party to recognize her contributions to literary endeavors in June 1942, so many people wanted to attend, they had to rent a ballroom. 

Loveman received the Columbia University Medal for Excellence and the Constance Lindsay Skinner Achievement Award of the Women’s National Book Association in 1946. Wheaton and Wilson colleges awarded her honorary Litt.D degrees in 1950. Amy served on the Anisfield Wolf jury in the 1940s. 

On her death in 1955, Norman Cousins penned a lengthy obituary for the Saturday Review, and in 1956, published a 21-page eulogy with Overbrook Press. In his magazine obituary, Cousins wrote,  “Amy Loveman was less cluttered emotionally than any person I have ever known. Her nobility was a universe: and to know it was to soar inside it.”

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.

Sharp-eyed Clevelanders can still spot John Anisfield’s name on the side of his old garment factory, which employed more than 700 workers a century ago. The clothing manufacturer at E. 22nd and Superior Avenue has been shuttered long decades, but the imprint of Anisfield, his fortune, and his progressive notions carry briskly into the 21st century.

John Anisfield was 16 and nearly penniless when he arrived in Cleveland in 1876, but he had an uncle, Dr. James Horowitz, who was able to place his Viennese nephew into the employ of the D. Black Cloak Company. Young John proved a quick study, rose to become a manager, quit and struck out into garment making on his own, just six years after he set foot in Cleveland.

The Civil War had remade the way Americans clothed themselves, as it remade so much of the country. The U.S. Army had taken millions of measurements of boys and men, begetting a system for sizing men’s clothing. This system and increasing mechanization fueled the ready-to-wear market from the 1860s through the 1880s, which coincided with young John’s arrival.

For approximately a half century after the 1890s, seven percent of Cleveland’s workforce toiled in the city’s garment factories, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

Many of the founders and owners were Jews of German or Austrian-Hungarian extraction. Four of the nine founders of the Jewish Federation – the Federation of Jewish Welfare Charities of 1903 – led the local garment-making firms, said Dr. Sean Martin, curator for Jewish History at the Western Reserve Historical Society.

During this fertile period, John Anisfield began inviting his only child, Edith, downtown to his office on Saturdays, where the two would consider the family’s philanthropy. She was just 12 in 1901 when this consultation began – a full 19 years before the country decided to give women the right to vote with the 19th Amendment.

The forward-looking father and precocious daughter (Edith could read French, German, and English) sent money to Mount Sinai Hospital, the first such Cleveland institution to accept patients regardless of creed or color.  When John Anisfield died in 1929, his daughter took five years to decide how to honor him: a literary prize that became the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.

“The most important legacy of the garment industry is its philanthropic legacy,” historian Martin told a packed audience at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. “The wealth they generated – not just for themselves but for their employees – is still with us.”

Several years ago, Clevelander Anne Trubek attended the Anisfield-Wolf ceremony with an interest in hearing that year’s crop of winners speak. As she left, she realized that she had been exposed to one of Cleveland’s best kept cultural secrets.

The writer-in-residence at Oberlin College, author and literary critic tucked her experience in her back pocket and went on to co-edit Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology. The idea was to share Cleveland stories that only Clevelanders could tell. After a huge response, Trubek’s format morphed into another repository for Cleveland stories — Belt magazine.

“I want Belt to tell some of the many amazing Cleveland stories that have not yet been told,” she said. “The Anisfield-Wolf Awards is one example. I decided, sometime in May, that it would be the first story.”

Trubek assigned the story to Kent State journalism professor Jacqueline Marino, who reported extensively to uncover the award’s history and provide a glimpse into the life of Edith Anisfield-Wolf. Marino said she was surprised how low-profile the woman remains, exactly 50 years after she died.

“I had never heard of the award,” Marino said. “But once I read about the winners, the jury, and especially founder Edith Anisfield-Wolf—this intriguing character from Cleveland’s history that no one seems to know much about—I was enthralled. She and her father contributed so much to Cleveland.”

Read the Belt magazine feature on Anisfield-Wolf and let us know if you agree.

The Anisfield-Wolf book prize turns 75 this year. Quite an accomplishment from a shy poet and philanthropist in Cleveland, who in 1935 had the insight to see race relations as the nation’s critical issue; one that could continue to eat away and destroy us if progress wasn’t made.

Edith Anisfield Wolf was passionate in her belief that we could break down stereotypes that arise from fear, myth, and ignorance. She wanted to encourage people to think beyond what they knew and what was familiar; to read works that open new worlds and ideas; and debate these critical issues to open and challenge our ways of thinking. It was her desire that through these conversations, participants and future generations would gain better understanding of others and appreciate the richness in our differences.

That’s why she created the Anisfield-Wolf book prize. Thanks to her vision, some of the world’s greatest literary voices are known and respected for their contributions to our nation’s cultural identity. Familiar authors, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Thurston, Ralph Ellison and Gwendolyn Brooks, weren’t always as well received as they are today due to the color of their skin or the subject matter of the works. That level of respect changed with the Anisfield-Wolf book prize, often referred to as the “Black Pulitzer” in its early years.

In today’s ever-more-global society, issues of race and cultural identity continue to both unite and divide us. Thanks to efforts such as the Anisfield-Wolf book prize, a greater number of diverse voices are participating in the conversation, opening and challenging our minds.

What works and writers have influenced you?

Are we closer to achieving Edith Anisfield Wolf’s vision of gaining a greater understanding and appreciation for others?

Tell us what you think.