Saturday, March 30, 2024

Sylvia Plath's Black Relatives: More

The Nicholsons rented 116R North New Jersey Ave., Atlantic City, in 1915. The storefront and rear extension are additions; more typical houses c. 1910 sit to its right and left. [1]

Their marriage lasted 20 years -- from the wedding in Boston in 1906 to sometime after 1925, when the husband, a waiter, was last listed in the Atlantic City directory. In 1928 the wife was still using his surname, "Nicholson" -- in various papers rendered as "Nichols," "Nicholason," and "Nicholas." Husband Christopher J. Nicholson also gave his birth year as 1881, 1882, and 1883, making his later years yet harder to trace.

Something led Nicholson to leave his wife, nee Anna Greenwood, on her own in Atlantic City -- where their four children had died in 1918, of influenza, all four names carved on a single gravestone. Perhaps he sought a better job or a marital separation. Anna remained in Atlantic City, working as a domestic.

Anna was Sylvia Plath's blood relative, the Viennese great-aunt who had married a black American. I have learned that more than any other U.S. city, fin de siecle Boston saw unskilled white immigrant females like Anna marry African-American men employed in skilled occupations. For young women from Europe not yet seized by the very American horror at "miscegenation" (word coined in 1863) it was a step up.

Christopher Nicholson's 1942 draft registration card -- the next obtainable document -- shows him in New York City, working downtown and lodging in Harlem. Anna, under her maiden name, had remarried in New York in 1932, to a white British ironworker formerly employed in Atlantic City. They'd moved to England.

U.S. federal census takers missed Nicholson in both 1930 and 1940. Nicholson filed for Social Security benefits on 23 August 1948, giving what is probably his real birthday: 21 August 1883. [2] The 1950 federal census shows him retired, at the same address as in 1942; his marital status is "separated." I found no divorce in New York legal records, only a civil suit Nicholson filed in the Bronx, in 1953, against one Dominick DeLillo, the nature of which I don't know.

Nicholson's death record still eludes me. The Social Security Death Index does not have it. A "Christopher Nicholson" was buried in New Jersey in 1956, but no birth date was given and several people share that name. Nicholson's niece Aurelia Plath never mentioned any Nicholsons in letters or papers we have access to.

It weighed on me that I had told Anna's story and not Christopher's. Now I have told all I know.

[1] This is the only Nicholson family address still standing. The 1915 New Jersey census shows a racially integrated neighborhood.

[2] Nicholson's 1918 draft registration card gives his birthday as 4 July 1881. It was common for men to claim to the draft board that they were older. Otto Plath's brother did the same.