Biographical Database of NAWSA Suffragists, 1890-1920
Biography of Alice Lewisohn (Crowley), 1883-1972
By Carolyn Vecchio, Teacher, New York City
Alice Lewisohn was born in New York City in 1883, to Rosalie and Leonard Lewisohn. She was one of 10 siblings. Her mother came from a wealthy German Jewish New York banking family, while her father was a native of Germany, he worked in his family's export business. The Lewisohns were rich industrialists, founders of the American Smelting and Refining Company and the Amalgamated Copper Company. Her mother died in 1900, and her father died just two years later. Alice along with her siblings inherited an enormous fortune from their father. In 1924, Alice married artist, cartoonist and designer Herbert E. Crowley. She died in 1972.
As early as 1907, Alice along with her youngest sister Irene Lewisohn (1892-1944) taught acting and dancing as well as organized amateur productions with local neighborhood children. Shortly thereafter the sisters began working with their close friend, Lillian Wald, who was the founder of the Henry Street Settlement House. In 1914, the Lewisohns bought a lot at 466 Grand Street and donated it to the Settlement as the site of a new theater. Their intention was to bring high culture to the immigrants who were crammed into tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Alice Lewisohn brought more than high culture to immigrant New Yorkers. In December 1909 she lent support to striking shirtwaist workers (largely immigrant), attending their hearings and offering to provide bail for some of those arrested for picketing.
The sisters were at the top of the list of reformers of their time; they were often referred to as the "Misses Lewisohn". In 1915, the Lewisohn sisters founded the Neighborhood Playhouse as a home for the Neighborhood Players, it was an amateur acting troupe for adults and children in Manhattan's Henry Street Settlement. The Neighborhood Playhouse was one of the first Off-Broadway theatres in Manhattan. The Playhouse was committed to community and devoted to renewing the roots of drama. By 1920, the Playhouse became renowned for its avant-garde productions, which often incorporated dance, music, and poetry.
Suffrage was one cause that Alice Lewisohn took up with her sister Irene. In December 1910 the Women's Political Union opened new headquarters in Manhattan, made possible in part by a donation of $1,000 from the Lewisohn sisters. In May 1911, Alice Lewisohn provided financial support for two suffrage plays presented as a benefit performance for the Women's Political Union. Three years later, in October 1914, Alice Lewisohn joined with settlement house leader Lillian Wald to give a reception for the visiting English suffragist, Mrs. Pethick Lawrence.
The Lewisohns closed up the Playhouse at the conclusion of the 1927 season in order to assess its future. The Neighborhood Playhouse had been going for a dozen years and at the cost of well over half a million dollars. In 1927, after the Lewisohns left, the building was renamed the Henry Street Playhouse and the settlement continued as a playhouse. The Lewisohn sisters and Rita Wallach Morganthau went on to establish the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in 1928.
Alice Lewisohn founded the Museum of Costume Arts, this collection is now part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. During the years of 1916-1931, the sisters donated several costumes to the Museum of Costume Art. The Alice Lewisohn Crowley Gift consists of approximately 101 original costume and set designs for theatrical, musical and dance works presented at the Neighborhood Playhouse. In 1930 she co-founded with her sister Irene, the Neighborhood Playhouse Studios in which they held classes in theater arts.
At the conclusion of the Second World War, Alice settled in Zurich, Switzerland with her husband Herbert, where they resided for many years. Alice and Herbert became part of the Carl Jung inner circle. In 1959, Alice wrote a book entitled The Neighborhood Playhouse, which was more like a memoir of sorts. She died in Zurich on January 6, 1972 at the age of 88. She could easily have slipped into the role of socialite after receiving her inheritance, however she took on the roles of social reformer and philanthropist.
Photograph by Ben M. Rabinovitch
Sokol, Laurie. "Irene Lewisohn." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 27, 2017) https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/lewisohn-irene.
Joselit, Jenna Weissman. 2015. "The Lewisohn Sisters Put the Ooomph in Do-Gooding." Forward, November 6. http://forward.com/culture/looking-back/324006/how-the-lewisohn-sisters-put-the-good-into-do-gooding/.
Christopher, Gray. 2010. "The Drama Queen of the Lower East Side." New York Times, December 23, sec. Streetscapes. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/realestate/26scape.html.
"History of the Henry Street Settlement." n.d. Abrons Art Center Henry Street Settlement. http://www.abronsartscenter.org/about/history/.
"NYPL Biography Excerpt." n.d. https://www.nypl.org/sites/default/files/archivalcollections/pdf/alice_Lewisohn_Crowley_Gift.pdf.
"Broadway Photographs." n.d. http://broadway.cas.sc.edu/content/alice-lewisohn.
"Revolvy on Alice Lewisohn." n.d. https://www.revolvy.com/topic/Alice%20Lewisohn&item_type=topic.
Allen, Crafton. 1959. "The Neighborhood Playhouse Book Review." In Modern Drama, 3rd ed., 2:326. Project Muse. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/496995.
Artciles in the New York Times: 19 December, 1909, pp. 1-2; 111 December 1910, p. 11; 22 March 1911, p. 5; 28 October 1914, p. 13.
Obituary, New York Times. 12 January 1972, accessed online at http://www.nytimes.com/1972/01/12/archives/mrs-alice-crowley-formed-playhouse.html?_r=0.