My Cousin, the Musical Star

ad dec 1 1917 for selma selingerWhen I spoke with my cousin Ellen Kleinfeld last week, she asked me whether I knew that there had been an opera singer in the family.  I said that I had not yet run across any family members who were opera singers.  She thought the cousin’s name was Sylvia, but wasn’t sure.  I told her that I would keep researching and would let her know if I found anyone that might fit that description.  I was skeptical of the claim that we had a singing star in the family, knowing how family myths can grow beyond the basic facts, but I figured I’d keep my eyes open for anyone who might be this musical “Sylvia.”

Well, it did not take long to find her, and it was not because I was looking for her specifically.  The fourth child of Moses, Jr. and Henrietta Cohen after Augusta, Myer, and Jacob was Fannie Cohen.  As written earlier, Fannie married Alfred Selinger, the assumed relative of Julius Selinger, who had married her older sister Augusta.  Fannie and Alfred had one child, a daughter Selma.  Selma was the mysterious singer my cousin Ellen had heard about as Sylvia.

Selma, who was born in 1894, was already performing as a singer at a Fourth of July celebration in Washington, DC, by 1905, when she was only eleven years old, and she is mentioned as a singer in numerous articles in the Washington area newspapers over the next 20 years.[1]

On September 14, 1912, Selma married William Danforth, who was an actor who worked under the stage name Billy L. Wilson, according to his passport application.  Three years later they had a daughter Mildred, but the marriage did not last.  An article from the Eau Claire (Wisconsin) Leader on April 10, 1917, told of a trip that Billy L. Wilson was making to Australia with his vaudeville partner, Joe F. Willard.  The article said that Billy and Joe had been on B.F. Keith‘s vaudeville circuit in the eastern and southern parts of the US.  (This is the same B.F. Keith who had married Ethel Chase, the sister-in-law of Ruth Cohen Chase, Selma’s first cousin, in 1913, six months before he died.  Ethel Chase later married Ruth and Selma’s other cousin, Jerome Selinger.  Perhaps Selma met Billy also through Ruth’s connection to B.F. Keith, or maybe Billy introduced Ethel to B.F. Keith.)

Apparently being on the road was not good for the marriage between Selma and Billy, and by 1920, they were divorced. She and Mildred were living with her parents, Fannie and Alfred. Alfred was working as a tailor, and Selma gave her occupation as a stenographer for a concert business. Throughout this time, however, Selma had continued to perform.[2]  I could only find one photograph of Selma, however, despite all the news coverage, and it is not a very clear photo.

Selma Selinger New York Times 1919

Selma Selinger New York Times 1919

On June 6, 1920, Selma sang at an event where a young man named Earl I. Klein was also performing and at later events he performed as her accompanist.[3]  Earl also had been a musician since an early age, performing as a pianist and a violinist at numerous events since 1907, when he was thirteen.  He had attended the Columbia Conservatory of Music.[4] What may have started as a professional relationship turned romantic, and on July 15, 1921, Selma married Earl Klein, and the two continued to perform together for some time thereafter.  Selma also sang on some radio broadcasts in the early 1920s.

Unfortunately, I could not find any coverage of Selma and Earl’s careers after 1922. By 1930, however, it seemed that both may have ended their musical careers.  On the 1930 census, Earl’s occupation is listed as the manager of a taxi company, and Selma has no occupation listed.  In 1940, Earl was selling insurance, and Selma again had no occupation listed. Selma’s parents, Fannie and Alfred Selinger, were living with them, as was Selma’s daughter Mildred.  (Fannie and Alfred must have also had a place in St. Petersburg, Florida, as they are listed in the city directories for that city in 1924 and 1934.)

Selma lost her mother, Fannie Cohen Selinger, on August 21, 1940, and her father Alfred Selinger died seven years later on October 11, 1947.   Her husband Earl died of a heart attack on June 9, 1957.  Earl was buried in Washington Hebrew Cemetery where Selma’s parents Fannie and Alfred are buried as well as her grandparents Moses, Jr. and Henrietta Cohen.

Selinger FannieSelinger AlfreadEarl Kline

(Photos courtesy of Ira Todd Cohen and Jane and Scott Cohen)

Sometime thereafter Selma remarried a man named Theodore C. Lewis.  Selma died on January 2, 1973, in Silver Spring, MarylandThe Washington Post published the obituary below, describing some of the highlights of her musical career.

The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973) [Washington, D.C] 03 Jan 1973:

The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973) [Washington, D.C] 03 Jan 1973:

Interestingly, Selma was not buried where her long time husband Earl is buried, and I still have not found where she is buried, though I am checking with the cemetery where her third husband is buried, Fort Lincoln.

UPDATE:  I just got confirmation that Selma is buried next to her third husband, Theodore Lewis, at Fort Lincoln cemetery.  Poor Earl–buried with the Cohen family, his in-laws, while his wife is buried elsewhere.

Selma’s daughter Mildred married a musician, Maurice or Maury Hall.  They lived in Las Vegas and then in North Hollywood, California.

Thus, one family “myth” has been validated.  Although Selma did not sing in a traditional opera setting, she was a professional soprano who sang both popular and classical musical works.  In the days before radio and recordings were widespread, hiring musicians for entertainment was much more common.  I can visualize these society gatherings and charitable and patriotic events where my cousin Selma sang to the delight of her audience, sometimes accompanied by her husband Earl.

I leave you with two links to click on to hear two songs that Selma sang (not, however, sung by her in these recordings). Although Selma sang everything from “Madame Butterfly” to Handel’s Oratorio “Judas Maccabeas”  to Kol Nidre at these performances,  I particularly enjoyed searching for these two songs that were popular during World War I, as they reminded me of a time many, many years ago I sat  with my father and a family friend as they discussed World War I songs.  I was probably about thirteen and could not for the life of me figure out why these two men were talking about (and singing) songs written before they were born.  As Mel Brooks said in The 2000 Year Old Man, we mock the things we are to be.

Cover of "The 2000 Year Old Man"

Cover of The 2000 Year Old Man

Roses of Picardy

Keep the Home Fires Burning

[1] For example, for some early performances,  see The Washington Evening Star, July 3, 1905, p. 3; “Dr. Simon Guest of Honor, Washington Evening Star, June 2, 1908, p. 9; “Eastern Star Entertainments,” April 15, 1909, Washington Evening Star, p. 15; Washington Evening Star, May 9, 1909, p. 65; “Have Lively Debate,” Washington Evening Star, April 6, 1910, p. 2; “Casino,”  Washington Evening Star, April 9, 1913.

[2] See “Jewish Women Hear their New Protégé,” Washington Evening Star, January 13, 1916, p. 24 (as Selma Selinger Danforth); “Grotto Will Entertain,”  Washington Evening Star, January 13, 1916, p. 24; “Arab Patrol Host to 1,500 Guests,” Washington Evening Star, April 29, 1916, p. 9; Washington Evening Star, December 9, 1917, p. 54 (‘…Miss Selma Selinger sang several patriotic solos which were so well received that she had to respond with several encores.”); “Liberty Loan Boosted at Patriotic Rally,” Washington Evening Star, April 7, 1918, p. 20.1  This is just a sampling; there were also mentions in the Washington Herald and the Washington Post.

[3] See Washington Evening Star, June 6, 1920, p. 53; “Florida Society,” Washington Evening Star, January 9, 1921, p. 25; Washington Evening Star, November 5, 1922, p. 63.

[4] Washington Evening Star, July 5, 1908, p. 26. Also, numerous other articles about Earl Klein’s performances can be found by searching for Earl Klein in the District of Columbia.

The Twentieth Century for the Descendants of Moses and Adeline Cohen 1900-1910

The first decade of the twentieth century must have been a very difficult one for the extended Cohen family in Washington, DC.  First, on March 21, 1903, Hart’s son Munroe was killed in Kingston, New York, in a gruesome accident while working as a brakeman for the West Shore railroad. He was trying to couple two railcars when he slipped and fell between the cars.  He sustained serious injuries and died of shock resulting from those injuries, according to the Kingston Daily Freeman.  He was only 22 years old.  His body was returned to Washington, DC, where he was buried on March 24, 1903.

The Kingston Daily Freeman, Volume 01, March 23 1903, Page 3, found at

The Kingston Daily Freeman, Volume 01, March 23 1903, Page 3 found at——-20-PubMetakingstondaily-1—-monroe+cohen-all

Monroe Cohen body 1903

It appears that at or around or perhaps right after the time of Munroe’s accident and subsequent death, his younger brother Jacob, then seventeen years old, stole about $700 worth of jewelry from his father’s store and pawned it to another pawnbroker.  As the article below indicates, the police were hoping he would return for his brother’s funeral, so it would seem that Jacob’s theft occurred close to the time of his brother’s death.

Jacob Cohen son of Hart 1903 arrested

(“Son’s Alleged Dishonesty” Date: Friday, March 27, 1903, Evening Star (Washington (DC), DC)   Page: 15)

It took six months for the police to track Jacob down, and when they did, they found him in St. Louis.  He was arrested and admitted to the crime and was then returned to Washington.

Jacob son of Hart arrested in St Louis

(“Charged with Grand Larceny,” October 20, 1903, Washington Evening Star, p. 11)

I have not found anything to indicate what happened next, but in 1910, Jacob was living with his parents in Washington, and working as a chauffeur.  I don’t know what could have motivated Jacob to steal the jewelry, but the fact that this occurred at the time his brother died makes me believe that it was related in some way to the grief he felt from his brother’s death.  It seems that Jacob had no further run-ins with the law and that his parents took him back into their home since he was living there as a 24 year old in 1910.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the tragedies for the extended DC Cohen family in that first decade of the twentieth century.  Just a few months later, on January 24, 1904, Ella Cohen Greenberg, the daughter of Moses, Jr. and Henrietta Baer Cohen, died at age 29, leaving behind her husband Jacob and their eight year old daughter, Marjorie.  I do not have a death certificate (yet) for Ella, so I do not know why she died.  Jacob was remarried by 1909 to a woman named Hattie with whom he had a son, Theodore.

And then just nine months after Ella’s death, Moses, Jr. himself died on November 24, 1904.  He was 63 years old.  According to his obituary, his death was sudden, the result of a heart attack.  The obituary paints a portrait of a successful business man who was very active in his synagogue and in various other Jewish communal and charitable organizations.  It described him as a “pioneer Hebrew citizen” of Washington, DC, and as “highly esteemed” and “highly regarded.”  One interesting error in the obituary is that it says that he was the father of eight children, all of whom survived him.  Moses and Henrietta had had nine children, and Ella had predeceased him.  Had the newspaper just made an error, or had there been some falling out between Ella and her family?  I will assume the first since I have no basis for concluding otherwise, and Ella was included with an insert into the family portrait, which obviously was taken some time between her death and the death of her father nine months later.

Moses Jr obit part 1

moses jr obit part 2

(“Moses Cohen Dead,”  November 25, 1904, Washington Evening Star, p.3)

It’s ironic that despite emphasizing Moses’ Jewish identity in several places, the obituary’s subtitle describes him as a strong supporter of his “church.”

The other thing that I found interesting was Moses, Jr.’s headstone.  Unlike his father Moses, Sr.’s headstone, which was a very traditional Jewish headstone engraved mostly in Hebrew and with the symbol for the Cohanim, Moses, Jr’s headstone has no Hebrew at all. Given how involved he was in the Washington Hebrew Congregation as both an employee and a congregant, I found this surprising.  Perhaps it is a sign of assimilation that the family chose a headstone in English and not Hebrew.

Moses Cohen, Sr. headstone

Moses Cohen, Sr. headstone

Moses Cohen, Jr. headstone

Moses Cohen, Jr. headstone

But the decade was not completely sad.  The eight surviving children of Moses, Jr. and Henrietta were doing well, and the next generation was growing up.

  1. Augusta and Julius’s five children were young adults and teenagers, the three oldest all working as jewelers like their father.
  2. Myer Cohen and his wife Helen had one more child, Myer, Jr., born in 1907, and their children were also teenagers. Myer continued to practice law.
  3. Jacob and Ida Cohen and their two children, Aimee and Gerson, moved from New York City to Yonkers, New York. In 1905 and in 1910, Jacob was working as the manager of a dry goods store.
  4. Alfred Selinger, Fannie Cohen’s husband, was a tailor. Their daughter Selma was also a teenager in 1910.
  5. Florence and Harry Panitz were still living in Baltimore, and Harry was still a salesman. Their daughter Aline was still a young child.
  6. Grace Cohen married William Katz on January 20, 1901, and they had two children in the next decade: Hilda (1901) and Morton (1907). William was a manager in a furniture store, and the family was living in Washington, DC.
  7. Solomon, the youngest son of Moses, Jr., and Henrietta, married Estelle Spater in 1906, where the couple then resided. Solomon was employed as a manager of a mail order business.  Solomon and Estelle had a son Ralph born in 1908 and a son Theodore, born in 1910.  Sadly, Theodore died on November 21, 1912 when he was only two years old.
    Theodore P. Cohen death certificate

    Theodore P. Cohen death certificate

    When I found the death certificate for Theodore, I was confused by a number of things.  First, he died in Seneca, Lenawee County, Michigan, not Detroit, where his family lived.  I thought perhaps he had died in an accident, but the cause of death was indigestion.  I found that very puzzling, but then saw that a contributory cause was Little’s Disease.  I looked up Little’s Disease and learned that it was a form of cerebral palsy.  I am not sure how indigestion caused his death, but obviously it was related to his underlying condition.  I also found it very strange that his birth date was unknown, that there was no information about the birth place of either of his parents or his mother’s maiden name, and that the informant was neither of his parents.  My guess is that Theodore was in a hospital or home for children with similar conditions since it appears that he was not living with family.

  8. In 1910, Moses, Jr., and Henrietta’s youngest child, Mabel, was residing at the Maryland Asylum and Training School for the Feeble Minded in Baltimore; she was 27 and unable to read or write.

In June 1909, there was a large family celebration of the 25th anniversary of Augusta and Julius Selinger at their home.  From this description in the Washington Evening Star, one can get a sense of the lifestyle of the family during this decade.

Augusta and Julius 25th anniversary party

Augusta and Julius 25th anniversary party

(Sunday, June 20, 1909, Evening Star (Washington (DC), DC),   Page: 61)


As for Moses, Sr., and Adeline’s other children, JM and Belle Cohen were still living in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1905, but by 1910, they had moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where their daughter Fannie Sybil had moved sometime after marrying Sigmund Stern, a German-born immigrant who had arrived in the United States in 1892 as a fourteen year old and who was living in Sioux City in 1900, where he was residing as a lodger along with his two brothers, Henry and Morris, in what appears to be a boarding house.  Sigmund and his older brother Morris were both working as clothing merchants.   Sometime before 1906 Sigmund and Sybil, as she was known, had moved to Kansas City, as their daughter Judith was born there in 1906.  Although I cannot find a 1910 census report for Sigmund and Sybil Stern, Sybil’s parents JM and Belle and her sister Ruth were listed as living in Kansas City that year; JM was retired at age 57.

The other two children of Hart and Henrietta (aside from Munroe and Jacob M. II, discussed above) were Frances and Isadore.  In 1910, Frances was single and living with her parents and had no occupation.  Isadore had married Frances David in about 1907, according to the 1910 census, and their first child, Monroe, was born April 14, 1910.  Isadore was working as a clerk for the post office at that time.

As for Rachel and Frederick Selinger, they were still living in Washington with their son Monroe in 1910, and Frederick was still working in a furniture store.  Their daughter Fannie had married Aaron Hartstall sometime before 1910, and their son Morton was born January 20, 1910.  Aaron was employed as a paper hanger, and they also were living in Washington, DC.

So the family had grown in numbers and the children were growing to be adults in the first ten years of the twentieth century.  There had been some big losses and a fair number of births.  The next ten years would see additional growth and additional challenges as the family and the world faced World War I and the younger generation began to reach adulthood and have families of their own.