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Brooklyn's Congressman for half a century, Emanuel Celler

Apr 3, 2012 11:51 AM | 2 comments

It has recently been my pleasure to arrange and describe a small collection of photographs and papers that belonged to Brooklyn's longtime congressman, Emanuel Celler. These items--principally photographs and laws written by Celler and framed along with the Presidential pen used to sign them--as far as we know came from his apartment just across the road from the library, on Prospect Park West. For those unfamiliar with Celler and his work, allow me to plagiarize from my own finding aid:

Sumner Ave, Brooklyn

"Emanuel Celler was born on May 6, 1888 in a frame house on Sumner Avenue near Floyd St in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the third of four children. His father owned a “whisky rectifying” business, but when it failed the elder Celler began working as a wine salesman. Emanuel graduated from Boys’ High School in 1906, and after his father’s death took over his wine route, while at the same time studying law at Columbia University. In 1914 he married Stella Baar. The couple had two daughters, one of whom suffered from cerebral palsy. Stella Baar Celler died in 1966.

Emanuel and Stella Baar Celler

 In 1922 Celler was asked if he would like to be the Democratic party’s nominee for Congress in the 10th District, which had thus far never sent a Democrat to Congress. Celler campaigned hard and won the election by just over 3,111 votes, remaining in Congress for fifty years until Elizabeth Holzman, 53 years his junior, beat him in the primary of 1972. Celler’s tenure in Congress endured through nine presidencies. An active and feisty legislator, he devoted himself to the struggle for civil rights legislation, helping to craft the landmark Civil Rights act of 1964. He was also particularly interested in antitrust laws and was a forceful voice in reforming exclusionary immigration laws. His battles on this front culminated in the Hart-Celler Law of 1965 which eliminated national origin as a basis for exclusion. During the 1940s he worked to allow victims of the Holocaust to enter the U.S., castigating as “cold and cruel” the immigration policy of the day. He was also a vocal opponent of McCarthysim. Celler served as Chair of the House Judiciary Committee from 1949 to 1973. A strong supporter of Israel, he was honored by several Jewish organizations, receiving an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University. Brooklyn College also conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

In later years Celler lived at 9 Prospect Park West. After retiring from the House the former Congressman remained busy, speaking on the many issues that had occupied him through his years in Congress. He died at the age of 92 on January 15, 1981."

Emanuel Celler (right), New York City Mayor John Lindsay (center) and an unknown third man.

There were other sides to Celler, though, that don't come through in the biographical sketches. He was a dedicated amateur pianist and opera lover. And he took careful note of amusing anecdotes and aphorisms--some of them even slightly risque--to amuse his friends or possibly include in his speeches. Two tiny notebooks, one an appointment diary dated 1935, the other with the print almost worn off from use, at one time a booklet for telephone numbers, contain these inky nuggets written in a minuscule, careful hand. A couple of sheets of notepaper headed "House of Representatives" are folded into the pages. I transcribe here a few of the notes that are repeatable on a public library web site.

Ingratitude to her great men is the mark of strong peoples--Plutarch.

Burlesque--As a lad of fifteen father refused to allow to go to Burlesque. The more he objected, the more desirous I became. Finally I got together some cents and doing odd chores and went to a burlesque show. There I saw something I should never have seen--my father.

Oscar Wilde told story of a horse thief during his lecture tour of U.S. It was a cowboy town. Jury deliberated long. Finally came with the verdict "Guilty as charged." Judge says to Jury, "You are correct but tardy. What took you so long? We strung up the prisoner an hour ago."

Ice on doorstep. Act of God was the defence. Jurymen said Act of God impossible in Brooklyn.

Sun never sets upon British Empire. Why? God wishes to keep an eye on the rascals.

British are like squids retreating in a cloud of ink.

Consistency is hobgoblin of small minds=Emerson

We always want something better like the man condemned to be hung who wanted the luxury of being shot.

"My ancestors came over on the Mayflower."---"Mine came over when they had stricter immigration laws."

Never run after your hat. Someone is sure to bring it to you.

Irish immigrant writes back home. "Great country. Not only am I pulling down a Protestant Church but I'm being paid to do it."

Brandeis: "I am sorry I was born a Jew." This caused consternation. Then he said, "If I had had a choice I would have chosen to be a Jew."

The score says it all--Celler was a serious pianist.

Celler comes across in these notebooks as irreverent and funny: in them he took a little --a very little, if you consider his amazing record of fifty years in Congress--time out from his role as a productive legislator who worked hard to improve the lot of his constituents and the nation as a whole. A notebook that has been rubbed raw in a man's pocket gives you a peculiar sense of intimacy. And that is all a part of the attraction of manuscript collections.

For the full finding aid click here, and if you wish to see the collection be sure to make an appointment by calling 718 230 2762 during our open hours.




4/12/2012 10:11:34 PM #

I'm thrilled that you've preserved the manuscripts. I knew and dearly loved the man you so eloquently wrote about: I am his grandaughter. I couldn't have asked for a more wonderful grandfather.
One other aspect of his personlity- he was a voracious reader of fine books, a habit I share with him. He savored words and delighted in using precisely the correct ones to convey his message in his writings and speeches.  I can picture his extensive library at 9 Prospect West.  Also, he utterly adored his wife Stella, who was truly the kindest person I ever met. They had a rich and loving marriage. To this day, I miss them both.

Jill Rifkin

4/29/2013 3:11:36 PM #

Wonderful article on Celler!
"Sun never sets upon British Empire. Why? God wishes to keep an eye on the rascals."
I myself have this extact same quote in a notebook so this bio really resonated with me! Very touching that his granddaughter commented too! Thanks for that!

Douglas Smythe