Tag Archives: Emanie Nahm

Sunshine in Shadow

Sunshine “Sunny” Nahm, 1872-1937

Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword. On one side all is correct, definite, orderly; the paths are straight, the trees regular, the sun shaded; . . . she has only to walk demurely from cradle to grave and no one will touch a hair of her head.  But on the other side all is confusion.  Nothing follows a regular course.  – Virginia Woolf

How can one not wonder about the history of a woman named Sunshine?  And yet the conventions of 19th-century femininity made it hard to know women, even one with a name like that.

Born in Louisville, Kentucky to Bavarian immigrants, Sunshine Friedman was the baby of her family.  In 1878, when Sunshine was six, the Friedmans moved to Paducah, where her older brother Joseph had convinced his father to join him in his vinegar manufacturing business. 

As she grew up, Sunshine filled her high school autograph book with the scribbles of affectionate friends and relatives, including this one:

Sunshine Friedman is your name
Single is your station
Happy will be the man who
makes the alteration.

And by any standard, “Sunny” made a good marriage.  In 1892, she wed Max B. Nahm of Bowling Green, a Princeton law graduate and clothier who would become a wealthy bank executive and a leader in the movement to establish Mammoth Cave as a national park. 

From the commodious Nahm home on College Street, Sunshine reigned.  By one account, she was “an active volunteer in numerous community organizations, a whiz of a bridge player, and the epitome of a dignified, Victorian lady.”  But those Victorian values were painfully tested by Sunshine’s only child, Emanie, born in 1893. 

For better or worse, it was Emanie (far more open about her personal history than her mother’s generation) who tells us most of what we know about Sunshine.  Clever, tomboyish in her youth, unconventional, and given to creative pursuits like writing and art, Emanie complained that her mother tried to suffocate her aspirations, warning her that men don’t like that sort of thing.  Her parents took her to the New York theater every year, she remembered, but no other visual arts were on the agenda.  The Nahm house was filled with books, but again, no pictures of any consequence.  Her mother “wanted to tell me what to do,” Emanie groused, in stream-of-consciousness notes left in her papers.  Though intimidated by this maternal presence, Emanie apparently reproduced it in her relationship with her own daughter. 

And yet the women seem to have remained on good terms.  Emanie left for New York, married, divorced, and enjoyed success as a writer and artist.  Sunny traveled and took cruises with Emanie and her granddaughter, but by the 1930s heart disease was threatening to cut her life short.  When Sunny died at 63, her friend Martha Potter watched rather uncomfortably as Emanie distributed her mother’s possessions.  Martha received “her purple, velvet-jacket evening gown and a black coat suit with fox fur shoulders.”  Seven months later, after lunching with Max (who outlived Sunshine by 20 years), Martha could only say, “We do miss Sunny very much.”

For more about the Nahm family in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, click on the links or search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Emanie (Nahm) Sachs Arling Philips Collection Available

Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927); Emanie Philips (1893-1981)

Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927); Emanie Philips (1893-1981)

After establishing herself in New York during the 1920s as an author of novels, short stories and reviews, Bowling Green native Emanie (Nahm) Sachs longed to write the biography of a “wild woman.”  In 1927, fate handed Emanie her subject with the death of the notorious nineteenth-century feminist, free love advocate, spiritualist, suffragist and presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull.  The result was The Terrible Siren, published in 1928.  A feast of gossip and hearsay that made its publisher’s attorneys nervous about libel suits, the book nevertheless remained the standard work on Woodhull for decades.

The  Emanie (Nahm) Sachs Arling Philips Collection at WKU’s Special Collections Library preserves much of her fascinating research into Woodhull’s life.  Emanie and her assistants combed through libraries and newspaper archives and contacted individuals who had personally known Woodhull and her colorful family.  While some informants had scandalous stories to tell, others defended Woodhull as a clever and charming woman who was far ahead of her time.

After her success with Woodhull’s biography, Emanie went to work on a history of Kentucky.  She became particularly fascinated with the state’s early years, gathering primary and secondary resources on pioneers, Indians and politicians.  Although the work was never published, her manuscript and much of her research is also part of the collection.

A finding aid for the Emanie (Nahm) Sachs Arling Philips Collection can be downloaded here.


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Women’s History Month, Part II

Emanie Nahm Sachs

Emanie Nahm Sachs

As a child growing up in Bowling Green, she was a self-described ugly duckling whose conventional parents disparaged her attempts at music, painting, and writing.  But Emanie Louise Nahm (1893-1981) rebounded.  Snaring a job as a writer for the New York Times, she claimed to have rejected 26 marriage proposals before wedding Goldman Sachs partner Walter E. Sachs in 1917.  While studying writing at Columbia University, Emanie began to publish short stories in popular magazines.  By the end of her life, she had also published three novels, a memoir, and a biography of feminist icon Victoria Woodhull that remains a standard reference.

But it was Emanie’s 1924 novel, Talk, that set her home town abuzz.  Her story of Delia Morehouse, a young woman who crumbles beneath the weight of public opinion and strict gender roles, was a thinly disguised portrait of early twentieth-century Bowling Green, warts and all.  Reviews of the book were rhapsodic, one noting that it was as compelling as Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street in its depiction of small-town tragedy.  Citizens of Bowling Green, however, were scandalized by what they saw as Emanie’s magnification of their pettiness, hypocrisy, and destructive gossip.  Emanie dismissed the controversy.  Her quarrel, she claimed, was not with the cruelty of those who gossiped, but rather the “stupidity” of those who allowed gossip and negative opinion to hurt their self-image.  The goal of her own life, one might conclude, was to overcome that same stupidity.

For more on Emanie Nahm and the materials about her life that are available at WKU’s Special Collections Library, click here and here.


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