I probably would have never heard of Frankie Rubinstein if not for her relationship to Alvin Rubinstein, a distinguished political science professor who taught at Penn for over forty years. When I first began looking through a collection of Rubinstein related diaries, journals, and correspondence, the expectation was that it would provide valuable insight into the scholarship of a former faculty member. While that’s still true, it turns out that the collection is almost entirely from Frankie’s perspective. Frankie’s writing reveals an intelligent and articulate woman who loved her husband, and this in turn opened up entirely new and different ways of approaching the collection.
Born Frankie Grossman in 1918, she would only meet Alvin in 1958. The first page of a 1958 “yearbook” style journal has the following handwritten note written across the title page: “The year I met Al. Do you realize, Mag, I was 40 years old? Divorced, for, what a year or two?” The identity of her first husband and the circumstances of that relationship are a mystery.
Frankie was a teacher, which I discovered through a playful note she wrote to Alvin written on “Philadelphia High School for Girls” letterhead. This led to the discovery of yearbooks that showed she taught in the English department there from approximately 1958 to 1972. Details such as where she received her education or how she embarked on her career are unknown.
By 1960 Frankie and Alvin were married and they were travelling together on frequent and extensive trips across Europe, the Middle East, and Russia. The trips were due to Alvin Rubinstein’s work as a political scientist, but only a few of the journals in this collection appear to have been written exclusively by Alvin and in a distinctly documentary style. Instead, the bulk of the writing comes from Frankie’s own travel journals, as well as airmail letters or postcards sent to family and friends. In fact, more often than not, this correspondence is addressed specifically to “Kimmelman” or “Mrs. George Kimmelman.”
Details about Frankie’s childhood and life before 1958 are frustratingly scarce. A 1930 census record shows an 11-year-old Frankie Grossman living with George and “Sadye” Kimmelman on North 41st Street in Philadelphia. Frankie Grossman is listed as “granddaughter,” while the Kimmelmans are son-in-law and daughter to the head of the household, who is listed as Elizabeth Bloom. It is unclear if these relationships were actually as stated in the census, but it seems clear from their later correspondence that Frankie and the Kimmelmans were close. Of particular interest are a handful of photographs from “Winter 1938,” that seem likely to be of Frankie and the Kimmelmans.
A series of older photographs from the 1920s provide some clues to Frankie’s childhood. Notes on the back of some photos identify Harry Grossman as her father, but the identity of her birth mother is unknown. We can see a young Frankie at Fairmont Park and another with her being held by her “Nana.” Another photograph is described as “Daddy and Mary F” and a photograph with a similar looking woman from the 1930s or 1940s, reads, “Dear Mary Foley Grossman, my ‘step-mother’ whom I loved and who loved me. Here she is, sorrow overriding her beauty.” Perhaps her sorrow is a reference to Harry Grossman, who only appears in those few photographs from the 1920s.
Another interesting, but ultimately mysterious clue about Frankie’s personal history is from the acknowledgements in a book she wrote on Shakespeare’s puns:
“I want to thank my mother, a beautiful and wise woman, who gave me two fathers: the first, a sensitive amateur artist, who viewed life through a moral prism; the second, a Rabelaisian man, a bold and brilliant teacher, who showed me there was no conflict between their two visions.”
It doesn’t seem that Frankie knew her birth mother, so the mother she refers to here is most likely Mary Foley Grossman. Presumably, the first father she refers to is her biological father, Harry Grossman, but is the second father George Kimmelman? There is evidence elsewhere that George was a high school English teacher, so perhaps he is the “bold and brilliant teacher?” If so, does this mean that Mary Foley Grossman was responsible for introducing Frankie to the Kimmelmans? Unfortunately, important details like these that would help us better understand Frankie’s life remain frustratingly vague.
Even the end of Frankie’s life remains a mystery. Numerous obituaries and remembrances exist for Alvin, who passed away in 2001, but the only hint of her passing is on a list of “Memorial Tributes” from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia for 2019. She would have been 101 years old in 2019 and there is no evidence that she ever had any children.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to process this collection and glad that it is now available for researchers to study. I expect that there will be interest from people who want to better understand Alvin Rubinstein’s research abroad. This collection will also help anyone who wants to go beyond Alvin Rubinstein the scholar to appreciate who he was as a person. From my perspective, you can’t hope to understand Alvin, without also getting to know Frankie. She is an intriguing part of this collection for both the ways her voice and perspective illuminate the experiences she shared with her husband, but also for the many questions about her life that remain unanswered. My hope is that someone reading this can help fill in some of the missing pieces of her story. What would truly be exciting is if Frankie’s writing becomes a useful avenue of research for its own sake, which is something I think is worth pursuing.
The finding aid for The Alvin and Frankie Rubinstein travel diaries and correspondence can be accessed here:
Please visit https://www.library.upenn.edu/kislak/access for information on accessing the collection.