Flora Zabelle Mangasarian, the First Armenian Broadway Actress
Flora Zabelle Mangasarian (1880—1968) was the first Armenian Broadway actress and one of the first stars of early American silent movie. Born in Constantinople in the Ottoman Empire, her family left for the United States at the time of the Hamidian massacres and settled in Chicago. She was the daughter of Dr Mangasar Mangasarian, a prominent pastor and scholar, specialized in theology, philosophy as well as Armenian and Turkish history.
Flora studied at Wellesley College, a private university for women located near Boston and aimed at providing excellent human sciences education to women meant to become prominent. At the age of 19, Flora moved to New York to start a career at the theatrical stage, which was particularly ambitious and brave for a woman so young and especially at that time. After a few rejections due to her lack of experience, she finally got in a chorus as a soprano for the Castle Square Grand Opera Company, and progressively grew and gained recognition in Broadway. In total, she played in 14 musicals and 5 silent movies.
The story of this young woman from the East who came to the United States with her dad and emancipated herself through her education and career particularly caught the attention of American media: on 8 November 1913 for example, the Ogden Standard dedicated a whole page to Flora with an article entitled “Out of a Harem to Fight for Woman Suffrage in America“, and which stated that:
“In all this fair land, there isn’t another woman who represents “emancipation” to such a degree as Flora Zabelle. […] She is the very symbol of “throw convention and customs to the winds”. […] She broke the chrysalis of tradition and in the gorgeous colors of the butterfly, raised her wings and flew away to freedom, shouting “emancipation””
I was pretty surprised to read that she lived in a “harem”, because harem aren’t part of Armenian culture and traditions. I think that what the article meant with “harem” was that the women of Flora’s family mostly lived secluded in their homes and hardly ever met with men who weren’t their relatives.
Despite its very orientalist lens, the article gives an interesting insight regarding Flora’s life and how she achieved a career as an actress despite her family’s reluctance to accept her choices. The article mentions how much Flora’s aunts who had stayed in the Ottoman Empire were worried about her lifestyle. They would tell Flora’s dad that they were worried about Flora still being unmarried, that she would never be able to find a husband in the United States, and that he had done a terrible thing by allowing Flora to come with him to the United States. In a letter, Flora’s aunts even mentioned that they had found a man willing to marry her and who could join her in America, though it would be preferred that she just comes back to Constantinople. This offer was however gently rejected by Flora and her dad who was thankfully backing his daughter and her ambition, and she later married famous actor Raymond Hitchcock, with whom she would play in a number of popular musicals. After her husband passed away in 1929, Flora however decided to stop her career.
It is interesting to note that Flora spent several years of her life trying to advocate for her father who had been arrested and jailed during a trip to Istanbul in the early 1900s, most probably because of his public denouncing of the Hamidian massacres. The way she publicly positioned herself to support her father, tried to earn enough money to hire an attorney for him and rejected marriage proposals in the meantime might have also contributed to her image as a greatly emancipated woman. Despite that, her ambition and career as a woman would still attract criticism from people accusing her of being too “self-conscious” and pleased with herself and accusing her of having made it only thanks to her husband, as testified by a column she wrote to defend herself in the Green Book Magazine in 1913 entitled “I want to be understood“. In the column, she wrote:
“How I did work and struggle for the recognition which I received. […] I had a fear of professional stagnation; would I continue in an indefinite, unestablished way or, worse still, fall back into oblivion? But I determined to apply myself as hard as I could, never for a moment to lose sight of my ambition’s
goal, that of creating leading parts in Broadway musical plays, and I have
tenaciously held to that ambition, with as great a desire to-day, and indeed
greater, to win the approval of the public.”
The way she had to justify herself of her ambition and hard work through this column particularly saddened me also because it made me realize that to a certain extent it is still difficult for our world today in 2017 to accept seeing women strive, be independent and successful. Her story is a good example of tenacity despite traditional and societal obstacles and I hope it will inspire other Armenian girls and women to continue being ambitious and go after the objectives only they can set for themselves.