The Three Lives of Stephanie St Clair

It was 2 p.m. on Friday and nothing had been accomplished. Four hours of staring at microfilm in the overheated Department of Records had led me to reconsider whether the subject of my book, the Harlem Renaissance’s numbers queen Stephanie St. Clair, had even really existed. I’d combed through the district attorney’s records: nothing. I’d paged through the lists of 1926-1932 Mayor Jimmy Walker’s correspondence: nothing. I’d attempted to navigate myself through the department’s perplexing online catalog: more nothing and a headache. Nothing, nothing, nothing and they were closing.

It was time for plan B. Just a couple of train stops away from the Department of Records was the National Archives inside the National Museum of the American Indian. The museum can be found at One Bowling Green, on the southern most tip of Manhattan. It’s beautiful – there are skyward-reaching columns and a dome so cavernous you can tell there’s an echo just by looking.

The archive rooms themselves were rather small, and secreted in a tiny corner of the highest floor. But, where the Department of Records was cramped, beige, and felt like the break room in a Soviet office building, the headquarters of New York City’s branch of the National Archives consists of a large space with lots of light and air and shiny, shiny new computers. Of course, the archives house a significant amount of microfilm too, but these canisters are tucked away in large, neat cabinets that don’t require two hands and a foot to dislodge.

First, the friendly bearded man behind the desk at the far side of the room suggested I look through indictment records for 1930, the year St. Clair was convicted and sent to Welfare Island on racketeering charges. I took his suggestion. After another 30 minutes of winding and rewinding microfilm, I had confirmed that St Clair’s name was, once again, absent from the record. She was not listed under St (for St.) or Sa (for Saint.) The man behind the desk told me I might have to go to the state archives in Albany to find her.

In desperation, I moved to a computer. The National Archives has, so I carefully typed her name into the browser and waited. Miraculously, there were results. I grabbed a nearby National Archives pad, dug into my purse for a pen, and started scribbling things down. It was so exciting — census records, an U.S. Directories listing, a record of death, a naturalization certificate … a marriage registration index?

All my secondary sources suggest that Stephanie St. Clair was only married once, and that that marriage, to Sufi Abdul Hamid, also known as the Black Hitler of Harlem, was a one year oral contract that almost certainly wouldn’t have been on the official record. The marriage index, however, claimed that St Clair had married someone named George Gachette in 1915.

But that wasn’t my only problem.

As I discovered, there were two census listings for St. Clair — one in 1925 and the other in 1930. The first one said that St. Clair was born in France in 1896, that she was 29, and that she’d been in the U.S. for eight years. The second one said that St Clair was born in France in 1893, and that she was 37. That’s a three year discrepancy between the records.

The naturalization listing I found recorded a St. Clair, Stephanie (known as Stephanie Gachette) being naturalized in 1936. But a New York passenger listing claims St. Clair came from Guadeloupe on the SS Guiana on the January 31, 1911 at the age of 23 years and 7 months. This would make her birthdate roughly 1887. Mathematically, these dates don’t add up. Unless, that is, there were at least three different Stephanie St Clair’s in New York at roughly the same time, all of whom immigrated from French-speaking countries.

Having brought some of my secondary sources on my laptop, I tried to figure out which St Clair was which. Or at least a possible timeline for each potential St Clair. The first piece of writing, a thesis by a Sarah Lawrence student, had listed that St. Clair was born in 1897, but said on the next line, without an explanation, that she was in her 20s in 1911. That didn’t really make sense to me, so I looked to another source.

In “The World of Stephanie St. Clair,” the article’s author, Pamela Stewart, suggested that Stephanie St. Clair was born in Guadeloupe in 1897. That is 10 years later than the passenger list record I found. Date-wise, however, it is in keeping with the 1925 census listing, though that says she was born in France. Apparently, Mme St Clair was known for lying about her origins, so, if that is true, that opens up the possibility that these St. Clairs are the same people. This would also make sense with the death record that lists a birth date of the 24th December, 1896.

However, Stewart goes on to claim that St. Clair arrived on the SS Guiana on the January 31, 1911, just as the passenger list shows. I checked the Ellis Island logs in the National Archives to make sure the SS Guiana really existed, and they confirm the arrival date. But if St Clair. was traveling on that boat, that would make her birth date 10 years earlier than Stewart is recording. Stewart herself has noted this discrepancy and suggests that St. Clair lied about her age to make the admissions process easier, because officers were known to be more lenient when working with minors. Hopefully, after I do my own research I’ll get to the truth.

Who Stephanie Gachette is, though, I may never know.

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