Modest "Fedya" Aronstam was born in Kovno, Russia on February 22, 1871. His father was Lazar Aronstam, a pharmacist. His mother's name is not known. He had a brother and a sister. In 1888 at age 17 he immigrated to America by himself. He moved to New York City and lived on the Lower East Side in the Jewish ghetto.
In 1890 he met the twenty-year-old future anarchist, Emma Goldman, through his cousin, Alexander Berkman. All three radical youth began an unorthodox sexual relationship in a communal apartment. In 1892 Henry Clay Frick's steelworkers were on strike for higher pay and improved conditions. In support of the strikers the threesome plotted to assassinate the notorious industrial tycoon, who was seriously wounded in the attempt, but eventually recuperated. Berkman was caught firing the gun and spent fourteen years in jail for the crime.
According to the artist's daughter, "After the failed attempt on Frick's life my father returned to finish the job. The pockets of his trousers were filled with dynamite. He intended to blow up Frick's house. When he got off the train he passed a newsstand and his eyes fell on a headline, AARON STAMM TO KILL FRICK. Evidently some crony had spilled the beans! He dumped the dynamite in a convenient well and fled. After this incident his actual last name, Aronstam, was too notorious, so he changed it to Stein." He remained friendly with Emma Goldman and his jailed cousin, and he continued to contribute money to their cause regularly, but he drifted away from the Anarchist Movement.
It is not known where he studied art, but by 1898 his courtroom sketches were published in The New York World, The New York Herald, and The New York Sun.
On June 18, 1899, at age twenty-eight, he married twenty-year-old Marcia Mishkin. She was an artist and also a photographer. They lived at 7 West 47th Street, in midtown Manhattan. They both worked at home in their shared studio. In 1902 their daughter, Luba M. Stein, was born. He and his wife became naturalized citizens in 1910.
That same year he began to sell cover paintings for pulp magazines. His cover art appeared on All Story, Argosy, The Cavalier, Munsey's, and People's Magazine.
During the 1920s he was a cover artist for Clues, Complete Stories, Detective Stories, Far West Illustrated, and Love Story.
He remained strongly sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution until the 1930s, when he made a trip to Russia. He also visited his cousin and Emma Goldman in exile during that trip.
During the 1930s he continued to paint covers for Street & Smith pulp magazines, such as Crime Busters, Complete Stories, Detective Stories, Love Story, and Unknown. He also did many covers for the Street & Smith magazine Picture Play, which featured elegant portraits of glamorous Hollywood stars. In the 1939 he moved to Hollywood, California, to work as a portrait artist.
When Emma Goldman died in 1940 her body was permitted to return to the U.S. for burial in a suburban Chicago cemetery. A granite monument was erected, which features her memorial portrait on a bronze plaque carved in relief by Modest Stein.
In 1943 he returned to New York City and lived at 25 Jones Street in Flushing, Queens, where he continued to create covers for Street & Smith pulp magazines, such as Astounding Science Fiction, Love Story, Mystery Magazine, Romantic Range, Doc Savage, and The Shadow.
In 1949 Street & Smith ceased publication of pulp magazines as the popularity of the genre declined.
According to Fawcett Publications editor Roy Ald, "I remember the day I first met Modest Stein. He was an elderly man, small in stature but with an elegant bearing. He was in his eighties and suffered from poor eyesight, but considered neither thing an issue and was still going around New York looking for work. He was respectful, down-to-earth, and I was in awe of him. He used to call me up just to chat, and one time he called and told me, 'I fell asleep last night and I had no clothes on.!' I visited him once at his studio and witnessed him working. He would stare at a blank wall and begin painting figures and things that came directly from his mind."
During the 1950s his major creative outlet was portraiture. On Monday February 24, 1958 he was awarded the Art League of Long Island Portraiture Prize. Two days later Modest Stein died in Booth Memorial Hospital in Flushing, Queens, at the age of eighty-seven on February 26, 1958.
According to his obituary in The New York Times, "Modest Stein was an old-time pen-and-ink newspaper artist.
© David Saunders 2012