n July 22, 1950, the Associated Press reported from Indianapolis: “Miss Emma Messing, one of the first women to enter American diplomatic service, died in her home here after a 10-day illness.” The brief story noted that Messing, who died in her seventies from the effects of a stroke, had served in the U.S. Embassy in Berlin from 1921 to 1939.
Even though Emma Messing was among the American women who pioneered working overseas in U.S. embassies, she goes unmentioned in the State Department website’s “Women in Diplomacy” section and in an official 1978 department history on the subject. The oversight is unfortunate, because Emma Messing led a remarkable life. Her story is one of a young woman from a prominent Midwestern Jewish family who aspired to the stage as a singer and actress, but who became a witness to history in 1930s Berlin. She returned to the U.S., where isolationism ran strong against entering the war in Europe, to sound alarms about the Nazi menace. Messing’s story is also one of a failed romance but enduring friendship with an extraordinary American businessman whose own tale has also inexplicably slipped down the memory hole.
essing’s birthdate varies by several years in official documents, but an Indianapolis News article on June 4, 1886, reported that a Feast of the Pentecost “commemorative of the reception of the Ten Commandments” would soon be held “at the Jewish temple with confirmation ceremonies.” Emma Messing was among those to be confirmed, which would have meant she was 12 at the time.
The temple’s rabbi was her father, Mayer Messing, a German immigrant whose family had produced rabbis for seven generations. He was widely known in the city beyond the confines of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation (Reform). Rabbi Messing also sat on the boards of the Industrial Home for the Blind, the Fresh Air Mission, and the Indiana Red Cross, and he was a founder and the first president of the Indianapolis Humane Society. Given his eminence, the society pages of local newspapers closely followed the doings of Emma and her four sisters, Dora, Essie, Sara and Josephine.
As a young woman in the 1890s and after the turn of the century, the auburn-haired Emma in particular was a fixture in the papers. Her visits to family members in other cities were often noted, as were her singing performances at recitals and charity events, and the lunches she hosted or attended.
Messing also went to work as a stenographer, a job much in demand in the state capital and seat of Indiana politics. In a city with a German-immigrant population large enough to support at least two German-language newspapers, her translation abilities were useful.
But the Messings were a musical family, and the urge to perform ran especially strong in Emma and her sister Josephine. In the spring of 1905, when Emma was 31 and Josephine was in her early 20s, they “caused quite the furore in social circles,” as one newspaper put it, by going into vaudeville. Billing themselves as the Southern Sisters, with Josephine as Jo Southern and Emma as June Southern, they worked up a novelty act called “The Living Song Sheet.” The Southern Sisters’ debut in Chicago was a hit, according to press at the time, and out-of-town bookings followed. Sara Messing told the Indianapolis Star that, contrary to reports, Rabbi Messing and his wife, Ricka, were not upset about her sisters’ venture into show business and were instead happy for them to be using their musical talents.
The Southern Sisters didn’t last: Josephine fell seriously ill that winter, and they cancelled their engagements for 1906. Emma wasn’t done testing her parents’ limits. According to a family history written by one of Essie Messing’s grandchildren, Essie said that around this time her sister began “walking out with a drummer”—a traveling salesman—who wasn’t Jewish. Her mother, suffering from a long-term illness and nearing death in 1908, extracted a promise from Emma not to “marry outside our faith.”
Emma hadn’t taken into account Carl Fisher.
One of the city’s more successful businessmen and certainly its most colorful, Fisher not only wasn’t Jewish, he didn’t believe in God. As a young man, Fisher had become enthralled with the 19th-century militant agnostic and firebrand orator Robert G. Ingersoll, whose philosophy can be summed up by his exhortation that “the time to be happy is now.” What made Fisher happy was Emma Messing: For a while, at least, they were engaged.
Fisher was one of those audacious early-1900s entrepreneurs who made and lost fortunes as they laid the groundwork for what became the American Century—and who were then largely forgotten as the years passed.
During the bicycling craze of the 1890s, Fisher had been a racer and dealer, with a reputation for outlandish promotions. As the public’s fascination with bicycles waned in the late 1890s, he shifted his enthusiasm to automobiles, opening one of the few dealerships in the country when cars were still considered expensive novelties. He and a few friends from bicycle-racing days switched over to racing automobiles on the nascent national circuit. Fisher was also a ballooning enthusiast, and in 1908 he combined that interest with his car salesmanship, using a Stoddard-Dayton automobile, with its heavy engine removed, as the gondola for a gas-filled balloon. He and balloonist pal George Bumbaugh waved to the crowds below from the airborne car drifting across the sky.
Fisher made his first big fortune by developing, with partner James Allison, acetylene-fueled automobile headlights, which transformed travel and the automobile industry itself by facilitating driving at night. Fisher and Allison sold the Prest-O-Lite company to Union Carbide in 1913 for $9 million ($220 million today). A few years earlier, the car-obsessed Fisher and Allison had become weary of racing automobiles on rural dirt roads or horseracing tracks. Longing for a proper venue where they could race and test cars, the two men had joined with a couple of other partners and opened the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Fisher’s résumé also included his having been the moving force behind the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first transcontinental roadway. In a tide of civic enthusiasm, American towns and cities and an alliance of businessmen led by Fisher worked together to improve and connect existing roads. The Lincoln Highway, running from New York City to San Francisco, was dedicated in 1913. Around that time, Fisher was also making his mark in Florida. He had become enamored with Miami during a visit to what was then a town of about 5,500 people, but he thought that an offshore patch of swampy mangroves and farmland could be put to better use. He acquired property and began dredging Biscayne Bay, using the dredged materials to create Miami Beach, where he was soon putting up hotels and selling property—largely inventing the Sunshine State as an American vacationland.
Fisher took a similarly headlong approach to romance. His lawyer begged him to quit pledging his devotion to lovers in letters that could be used against him in court when the women found out about their competition. Eventually he married at age 35 in 1909, but without much settling down.
His marriage to Jane Watts lasted until they divorced in 1926. She regretted leaving him, and in 1947 published Fabulous Hoosier, perhaps the most adoring memoir ever written by an ex-wife about her philandering former husband. In a 1967 interview with writer Polly Redford for Billion-Dollar Sandbar, a history of Miami Beach, Jane mentioned something she hadn’t included in her own book: “When Carl Fisher first met me, he was engaged to be married to Emma Messing, the daughter of Rabbi Messing of Indianapolis.”
Details of Fisher’s romance with Emma are elusive, but the effect of the breakup on her is clear: She fled Indianapolis. In March 1909, when Fisher was pursuing a whirlwind courtship with Jane even as he and his partners were scrambling to build the Speedway in time for the summer racing season, Emma applied for a passport. A few weeks later, she and her father left for an eight-month tour of Europe and the Holy Land.
Had Fisher broken off the engagement after finding a new girlfriend? Had Emma decided at the last minute that she couldn’t break the promise to her mother? Whatever the case, just as Jane Fisher remained friendly with her ex-husband after their divorce, Emma and Carl stayed on good terms.
For the next decade, Messing lived away from Indianapolis more than she was there. In 1911, even though she was in her late thirties, she took a shot at becoming an actress in New York. She landed a role in one of three road companies that Broadway producers George M. Cohan and Sam H. Harris were sending out to perform The Fortune Hunter, a 1909 romantic comedy that had made John Barrymore a star. The show traveled well, too: The production with Messing in the cast ran for three years, playing in cities from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans.
With her Washington connections, stenographic skills, and German fluency, Messing was posted by the State Department to the U.S. Embassy in Berlin in 1921.
In 1918, Messing moved to Washington to “do war work with the training camp activities department,” the Indianapolis News reported. The paper later quoted the Washington Star describing her wartime contribution: “Miss Messing . . . appeared on programs through all the camps and naval stations in and about Washington and New York, her exquisite personality and artistic work driving away many a sad hour for the soldiers who were waiting to go over or had returned from the scene of action in France.”
With her Washington connections, stenographic skills, and German fluency, Messing was posted by the State Department to the U.S. Embassy in Berlin in 1921.
As she departed for Germany aboard the SS Manchuria, Messing had a newfound sense of financial security: A few weeks before she left, Carl Fisher had given her the deed to a plot of land in Miami Beach. She arrived in a country where postwar hyperinflation was roaring to life. Savings were wiped out, pensions evaporated, millions of Germans became destitute. Messing was appalled by what she saw, and as she later told Fisher in a letter, soon after starting work in Berlin she began spending the major part of her salary “in the support of deplorably impoverished families—for coal, food, clothing.”1 She was following the example of her rabbi father, who was known in Indianapolis for giving so much of his own money to the poor that friends cautioned him to save something for himself.
In late 1923, the German central bank finally stepped in to tame the economic turmoil, introducing the Rentenmark, at 4.2 to the U.S. dollar. Hyperinflation ended, but Berlin was suddenly an expensive place for foreigners to live. “It is a relief not to have to deal with those fabulous amounts, which made one’s head dizzy and which made it almost dangerous to interrupt a waiter when he was trying to add up your dinner bill,” Messing told Fisher, but with the currency adjustment “one can get rid of more dollars in a day than one could use in five days in the States.” She asked him to sell her Miami Beach lot, which he said would bring between $4,000 and $5,000. Her helping the poor would continue: “The cold weather has set in and the suffering is very great.”
Messing wrote to Fisher in 1927 after visiting the U.S., where she had spent a month with her father (“bearing his 84 years with such grace that it makes old age take on a less sombre hue”), and said she wished she had seen Fisher, too: “It would have been rather nice to have been able to shake your hand, wish you a world of happiness . . . and taken a hurried inventory of your appearance and the changes, if any, which increasing years sometimes bring—a bit more avoirdupois (I trust not) a bit less hair (ditto).”
The October 12 typewritten letter continued: “Dear Carl, my real motive in writing you is for financial aid.” Messing described the plight of “people too proud to beg and yet actually starving,” with “no coal for the winter which will soon be upon them . . . no work obtainable.” Messing said she had “collected some funds but I do need so much more,” and she appealed to Fisher’s “big understanding heart.” At the end of the letter, she added a handwritten note: “Please help me.”
She had appealed to him for assistance before: In a postscript on this letter, Messing reported that the “two boys you aided are doing well—one of them has a fine position and splendid roles with the Grand Opera and will some day I am sure be heard at the Metropolitan.” In 1945, her sister Sara, a columnist for the National Jewish Post, told the story of Gerhard Pechner, a singer with the Metropolitan Opera. Rabbi Messing had performed the wedding for his parents, and years later the rabbi took Emma to see them in Berlin. By then the couple had a teenage son, Gerhard, who so impressed Emma with his singing that she resolved to help with his music education. She collected enough money to send him to study in Italy. Pechner eventually became an opera star in Germany, but as a Jew in the 1930s he was barred from performing by the Nazis. He remained in Germany terrifyingly long, not fleeing until 1940. By the following year, he had joined the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (Pechner would sing with the Met for 25 years.) On a trip to Indianapolis, Sara Messing wrote in her column, he told visitors “that he owed all his success to Emma Messing!” Credit too, it appears, should go to Carl Fisher.
Messing’s request for Fisher’s help in 1927 had arrived at a bad time. The year before, a hurricane had ravaged South Florida, including Miami Beach. The Florida real-estate boom of the early 1920s had already begun to fizzle, endangering Fisher’s realty business. National publicity about a hurricane that killed more than 300 people had further damaged South Florida’s appeal. Much of Fisher’s fortune was on paper, and his finances suddenly looked shaky just when he was plunging into his latest big project: developing Montauk at the eastern end of Long Island, New York, as a resort that would be the “Miami Beach of the north.”
“I can’t imagine what you want money for, but I do know you are one of the million others who want money for some charity [or] other,” Fisher wrote to Messing on October 26. “I cannot give it to all of them. I need charity myself. The storm at Miami blew the hell out of my bank account, and I have to work to get it back again. However, I am sending you $100 to do as you please with.”
Fisher’s querulous letter wounded Messing. “I am so sorry that I wrote you—so very sorry that you wrote as you did,” she replied on November 8, returning the $100 check. “I know you have done charity on a big scale but have you ever come in contact—real contact—with the suffering itself? If so, you might in a measure understand what I mean when I say that charity is a selfish pleasure for it brings far more happiness to the donor than to the recipient.”
A chastened Fisher answered on November 25: “I thought I was writing a comedy paragraph and I can see now it was far from comedy and I am very sorry I hurt your feelings. Won’t you accept my apologies?” He should have realized, Fisher said, that Messing would put the money to good use, unlike charities that spent most of their money on “useless salaries and expenses.” Fisher sent the check back to Messing and said returning it to him would be pointless because he would just keep sending it until she used it “to help out those in need.”
Messing was relieved. “You have made me understand and redeemed the Carl of early days, eager to rectify a hurt perhaps unconsciously inflicted,” she wrote on December 17. “It would have been too bad to have added another to life’s list of disappointments.” She closed by saying, “May 1928 and all the years to follow bring you and your household a fullness of joy. God keep you.”
For Fisher, the joys that had marked his rise were becoming difficult to sustain. His mounting financial pressures turned crushing with the stock-market collapse in 1929. The Montauk project was largely abandoned. His Miami Beach hotels scrabbled for customers. Fisher began selling off his holdings to pay creditors and make payrolls. Alcohol had been central to the Roaring Twenties bonhomie he relished; in the 1930s, he was just drinking to be drinking.
In Berlin during this period, Emma Messing was aghast as she witnessed Hitler’s rise: “I watched the Nazi party grow from a handful of Hitler followers until it embraced millions,” she later wrote in the Indianapolis Star. She saw house raids, with men and women “driven through the streets like ordinary criminals.” She saw members of “an SS organization called ‘The Death Squad’—six-footers in black uniforms, their caps bearing the crossbones and skeleton as their insignia,” racing across Berlin to carry out the murderous Nazi purge in 1934 when Hitler consolidated his power. Some of the murders occurred near the U.S. Embassy, Messing said. Friends she had made in Germany disappeared into concentration camps.
Meanwhile, William Dodd, the U.S. ambassador to Germany in the mid-1930s, was complaining to Washington that the embassy in Berlin had too many Jews on the staff. As Erik Larson wrote in his 2011 book about the Dodd family’s time in Germany, In the Garden of Beasts, Dodd “feared that their presence impaired the embassy’s relationship with Hitler’s government.”
Messing was of course one of those “Chosen People,” as Dodd referred to the Jews making life awkward at the embassy, but she outlasted him—Dodd left in late 1937.
Fisher seemed grateful for Messing’s firsthand account from Germany, complaining that news reports were ‘garbled’ and the truth hard to discern.
The letter might have been prompted by news in America about Kristallnacht the month before as Nazis organized attacks on Jews throughout Germany. Messing answered on December 19, describing the “magnificent places of worship” she had seen burning in Berlin.
“This last pogrom,” she wrote, was “a blot on civilization.” In despair over the “persecution and hounding of people who are considered ‘non-Aryans,’” she mourned the “brutality such as the world has never known; the terror throughout the land.” Messing then described the “thousands and thousands of innocent men taken from their homes at all hours of the night,” who are “dragged to concentration camps” and forced to live in appalling conditions and perform backbreaking labor, “as condemned prisoners who have committed some horrible crime (and their only crime is that they were born Jews).” The winter temperatures had dropped well below zero, Messing said. “How many of these poor people will ever come back alive?” She assured Fisher that the U.S. Embassy staff was safe, but “the misery weighs upon every person who has a heart.”
Fisher didn’t reply until four months later, on March 18, saying he had been hoping to be able “to really tell you something, but so far nothing has turned up.” He seemed grateful for Messing’s firsthand account from Germany, complaining that news reports were “garbled” and the truth hard to discern. He asked if she might be coming back to the U.S. during the summer.
He died in July.
ith Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Messing was reassigned to the U.S. legation in Stockholm. As the war in Europe widened, she resigned her position and in December 1940, at age 67, she returned to America and set out to tell anyone who would listen about Hitler and the Nazi threat.
Messing arrived in the U.S. accompanied by Lilly Timm, a colleague from the embassy in Berlin. The 47-year-old Timm was a native of Denmark—now occupied by Germany. Messing had offered her a place to live.
At an Indianapolis auditorium in March 1941, an overflow crowd turned out to hear Messing’s speech about what she had seen in Germany. She gave the talk again a few nights later, at the World War Memorial Shrine, for those who couldn’t get in. A long article in the Indianapolis Star about the first night quoted extensively from the speech. Messing described Hitler’s rise in the 1920s, his demonization of Jews, his vilification of all religion so he could “substitute the worship of this anti-Christ, this pagan Hitler.” She noted that “he spoke the language of the masses. He spoke to the people who were ready to believe anything.”
She talked about the creeping terror of life in Germany after Hitler came to power, and about meeting concentration-camp prisoners who had miraculously gained release by promising to leave the country or through the intercession of an influential friend. The camps, she said, were “hell holes of mental and physical tortures, where hundreds of thousands have been incarcerated, not criminals, but men of the highest intellect and standing. These splendid men have been and are subjected to unheard of cruelties by the worst sadists of the modern world.”
Messing later wrote that a few days before the speech, “I was approached by several women who asked me not to ‘exaggerate the atrocities because the newspapers had been doing this right along.’ My answer was, if you multiply what you have been reading a hundred times you will still not have the whole truth.”
She began delivering her message at clubs and organizations beyond Indianapolis, including Cincinnati and the Indiana towns of Crawfordsville, Frankfort, and Lafayette. Her speech to the Council of Jewish Women in Indianapolis was broadcast by a local radio station.
In September, after Charles Lindbergh delivered his infamous speech in Des Moines, Iowa, for the noninterventionist America First Committee (“The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration”), the Indianapolis Star sought out Messing for her response. There was a “strange similarity in the accusation of Lindbergh and Hitler,” she said, and she recalled being in Berlin in 1938 during Lindbergh’s unsettling, well-publicized visit, when Hermann Goering presented a medal to him on Hitler’s behalf. “Why did he place himself in such a position?” Messing said of Lindbergh, when the medal came from “the man he knew was responsible for so much cruelty, so much persecution and misery.”
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 and America’s entry into World War II, Messing spoke in public about Germany from time to time, but her most prominent appearance came after the war in Europe had ended, with an opinion piece in the Indianapolis Star on July 8, 1945. Her old fire had been roused upon learning that Allied plans for war-crimes prosecutions would likely put only 25 to 300 Nazis on trial. Just as Messing’s sympathy for the poor and downtrodden seemed to know no limits when she arrived in Germany, neither did her fury for the monsters who took over the country and whose death camps were now being fully revealed. “Thousands upon thousands” of Nazis deserved to be executed, she wrote, “and the sooner the better.”
n her final years, Messing settled back into Indianapolis life, her comings and goings tracked on the society pages much as they had been when she was a young woman, only now her friend and housemate Lilly Timm accompanied her on trips to visit relatives.
Their most memorable journey together would remain the one from Lisbon to New York aboard the SS Excalibur as Europe was engulfed in war. Messing recalled the ocean passage in one of her speeches: “After seeing so much misery and terror everywhere, can you understand the feeling that came over me as we neared our shores, when I caught the first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty rising out of the water? I wanted to shout so that the whole world might hear: ‘This is my own native land. This glorious America, where all men can speak freely, where life goes on without terror and persecution, where houses of worship are open to all . . . where there are no concentration camps, no tortures, no killing of innocent persons.’ Do not take all these things for granted. Thank your God that you live in America under the Stars and Stripes.”
1 Carl Fisher Papers, HistoryMiami Museum, HMA0064