Lea Becomes a U.S. Citizen (with a Little Unintentional Help from a Governor)

When people ask me what my grandmother was like, I usually resort to telling stories about Lea.  Not only are many of these stories quite entertaining but they give a sense of my grandmother’s personality — confident, determined, disarmingly charming, with a wonderful sense of humor.  One of my favorite stories is how Lea became a U.S. citizen.

By 1935, Lea had decided that if she was going to make the United States her home, she wanted to become a citizen.  Daughter Irene was now married to an American, so Irene’s citizenship would be a mere formality.  But Lea’s would take more effort.  To ease the burden, Irene offered to help her mother, do the necessary paperwork, and support Lea by applying for her own citizenship at the same time as her mother.  Consequently, they submitted the proper forms and soon after received materials with background information and instructions, including a date when they were to appear and a book of practice questions for a citizenship examination.

Irene urged Lea to study the questions. Many were quite simple — or so Irene thought – but others might be more challenging for her mother — the structure of the U.S. government, the Constitution, and related matters. Irene suggested that Lea try to memorize the answers.  But Lea said she had more important things to do – she had to practice for her concerts, teach her students at the Curtis Institute of Music, and she had to attend to the details of her own life now that her two children were married and living independently. While Lea’s mother (who everyone now called “Babushka”) lived with her and had long helped with cooking, cleaning, shopping, and other necessary chores, Lea would have to handle the details of her financial life, manage her complex calendar, shop for her clothes, and so on.

Irene lived close by and had plenty of free time. She was well provided for, had no need to work, and her children would come later. So she visited Lea regularly and always tried to ask her mother the questions from the practice test. Each time, Lea’s answer was the same: “Don’t vorry” (Lea never did master the letter “w” in her diction). This blasé attitude made Irene anxious and she did worry.  Suppose Lea failed the test.  Lots of people knew she was applying for citizenship including her boss and colleagues at Curtis.  Public failure was not something Lea was accustomed to.

The day of the test came soon after Lea had played one of her Philadelphia concerts.  The performance had gone well and Lea was in a particularly happy mood. When it came time for her to go in for her exam, she was delighted to learn that her examiner was a music lover and when they began to chat, Lea was even more thrilled that the gentleman had actually been at her recent concert.  He, in turn, was sufficiently awed by the fact that he was meeting Madame Lea Luboshutz that after they had exchanged pleasantries, he wanted to be as easy on her as possible: “Madame,” he said, “I am required to ask you at least one question.  So here it is.  Who is the Governor of our state of Pennsylvania?”

Lea, of course, didn’t have the slightest idea.  She smiled and said in as thick an accent as she could muster, “You know, I am so embarrassed.  My English is so bad, if I pronounced his name, you would laugh at me.  Perhaps if you could teach me how to pronounce it, I could do it.”

Gifford Pinchot portrait by  Pirie MacDonald , 1909. He was Governor of Pennsylvania when Lea became a U.S. citizen. He never knew the critical role he had played in helping her pass the citizenship exam.

Gifford Pinchot portrait by Pirie MacDonald, 1909. He was Governor of Pennsylvania when Lea became a U.S. citizen. He never knew the critical role he had played in helping her pass the citizenship exam.

“Of course! We pronounce it Pinchot,” he said, with the accent on the first syllable.

Lea laughed.  “You see, I would have been so embarrassed.  I would have said, ‘Pin – CHO,’” she exclaimed, putting great emphasis on the second syllable, “and you would have laughed at me.  But you pronounce it so beautifully. Let me try. PIN-cho…PIN-cho.  Is this the right way to pronounce it?”

“Yes, Congratulations, Madame.  You will now become a citizen of the United States.”

This story always seemed farfetched to me, but her son Boris and my mother swore that it was true – of course, they were not in the examining room so they had to take Lea’s word for it and she was not above making things up.  But whatever happened in the interview, Lea became a U.S. citizen along with Irene, both receiving their official papers on February 6, 1935, just days after Lea’s guardian angel, Governor Pinchot, left office.  Next to her Gold Medal from the Moscow Conservatory and her Honorary Doctorate that she would receive from the Curtis Institute of Music years later, it was an achievement of which she was particularly proud.