Josephine Lawrence--Early Years

Josephine Lawrence

Josephine Lawrence, ca1930 Childhood and Adolescence

The scanty information available about Lawrence's early years nonetheless suggests the formation of character traits that persisted through her later life, as well as some elements reflected in her girls' series. She was born March 13, 1889,[1]in Newark, New Jersey, the daughter of Dr. Elijah W. Lawrence and Mary Barker Lawrence. One interviewer described her as the child of "[a] dignified medico-father [and] a retiring mother," noting that her parents' influence and her "Quaker ancestry combined to give the young Josephine independence of spirit"; this independence is often echoed by her female protagonists, most notably in the character of Linda Lane. In an autobiographical sketch, Lawrence noted that "As a child, I spent considerable time with a Quaker aunt who spoke the plain language and saw to it that I attended First Day Sabbath regularly. Perhaps this taught me to love silence."

During her childhood, the family lived at 45 Halsey Street, Newark. Lawrence later recalled that "It was a residential street until Hahne's built there. I can remember the workmen tearing down the quiet respectable boarding house just opposite our house....The popular recreation was sitting on the stoops in the late afternoon and evening when the weather was mild. There was a branch (or perhaps it was the main) of the Public Library on West Park Street and my brother and I used to get books there to read on the stoop. We also had a back yard and my father planted two or three peach trees which bore delicious fruit. And the weekly wash was always dried in the sun in the back yard."

Lawrence's earliest publication may have appeared when she was still a child, for in September 1903, "The Good-Time Garden," the children's page in The Ladies Home Journal, carried the following poem by thirteen-year-old Josephine Lawrence:

The Lost Kitten

My little kitty has strayed away,
She's been gone since yesterday.
I have hunted light and low;
Where she is I do not know.

Aunty says to never mind;
Seems to me she's most unkind.
Did she never lose a cat?
Wish some one would tell me that!

Lawrence attended Barringer High School, where "her penchant for writing and her inclination towards shyness, already marked the person she would be throughout her life." One of her articles for the school publication, the Acropolis, won a $5 prize, but Lawrence was "[t]oo self-conscious to appear in person for the prize money ... [and] did not receive it until a schoolmate collected it for her." [2] Nonetheless, "she resolved then and there to become an author."

While Lawrence was in her teens, the family moved to Hopewell and her father took up farming. Lawrence had initially planned to attend college, but found herself 'completely floored' by high school math, which decided her against continuing her formal education. Instead, she tried writing, penning some stories for children's magazines, and -- although she disliked farming -- writing brief pieces for a farm journal. Later, she further developed her talent by taking writing courses at New York University. [4]

Children's Pg In 1915, Lawrence became editor of the children's page of the Newark Sunday Call, writing some of the short pieces that graced the page. In 1918, she also assumed responsibility for the Call's household page; in addition to writing and editing articles for the page, she also ran its question-and-answer column, devoted to a different topic each week, thus gaining insights into women's attitudes and concerns -- information which would serve her well in her later fiction.

[1a] Lawrence's birth date has apparently puzzled biographers for some time, and she was apparently reluctant to reveal it. Even the fact sheet she filled out when employed by the Newark News has a blank next to the question about date of birth. During her lifetime, most sources listed it as 1897; when she died, the New York Times obituary claimed she was 88, so some sources began using an 1890 date. An online search of the SSDI shows that a Josephine Platz (Lawrence's married name), born March 12, 1889, died February 1978 in the 10011 zip code area; that death date and location match Lawrence's. Her Social Security Card application, however, gives her birthdate as March 13, 1899; the reason for the discrepancy is not known. I am indebted to James Keeline for his help with negotiating the SSDI and acquiring Social Security records.

More recent research in the census records establishes that the earlier date is the correct one. The entry for the Lawrence family in 1900 shows Josephine's age as eleven.
Lawrence's 1900 census record
Special thanks are due to Jack French for his queries and his information about Josephine Lawrence, prompting a search of the census records. (Mr. French's additional research and discoveries will appear in his article on Josephine Lawrence, scheduled for a 2011 issue of Whispered Watchword.)

[2] Draft of obituary. Newark News files.

[3] "Household Editor of Sunday Call Writes First Novel in Spare Time," Newark Sunday Call, 27 March 1932

[4] American Women Writers. Ed. Lisa Mainero. Vol. 2. Ungar, 1980.

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Text copyright 2011 by Deidre Johnson