Shirley Chisholm campaigning in 1972. Image belonging to Museum of the City of New York
Artists aplenty, pissed punks, sad writers, funny ladies, political rabble-rousers, and so many more with New York in their blood, or as their home, have challenged the status quo to make our lives richer.
New York State played an outsized role in America’s War for Independence (a full one-third of the Revolutionary War’s battles were fought here!), so it comes as no shock that the Empire State has long nurtured and attracted some of the world’s most impactful rebels as well.
Here are some of our most notable. Let us know who would be on your list!
Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, a.k.a. Lady Gaga, was born (1986) and raised on the Upper East Side, got her start working open mic nights and starring in school plays before she upended the music world and has gone on to sell more than 27 million albums, win nine Grammy Awards, an Oscar, a BAFTA, and two Golden Globe Awards. She has also set the bar for raising her voice for inclusiveness and causes in which she believes. She loves her work, but she loves New York even more. As the singer-songwriter-actress-icon once said, “A middle finger is more New York than a corporate ambush. I bleed for my hometown, and I’d die for my fans.”
Painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894-1978), often associated with small-town America and New England, was actually born and raised on the Upper West Side -- and is hardly a James Dean-type. Nevertheless, while many might suggest that Rockwell was anything but a rebel, but despite his focus on the simple joys and rituals of life -- at home, having treats at a soda counter, toiling in a schoolroom, and more -- Rockwell had a bit of the subversive in himself as well, especially with respect to one painting -- his August 24, 1940 cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post that illustrated a child of ambiguous gender returning from camp.
"The Saturday Evening Post," August 24, 1940. "Home from Camp," Norman Rockwell. ©1940 SEPS: Licensed by Curtis Publishing, Indianapolis, IN. Taken from: Norman Rockwell Museum
Debate swirled about whether the child in the painting was a girl or a boy. Later called Home From Camp, this illustration apparently received more fan letters than any other Rockwell received for a Saturday Evening Post cover. As far as we can tell, this ambiguity will never be resolved. Perhaps Rockwell was years ahead of today’s gender debates with the statement that it doesn’t, perhaps shouldn’t, really matter.
A natural born renegade, Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) carried the anarchist torch her family, veterans of the Revolutionary War, once proudly did. After moving to Battenville, New York from Massachusetts and later to Rochester, Anthony became inspired by her father’s friends William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, both abolitionists, and she began her own activist work to help end slavery. Anthony is most remembered for her crusade for women’s rights with Elizabeth Cady Stanton — particularly the right to vote. Together, Anthony and Stanton founded the American Equal Rights Association, and became editors of the Association’s newspaper, The Revolution.
Image from Accessible Archives©
It took many years of protest, but finally, the pressure paid off in 1920, 14 years after Anthony’s death, with the passage of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote. One of the warriors of Women’s suffrage, Anthony once said, “Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less.”
A band can’t possibly get more New York or rebellious than the Velvet Underground (1965-1973). Spawned by Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Angus MacLise (later replaced by Moe Tucker), and quasi-including the troubled star and gorgeous model Nico, in 1964 on the Bowery, they were briefly managed by Andy Warhol, and, despite suffering poor sales and little commercial acclaim during their lifetime, their self-titled album was dubbed the “most prophetic rock album ever made” by Rolling Stone in 2003. The Velvet Underground is widely considered to be one of the most influential bands among rock, alternative, punk, New Wave, and electro pioneers, even today.
You might not immediately think of this gal as a rebel, but talk about breaking a glass ceiling...Anyone who starts painting in her 70’s, after having given her younger years to raising a family and working on a farm, to become a defining American artist has got some gumption. While Anna Mary Robertson Moses (a.k.a. Grandma Moses) (1860-1961) is known in popular culture as a folk artist, Robert Wolterstorff asserts in his 2016 book Grandma Moses: American Modern that her paintings and own biography played an important role in the “development of a culture of modernist art at mid-century.”
And you can also read Grandma Moses story in her own words.
Take a look at a collection of puzzles and books by Will Moses, Grandma Moses' great-grandson, on our Marketplace here.
Even if you don’t know him, you totally know him. George Gershwin (1898-1937) was one of the most successful composers and pianists of all time, whose musical contribution straddles pop and classical, infuses our culture with its perky be-bop glide and lay the foundations for “jazz to become America’s only indigenous music”. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Gershwin nabbed his first stint as a piano player at age 15, and soon began composing songs with William Daly for the Great White Way. At age 26, he wrote what many consider to be his masterpiece, a jazz-soaked composition, Rhapsody in Blue. He went on to flit about the world, composing classic Broadway shows and film scores like An American in Paris, and the hybrid opera-African American musical Porgy and Bess. He died at age 39 on the operating table, as surgeons worked to remove a malignant brain tumor. For some of his best work, check out the film Shall We Dance, starring a stunning, impossibly graceful Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Shirley Anita Chisholm (1924-2005) was a barrier-breaking politician, educator, and author, who had the distinct honor — and burden — of being the first black woman elected to the United States Congress. Born to Caribbean immigrants in Brooklyn, she worked her way through school, eventually earning an MA in elementary education from Columbia University. After running the Friends Day Nursery, she got interested in politics and slowly worked her way up the ranks of the New York State Assembly, before running for Congress. She served seven terms, representing the Empire State’s 12th Congressional district from 1969-1983. But that wasn’t her only first; Chisholm was also the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President in 1972, and the first woman of any race to appear in an official presidential debate. A decade after her death, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Born in a boarding house in Lower Manhattan’s Financial District, Herman Melville (1819-1891), spent his first years next to the water, where so much of his life and work would be centered. First, Melville spent his youth sailing on whalers and a harpooner, then spent much of the rest of his life describing the beauty, pathos, and tragedy that a life at sea entails in masterworks such as Billy Budd, and most famously, Moby-Dick. As far as being a rebel goes, give Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street a (re-)read. It doesn’t get more defiant than that. Tragically, Melville died never knowing that his then-obscure and disregarded book about a whale would come to be seen by many as one of the greatest American novels ever produced.
We all love Lucy...Lucille Ball that is. Jamestown-born funny girl Lucille Ball (1911-1989) dominated prime time television in the 1950s as the protagonist character on one of the most influential sitcoms of all time, I Love Lucy. With this role, Ball shattered the habitualness of gender stereotyping in the postwar era of the 50s and paved the way for female comedians of the future. She even negotiated her real-life pregnancy into the storyline of the second season of I Love Lucy, making her the first actress who didn’t have to “cover it up”. Ball’s gutsy, slapstick ways eventually earned her the honor of being named the “Queen of Comedy”. Let’s not forget in a land of Hollywood blondes, Ball also made a statement as a self-made fiery red-head.
Jamestown celebrates the legacy of hometown humorous heroine Lucille Ball with the Lucy Desi Museum (2 West 3rd Street), as well as Lucy-inspired event, Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, held August 7-11 at the National Comedy Center (203 West 2nd Street) that is even offering an opportunity to “grape stomp”!
Read more about Lucille Ball on the New York Makers Magazine >> “I Love Lucy and Lucy Loves Jameston”
Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), like the city he cut his teeth in, is not for everyone. He first came to notice in the 1970s as part of the influential but informal graffiti duo SAMO, where rap, punk and street art came together in a hotpot of sociopolitical rebellion via spray-paint. By the 1980s, his well-regarded neo-expressionist paintings — many of which focused on themes of segregation, loneliness, cultural subjugation — were being hung in galleries, museums and by avant-garde collectors around the world.
No question the 26th President of the United States and 33rd Governor of New York, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), was a walking, talking, rough-riding, trust-busting revolutionary. Born in New York City and spending much time in Oyster Bay on Long Island near where he later built Sagamore Hill, he refused to be sidelined by childhood sickness with asthma. A naturalist, conservationist, and writer, as well as a politician and statesman, he is known for pushing his progressive agenda, including breaking up the monopolies then strangling American commerce.