Newsletter #9 (Winter 1994/1995)

Margaret Sanger: The Arizona Years

1994 marks the 60th anniversary of Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona in Tucson, an organization which was especially dear to the heart of Margaret Sanger, who made her home in Tucson for some thirty years. Sanger made her first visit to Tucson in October of 1934 with her son Stuart, who sought the dry desert heat to recuperate from respiratory ailments. Though she grew to love her still sparsely populated city, Sanger was initially less than enthralled with Tucson. "Its sizzling hot – I drip. Sleep under the stars at night but with bats flying overhead & rattle snakes underneath & spiders watching for their midnight meal. Im under the covers and cant tell what the sky is like...." (Sanger to F. Rose, October 8, 1934, MSM S9:97).

In another letter to Florence Rose, Sanger noted, "There is prospect of a new clinic here before I go away...So I grabbed the straw and got them going...." (November ??, 1934, MSM S9:366). As she did in so many of the cities she visited, Sanger met with "60 of the best women," including Molly B. Smith and Barbara Dittmann, and helped them found the Tucson Mother's Health Clinic. (Sanger to J. N. Slee, November ??, 1934, MSM S9:377) The clinic thrived and eventually became Planned Parenthood of Southern Arizona.

Margaret Sanger was still a visitor to Arizona in 1934, but in the fall of 1937 she moved to Tucson with her ailing second husband, J. Noah Slee. Sanger had by then devoted herself non-stop to birth control for over twenty years and at the age of 58 wanted to cut back on her public activities. Her first year in Tucson changed her feelings about Southern Arizona's stark beauty. "The mountains, not distant or aloof or towering over all, reached into the sky, but they were also somehow intimate, cupping the town gently on all four sides," she wrote, "The first thing when you opened your eyes, before actual dawn, you beheld the gold and purple and then the entire sky break into color. In the evening the sunsets were reflected on the mountains in pink-lavender shades...Sunset vanished as quickly as sunrise, never lingering long." (Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography, 1938, p. 492) The color and light of the desert proved so compelling that she took up painting, specializing in watercolor renderings of the Arizona landscape. She joined the Tucson Watercolor Guild and took lessons with local artist Gerry Peirce.

While initially only winter residents, the Slees were soon spending much of the year in Tucson. After Noah Slee's death in 1943, Sanger decided to sell Willowlake, her country estate in Fishkill, NY, and build a new house in Tucson's Catalina foothills. She had asked her friend, Frank Lloyd Wright, to design the house, but when he discovered the building lot was only 110' by 150' he abruptly declined the commission. Not easily discouraged, Sanger took matters into her own hands and worked closely with Tucson architect Arthur T. Brown to design a singular house, known for its original fan-like structure. Sanger's close friend and biographer Lawrence Lader described the effect:

"The living room was the main spoke of the fan – spreading dramatically from a width of about thirteen feet at the entrance to over forty feet at the far end, with floor to ceiling windows that looked up into the mountains. A large steel fireplace stood in the center of one side wall. In front of it was a gracefully curving pool of water on whose surface in the wintertime the reflections of the flames made a riotous dance." (The Margaret Sanger Story, 1955, p.331)

The house on Sierra Vista Drive was especially dear to Sanger because it put her next door to her son Stuart and his family. Her two granddaughters and many of the neighborhood children spent a great deal of time at the house. Sanger also did a great deal of entertaining and cooking there, often hosting dinner parties on a specific theme complete with appropriate foods and costumes for the guests.

At her home, Sanger often entertained the notables she met through her work. Her granddaughters remembered meeting Lakshmi Pandit, Jawaharlal Nehru's sister, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his wife, Martha, and Sumiko Kato, the daughter of Japanese birth control leader, Shidzue Kato. Other guests included Frank Lloyd Wright, Mary Ritter Beard, Lady Dhanvanthi Rama Rau, and Eleanor Roosevelt. On one occasion 125 geologists from across the country gathered in Tucson under the auspices of the University of Arizona and Sanger hosted a cocktail party for them. Margaret Sanger Marston described her grandmother's role: "This little lady sat on the couch to greet them in a long Hawaiian dress and she told stories and the 125 men were absolutely spellbound. They thought she was the greatest woman they had ever seen." (Oral Interview, Recorded by J. Van Voris, May 29, 1977, Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection).

However, Sanger's enjoyment of Tucson's pleasures were rarely full-time. While building her Tucson home, she was also re-entering public life, devoting herself particularly to the rapidly expanding international birth control movement. From 1952-1959 Sanger served as the first president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. In her seventies, frail and in failing health, Sanger undertook much of the grueling organizational work from her Tucson home where granddaughter Nancy recalled, "seeing her sitting there with a secretary at one end of the room and she'd be at this great dining room table where she worked, writing. She'd work very hard at whatever she was doing at that time, writing, keeping up her correspondence with people" (Nancy Sanger Ivins, Oral Interview, Recorded by J. Van Voris, May 29, 1977, Margaret Sanger Papers, Sophia Smith Collection).

During the 1950's Sanger also made frequent trips to New York City and attended conferences in England, Sweden, India and Japan. But in the end, she always returned to Arizona. In March 1965, a year before her death, the Tucson Planned Parenthood Center held a dinner honoring Margaret Sanger as the "Woman of the Century." (Tucson Daily Citizen, March 23, 1965) In 1992, Margaret Sanger was honored by her adopted state with her induction into the Arizona Women's Hall of Fame.