Becoming American: A Selznick is (Almost) Created in Pittsburgh

New American citizens are sworn in at a naturalization ceremony at the Senator John Heinz History Center, May 2016.
New American citizens are sworn in at a naturalization ceremony at the Senator John Heinz History Center, May 2016.

Today is National Citizenship Day. It’s a commemoration that started in 1940, when Congress authorized a day for the public recognition of everyone who had become a citizen of the United States. The original designation was “I am an American Day.”

At the History Center, we host naturalization ceremonies for new citizens throughout the year; the next one is on Friday, Oct. 12. The process today is overseen by the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a federal agency under the Department of Homeland Security.

But before 1906, the naturalization process was completely local. No central federal office oversaw the proceedings. Instead local courts handled the paperwork in each jurisdiction. In Pittsburgh, aspiring citizens filed their petitions with the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

That’s why Lewis J. Seleznick (sometimes Zeleznick) had his Petition for Naturalization approved at the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas on Sept. 29, 1894. Seleznick was in his 20s when he arrived in Pittsburgh sometime in early 1894 following his mother’s death in Cleveland in December 1893.[i] As the oldest son, Lewis had been in the United States since the mid-1880s, part of a wave of Jewish immigration from a region of Lithuania then under Russian control. It’s not clear whether members of the extended Seleznick family traveled together, but by the 1890s most of them settled in Cleveland, where Lewis’ father worked as a grocer.[ii]

Lewis J. Seleznick’s Petition for Naturalization, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, September 29, 1894. Courtesy of Suzanne Johnston and the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society.
Lewis J. Seleznick’s Petition for Naturalization, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, September 29, 1894. Courtesy of Suzanne Johnston and the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society. [Click to enlarge the detail of the error.]
Philip Silverman dry goods store on Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, 1880s.
Philip Silverman dry goods store on Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, 1880s. Lewis Seleznick initially worked with small merchants such as this when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1894. Gift of Celeste Silberstein Behrend, MSR 0073, Detre Library & Archives at the History Center.
Lewis J. Selznick, around 1915-1917. Courtesy of the Fort Lee (New Jersey) Film Commission.
Lewis J. Selznick, around 1915-1917. Courtesy of the Fort Lee (New Jersey) Film Commission.

Starting a New Life

There is no record of why Lewis chose to relocate to Pittsburgh, although his father remarried shortly after his mother’s death.[iii] Perhaps Lewis decided it was time to seek his independent fortune elsewhere. He took a further step in September, becoming an American citizen. Seleznick was sponsored by Max Robin, a fellow Russian Jewish émigré involved with Pittsburgh’s merchant community. Lewis made other connections as well. In 1896, he married Florence Sachs, from another Pittsburgh family of Russian Jewish descent.

Like most new arrivals, Seleznick bounced around a bit. Initially listed as a salesman in city directories, he lived at four addresses during his first five years in Pittsburgh, where he also got into banking.[iv] This included a tumultuous stint in 1896-1897 as the secretary of the Nickel Savings Bank, an institution Seleznick founded. The bank became embroiled in a headline-making lawsuit accusing Seleznick of false pretenses involving inferior diamonds and a diamond washing scheme connected with a loan. Seleznick pushed back, arguing that the city pawnbrokers were out to get him because his bank, which made small loans on personal property, charged only six percent interest on loans compared to the 20 percent charged by the pawnbrokers.[v]

Seleznick prevailed in court. This zealous defense of his interests was a sign of things to come. Not one to be dissuaded by controversy, his next gesture was to open the Pittsburgh Jewelry Company by 1898.  Similar to his efforts with the Nickel Savings Bank, Seleznick saw the jewelry store as a business aimed at the everyday consumer: “We cater to the masses,” he once proclaimed in a newspaper announcement. “The man or woman who comes here to make a five cent purchase is just as welcome as if it was a hundred dollar sale.”[vi]

At various times, other family members joined Lewis in Pittsburgh. Most initially worked in one of his jewelry interests, including brothers Sol and David and sisters Lillian and Rae. Sol and David remained in the city for the rest of their lives; both are buried in Beth Shalom Cemetery.[vii]

Headline from Nickel Savings Bank court case, 1897. Pittsburgh Daily Post, April 1, 1897.
Headline from Nickel Savings Bank court case, 1897. Pittsburgh Daily Post, April 1, 1897.
Lewis J. Selznick (front, center) at the World Film Pictures dinner, Astor Hotel, New York City, 1914. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, David O. Selznick Collection.
Lewis J. Selznick (front, center) at the World Film Pictures dinner, Astor Hotel, New York City, 1914. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, David O. Selznick Collection.
Auction advertisement for Lewis Seleznick’s Pittsburgh Jewelry Company, 1901. The auction was probably related to the store’s relocation from 431 Smithfield Street to larger accommodations at 443 Smithfield Street later that year. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 28, 1901.
Auction advertisement for Lewis Seleznick’s Pittsburgh Jewelry Company, 1901. The auction was probably related to the store’s relocation from 431 Smithfield Street to larger accommodations at 443 Smithfield Street later that year. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 28, 1901.
Lewis J. Selznick and Florence Sachs Selznick, around 1930. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, David O. Selznick Collection.
Lewis J. Selznick and Florence Sachs Selznick, around 1930. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, David O. Selznick Collection.

Seleznick becomes Selznick

Lewis’ restlessness soon drove him elsewhere. The family moved to New York City in 1903. They eventually ended up far from Pittsburgh, although strong ties to the city remained. That Petition for Naturalization filed with the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in 1894 inadvertently signaled what was to come. The document clearly shows that the clerk had problems with Lewis Seleznick’s name, misspelling it repeatedly. He kept omitting the second “e,” making it “Selznick.”

A decade later, sometime around 1908 or 1909, Lewis officially adopted that spelling. Soon, he along with his sons Myron and especially David, would make the Selznick name famous in America’s new motion picture industry.

Of course, when Lewis Seleznick left Pittsburgh in 1903, that was all still in the future. Through 1906, he continued to maintain ownership of his jewelry store at 443 Smithfield St., then run by his brother David. For a man who once opened a Nickel Savings Bank and proclaimed the value of nickel purchases by his jewelry store customers, the success of another neighboring “nickel” operation – the Nickelodeon opened by Harry Davis and John P. Harris at 433-435 Smithfield in 1905 – probably did not go unnoticed.  (Folklore also holds that Selznick got his first official job in the film industry through a Pittsburgh merchant connection.)

While Lewis J. Selznick and his family later made their headlines from bases in New York, New Jersey, and then the West Coast, the grocer’s son started his independent life as an American citizen in Pittsburgh. Like so many other immigrants, his story after that was one of multiple reinventions, including a change of name, presaged by that clerk in the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas, who just couldn’t remember to include that second “e.”

A Selznick Studios production filming in Fort Lee, New Jersey, 1920. Courtesy of the Fort Lee Film Commission.
A Selznick Studios production filming in Fort Lee, New Jersey, 1920. Courtesy of the Fort Lee Film Commission.
A Selznick Studios production filming in Fort Lee, New Jersey, 1920. Courtesy of the Fort Lee Film Commission.
A Selznick Studios production filming in Fort Lee, New Jersey, 1920. Courtesy of the Fort Lee Film Commission.

[i] Lewis Seleznick first appears in Pittsburgh city directories in 1894. His name continues to appear intermittently through 1906.
[ii] He was one half of the partnership of Blasberg & Seleznick, as listed in the 1895 Cleveland city directory.
[iii]  Lewis’ mother, Libe Seleznick died on December 4, 1893. Joseph married Celia Parness slightly more than a month later, as documented by their marriage license, issued in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, on January 21, 1894.
[iv] Lewis started in downtown Pittsburgh at 523 Wood Street, then bounced around between the South Side and the Hill District, living at 39 Tunnel and then 255 Dinwiddie Street. The family moved to the more desirable location of Federal Street across the river in Allegheny City by 1898.
[v] For example: “Banker held for court,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, April 1, 1897 and “Washed diamonds before the Court,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, September 9, 1897.
[vi] “Pittsburg Jewelry Co.,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, June 9, 1901.
[vii]According to Pittsburgh city directories, David made his way to Pittsburgh by 1900. Sol, the second oldest brother came shortly after, in 1901. Both later played prominent roles – in Sol’s case, a rather controversial one – in Pittsburgh’s local film exhibitor community.

Research for this blog post, part of a larger ongoing study of the Selznick family and their connection to Pittsburgh’s film history, was supported in part by a Robert De Niro Fellowship for work at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Leslie Przybylek is senior curator at the Heinz History Center.

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