Born 17 March 1898, Melbourne, Australia; died 5 August 1980, London, England
Daughter of Adolph and Frieda Lust Winter; married Lincoln Steffens, 1924 (divorced, died 1936); Donald Ogden Stewart, 1939; children: one son
Ella Winter spent her early years in suburban Melbourne, where her German Jewish parents had settled in 1894 as baptized but nonbelieving Protestants eager to make a fresh start in a new land. The family moved to London in 1910. Winter graduated from the London School of Economics, where she associated with the Fabian Socialists. In the early 1920s, she was active in the Labor Party, spent a year at Cambridge, and translated two German books for English publication. Her first husband, the American radical journalist Lincoln Steffens, was fifty-eight when Winter married him shortly before their son was born. Although principled objections to formal marriage led later to a nominal divorce, the relationship continued unchanged until Steffens's death in 1936.
Winter combined a career in journalism with active support of leftist causes. Her trips to the Soviet Union provided material for two of her three books and many articles; she also wrote about California labor struggles in the 1930s and worked actively against fascism. Winter was one of the editors of two volumes of Steffens' letters and a collection of his later writings. She published an autobiography in 1963. Winter and her second husband, film writer Donald Ogden Stewart, left America under pressure of the McCarthy-era blacklists in the early 1950s. She lived in London until her death in 1980.
Red Virtue: Human Relationships in the New Russia (1933), Winter's best received and most noteworthy book, examines the social transformations accompanying the political and economic upheavals that followed the Russian revolution. Winter is interested especially in the new ethics and sexual morality, the changing patterns of marriage and family life, and the new psychology employed by the communists in "designing a new man." Winter's enthusiastic portrayal of Soviet Russia in 1931 is as revealing of the psychology of the observer as of the observed—in the early 1930s, Winter and the rest of the American Left still thought that the Soviets were designing mankind's utopian future. The book stands today as a kind of period piece, interesting as both portrait and product of its times.
I Saw the Russian People (1945) is competently written human-interest journalism, combining social commentary with a travel account to give a disjointed but comprehensive picture of Russian life in 1944. While Winter notes changes in Soviet society and policy since the publication of Red Virtue, her main focus is on the suffering and bravery of the Russian people in turning back the Nazi invaders.
When Winter wrote And Not to Yield: An Autobiography (1963), she could look back on a rich life filled with stimulating work, extensive travel, and close association with an extraordinary number of famous people. Unfortunately, although Winter's autobiography provides a usefully comprehensive reminiscence, the book is awkwardly narrated and fails to bring to life most of the people it portrays. Winter achieved some stature in her time as a journalist, political activist, and interpreter of Soviet society, but her contributions are overshadowed by those of other leftist writers more gifted than she was. Although Winter sought a career and an identity independent of her well-known husbands, she is remembered more for her connection with Steffens and with the American radical left than for her own accomplishments.
Kaplan, J., Lincoln Steffens: A Biography (1974). Steffens, L., The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens (1931). Steffens, L., The Letters of Lincoln Steffens (1938).
CB (1946, 1980).
London Times (11 Aug. 1980). Nation (2 Nov. 1963). NYT (5 Aug. 1980). NYTBR (3 Nov. 1963). SR (30 Nov. 1963).