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A Family Saga: The Remarkable History of the Ito Sisters of Prewar Chicago

One intriguing aspect of Japanese American history is the study of some remarkable families and clans, which have included generations of siblings and cousins who have achieved renown in varying fields. For example, the Oyama family of Sacramento included the businessmen Wesley Oyama and Clem Oyama, writers Mary Oyama Mittwer and Joe Oyama, and the artist Lillie Oyama Sasaki (wife of physician-poet Yasuo Sasaki). The Tajiri family has produced multiple generations of journalists, writers, artists, and photographers, including siblings Larry, Vince, Yoshiko, and Shinkichi and their descendants. The siblings of the Uno family included the journalists Kazumaro Buddy Uno and Robert Uno, World War II veterans Howard, Stanley and Ernest Uno, and activists Edison Uno and Amy Uno Ishii.

Another such clan is the Itos of Chicago. The patriarch of the family was Tokumatsu Ito, who arrived in the United States in 1903, aged approximately 30, and settled in Chicago, where he opened a Japanese goods store. (A 1915 Chicago directory lists his shop at 901 North State St.) He became known for selling fine Japanese prints to collectors. Soon after he married a Japanese bride, Kamae, who came to the United States in 1908. Daughter Josephine was born soon after, followed by son Howard, then daughters Elizabeth and Eileen and son Wallace. They settled in a house on East 54th place in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.

Tokumatsu spent his later years dividing his time between work in the Anthropology Department at the Field Museum of Natural History, where he worked during the 1930s as a ceramic restorer, and the Department of Oriental Art at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1940 Tokumatsu was listed as a restorer for a “historical museum,” as was his son Howard.

It was Tokumatsu Ito’s daughters who each distinguished themselves in various fields. Josephine Joanne Ito, born on September 30, 1908, attended school in Chicago and then enrolled at Northwestern University. In 1937, she moved to Washington, DC., where she was employed as a research assistant on the staff of Harold L. Ickes, a Chicagoan who served as Secretary of the Interior in the Roosevelt administration.

On August 13, 1938, she married Walter W. Sanborn, with whom later she had a son, David. During World War II, Mrs. Sanborn worked as a secretary to the author and historian Saul Padover, who occupied a position in the Interior Department. In the postwar years, she worked as secretary to the Director of Nurses at Monson State Hospital in Massachusetts. She lived to be 100 years old, dying in 2009.

The second daughter, Elizabeth Carol Ito, known as Betty, was born on June 4, 1913. While growing up, she sang in the Hyde Park Baptist Church choir, but her ambition was to be a doctor rather than a performer. She enrolled at University of Chicago as a German literature major in the early 1930s, and earned money working as a secretary to Professor Philip Schuyler Allen.

During her undergraduate years, she was selected Phi Beta Kappa, wining the Carl Schurz award for excellence in German. She also danced in the campus Mirror Show, and worked as a model for artists Paul Trebilcock and Warner Williams. After completing her undergraduate studies, she entered graduate school with the intention of studying for Ph.D. in German. However, she was soon attracted by a career as a radio actress after she was selected for a guest shot on a popular radio show, “Myrt and Marge.” (In order to win the job, she assumed a fake Oriental accent at her audition).

Betty Ito (Photo: Nichibei Shimbun, August 8, 1937)

Betty’s first regular appearance was in 1936, as Martha Yamoto, a doctor’s daughter, on the WGN hospital drama “Delicate Hands.” In January 1937 she performed in a radio version of local Chicago playwright Arch Oboler’s “oriental mystery play” Chinese Gong, appearing before the live audience in costume and giving the play a note of authenticity by her presence. Soon after, she was engaged as a player on the NBC radio serial “Jack Armstrong,” where she voiced the role of a Chinese woman.

In August 1937 Ito was signed to a regular contract by NBC—the publicity over her signing lauded the fact that not only did she speak perfect English but also fluent German, Italian, and Japanese, plus reading French and Swedish. Publicity materials described her as “sloe-eyed ebony-haired and ivory skinned,” and added that “she likes dancing theater, cosmopolitan food, crazy hats and excitement.” After her signing, she was engaged as a featured player in the short-lived serial “Young Hickory,” playing a white woman, Alice Carter. However, she was hired soon after for the radio version of the famous comic strip, “Don Winslow of the Navy.” At first, she played a bit part of an agent of the Scorpion, an international war-making cartel. However, she proved so popular that she was engaged to play a major part, as Lotus, an oriental siren who joined forces with the hero to protect the United States.

In 1939 Archer Taylor, Ito’s advisor, was named chair of the German Department at UC Berkeley. Elizabeth Ito transferred to Berkeley as a linguistics student, leaving her radio career behind. In 1941 she was engaged as a UC Berkeley teaching assistant in the German Department.

After the beginning of 1942 and the signing of Executive Order 9066, Elizabeth Ito was barred from the West Coast and unable to continue her studies at UC Berkeley. Like her sisters before her, she came to Washington. (She may have been encouraged by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, her sisters’ old boss, who had already spoken to Josephine Ito Sanborn about recruiting the family for war work).

Anxious to contribute to the war effort, she applied for a job as a Japanese translator, and enrolled in Japanese classes since her Japanese was rusty in comparison to her fluency in other languages. With the benefit of a referral by Ickes, Elizabeth Ito was engaged by the Justice Department and by Archibald MacLeish, director of the Office of Facts and Figures, which evolved into the Office of War Information. Exactly what job Elizabeth Ito was tasked with is unclear. However, what is certain is that in April 1943 she produced a report for the Justice Department’s Special War Policies Unit on "Japanese Activities on the West Coast prior to and Immediately after Pearl Harbor."

Meanwhile, she was engaged for work by the Office of War Information, for whom she wrote and edited weekly reports on the Japanese-language press, surveilling them for disloyal content. In 1944, she transferred from the OWI to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the ancestor of the CIA. Again, the exact nature of her work is not clear. Perhaps more importantly, during her time at OSS she met a fellow analyst, the sociologist Barrington Moore, Jr. The two were married in 1944 (rather to the distress of Moore’s elite family), and moved soon afterwards to Boston.

In the decades that followed, Barrington Moore taught at Harvard University. Betty served as his partner and as uncredited collaborator on Moore’s books, notably the classic study, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966). As a memorial tribute explained it, the writing of Moore’s books was based on “family labor”: “Drafts were handwritten from personally assembled research notes.  When a full draft was done, it was turned over to Betty Moore, who subjected it to thorough editing and double-checking.” Although she was not listed as coauthor of Barrington Moore’s books, the importance of her collaboration is indicated by the fact that she was assigned the author’s royalties to them. Betty Ito Moore died on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1992.

Eileen (AKA Irene) Ito, the youngest daughter, was also the last surviving sister. Born in 1915, she graduated from University of Chicago in 1936 with an A.B. in Art. While at college, she met a fellow student from Chicago, Robert Weiskopf. After serving as a summer intern at the Art Institute of Chicago, she moved to Washington to attend the Corcoran School of Art, and like her older sister was employed by the Department of the Interior. Weiskopf meanwhile moved to Los Angeles and got a job as a writer for the radio comedian Eddie Cantor.

In 1940 the couple got married and moved to Los Angeles. However, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, both spouses feared for Eileen’s safety as a Japanese American in Los Angeles, and she felt obliged to return home to Chicago. After six months of nightly long-distance calls with her bereft husband, the couple moved to New York, where Weiskopf found work as a writer for the Fred Allen radio show. Eileen Ito Weiskopf remained in the New York area for nine years, during which time Bob wrote for the Fred Allen show (and also served a short stint in the Army). In 1947 their son Kim Weiskopf was born.

The couple returned to Los Angeles in 1952. Bob Weiskopf soon formed a partnership with another comedy writer, Bob Schiller. The partners would distinguish themselves as writers for the classic sitcom I Love Lucy and Lucille Ball’s follow up sitcom The Lucy Show, and in later years would be head writers on the Norman Lear-produced sitcoms All in the Family, Maude (which they also coproduced) and All’s Fair, among others. He died in 2001. The couple’s son Kim Weiskopf would also go into the business of television writing. With his partner Michael Baser, he wrote scripts for and coproduced such shows as Three’s Company and What’s Happening Now. He also was a writer-producer for the long-running show married…With Children. Eileen Ito Weiskopf died in 2011.


© 2018 Greg Robinson

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