The Family of John Sanford

The Family of

John Sanford

mother photo father photo


Mother. John Sanford's mother was Harriet Esther Nevins. She was born in 1881 in the lower East Side of Manhattan, of Russian immigrant parents. She instilled in Sanford a love of reading and of history. About 1912, Sanford's mother developed endocarditis, an inflamation of the lining of the heart. Although Sanford's father spent all the family money on doctors and rest treatments in the country, Harriet Shapiro's heart gradually failed, until she died July 29, 1914. John Sanford was 10 years old, and his mother's death would have a lifelong effect on him.

Father. John Sanford's father was Philip D. Shapiro. He was born in 1878 in the Kovno area of Russia. He immigrated to the United States in 1883. Shapiro's father was a butcher. As a young man, Shapiro worked for his father making deliveries. Later, he apprenticed with his older brother, a lawyer. Philip Shapiro was 25 when he married Harriet Nevins in 1903. By then, he was a successful real estate lawyer. However, the Panic of 1907 wiped out the family fortunes. The family's finances were further strained by Harriet's long illness. By the time she died, the family was penniless; they were forced to move in with Harriet's parents, sharing a single room of Nevinses' apartment.

Shapiro's law practice once again became successful, with the building boom that followed World War One. Shapiro re-married and moved into his own apartment. But Sanford, under the influence of his Aunt Rae, refused to join his father. After flush times in the 1920s, the Great Depression wiped Shapiro out once more; he lost a building in which he had invested $750,000. In 1935, Shapiro suffered a near-fatal heart attack. In the early 1940s, Sanford moved Shapiro moved out to Los Angeles, where he lived until his death, at the age of 94, in 1972.

Other Relatives

Sister. Sanford had one sister, Ruth, born in 1908. She moved from New York to Los Angeles in the 1940s and became a teacher. She died in 2001. She had no children.

Uncle Dave. David Nevins (c. 1884-1947) was Harriet's older brother. He was a willful man who, when his father refused to pay for him to go to Cornell University if he insisted on studying Forestry, embarked on a rootless life of traveling the world. Nevins worked at the copper mines in South America and spent many years as a merchant seaman. Nevins' progressive politics and admiration for Eugene Debs had an enduring influence on Sanford.

Aunt Rae. Rae Nevins Perlman (c. 1879-1962) shrewishly dominated young Sanford after his mother died. In particular, she drove a wedge between Sanford and his father, when his father remarried. It was Rae's labeling Sanford's stepmother "the painted woman" that ensured Sanford would not join his father's household.

Grandpa Nevins. Abraham Nevins (c. 1857-1926) was a petty, miserly man. Although, following his daughter's death, he allowed his daughter's family to live in his apartment, the father and two children had to share a single room. Nevins' poor treatment of his long-suffering wife, Leah, left an enduring imprint on Sanford. Nevins never referred to his wife by name, always instead referring to her as "she" or "her."

Cousin Mel. Melvin Friedman was a cousin on Sanford's father's side. Sanford and Melvin were frequent companions as adolecents and young adults. Friedman's parents mourned him as dead when he married a gentile. Melvin worked in the publishing industry, helping to place Sanford's first two books.


John Sanford has written much about his family. Particularly relevant are the first volume of his autobiography and his memoir The View from Mt. Morris:

color cover photo The Color of the AirBlack Sparrow Press1985in print
morris cover photo The View from Mt. MorrisBarricade Books1994out of print

More Biographical Sketches

For more descriptions, and photos, of John Sanford's childhood, marriage and work, follow the links below.


Photo Gallery

Return to the John Sanford Homepage

Go to the Writings of John Sanford Page

Text & photos copyright © Jack Mearns, 2003-2021. All rights reserved.

rev. 9/3/21