Edith Handelsman (which was her name at birth) was born in New York City. Her father, Max Handelsman (1885-1964), was a teacher of Jewish provenance who was keen to integrate and troubled that the predominant language inside his own parents' house was Hungarian. Edith's grandparents had immigrated from Austria-Hungary. She grew up in the Bronx (Hoe Avenue), attending the James Monroe Highschool at which her father taught. She went on to study, between 1933 and 1937, at New College, a recently established teacher training college attached to Columbia University, intending to obtain a teaching qualification. Her first short stories and poems appeared in 1933, under her authorship as Edith Handelsman, in the school magazine. In May 1937, increasingly preoccupied with the problem of poverty and involved in left-wing politics more generally, she quit New College without sitting her final exams. During 1938 she developed a consuming interest in marionettes and seriously considered embarking on a career as a puppeteer. In 1939 she married Victor Teich, an official of the US Communist Party and a friend from their school days. This marriage broke down after a short time.