When ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ Made Jewish Oscar History

In 1948, when the film version of her story, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” won the Best Picture Oscar, Laura Z. Hobson was a 47-year-old divorced Jewish single mother living in Manhattan. The success of “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which was serialized in Cosmopolitan in 1946, published by Simon & Schuster in 1947, and produced as a film by 20th Century Fox later that year, had made Hobson a wealthy and famous woman. .

She wrote eight more books, found an apartment on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, moved to Bergdorf Goodman and sent her boys to Exeter and Harvard, respectively, at a time when it belied the idea of ​​the most damaging “gentleman’s agreements”. ”

“Gentleman’s Agreement” tells the story of a non-Jewish journalist, Phil Green, who pretends to be Jewish to investigate anti-Semitism. That someone as American as Green, played by Gregory Peck, managed to impersonate a Jew was the premise of the story. It was a twist on the traditional “passing” story, and it implied that the Jews, ultimately, were really like the Christians.

Throughout his life, Hobson attracted people seeking to transcend the categories and labels imposed by birth. Many years later, and before his own story became public, literary critic Anatole Broyard wrote admiringly of Hobson’s life and work in a New York Times review of his autobiography.

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In 1944, when Hobson first presented his idea to his publisher, Richard Simon of Simon & Schuster, he opposed it. “Readers won’t believe that a Gentile would impersonate a Jew,” he said. A New York Jew and a graduate of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and Columbia University, Simon could not imagine a world in which a non-Jew would voluntarily assume a Jewish identity; it sounded like a fairy tale.

Hollywood, however, picked up Hobson’s story before the novel was even published.

“Nothing could have made me happier than the criticism we received on ‘Gentleman’s Agreement,'” the film’s non-Jewish producer, Darryl Zanuck, cabled Hobson in November 1947, after the film’s premiere. “When you consider that we were pioneers in a new field…. It’s truly amazing that we did as well as we did…. Again, thank you so much for writing a wonderful book and for m given the opportunity to enjoy a bit of sunshine.

Zanuck was praised for his courage in tackling a topic that made Jewish Hollywood fickle: Laura Z. Hobson was the not-quite-famous author (she had only published one other novel) with a name not quite thoroughly Jewish, to whom readers and viewers wrote, timidly asking: Are you Jewish?

Did it matter? Hobson thought not, and she chastised her fans for suggesting otherwise. What was the purpose of the “Gentleman’s Agreement” if not that Jews and Christians were capable of the same emotions, behaviors and appearances? (In fact, some came away with other ideas. Famed writer Ring Lardner Jr. joked, “The moral of the movie is never be mean to a Jew, because he might turn out to be a nice guy.” .”)

When Phil reveals his true Gentile identity to his aghast secretary, he says, “Look, I’m the same guy I always was. Same face, nose, tweed suit, voice, everything. Only the word ‘Christian’ is different. One day you will believe me that people are people instead of words and labels. ‘” It was a lovely sentiment, and one that Peck embodied more than a decade later when he played his most famous role – Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

In part, readers wanted to learn more about Hobson’s religion to judge his audacity. The assumption at the time was that it was doubly brave for a Gentile author to take up the fight against anti-Semitism. These readers knew little of the audacity that had once characterized Hobson’s life. They didn’t know, for example, that Hobson had enrolled at Cornell—a school where neither Kappa Kappa Gamma nor Phi Beta Kappa took in a young woman named Zametkin; or that Hobson had been the first woman Henry Luce hired at Time to work in a non-secretary capacity (Hobson wrote promotional material for Time Inc.).

And what would readers have thought when they learned that her husband, Francis Thayer Hobson, chairman of William Morrow, had left Hobson abruptly, after five years of marriage and in the midst of their efforts to conceive a child?

Or that, a few years later, Hobson took a solo trip to the same Evanston, Illinois adoption agency Al Jolson, Bob Hope and Donna Reed turned to to adopt his first son? Or that she gave birth, in her early forties, to her second son, choosing not to tell the father, with whom she had had a banter?

What was bolder – but really, very typically Laura Hobson – was her staging, with the help of a few close friends, a fake adoption so that her eldest adopted son felt no pain at being different or lesser. .

Was there anything Hobson was more sensitive to than the pain that came with feeling different? It’s unlikely. He had been etched in his earliest memories of being Laura Zametkin of the Jamaican section of Queens, daughter of Russian Jewish radicals Michael Zametkin, editor of Forverts and Adella Kean, columnist at The Tog. At the time of the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, Laura’s parents draped their home in black streamers.

There were, however, ways to go beyond this story; even the awkward surname could be overcome. Contemporary women may feel that by keeping a maiden name they are clinging to an identity or publicly declaring marital equality, but Hobson always did things in her inimitable way and took the name family of her Greenwich Village boyfriend, Tom. Mount, was his choice. “Laura Mount” sounded good, the young writer decided, and so his first New Yorker story — a subtle treatment of anti-Semitism in polite society — appeared under that byline in 1932.

Later, her husband provided another suitable option. This time, his wife slipped her Z in the middle. “The Z is for Zametkin, my maiden name,” she wrote in the opening lines of her 1983 autobiography, “and I clung to it for all my years because it kept my identity intact before that name. Hobson’s Anglo-Saxon marriage ceremony.

Hobson’s decision to write a novel about American anti-Semitism was bolder than it seems today. When in February 1944 she read an article in Time magazine about Mississippi Rep. John Rankin calling Walter Winchell a “kike,” Hobson was outraged, and even more outraged to read than anyone in the House of Representatives. did not protest. Hobson preserved the clipping in his scrapbook, which is now in the Columbia University archives along with the rest of his papers. She wrote about the Rankin episode in her first draft of “Gentleman’s Agreement”.

Hobson’s friend, Dorothy Thompson, “the first lady of American journalism” and the first American journalist expelled from Nazi Germany, remained skeptical that writing a novel about anti-Semitism was the right way to fight the problem. Moreover, it seemed a shame to Thompson that Hobson did not intend to write about the actual experience of being Jewish, only about someone. to claim to be Jewish. After reading the synopsis Hobson had sent him, Thompson replied. Although she knew few Jews growing up in a Puritan Anglo-Saxon community, she said she could “remember vividly that my first impression of Jewish homes was that the children spent much better there than we did. . fact… I also thought they ate wonderful and much more interesting food! Couldn’t Hobson add a bit of that ethno-religious flavor to her novel? She hesitated; it wasn’t really his thing.

Simon was less interested in a more Jewish book than in a book that sold. Throughout 1944, he and Hobson corresponded about the possibilities of a novel on anti-Semitism. He was not enthusiastic. Sales of Hobson’s first novel, “The Trespassers” – a story of Nazi refugees – had been less than stellar. “I think the cards are awfully stacked against this project,” he warned Hobson.

“Dick, let’s skip that for now,” she replied, not quite dismissing Simon’s four-page letter that described “possibilities of heartbreak” for Hobson if she went ahead with it. his novel. Why not just go back to publicity, a reliable salary and “security for my boys if I have to give up a book just because it might break my heart?” Because I don’t see the point of enduring the random insecurity of being an author unless you’re writing stuff in which you yourself find a deeply satisfying rightness.

“Maybe it’s not the book,” Hobson wrote. “Perhaps it will smell like the” tract “in the sky.” If so, Hobson promised, she would give it up, “because it’s no satisfaction to go on writing a lousy treatise book.” Still, she wouldn’t know” unless I tried about six chapters…. Maybe those first few chapters would be so different from what you expected, so fascinating and interesting, that you yourself encouraged me to Continue.

In the end, what had once seemed like a fantastic idea – that a Gentile would pose as a Jew and fight anti-Semitism – was said so convincingly that it now seems trivial.

Watching “Gentleman’s Agreement” today, it’s hard to fathom what felt so groundbreaking about Peck’s character declaring himself Jewish, as if the words themselves – the names we call each other and the stories we tell about ourselves – had the power to create new realities. But it was the triumph of Hobson’s story: it had become part of American history, with a Hollywood ending.

About Norman Griggs

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