Sixty-five years ago, in 1948, when the cinematic version of her story, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” received the Oscar for best picture, 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 into a wealthy and famous woman.
She wrote eight more books, found a Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park, accoutered herself at Bergdorf Goodman and sent her boys off to Exeter and Harvard, respectively, at a time when doing so belied the notion of the most damaging of “gentleman’s agreements.”
“Gentleman’s Agreement” told the story of a non-Jewish reporter, Phil Green, who pretends to be Jewish in order to investigate anti-Semitism. That someone as all-American as Green, played by Gregory Peck, succeeded in masquerading as a Jew was the story’s feel-good premise. It was a twist on the traditional “passing” story, and it implied that Jews, finally, really were just like Christians.
Throughout her life, Hobson attracted people seeking to move beyond the categories and labels imposed on them by birth. Many years later, and before his own passing story became public, literary critic Anatole Broyard wrote admiringly of Hobson’s life and work in a New York Times review of her autobiography.
In 1944, when Hobson first floated her idea to her publisher, Richard Simon of Simon & Schuster, he objected. “Readers will not believe that a gentile would pose as a Jew,” he said. A Jewish New Yorker and a graduate of both the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and Columbia University, Simon could not fathom a world in which a non-Jew would willingly assume a Jewish identity; it sounded like a fairy tale.
Hollywood, however, grabbed up Hobson’s story even before the novel was published.