When 'Gentleman's Agreement' Made Jewish Oscars History

Fascinating Back Story Behind 1948 Academy Award Winner

Converting The Academy: Celeste Holm won the 1948 Academy Award for her role in “Gentleman’s Agreement.”
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Converting The Academy: Celeste Holm won the 1948 Academy Award for her role in “Gentleman’s Agreement.”

By Rachel Gordan

Published February 21, 2013, issue of February 22, 2013.
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“Nothing could have made me more happy than the reviews we received on ‘Gentleman’s Agreement,’” the film’s non-Jewish producer, Darryl Zanuck, cabled to Hobson in November 1947, after the movie’s premiere. “When you consider that we were pioneering in a new field…. It is truly amazing that we have come off as beautifully as we have…. Again, many thanks for writing a wonderful book and giving me an opportunity to bask in a little sunshine.”

Zanuck was lauded for his courage in taking on a subject that made Jewish Hollywood skittish: Laura Z. Hobson was the not-quite-famous author (she had published only one other novel) with a not-quite-Jewish name, to whom readers and movie viewers wrote, inquiring coyly: Are you a Jewess?

Did it matter? Hobson thought not, and she chided her fans for suggesting otherwise. What had been the point of “Gentleman’s Agreement,” if not that Jews and Christians were capable of the same emotions, behaviors and appearances? (Actually, some walked away with other ideas. Famed writer Ring Lardner Jr. quipped, “The movie’s moral is that you should never be mean to a Jew, because he might turn out to be a gentile.”)

When Phil reveals his true, gentile identity to his aghast secretary, he says: “‘Look, I’m the same guy I’ve been all along. Same face, nose, tweed suit, voice, everything. Only the word ‘Christian’ is different. Someday you’ll believe me about people being 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 know Hobson’s religion better to judge her audacity. The assumption at the time was that it was doubly courageous for a gentile author to take on the fight against anti-Semitism. These readers knew little about the audacity that had already characterized Hobson’s life. They did not know, for instance, that Hobson had put herself through Cornell — a school where neither Kappa Kappa Gamma nor Phi Beta Kappa welcomed a young woman by the name of Zametkin; or that Hobson had been the first woman that Henry Luce hired at Time to work in a nonsecretarial capacity (Hobson wrote promotional material for Time Inc.).


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