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.”
youtube
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 4 of 4)

Hobson’s decision to write a novel about American anti-Semitism was more daring than it may seem 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 that nobody in the House of Representatives had protested. Hobson kept the clipping in her scrapbook, which is now housed in the Columbia University archives with the rest of her 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 proper way to fight the problem. Furthermore, it seemed a shame to Thompson that Hobson was not planning to write about the actual experience of being a Jew, but instead only about someone pretending to be Jewish. After reading the synopsis that Hobson had mailed her, Thompson wrote back. Though she had known few Jews when she was growing up in a Puritan, Anglo-Saxon community, she said she could “vividly remember that my first impression of Jewish homes was that the kids had a hell of a lot better time in them than we did… I also thought that they ate marvelous and vastly more interesting food!” Might not Hobson add a little of that ethnic-religious flavoring to her novel? She demurred; that wasn’t really her thing.

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

“Dick, let’s skip it for now,” she wrote back, not quite dismissing Simon’s four-page letter that had outlined “heartbreak possibilities” for Hobson if she went forward with her novel. Why not simply return to advertising and a reliable salary and “security for my boys if I am going to give up a book merely because it might bring me heartbreak? Because I can’t see what the hell is the use of enduring the chancy insecurity of being an author unless you write stuff that you yourself find a deep satisfying rightness in.”

“Maybe this is not the book,” Hobson wrote. “Maybe it will smell ‘tract’ to high heaven.” If so, Hobson promised, she’d give it up, “because it’s no satisfaction to keep writing a lousy tracty book.” Still, she wouldn’t know “unless I try about six chapters…. Maybe those first chapters would be so different from what you expect, so fascinating and interesting, that you will yourself urge me to go on.”

In the end, what had once seemed a fantastic idea — that a gentile would pose as a Jew and fight anti-Semitism — was so convincingly told that it now seems banal.

Watching “Gentleman’s Agreement,” today, it is hard to make out what had seemed so path-breaking about Peck’s character declaring himself a Jew, as though words themselves — the names we call ourselves and the stories we tell about ourselves — have the power to create new realities. But that was the triumph of Hobson’s story: It had become part of America’s story, complete with a Hollywood ending.

Rachel Gordan is a postdoctoral fellow in American Judaism at Northwestern University.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.