Gentleman's Agreement - the Book and Film Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Gentleman's Agreement - the Book and Film

3 Conversations

Gregory Peck

How do we teach tolerance? Is there a magic formula for helping ourselves – and our neighbours, but ourselves first of all – to understand our actions in the light of their effect on others? How do we learn to invite everyone to the table when it comes to prosperity and acceptance? Most of all, how do we do this without being dreary, preachy, and confrontational? What unintended consequences might our attempts to teach tolerance have, for ourselves and others? What panic might we unleash in those not ready for the next step in human social development?

Some of these questions were addressed by Laura Z Hobson in her 1946 novel, Gentleman's Agreement. Some of the others were answered when the film came out the following year. Hobson, the writer, and Darryl F Zanuck, the crusading Hollywood producer, set out to teach the US a lesson about its failure to live up to its own standards. The results teach us a lot, over on this side of the millennium divide – about how the 'thin end of the wedge' can be used to pry open the hard core of prejudice, and about how the backlash against such an attempt can be ferocious.

In 1946 all Laura Hobson had to do to set the cat among the complacent pigeons was to write a novel with a simple premise: an agnostic Christian pretends to be Jewish – simply by saying that he is. Then the character, and the author, sit back to watch the feathers fly. The result was not only edifying, but electrifying for readers in the post-World War II US. The book sold 1.6 million copies and was translated into 13 languages. The film version won Best Picture of 1947, arousing a response from liberals whose eyes were opened to the subtleties of antisemitism, and fierce alarm on the part of guardians of the status quo, who began taking a closer look at the dangers presented by Hollywood intellectuals.

Laura Z Hobson – A Legacy of Liberalism

For Laura Kean Zametkin, New York City-born daughter of Jewish immigrants, the values of what used to be called liberalism came naturally. Her socialist father had been tortured by the Tsar's government, and had fled to the US. He and his wife, both influential Yiddish newspaper writers, raised their children to be 'total Americans', speaking only English. In a world where most people 'went along to get along', Zametkin's family practised a devotion to principle that went above and beyond the expected norm.

When her five-year marriage to publisher Francis Thayer Hobson ended in divorce, Laura kept her married name, calling herself Laura Z Hobson. She refused alimony on principle, earning her living as novelist, short story writer and editor – she was one of the founders of Life magazine. In 1937, Hobson took the then-unheard-of step of adopting a baby as a single mother. In 1941, when she became pregnant as the result of an affair, she worried that her second child would suffer stigma. Her solution was typically ethical, though somewhat convoluted: Hobson gave birth under an assumed name, then adopted her own son. When he turned out to be gay, she made the 'coming-out' journey with him, and wrote a book about it – at the age of 75. Hobson was more than a card-carrying member of the ACLU1 – she was on the New York board.

Hobson's attitude toward Jewishness was not unusual among liberal Jews of her time, but it might seem so in light of modern identity politics. She believed in assimilation – becoming part of the surrounding culture – and she had no particular religious beliefs. When the Jewish Book Council wanted to give her an award for her novel about antisemitism in 1947, she refused, because she didn't want Gentleman's Agreement to be seen as a 'Jewish book'. She made sure people knew she was Jewish, telling anyone who asked what the 'Z' in her name stood for. She opposed Zionism, but supported Israel when it came under attack. Her view of the responsibility of being Jewish might be best summed up by the words of her character, Professor Lieberman, in Gentleman's Agreement. Lieberman, an atomic physicist, proposes a crusade in which he tells everyone he is not Jewish – although he 'looks Jewish'. When Phil Green, the protagonist – who is pretending to be Jewish, although he isn't – asks him why non-religious Jews cling to their identity, he says:

'Because this world still makes it an advantage not to be one.' His lower lip shoved forward. His eyes changed their cheerfulness for a remote coldness. 'Yes, I will even have to abandon my crusade. Only if there were no anti-semites could I do it.'

Being Jewish out of stubborn opposition to intolerance was not unique to Laura Z Hobson – Arthur Koestler did not abandon his Jewish identity, even after writing in The Thirteenth Tribe that he believed that most Jews were descended from converted Caucasian tribes. But Hobson's approach to tolerance – and the thought experiment of Gentleman's Agreement  – set her apart in the history of opposition to antisemitism in the US.

Gentleman's Agreement – the Book

The liberal approach to social issues in literature and film of the 1940s was often to use shock tactics. Life or Time might publish a photo essay on the appalling poverty of the Appalachians. A novelist or filmmaker might assault his audience with disturbing images of lynching in the Deep South (it occurred elsewhere, as well, but the essays would be about the Deep South), or the dangers of life in the inner city. Hobson's tactic was to challenge antisemitism – 'the thin end of the wedge' of prejudice in the US, in her words – at the upper end of society, by pointing out the almost-invisible 'gentleman's agreement' by which Jews were excluded from membership in upper-class New York and New England society. By exposing the verbal snubs and everyday insults of the social milieu, by letting Middle America in on the open secret of 'restricted' clubs, hotels, and resorts, Hobson drew attention to the subtle distinctions between people that encouraged the larger inequality of post-war US society.

The plot: Philip Schuyler Green, an investigative reporter from rural California, is hired by a major liberal New York magazine to write a five-part series on antisemitism in the US. Realising that he is not known in New York, Green decides to expose antisemitism by posing as a Jew. Only his editor and his fiancée Kathy know of the deception. Green's mother and eight-year-old son agree to participate. Green's childhood friend, Dave Goldman, returns from service overseas, and after pronouncing Green 'crazy', offers help and advice on a problem he has spent his life experiencing.

Green lets everyone know that he is Jewish, without behaving differently from the way he normally behaves – that is, the way a writer on assignment would behave. While some of his co-workers befriend him, others immediately label him pushy and hypersensitive – behaviour only to be expected from Jews. When he finds out that his secretary, Miss Wales, had changed her Polish-Jewish name to gain employment at this liberal magazine, he informs his editor, who institutes a policy change – and is appalled to find Miss Wales worried that an open policy would let in less assimilated Jews, who would give everybody a bad name.

Green's romance with upper-class New Englander Kathy becomes rocky, even though her neighbours in affluent, snobbish Darien, Connecticut offer to make an exception in Phil's case and allow him into their restricted community, as he is obviously educated and urbane. Kathy becomes more and more uncomfortable with Phil's demand that she raise her consciousness, and finally rebels. When Green's son Tommy is snubbed by other children, Kathy is quick to point out that Tommy is 'no more Jewish than I am'. For Green, this attitude is a betrayal of what he is trying to accomplish. Unwilling to allow his son to be raised in an atmosphere of prejudice, he calls off the engagement. It is not until Kathy undergoes a change of heart and offers Dave Goldman the use of her Connecticut home, so that the war veteran can take advantage of a job opportunity he would otherwise be denied due to the post-war housing shortage, that the couple are able to make peace. Like its author, Gentleman's Agreement demands ethical behaviour from its characters on the deepest personal level.

Phil Green's series, 'I Was Jewish for Eight Weeks', creates a sensation even before it goes to press. Magazine staff members who had spoken of Phil as naturally 'pushy' because of his alleged ethnicity are confused when they see him in a new light. Others cheer him on: one of Phil's co-workers, who is not antisemitic, jokes during a deadline negotiation, 'That's the trouble with you Christians – aggressive.' Although the series is a success, others are less than delighted, particularly the co-worker who has been spreading gossip about Green in the Midwest, causing embarrassment to Phil's snobbish sister Belle. Belle's dismay at being outed at a Detroit society function as a Jewish woman who is 'passing' for Christian provides one of the more comic moments in a story that is filled with acute and wry observations of human behaviour.

It is just this acute observation that makes Gentleman's Agreement fascinating reading more than sixty years later – and no doubt made it very uncomfortable reading in its day. By moving the focus on prejudice away from easily-despised groups – uneducated Southerners, Nazis, outside agitators – to the most respected members of society, Hobson forced the reader to confront prejudice at its roots, in the everyday assumptions people make about one another. In 1946, it seems, Americans were ready to hear the message. Gentleman's Agreement became a bestseller.

Gentleman's Agreement – the Film

Darryl F Zanuck was no stranger to antisemitism – which was odd, because he wasn't Jewish. Since many Hollywood producers, however, were assumed to be Jewish, Zanuck often ran afoul of the 'gentleman's agreement' himself, being barred from restricted hotels. The Nebraska-born Zanuck was handicapped as a writer by being nearly illiterate, but this brilliant veteran of the First World War (he lied about his age and entered the army at 15) was full of ideas and determined not only to make his mark, but to bring to cinema the issues that Americans needed to know about. He filmed John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, the epic story of the Dust Bowl and its aftermath. In his 1949 film Pinky, Zanuck tackled the race issue with the story of a young African American nurse who has spent her training 'passing' for white, but who returns to the South to support her grandmother and face the problems at home head-on. In 1947, Zanuck engaged Elia Kazan, a Greek director also often mistakenly thought to be Jewish, to direct the adaptation of Laura Hobson's popular novel.

To play Phil Green, Zanuck hired Gregory Peck, a handsome and popular leading man. Very few involved with the film were Jewish. The exception among the leading roles was John Garfield, himself usually a leading man, who here took the supporting part of Dave Goldman. Garfield would have been able to bring his own experience of antisemitism to the screen – like many actors of the time, Garfield, whose birth name was Garfinkle, was flying under false colours, a Jewish stage name being regarded as a ticket to being relegated to 'ethnic' roles.

As a film, Gentleman's Agreement was as great a success as the book, winning three Oscars in 1948, including Best Picture and Best Director. It seemed that Laura Hobson might be right when she said that ordinary, decent people would be willing to fight prejudice if they were made to see the everyday occurrences that made intolerance insidious in society. It also seemed that the reluctance of Jewish film producers to stir up trouble by tackling the subject had been misplaced. America was ready to fight antisemitism.

But as Hollywood congratulated itself on a job well done, forces in Washington were at work – forces that were becoming alarmed at the power of literature and film to change minds. These forces were about to descend on the dream factory.

What Made the HUAC so nervous?

In the wake of World War II, the US – already hostile to Communism – began a Cold War against the Soviet Union. During this time, President Harry Truman, anxious to avoid the appearance of being soft on Communism, signed an Executive Order creating Loyalty Boards to investigate the political soundness of government employees. Of the 4.5 million scrutinised, fewer than 400 were dismissed, although an estimated 5,000 resigned as a result of the Second Red Scare.

The House Un-American Activities Committee, that watchdog of public opposition to left-wing ideas2, turned its attention to Hollywood, beginning an investigation with the help of 41 'friendly witnesses'. The hunt was on.

'Friendly witnesses' were people ready to name names. One of the names was Bertolt Brecht. Brecht talked to Congress, but then took the next plane to East Berlin, where – since he really was a Communist – he was given his own theatre to run. Elia Kazan, director of Gentleman's Agreement, was called, but was afraid to go to jail. Kazan named more names. Ten Hollywood workers – writers, actors, directors – refused to answer questions on Constitutional grounds. They were jailed. Hundreds had their names placed on a blacklist, and were refused work. One of the Hollywood Ten, the Oscar-winning screenwriter Ring Lardner, Jr, continued to write under pseudonyms3, and eventually won a second Oscar4. Another Hollywood Ten writer, Dalton Trumbo, did not appear on film screens again until the makers of Spartacus braved public opinion and gave him credit for his adaptation of Howard Fast's novel about social revolt in the Roman Republic. John Garfield refused to name names, was blacklisted, and went back to New York to star on Broadway.

What did the HUAC fear? On the face of it, Hollywood was not an obvious target for an anti-communist purge. Using Loyalty Boards to 'cleanse' the government might seem reasonable – after all, the Soviet Union had supported the CPUSA (American Communist Party), which had won many idealistic members through its work during the Great Depression. But writers, directors, producers, and actors, even if they belonged to the CPUSA – not an illegal institution – were not about to unleash nuclear holocaust, or open the gates to an invasion. What was it the scaremongers wanted?

Many left-leaning, liberal, or merely educated people, and a good proportion of those, like Laura Z Hobson, stoutly opposed to the Soviet Union and all its works and pomps, thought they knew the answer. The HUAC and other Redbaiters were not merely alarmed by Communism. Anti-Communist crusaders felt threatened by any challenge to the status quo. Opposition to antisemitism, racism, and homophobia made them nervous because they feared that increased tolerance would lead to more radical changes in the social order. Opponents of increased civil rights were trying to limit social change by attacking liberalism at its most influential - by making sure that US filmmakers understood to pitch their stories to the middle of the road and to stay there. Their tactics were successful. Just as the Hays Office had put a stop to the freewheeling sexual openness of early film when it went into effect in 1930, the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s put the brakes on socially progressive cinema in Hollywood.

The late 1940s were years of experimentation in theatre, literature, and cinema. The novels and films of that time offer a glimpse into what social progress might have been made, had this trend continued. Unfortunately, some of the best and brightest in cinema were prevented from continuing to follow these ideas – and the idea of social equality became a dream deferred.

Gentleman's Agreement remains a monument to the civil courage of its time.

1The American Civil Liberties Union fights fiercely for civil rights. The organisation is much maligned by its opponents, who often try to discredit liberals by referring to them as 'card-carrying members of the ACLU'.2At its founding in 1937, the HUAC and its chairman were praised by such civic organisations as the Ku Klux Klan.3Including working on the popular British television series The Adventures of Robin Hood.4In 1970, for M*A*S*H.

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