February 01, 2009

Among the Hidden in the Pages of History

Much of 19th century American literature was about pretense -- about passing oneself off as someone else for whatever reason. Writers like Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Faulkner and Kate Chopin are some of the more well-known writers who used this ploy.

Many Americans in the 19th and early 20th century used the size of the country and the new anonymity of the industrialized cities to change their status, and their community standing. Women passed as men. Men passed as women. Immigrants passed as natives. Jewish people passed as Protestants. Young people passed as older people. And minority men and women passed as members of the majority race.

It happened more often, perhaps, than anyone thinks.

Consider the story of Alice Jones Rhinelander, a nanny who fell in love with Leonard "Kip" Rhinelander, whose family was friends with the Vanderbilts, and had their names in the social registry of New York's wealthiest families. As told in the book Love on Trial, Alice, whose English mother and biracial father had immigrated from England, and whose father was a taxi driver, attracted the notice of this boy, who noticed her back. They dated quietly for three years, and then married in 1924. The newspapers had a field day with the idea of one of the upper crust marrying a commoner -- and they probed and pressed to see just how common she was. And questions were raised.

A year later, Leonard would take Alice to court and accuse her of trying to pass as a Caucasian woman in order to marry into New York society.

While it was never against the laws of New York for couples to marry interracially, since New York was the home of the wealthy, there were stringent rules designed to protect the elite from the social climbers. And though Leonard lost his bid to prove himself unknowingly taken in -- after she had to partially undress in front of judges and lawyers -- Alice Jones Rhinelander had to remove his fancy name from hers, in return for a substantial amount of money. Eventually Leonard got his divorce, and his longed-for retirement from the lights and the scandal.

Of course, Alice had the last "laugh," if there was anything to smile about in this story. She outlived them all, and put the Rhinelander name back on her tombstone where she felt it belonged.

The one-drop rule was created to keep people separated. Many assumed that those with even one drop of African American blood were unsuited to do a lot of things -- like fly airplanes or help with the war effort.

One girl named Ida Mae Jones thought otherwise.

Don't miss our interview with Sherri L. Smith, author of Flygirl, tomorrow!


Sherri L. Smith said...

Fantastic way to set the stage. I look forward to our discussion!

Trisha said...

How interesting.

Have you heard of the new book Passing Strange by Martha A. Sandweiss? I've read about it in several review journals and now really want to get my hands on it. "Clarence King is a hero of nineteenth century western history; a brilliant scientist and witty conversationalist, best-selling author and architect of the great surveys that mapped the West after the Civil War. Secretary of State John Hay named King “the best and brightest of his generation.” But King hid a secret from his Gilded Age cohorts and prominent family in Newport: for thirteen years he lived a double life—as the celebrated white explorer, geologist and writer Clarence King and as a black Pullman porter and steel worker named James Todd. The fair blue-eyed son of a wealthy China trader passed across the color line, revealing his secret to his black common-law wife, Ada Copeland, only on his deathbed."

a. fortis said...

Oh wow! That sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for passing it along.