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In the aftermath of both the Russo Japanese War and the San Francisco earthquake, the city of San Francisco announced that it would segregate schools, assigning Japanese students to all Japanese schools. The Japanese objected and President Roosevelt negotiated an informal agreement in which the Japanese would restrict the number of Japanese coming to the US and in return, the segregation would end.
The victory of the Japanese in the Russo Japanese increased the number of Japanese who arrived in the United States. In addition, the Japanese victory in the war had created a fear of a rising Japan. That fear was seemingly strongest in San Francisco which was the home of a large number of Japanese immigrants. The San Francisco fire had destroyed a large number of schools in San Francisco, so the school board there decided it was a perfect opportunity to create segregated Japanese schools, which they did.
The Japanese government was angered by the decision and they protested. President Roosevelt became personally involved when he had a meeting with the school board. After the meeting, he assigned Secretary of State Root to work out an agreement with the Japanese. That agreement was never a formal agreement but a series of understandings that became known as the Gentleman’s agreement.
The basic agreement stated that the Japanese Government would not issue passports that we good for visits to the US to labs, skilled and unskilled workers except for those who had previously lived in the US or had direct relatives living in the US.
The Japanese government took on the responsibility to make sure that the passports that would be issued for businessmen, scientists and students were indeed issued only to those who deserved the passports under the terms of the agreement. As part of the agreement, the Japanese agreed to provide the US with statistics on how many Japanese were given passports.
President Roosevelt convinced the School Board of San Francisco to rescind the decision to segregate the schools in San Francisco.
Victor Metcalf, Secretary of Commerce and Labor
An image of the typescript letter is available at the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University.
In the fall of 1906, the San Francisco school board decided to send all their Japanese-American children to a segregated school. The Japanese government objected strongly to Japanese nationals and their descendants being treated with the same kind of racism that Americans applied to the Chinese.
Diplomatic negotiations between Japan and the United States resulted in the "Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907": the United States refrained from passing laws that specifically excluded Japanese immigration or discriminated against Japanese Americans, and Japan agreed to prevent its working-class citizens from leaving for the United States. The agreement was not a single document or treaty but an understanding between the two governments worked out in a series of notes and conversations. This letter comes from early in the process.
My dear Secretary Metcalf,
Let me begin by complimenting you upon the painstaking thoroness and admirable temper with which you have been going into the case of the treatment of the Japanese on the coast. If our treaty contains no "most favored nation" clause then I am inclined to feel as strongly as you do that we had better take no action to upset the action of the Board of Education of the City of San Francisco. I had a talk with the Japanese Ambassador before I left for Panama read him what I was to say in my annual message, which evidently pleased him very much and then told him that in my judgment the only way to prevent constant friction between the United States and Japan was to keep the movement of the citizens of each country into the other restricted as far as possible to students, travelers, business men, and the like that inasmuch as no American laboring men were trying to get into Japan what was necessary was to prevent all immigration of Japanese laboring men - - that is, of the Coolie class - - into the United States that I earnestly hoped his Government would stop their coolies, all their working men, from coming either to the United States or to Hawaii. He assented cordially to this view and said that he had always been against permitting Japanese coolies to go to America or to Hawaii. Of course the great difficulty in getting the Japanese to take this view is the irritation caused by the San Francisco action. I hope that my message will smooth over their feelings so that the government will quietly stop all immigration of coolies into our country. At any rate I shall do my best to bring this about.
- ↑ Mikiso Hane, Modern Japan: A Historical Survey (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992), 200-201.
- ↑ Roger Daniels, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 123.
- ↑ Daniels, Asian America , 125.
- ↑ Bill Ong Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850-1990 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 32-33, 54.
- ↑ Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America , 129 Encyclopedia of Japanese American History: An A-Z Reference from 1868 to the Present , ed., Brian Niiya (New York: Facts on File, 2001), 225.
Last updated Nov. 27, 2019, 6:39 p.m..
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How High Was Up? A History of Philadelphia’s “Gentleman’s Agreement”Center City Philadelphia from Belmont, ca. 1900 (The Library Company of Philadelphia)
Contemplating “that vast gray labyrinth” of Philadelphia, with “great Penn upon his pinnacle like the graven figure of a god who had fashioned a new world,” G. K. Chesterton imagined Philadelphians could “feel the presence of Penn and Franklin” just as his English brethren could “see the ghosts of Alfred or Becket.” But Philadelphians didn’t need to use their imaginations. They could literally see Penn from every quarter of the city, miles from the center, where a giant statue of the founder had been installed 500 feet up, on top of City Hall tower.
Philadelphia’s love affair with the Founding Fathers would persist, but they’d soon turn on their late-19 th century City Hall. By the 1950s, when Lewis Mumford lectured at Penn, City Hall was seen as “an architectural nightmare, a mishmash of uglified Renaissance styles welded into a structure rugged enough to resist and atomic bomb…” It is “woefully obsolete,” wrote Mumford, but “the problem of whether to do away with it…is not an easy one to solve…because wrecking it would wreck the wrecker.”
But for the cost of demolition, City Hall survived. And as long as it had to remain in the center of the plan, city planner Edmund N. Bacon was going to make the most of it. In a new biography, Gregory Heller tells us Bacon “saw the dominance of City Hall tower in the skyline as a critical element to the city’s historical continuity.” Bacon “created an unwritten ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that no building would rise above the statue of William Penn atop City Hall.”
“Developers would periodically meet with Bacon and propose a building taller than City Hall tower,” Heller learned in his interviews. “They would query whether the height limit was legally mandated, to which Bacon would respond: ‘It’s only a gentleman’s agreement. The question is, are you a gentleman?’”
Throughout the 20 th century, gentleman’s agreements were mostly associated with spurious and immoral practices: limiting Japanese immigration, preventing the employment of African Americans or denying real estate to Jews. Legal scholars begin discussions of the practice with this somewhat amusing (or chilling) definition: “A gentlemen’s agreement is an agreement which is not an agreement, made between two persons, neither of whom is a gentleman, whereby each expects the other to be strictly bound without himself being bound at all.”
Penn Center from City Hall Tower, ca. 1972. (PhillyHistory.org)
Bacon used the idea of a gentleman’s agreement to challenge the civility of (and presumably quickly end meetings with) developers audacious enough to bring him proposals for skyscrapers. But was there an actual gentleman’s agreement, or was it just a useful ploy to bury projects that would alter the city’s skyline? Over the years, the origins of the gentleman’s agreement have remained a mystery.
On April 28 1956, seven years into Bacon’s tenure as Executive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, The New Yorker published the first of Lewis Mumford’s two articles that, interestingly, do not mention Bacon, but do introduce Philadelphia’s “gentleman’s agreement.” With the “Chinese Wall” coming down, Mumford concludes the city is looking up, although how far up isn’t open to discussion. “Without legislation and with nothing more solid than a gentleman’s agreement, the tallest of the city office buildings have been piously kept lower than the bronze figure atop” City Hall. “Sentiment and symbolism have made unnecessary—temporarily at any rate—any legislation.”
In 1963, when a developer proposed a sixty-story building, Bacon responded that “for the first time in the history of Philadelphia” a project “would violate the gentleman’s agreement that William Penn will not be topped by private construction.” The Planning Commission responded by approving a “height limit ordinance” of 450 feet that made its way through the Mayor’s office and to City Council, where it eventually died. The gentleman’s agreement remained, though worse for wear, its authority unclear.
The following year, another developer proposed a tower taller than City Hall for 15 th and Market Streets and Bacon found himself at odds with his own Planning Commission. As built, the project came in shorter than proposed, but the challenge now seemed possible. “Not all Philadelphians favor squat skyscrapers,” wrote Glynn D. Mapes in The Wall Street Journal of November 29, 1967. Philip Klein, vice chairman of the Commission, hankered for a proposal “that would top William Penn.” Said Klein: “It’s time Philadelphia did something like this. I’d fight for it all the way. No city can be a big city without tall buildings.”
Philadelphians loved tradition, something like what Chesterton appreciated and Bacon perpetuated. “It still matters what Penn did two hundred years ago or what Franklin did one hundred years ago,” Chesterton had written in 1922, “I never could feel in New York that it mattered what anybody did an hour ago.”
OK, Philadelphia was different from other American cities. But a real challenge to the city’s traditional skyline, gentleman’s agreement or not, was mounting. And in 1984, the question would again be posed: Could Philadelphians maintain an honest love affair with the past if the past didn’t also dominate their city’s skyline?
Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907-1908
Rather than enacting racially discriminatory and offensive immigration laws, President Theodore Roosevelt sought to avoid offending the rising world power of Japan through this negotiated agreement by which the Japanese government limited the immigration of its own citizens.
Government letters Journal articles
How does President Roosevelt propose the two countries avoid “constant friction”?
What class of immigrants does President Roosevelt wish to block?
What long-term impacts might this law have on Japanese communities in the United States?
Increasing levels of Japanese immigration, in part to replace excluded Chinese agricultural workers, met with concerted opposition in California. To appease Californians and avoid an open breach with the rising world power of Japan, President Theodore Roosevelt brokered this diplomatic agreement whereby the Japanese government assumed responsibility for sharply restricting Japanese immigration, particularly that of laborers, so that Japanese American children could continue to attend integrated schools on the west coast. Family migration could continue, however, as Japanese American men with sufficient savings could bring wives through arranged marriages (“picture brides”), their parents, and minor children. Consequently, the Japanese American population was more gender balanced than other Asian American communities and continued to grow through natural increase, leading to more pressures to end their immigration and further diminish rights for those in residence.
President Theodore Roosevelt letter to Victor Metcalf, Secretary of Commerce and Labor (1906)
My dear Secretary Metcalf,
Let me begin by complimenting you upon the painstaking thoroness and admirable temper with which you have been going into the case of the treatment of the Japanese on the coast . . . I had a talk with the Japanese Ambassador before I left for Panama read him what I was to say in my annual message, which evidently pleased him very much and then told him that in my judgment the only way to prevent constant friction between the United States and Japan was to keep the movement of the citizens of each country into the other restricted as far as possible to students, travelers, business men, and the like that inasmuch as no American laboring men were trying to get into Japan what was necessary was to prevent all immigration of Japanese laboring men – – that is, of the Coolie class – – into the United States that I earnestly hoped his Government would stop their coolies, all their working men, from coming either to the United States or to Hawaii. He assented cordially to this view and said that he had always been against permitting Japanese coolies to go to America or to Hawaii . . . I hope that my message will smooth over their feelings so that the government will quietly stop all immigration of coolies into our country. At any rate I shall do my best to bring this about.
Breaking Away from the “Gentleman’s Agreement”
What kind of a city should Philadelphia be? Ponderous, historical and homey, stuck in its quaint ways, admiring of its own image in the review mirror? Or should Philadelphia throw in its hat and become lively, contemporary and international, willing to join the what’s what of World Cities?
Developer Williard Rouse didn’t think it was a real choice as he put the make-it-or-break-it question to the people of Philadelphia in the Spring of 1984. Rouse proposed breaking the city’s “gentleman’s agreement,” that quirky, decades-old a pact more ephemeral than legal. It had never been on the books but had been kept alive in the boardrooms as a ready-made, self-deprecating put down. Anyone suggesting a project over 500 feet would be brought up short by city planner Edmund N. Bacon with the same line: ‘It’s only a gentleman’s agreement. The question is, are you a gentleman?’”
There were a lot of places in the city where you couldn’t even see City Hall tower or the statue of the founder. “If you stood at Rittenhouse Square right now and looked for William Penn,” Rouse pointed out, “you would not find him.” According Benjamin M. Gerber’s chronicle of the gentleman’s agreement’s demise, the Inquirer editorial board agreed: “much of the symbolism of Penn’s supremacy was already lost amidst ‘a stubby tide of undistinguished office buildings already [lapping] just shy of Penn’s pantaloons.’”
Inquirer architecture writer Thomas Hine had seen it coming. “The breakthrough might come in private office building, or as a public monument,” he wrote in 1983, “but it seems that sooner or later, the city will rise over William Penn’s head.” When, the following April, Rouse presented two projects, a short one and a tall one (he only intended to develop latter). The debate that ensued became “The Battle of Billy Penn” as Gregory L. Heller tells it in his new biography of Bacon. It played out everywhere: in the streets, in the media, and in the public mind as Philadelphia redefined itself at the end of the century that began with the installation of the 37-foot bronze founder above the a humble skyline.
“The way people talked about One Liberty Place when plans for this skyscraper were announced,” wrote Paul Goldberger in the New York Times, “you would have thought that this was not a new building but some sort of nuclear weapon. One Liberty Place would be the ruination of Philadelphia, cried the project’s opponents, the sign that this somewhat genteel city had sold out to real-estate developers and become just like anyplace else.” The crier-in-chief, of course, was the retired Bacon, whose energy, style and way with words fueled the debate. The height limitation “sets Philadelphia apart from all other” cities. And Bacon warned: “once smashed it is gone forever.”
One Liberty Place in Philadelphia’s skyline, December 5, 1987. (PhillyHistory.org)
Liberty Place was built, of course.
In 1987, when it opened, some couldn’t forget that architect Helmut Jahn adapted it from a much taller, unbuilt tower proposed for Houston. They couldn’t forgive that it looked like a bulked-up version of New York’s Chrysler Building. Hine wrote that Liberty Place “loomed,” but appreciated how, amidst the “stubble” of existing office buildings, it turned “the uninspiring commercial agglomeration into a complete visual composition.” Liberty Place stood “like a mountain among the foothills.”
Philadelphia’s height limitation had been “an empty gesture, hollow and pretentious,” wrote Goldlberger in the New York Times. “The urban order that Philadelphians had for so long cherished was a myth… it was a fallacy to pretend that City Hall still commanded the skyline…William Penn barely stuck his head above his grim surroundings.” With Liberty Place, “City Hall…is still there, still great, and still at the critical center of the city. The only thing that has been lost is the illusion that William Penn was lording over it all.” Goldberger glowed that Liberty Place “transcends the old order, and establishes a new one, at a level of quality good enough to justify throwing away the old.”
Liberty Place would “dislodge this historical center which… informed our city from the beginning,” predicted Bacon. “In our arrogance, we replace it with a floating center up for sale to the highest bidder.” In that sense, Liberty Place and the still taller Comcast Center confirmed his worst fears.
But in the end, what was sacrificed? Sure, the skyline would never be the same. It would never again take on the same kind meaning. In the debates of the 1980s, Philadelphians were forced to think long and hard about where they found substance and where they found meaning. “We may be giving up something insubstantial, but not meaningless,” observed one architect.
In the 21st century, Philadelphians would search for substance and meaning in places other than the skyline. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
When 'Gentleman's Agreement' Made Jewish Oscars History
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.
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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.).
And what would readers have made of the knowledge that her husband, Francis Thayer Hobson, president of William Morrow, had left Hobson abruptly, after five years of marriage and in the midst of their efforts to conceive a child?
Or that, a few years later, Hobson made a solo trip out to the same Evanston, Ill., adoption agency to which Al Jolson, Bob Hope and Donna Reed turned in order to adopt her first son? Or that she gave birth, in her early 40s, to her second son, choosing not to tell the father, with whom she’d had a dalliance?
What was bolder — but really, very typically Laura Hobson — was her staging, with the help of a few close friends, of a fake adoption so that her older, adopted son might feel none of the pain of being different or lesser.
Was there anything to which Hobson was more sensitive than that pain that came with feeling different? It’s unlikely. It had been stamped onto her earliest memories of being Laura Zametkin of the Jamaica section of Queens, daughter of Russian Jewish radicals Michael Zametkin, an editor at the Forverts and Adella Kean, a columnist at Der Tog. At the time of the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Laura’s parents draped their house in black bunting.
There were ways, however, of moving beyond that history even the troublesome last name could be surmounted. Contemporary women may feel that by keeping a maiden name, they are holding on to an identity or publicly declaring spousal equality, but Hobson had always done things in her own inimitable way, and assuming the surname of her Greenwich Village live-in boyfriend, Tom Mount, was her choice. “Laura Mount” had a nice ring to it, the young writer decided, and so her first New Yorker story — a subtle treatment of anti-Semitism in polite society — appeared under that byline in 1932.
Later, her husband, provided another suitable option. This time, his wife tucked her Z in the middle. “The Z is for Zametkin, my maiden name,” she wrote in the first lines of her 1983 autobiography, “and I have clung to it through all my years, because it held my identity in tact before that Anglo-Saxon married name of Hobson.”
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.
My favorite best picture Oscar winner: Gentleman's Agreement
‘A riveting movie, intriguing, a little exasperating, alternately naive and very sharp, fascinating for what it puts in and leaves out’ . Dorothy McGuire and Gregory Peck in Gentleman’s Agreement. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox
‘A riveting movie, intriguing, a little exasperating, alternately naive and very sharp, fascinating for what it puts in and leaves out’ . Dorothy McGuire and Gregory Peck in Gentleman’s Agreement. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox
Last modified on Thu 22 Feb 2018 20.50 GMT
I n 1947, the Oscar for best picture went to Gentleman’s Agreement, starring Gregory Peck as the campaigning journalist on a mission. Awards for best director also went to Elia Kazan and best supporting actress to Celeste Holm. At first glance, it looks like a rather worthy “issue movie” of the 40s, the sort of film that the Academy felt it had to honour. Yet Gentleman’s Agreement is still a riveting movie, intriguing, a little exasperating, alternately naive and very sharp, fascinating for what it puts in and leaves out.
It is about the antisemitism of prosperous postwar America and the insidious way that Jews were excluded from upscale social clubs, vacation resorts and of course jobs. There were no official bans, just a nod and a wink and a “gentleman’s agreement” between conservative-minded Wasp gentiles that they know the sort of people they want to associate with. It is the sort of everyday prejudice that Groucho Marx elegantly knocked back with his joke about not wanting to join a club that would have him as a member.
Not that explicit bigoted language was in any way uncommon. The movie is adapted by Moss Hart from the bestseller by the popular author Laura Z Hobson, which she was moved to write from outrage at the way a congressman had called the columnist Walter Winchell a “kike” without anyone raising a murmur.
Hobson was Jewish born Laura Kean Zametkin, she changed her name to get a job as a magazine secretary – a decision that occurs in the film, interestingly transformed. Hart was Jewish, the movie’s producer Darryl Zanuck was a Methodist, Elia Kazan came from a Greek Orthodox background and Peck was raised Catholic. The personal, authorial religious intelligence of this film is Hobson’s.
Hollywood was then rather reticent about mentioning Judaism explicitly, and maybe not much less reticent now. Perhaps one of the few Hollywood movies before this to mention the J-word so prominently was Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator in 1940. And the high concept of the film is presented so earnestly, so guilelessly, and with such lack of self-awareness or pre-emptive cynicism that you can’t help but smile at the dramatic moment when the idea is revealed.
Peck plays Phil Green, a charming and personable widower with a young son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell) he is a journalist of some repute who has come to New York to take up a job writing for a liberal magazine. The proprietor, John Minify, (Albert Dekker) introduces Philip to his elegant, beautiful if somewhat brittle niece, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), who has a feature idea – how about writing about antisemitism?
Phil agonises fruitlessly about how to write this article. He pores over dull statistics and decides that’s an arid, futile approach. (And here’s the first question a modern audience might ask – wait! What statistics, exactly? Those statistics are interesting … aren’t they?) Phil agonises about knowing what it’s like to be a Jew and face prejudice. He broods about his Jewish friend Dave Goldman (John Garfield), who is in the army: “What does Dave think?”
Finally, after much discussion with his elderly, concerned mother (a typecast Anne Revere), Phil has a eureka moment. Of course! That’s it! Just as he once wrote Orwellian reportage about being a miner or an Okie – he would be a Jew! He would pass himself off as a Jew and apply for jobs, club memberships, hotel bookings, etc. In a state of writerly ecstasy he almost shouts: “And I’ve got a title for it – I Was Jewish For Six Months!”
It’s one of the most inadvertently hilarious lines in cinema. The whole setup could in fact be a delicious satirical comedy. But of course it’s deadly serious. Phil finds nasty little incidents of antisemitism everywhere: his doorman objects to his putting a Jewish name on his letterbox in the apartment building (and so advertising that the building takes Jews) and by gossiping with janitors spreads the word about him being Jewish and so indirectly subjects Phil’s son to bigoted taunts at school. Phil discovers that his secretary, Miss Wales, is Jewish and has changed her name to get a job (like Hobson) but also that she is a self-hating Jew who in her heart believes in her own inferiority. The magazine’s smart, witty art director, Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm), becomes a pal and admires his plan to expose antisemitism, but like Miss Wales and most of the people in the office does not realise that he is not actually a Jew.
And here is where the strange thing happens. Phil insists on complete immersion in his Jewish identity, a kind of method-acting imposture (although in fact it is not clear quite why he needs this uncompromising approach – why not just pose as Jewish for his phoney club applications and visits and leave it there?). He gets engaged to Kathy, who is in on his secret, but she becomes uneasy about how her extended family and high-class social circle will react. Liberal idealist Phil in turn becomes enraged by her tightlipped hesitation and her reluctance to let his Jewish pal Dave and his family rent a cottage near these haughty Wasps. It’s almost as if Kathy suspects Phil of actually becoming “Jewish” – that is humourless, sanctimonious, touchy.
Weirdly, the film it reminds me of is Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, about the idealistic young film director John L Sullivan, who yearns to make a serious drama about poverty and so resolves to live (for a short while) as a poor person – to the dismay of his butler, who suspects that poverty, like leprosy, is somehow contagious.
And Judaism and Jewishness are almost entirely absent. It is an important (and cogent) part of the film’s liberalism to insist on the Jew and Gentile being actually indistinguishable in human terms. But there is no Jewish household visible, no Jewish culture, no menorah, no synagogue. Dave is – importantly – away from home trying to find a place to rent. Phil and his fiancée meet a famous Jewish scientist, Fred Liebermann (Sam Jaffe), at a cocktail party, and he is an exotic European intellectual, transparently modelled on Albert Einstein, who talks about Zionism and the Palestinian homeland. But really that’s it. And the movie is very apolitical, apart from slighting references to such forgotten extreme-right figures as Theodore G Bilbo and Gerald LK Smith.
The elephant in the room is of course the Holocaust. It is not mentioned, despite having happened so recently. Phil earnestly tells his wide-eyed little boy about how antisemitism is a kind of religious prejudice like anti-Catholicism, and perhaps it’s understandable he doesn’t want to burden his son with the subject of the Holocaust. But he never mentions it to his mother or colleagues. This could be because he and the film can’t quite absorb the awful paradox of the US having gone to war to defeat Hitler and American troops having liberated a number of camps – yet still nurturing vile antisemites at home. Putting Dave in an army uniform is the film’s coded way of trying to say all this. The Jewish best friend in army uniform is the film’s silent rhetoric.
Yet Gentleman’s Agreement isn’t all coy. There is a great scene at the end where Dave calmly confronts Kathy about her failure to speak up when one of her smart dinner party guests made a joke about a “kike”. Tearful Kathy had expected Dave to congratulate her on her conservative-minded liberalism simply because she felt bad about it afterwards. Coolly, with a hint of steel, Dave insists she spell out what the joke was and how she failed to make a stand – because every time some nasty crack passes unchallenged, the forces of bigotry gather strength for bigger plans. It’s a great moment for Garfield, and still a rousing scene. For all its faults, Gentleman’s Agreement is a tough, high-minded, interesting member of the best picture club.
In 1907, the Gentlemen’s agreement between the United States and Japan was enacted. In this agreement, Japan would no longer issue passports to Japanese emigrants and the United States would allow immigration for only the wives, children and parents of current Japanese whom already reside in the United States. What initiated this act was the fact that the San Francisco school board approved separate schools for the Japanese students. This separation of Japanese students from American students enraged Japan, and in an attempt to alleviate this problem, Japan promised to minimize the number of emigrants in order to change their image of overpopulating America. The proponents of the act were Californian natavists who feared the Asian invasion of the Japanese and wanted to stem their immigration by targeting their citizenship status as an attempt to minimize their occupancy. However, the Gentlemen’s Agreement did just the opposite as it actually helped grow the Japanese population because the act opened the door to picture brides which promoted family formation.
America’s gaze of the Japanese was that of a foreign oriental country gaining power as a nation. During this time, Japan had defeated the Russians in the Sino-Russo Japanese war which made Japan the first Asian country to defeat a European country. This militaristic success changed the outlook America had on the Japanese as a mediocre, primitive country transitioning into a developing nation. Japan was adopting westernized ideas and customs and integrated them into their culture. With all of these traits combined, America viewed the Japanese as an up-and-coming powerhouse nation, one that needs to be impeded in order for America to keep its dominance. Also, Americans started to fear the Yellow Peril. The Yellow Peril is the fear that Japan will expand into America taking over and implementing their dominance through culture and occupations. Yellow Peril had spread through the minds of people through racial discourse using the media and newspapers targeting American natavists and hardcore nationalist especially those in the working class. People participating in the discourse ignorantly internalized what they heard and essentialized all Japanese immigrants to the unfounded stereotypes of forever foreigner, nefarious and primitive (Shirley Lim). This hegemonic idea became popularized and influenced the mindset of the Americans to patronize the Asians and therefore creating animosity as well as social marginalization of the Japanese leading up to institutionalized racism.
The Pulitzer's Gentlemen's Agreement
Philip Nobile is an investigative reporter who has written for several national publications. He lives in Scarsdale, NY.
To: The 2017-2018 Pulitzer Board
Re: The Pulitzer's Gentlemen's Agreements
I am writing the full Board because neither your Chair Eugene Robinson nor your Administrator Dana Canedy responded to my March 30 email and subsequent phone calls to the Pulitzer office seeking comment on my draft of "The Prize That Taints the Pulitzer's Ethics and Honor" posted on the History News Network on April 20.
The article makes the case for reviewing the bona fides of Alex Haley's 1977 special award for Roots just as the 2003-2004 Board reconsidered Walter Duranty's 1932 prize for foreign reporting. Although the Board decided in Duranty's favor, it set a strict standard for revocation: "clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception." Apparently, this was the same (then unwritten) standard for the Board's swift withdrawal of Janet Cooke's 1980 prize for feature writing. "Osborne Elliott, dean of the Columbia School of journalism, which oversees the Pulitzer awards process, said yesterday afternoon that the Pulitzer board, after being polled by telephone, withdrew Cooke's prize and awarded it to the runner-up, Teresa Carpenter of The Village Voice." (Washington Post, "Post Reporter's Pulitzer Prize Is Withdrawn," April 16, 1981)
"To a moral certainty Haley crossed the Pulitzer threshold of deception," I claimed in the HNN article, which includes never before seen documents in Haley's handwriting proving that he faked the existence of Kunta Kinte, his imaginary Gambian slave forebear. "Clear and convincing evidence exists that he deliberately deceived the readers of Roots both in his fiction and non-fiction.Nor is there the slightest counter-evidence anywhere from Haley's family, editors, and associates, or from journalists, historians and genealogists, arguing that he was an honest writer."
In fact, prominent Pulitzer fellows have been outspoken detractors. Even before the 1976-1977 Board announced Haley's award, 1952 history winner Oscar Handlin declared Roots a "fraud" in the New York Times. ("Some Historians Dismiss Report Of Factual Mistakes in 'Roots'," April 10, 1977)
"If we blew the Haley Prize, as we apparently did, I feel bad," Columbia President William McGill, an ex officio member of the Roots Board, declared in my 9,000-word Village Voice exposé. "We were embarrassed by our makeup. We all labored under the delusion that sudden expressions of love could make up for historical mistakes. . Of course, that's inverse racism. But there was no way to deal with sensitivities like this." ("Alex Haley's Hoax," February 23, 1993)
Former Chair and double prize winner Russell Baker mocked the Roots Board in a letter to this writer by referring to "the Jonsonian comedy of so many vital citizens being so thoroughly hoaxed." (June 22, 1998)
Finally, another former chair, Henry Louis Gates, as general editor of the 2,660-page Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1996), erased Haley's legacy by denying an entry for the first male writer of African descent to gain a Pulitzer.
Nonetheless, despite this negative backdrop successive Boards have tolerated Haley's literary imposture for forty years via a Gentlemen's Agreement, not the sort that excluded blacks from your privileged clique for sixty-plus years, but the inverse cited by President McGill. How else to interpret (a) the unanimous refusal of the 1992-1993 Board to discuss the cascade of self-incriminations in Haley's private tapes and papers reported in the Voice story that Chair Claude Sitton had placed on the annual meeting agenda and (b) the silence of the current Chair and Administrator regarding my HNN draft and follow-up queries.
I have read your Pulitzer biographies noting your towering accomplishments and impeccable professional standing implying a deep bedrock of integrity. In particular, John Daniszewski heads up AP's standards "ensur[ing] the highest levels of media ethics and fairness." Neil Brown is President of the Poynter Institute, whose "Guiding Principles for Journalists" states: "Poynter trains journalists to avoid ethical failings including conflicts of interest, bias and inaccuracy, and to uphold best practices, such as transparency and accountability." As ProPublica's editor-in-Chief, Stephen Engelberg leads a world-class team of investigative reporters. I could go on . and on.
Accordingly, I can hardly doubt that your collective conscience will be shocked by Haley's still pristine prize, quell your conflict of interest, and put an end to the inverted Gentlemen's Agreement that disesteems your organization.
In sum, if you act appropriately (i.e., ethically and honorably) on the Roots matter, you will at last forsake the Pulitzer's inverted racism and perhaps take the edge off the fact that the Mormons integrated their priesthood a year before the Board did the same for theirs in 1979.
I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks for your consideration.
You may be astonished to learn, as I was, that the Pulitzer's original Gentlemen's Agreement, that is, its long, sad record of barring blacks from the Board, is invisible on the Pulitzer website. Nothing appears on the subject under "Frequently Asked Questions" searches for "racial discrimination by the Pulitzer Prize Board" and "first blacks on the Pulitzer Prize Board" likewise come up empty. Even the site's bios of Roger Wilkins and William Raspberry, who crossed the color line together on the 1979-1980 Board, contain no mention of their breakthrough. For visual confirmation of the Board's racial evolution compare photos of the last ivory hurrah of 1978-1979 with the next year's slightly ebony cast.
Double-checking on the above information, I emailed the Pulitzer office on June 1: "Would it be fair to conclude that your organization has deliberately covered up its apartheid past? Or am I missing something?"
Three days later, administrator Canedy replied none too expansively: "Thank you for your letter, we have noted its contents. We will add it to the file of your correspondence."