What I’m Watching Now

Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire in “Gentleman’s Agreement”

Gentleman’s Agreement, the book and the movie, have been on my radar since I was a little girl. Laura Z. Hobson was a friend of Mother’s when they both lived in New York. She published her novel a year after The Street appeared.

Just as Mother exposed Harlem to the rest of the world in a way that hadn’t been done before, Ms. Hobson blew open the “gentleman’s agreement” that kept Jews in a different sort of second-class status, especially with housing and employment.

The similarity between the books ended there, though, because Ms. Hobson’s became an award-winning and hugely successful film starring Gregory Peck.

Brief plot summary: Magazine reporter Philip Green goes underground as Phil Greenberg to expose anti-Semitism.  Almost immediately he learns that his own secretary is “passing.” Of course there’s a love interest with conflict over his assignment, but some of the most grueling and telling scenes involve his son’s treatment by “friends” and his Army buddy, and best friend Dave Goldman’s failure to secure housing for his family. This subplot echoes The Street’s assessment of black soldiers who had gone to battle a racist empire only to encounter as much racism at home as they did from the enemy.

It didn’t take long to figure out why Gentleman’s Agreement made it to the big screen when The Street has yet to. The film stresses the love story, which made it of great appeal to a battered nation in the days following World War II. It appears that an equally battered nation still isn’t ready for Lutie Johnson, Mrs. Hedges, and Min.

There was a moment of small triumph as I watched the film. Among the characters on the magazine’s staff was an acerbic editor named Anne Dettrey, played brilliantly by Celeste Holm. Again, it didn’t take long to figure out who that was supposed to be.

I don’t know what sort of relationship Ms. Hobson and Mother had when they lived in New York, but it did not end well.

Ms. Hobson wrote that the short stories “The Witness” and “Mother Africa” “flummoxed” and frightened her. She thought Mother was showing signs of “hate-whitey” and asked her to consider how she would feel if a white person wrote a story like “The Witness” about seven black boys. Hobson added that she always felt the two of them had been friends, “even sisters.” Mother replied:

In the light (or darkness) of that statement it would seem to me some new form of idiocy for me to explain “The Witness and “Mother Africa” to you. I think these are great stories, and truthfully, your reaction to them amazes me. “flummoxed”? “frightened”? Oh – man!

As for being friends, colleagues, sisters – indeed we are. For in this year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and seventy-one we all walk along the same bloodstained path that leads from Vietnam to San Quentin to Attica and back – you and I and our brothers Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon and John Mitchell – all of us hand in hand. [Letter September 25, 1971]

Ms. Hobson responded that she must have missed something in the stories and begged Mother not to reject her plea for help. Agnew, Nixon, and Mitchell were not her brothers. “As I walk on that bloodstained path from Vietnam to San Quentin to Attica, I think they are the enemies of everybody who loves people and who loves peace and reason.” She closed by imploring Mother not to sound so scornful. [Letter September 27, 1971] It does not appear that Mother ever replied.

For all of that, and despite seriously dated parts of the film, it should be required viewing in schools and libraries and town halls every where, with discussion groups about how much has changed and how much hasn’t.

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