- Property Rites: The Rhinelander Trial, Passing, and the Protection of Whiteness
In October 1924, Leonard Rhinelander, scion of a wealthy and well-established New York family, wed Alice Jones, domestic worker and daughter of a Caribbean-born coachman. Less good-looking than well-appointed, [End Page 478] Leonard used his fashionable goods and family fortune to woo Alice—appearing, as one reporter stated, like “a weak-chinned version of the sheiks” (13). Alice fell for Leonard and the life that he promised, one vastly different from the sturdy working-class existence that she shared with her parents in New Rochelle. After a three-year courtship, they announced their marriage in the society pages, but within a month, the honeymoon ended. The Rhinelanders had initiated an annulment suit, claiming that Alice had defrauded Leonard by hiding her racial lineage. Alice, as their lawyer alleged and the New York press trumpeted, had fooled Leonard into making her his “colored bride” (30).
In Property Rites, Smith-Pryor uses the Rhinelander trial to weave a narrative of classification, confusion, and cultural dislocation in the Jazz Age. At once a period of migration and immigration, reformulations of gender and racial norms, and reconfigurations of class and status, nothing in the 1920s remained fixed. As Smith-Pryor convincingly argues, anxieties about these multiple, shifting boundaries coalesced around the question of whiteness. Indeed, the color line helped to set these boundaries— delineating “character” and appropriate expressions of masculinity and femininity, determining which new immigrants would be welcomed into the national body, and regulating who had access to which material goods. Smith-Pryor skillfully links whiteness to Progressive Era class and status formation. Building on the work of Harris, Lipsitiz, and others, she argues that white Americans “acted as though their status as white was something they owned and had strenuously to defend” (93).1 Whiteness was property, and white New Yorkers maintained their possessive investment in it. Hence, it comes as little surprise that the Rhinelanders based their suit on a charge of material fraud. Smith-Pryor draws on legal and cultural sources to demonstrate that the cultural confusion that heightened the Rhinelanders’ sense of urgency also undercut their case. She moves deftly between state legal codes regulating marriage and miscegenation, eugenicist tracts bemoaning the blood taint of racial intermixture, musicals and films depicting the New Woman and the New Negro, and the work of Harlem Renaissance writers both black and white. She shows how ill-equipped many Americans were to determine race, in spite of their conviction that it existed as a social and biological fact. In the 1920s, when consumer and jazz culture directed people toward mixed forms and spaces of entertainment, white Americans no longer felt certain that blood would tell through behavior; they would have to “see” blackness to know it. The question in the Rhinelander case became whether Leonard had seen Alice’s race on her body before he married her. If so, he could not cry fraud. [End Page 479]
In the end, Leonard lost the suit. Although he and Alice eventually divorced and the Rhinelanders swiftly moved to scratch her name from the social register, Alice negotiated for alimony. She may have lost her husband, but she kept her property rights. Smith-Pryor effectively presents Alice’s trial in both its senses, as a legal case and as an ordeal. In doing so, she reveals much about how Americans in the Northeast lived in and across the color line and how, in the north as much as the south, white supremacy shaped property, place, and possibility.
1. Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review, CVI (1993), 1707–1791; George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia, 1998).