Lovers seek to create a place that they can inhabit together against the obstacles of the world. Marriage promises that they will live in that place forever. What happens, though, when love cannot keep out the world’s strictures? What happens when the bond severs, and the nation serves as a witness to marital separation? And what happens when a culture’s notions about love and romance come into conflict with the lines dividing races and classes?
In 1925 Alice Beatrice Jones and Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander found themselves painfully trapped in this conflict between love and family, desire and social standing. Their marriage had the trappings of a fairy tale — wealthy New York scion marries humble girl from New Rochelle — yet the events that led to their estrangement provide an unusual window into the nation’s attitudes about race, class, and sexuality. Their sensational annulment trial scandalized 1920’s America and opened their private life to public scrutiny, amid cultural conflicts over racial definitions, class propriety, proper courtship and sexual behavior, and racial mixing.
As a Rhinelander, Leonard was descended from several of New York’s oldest and wealthiest families. Had he followed in the family tradition, Leonard might have attended Columbia University, joined the Rhinelander Real Estate Company, and made his mark on New York society through philanthropy and support of the arts.
By contrast, Alice’s parents immigrated in 1891 to the United States from England, where they had both worked as servants. George Jones had had some success in his adopted country; he eventually owned a fleet of taxicabs and several small properties. Alice, her sisters, and their husbands worked primarily as domestics and servants — solid members of the working class.
Despite this pronounced class difference, Alice and Leonard met and began dating in 1921. Their love deepened over the next three years, tested by months and years of separation as Leonard’s father tried to keep them apart. Philip Rhinelander’s efforts were in vain, however.>From 1921 to 1924 the lovers exchanged hundreds of letters and visited when possible. As soon as Leonard turned 21 and received money from a trust fund, he left school and returned to Alice. In the fall of 1924, they quietly married in a civil ceremony at the New Rochelle City Hall.
Had reporters from the New Rochelle Standard Star ignored the entry in the City Hall records, the couple might have lived their lives away from the public spotlight. They did not. Someone eventually realized that a Rhinelander had married a local woman, and it was news. And once they discovered who Alice Jones was, it was big news. The first story appeared one month after their wedding, announcing to the world that the son of a Rhinelander had married the daughter of a colored man.
Or had he? Well, at least he had married the daughter of a working-class man, and that was enough to start a tremor of gossip throughout New York. Reporters rushed to sift through the legal documents and contradictory accounts of and by the Joneses and the newlyweds. Despite the confidence of the first announcement, there was confusion for quite some time as to George Jones’s — and therefore Alice’s — precise racial identity.
Leonard initially stood by his wife during the tumult of national coverage of their cross-class, possibly cross-racial, marriage. But after two weeks, he left her and signed an annulment complaint that his father’s lawyers had prepared. The suit charged Alice with misrepresenting her racial identity to her would-be husband. She was black, the document asserted, but had tried to pass as white. She was not the woman Leonard thought she was when he married her.
Our interest in the Rhinelander case began more than 18 years ago, when Earl came across newspaper accounts of the trial in the Norfolk Journal and Guide. The story pulsed with the complexities of race and identity in Jim Crow-era America, and he couldn’t pull himself away from it. A dozen years later he mentioned the story to Heidi, who began tracking down more information but eventually decided not to incorporate it into her dissertation. Instead, we decided to try a collaborative effort, and Heidi began a series of trips to Westchester County and New York City, tracking trial records, legal documents, and New York newspaper coverage and looking for surviving members of the families involved. We produced an article and quickly turned to writing a book.
Every researcher knows that of the many paths of inquiry planned, some will inevitably lead nowhere. We were, nonetheless, quite surprised to find that, despite repeated inquiries, our research failed to produce an extant copy of the court transcript in the Westchester County courthouses or their archives, or in the appellate courts, newspaper archives, or lawyers’ offices. Tantalizing hints of its existence materialized, including an index of testimony and documents from subsequent legal challenges. Unfortunately, none of the courts could produce the transcript.
Without a transcript, we turned to newspaper coverage of the case. We culled pertinent coverage from several dozen national newspapers
- black and white-published — including dailies and tabloids from New York City and neighboring communities. From these sources we re-created the trial, sometimes overlaying numerous accounts of the same event to reconcile discrepancies or omissions. Our ability to do so was aided immensely by several daily newspapers’ habit of reproducing each day’s court record alongside their summaries, editorials, photographs, and cartoon coverage.
The regional and racial diversity of the sources gave us a more highly textured story than we first imagined, one that enabled us to gauge how the nation responded to its unfolding. Depending on newspapers made us aware not only of the immense popularity of the case but also of how the story reached different audiences with different messages and, to some extent, how the readership responded. Our book became a study of the cultural response to the trial and the issues it raised as much as it was an analysis of the trial itself.
Another path we hoped to pursue lay in finding Alice or Leonard or family members who might have more information about their relationship and lives after the trial. We quickly learned that Leonard had died in 1936, but we had no idea if Alice had remarried, had had children, or still lived. The New York Times had no obituary for her, nor did the New Rochelle Standard Star. While Alice was listed in city directories until the 1960’s, apparently still living in her childhood home, thereafter she either moved or maintained an unlisted address. Local people remembered the case, but no one knew where she was.
One day in New Rochelle, after pursuing several unfruitful leads, Heidi stopped by the local cemetery, where she knew Alice’s parents were buried. The office had no record of Alice being buried with her family, but Heidi decided to visit the family plot anyway. As she walked around reading the graves, she literally tripped over a small flat stone lying almost flush with the grass. There was Alice’s grave. She had died in 1989.
More so than the absence of a transcript, the inability to interview participants and observers of the events left several still-unanswered questions. (Though more distant Rhinelanders did reply to our inquiries, most family members could not be found or declined to respond.) Most importantly, how did George and Alice define themselves racially? At the beginning of the trial, Alice’s lawyers said that Alice “had some colored blood in her veins.” Although the lawyers said they had only made the admission “for the purposes of the trial” and were careful never to call her black, most Americans understood that having colored ancestry meant she was black, albeit of mixed ancestry.
Her sisters both acknowledged on the witness stand that they were colored, and that they had never denied it. Their mother, Elizabeth, who was white, made a sharp distinction between having colored blood and being black. She was surprised that her husband was considered a Negro in the United States. She believed he was a mulatto but not black. This distinction, of course, contradicted white America’s system of popular and legal racial classification, which held that just one drop of black blood made one black. As a rule, Americans made few distinctions between colored and Negro by the 1920’s; gradations in mixed blood had given way to absolutes.
The illogic of such definitions did not go unnoticed by many blacks and some whites. Still, George Jones’s skin was dark enough that all who saw him agreed that in the American racial lexicon he could not be called white. He claimed only to know that his mother was white and his father had been a subject of the British colonies. But his daughters’ appearances were more ambiguous. Interviews with family members, neighbors, and friends did not clarify matters much. They offered conflicting stories of what people thought they were, how they presented themselves, and whether they defined themselves as black, white, colored, or something else entirely.
Whether or not George and Elizabeth thought he was black, the family was clearly considered mixed by most people in their community, and their union threatened settled assumptions in Jim Crow-era America. By the 1920’s, prohibitions against interracial marriage existed in more than half of the states. Most of these statutes also tried to define who was black and who was white — most using the one-drop rule, some offering a specific blood quantum (such as anyone with at least one-eighth black ancestry was black).
Although the U.S. Supreme Court had refused in Plessy v. Ferguson to provide a definition of black and white, it did offer an opinion in 1924 on whether Asian Indians were white. The case in question involved an Indian immigrant, Bhagat Thind, who argued that he was Caucasian and therefore white and therefore eligible for U.S. citizenship, from which Asian immigrants were excluded. The court agreed with him on one count: He was Caucasian. The majority concluded he was not white, however, since the perceptions and beliefs of the average man defined whiteness by pale skin and European ancestry. The Thind case made clear that American legal racial categories were socially constructed, not based in scientific racialism. It also highlighted the racial fissure many immigrants like George Jones experienced as they found themselves placed in a different classification in the United States than they had previously occupied.
At the conclusion of our research it had become quite obvious that “passing” did not adequately explain Alice’s life. She and her family seemed to live in between the worlds of black and white, a difficult but not unknown act in the age of social and legal segregation. In admitting colored blood but avoiding identification as black, the Jones family raised serious challenges to the meaning of race — social, cultural, and biological.
Alice’s admission of colored blood did not solve the ambiguity of her racial identity. In a state that had never made interracial marriages illegal, the primary issue turned on whether Leonard had known she wasn’t white when he married her. The question became not was she black or white, but how could he and other white Americans know? Thus, the case continued to expose many of the nation’s contradictory definitions of race.
Throughout the trial, reporters carefully scrutinized Alice’s deportment, clothing, and appearance. They searched for any detail that might explain who she was and give a fuller hint of her race. They also looked to see if she betrayed any lingering affection for Leonard. The reporters characterized her as “fair” or “slightly tanned” or “dusky” or even “ebony,” her skin tone waxing and waning with the tides of evidence and scandal. At perhaps the most memorable point of the trial, Alice, at the request of her lawyer, partially disrobed before the court, baring her breasts, back, and legs. Although no reporters were actually in the judge’s chambers when she exposed her body, all were sure she had proven her attorney’s point: that Leonard must have known from viewing her body prior to marriage that she was not white.
While she gave a few interviews to the press, Alice never actually testified, never told her story for the court record. She won her case, however. The annulment was denied, and the marriage was upheld. Editors generally agreed that the weight of evidence had been on her side, although some were surprised that Leonard’s race and class standing didn’t sway the jury. After another round of appeals Leonard disappeared, amidst continued speculation that the two had reunited. In 1930 Leonard resurfaced alone in Nevada, where he won a divorce that was recognized only in that state; they later signed a separation agreement in New York.
According to the terms, Leonard paid Alice a $32,500 lump sum and $3,600 per year for life. In return, Alice forfeited all claims to the Rhinelander estate and agreed not to use the Rhinelander name, nor to lecture or write publicly about her story, pledges she honored the rest of her life. Her parents and Leonard all died during the 1930’s, events that recalled the trial for local and New York City newspapers.
So did a series of trials between Alice and the Rhinelander heirs over her annuity, which Alice again won. By the time she died, the print media and their readers had forgotten the case and her past notoriety. No one noticed that upon dying, and without speaking, she would get the last word. Her gravestone reads “Alice J. Rhinelander” — a reclamation of her identity as Leonard’s wife.
When we started our book, Love on Trial, we knew that the issues of racial identity raised by this case would resonate with contemporary readers. We had noted the rise of popular and political interest in the role and identity of children of mixed-race marriages in the post- Loving v. Virginia generation. The Rhinelander/Jones story offered an opportunity to bring the historical context of such contemporary concerns to a nonacademic audience.
However, in a trial laced with moments of high drama, if not melodrama, we did not want to replicate a series of caricatures — innocent Alice, vamping Alice, Leonard the dupe, Leonard the seducer. In a trial in which the vaudeville star Al Jolson testified, women were cleared from the courtroom because of the explicit nature of two of Leonard’s letters to Alice, and Alice partially disrobed before the jury, it could become easy to lose Alice and Leonard. We needed to communicate their depth and humanity, to explain both their path to love and their path to public spectacle.
Among colleagues, our joint research project leading to Love on Trial prompted almost as much interest as the story itself; collaborative authorship in history unfortunately is still uncommon. We had agreed to be equals in the process, to be free to challenge each other, edit passages, alter ideas, and settle on a joint sense of what the project meant. On the surface such a compact may appear straightforward, but for several of the years of our partnership, Earl served as Heidi’s dissertation chair, a reminder of a difference in status, experience, and seniority. Despite these differences, however, we found that a shared commitment to the project made the collaboration work.
While Alice got the last word in her own story, we do not expect to do so with our book. Even now, a previously abandoned research path has reopened. This latest twist came just a few months ago, long after we had turned in the manuscript. We heard from the literary scholar Werner Sollors that one of his former students had obtained a copy of the trial transcript from the New York Bar Association. In March, after an initial report that it did not exist there either, we received a copy of the transcript.
Did finding it change anything? Yes and no. We now have the full texts of Leonard’s two letters that no newspaper was willing to print in full due to their explicit sexual nature. We can also answer a few other questions of detail, which we plan to do on a Web site ( http://www.loveontrial.com/ ). So far we have found nothing that would alter either our narrative or our overall analysis of the Rhinelander/Jones case. In fact, we are convinced that the route we took, while more difficult, made for a richer story.
And what about the other paths we could not follow? Will publication of this book prompt Alice’s heirs or other Rhinelander family members to tell their story? That would be a fascinating development, indeed. What might we learn about Alice and Leonard’s relationship? The Jones family’s thoughts about race and their own identity?
Alice’s family must have played a role in placing her married name on her gravestone. Perhaps Alice would get the last word once again.Heidi Ardizzone is a visiting assistant professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame. Earl Lewis is dean of graduate studies at the University of Michigan. Their book, Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White, has just been published by W. W. Norton&Company.