Skin-crossed lovers

A failed interracial romance can't escape scrutiny.


by Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone (W.W. Norton & Company, $26.95)

AT THE HEIGHT of the Roaring Twenties, Kip Rhinelander, the wealthy son of white New York plutocrats, fell in love with Alice Jones, an attractive young woman of mixed-race ancestry who occasionally worked as a domestic. In 1924, after a three-year romance that included the exchange of nearly a thousand love letters, they married. Almost immediately, a court battle began that gave newspapers throughout the nation front-page stories for more than a year: Rhinelander sought an annulment, alleging that Jones had deceived him into thinking she was white.

Could a member of the elite class in a racist society have failed to notice, after spending countless hours with the Jones family, the dark skin of his lover’s father and brother? Prior to the marriage, hadn’t Rhinelander told a friend that he didn’t care what race Jones belonged to? Was Rhinelander’s father, a bigoted real-estate magnate worth millions, secretly forcing his son to seek an annulment so the family name would stay “pure”? What did Jones’ racial identity mean, anyway? Did the fact that her father was born in England give his skin color a different significance?

Historians Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone address such questions in Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White, a well-researched social history aimed at a general audience. It’s a fascinating, suspenseful (if sometimes redundantly told) tale of interracial love in an era of radical change. The book alternates dramatic episodes in the lives of the main characters with lively commentary on race, immigration, class, female sexuality, and popular media during the Jazz Age.

Especially interesting is the theme that American ideas about race have always been shifting social constructions. Sometimes a drop of blood in the veins made a person black; sometimes people were categorized as octoroons, quadroons, coloreds, Negroes, and mulattoes; sometimes those with a black ancestor came to be considered white if they had pale skin, European parents, and no connection to the black community. But, as this book vividly shows, all such definitions had a common purpose: to maintain clear boundaries between the races, even after blacks and whites were made equal under law throughout the U.S., and mixed-race marriages were legalized in many states, including New York.

AMERICA’S NEWSPAPERS and judicial system supported this policing of racial lines. During the Rhinelander trial, reporters described Jones as “dusky,” a “tropical beauty,” or “of a Spanish complexion,” and photos of her face were captioned with the question that readers were expected to agonize over: “Does she look like a Negro?” The judge actually approved a motion by attorneys to have Jones disrobe before the jury and reveal her true color.

The trial was an ordeal for both parties. Sometimes the press and the court made Rhinelander appear to be “an example of what wealth and privilege produced: inarticulate, self-centered, powerful, frivolous, and carnal.” Sometimes they painted him as stupid and gullible, seduced by a lascivious, dark-hearted vamp whose sole desire was to enter the upper class.

Yet Jones told reporters she felt indifferent about questions of social status and didn’t see “a single wholesome thing in the life of the so-called 400 [best families].” She quietly insisted that she married Rhinelander because she loved him. Rhinelander’s physician testified at the trial that Jones’ tender affection for her lover had begun to heal his chronic stammer and other nervous afflictions. We’ll never know the true quality of this relationship or the true motives of either partner. These stories were destroyed, along with the marriage itself, by the one told in court and by the national media.

Love on Trial unforgettably dramatizes the American use of race to define the self, decide what others are like, and draw lines that separate or connect the self and others. Even now, 75 years after the Rhinelander scandal, the habit is hard for many of us to shake.