A Speculative Diary of Alice Jones Rhinelander #race #passing

1934, Winter

Dear Diary,

How strange society is! Even stranger this thing called courting. I was once so hotly pursued now left cold and forgotten. It is not easy to accept especially when he had been so ardent before. He is now completely altered and gone away. After the court case I decided to think very deeply about all of this. Having been spurned, cast aside, dismissed, disrespected (you know all those things that amount to such a harsh rejection) nothing can be done. One must try to pick up the pieces and move on. I can only try to contain myself and aspire to some form of civility after that monstrous trial. There is not a need for explanations- I now have my “concession” to keep quiet and never again use the Rhinelander name. He has said nothing to me—though I knew deep down he would not. His station is too high for him to think of lowly me- the daughter of an English common woman and West Indian colored(colored not negro- father said never to call him negro). It does not matter that I can be mistaken for a woman from Spain or Portugal. In this country, in the United States I have been turned into a negro with all the attendant baggage it entails. For all my sorrows and degradation during the hell trial I have my concession to live off of. It is a paltry sum given the fortune of the Rhinelander family but it is enough to keep me out of servant work and help my parents as they age.

But back to how strange society is— I saw something in the paper where it was written that has sent me down memory lane. Here we are climbing out of a economic depression and some person has written in the opinion section that the Age of Victorianism (which that horrible trial I endured was undergirded by!) that time of “modesty, prudery, and general around sexual repression”, has passed on. Then they had the unmitigated gall to write that this “New Morality Revolution of the early 1900s, sexual repression had been cast aside and women especially had been liberated.” Humph!!! I have the nerve to write in a response to that—but I won’t. I will simply record my thoughts here in my diary which is a safer space from the spectacle that I now avoid.

If one is to take an assessment of the regrettable events in my life one can see that this is utter hogwash. Where do I begin?

I was a servant girl before I met Len. I worked in people’s houses and sometimes had jobs where I slept in. My sisters and I both were all hardworking domestics working for the rich families in Westchester County. We always knew the value of hard work- which is why we craved to have a little fun sometimes. But with father’s meager earnings from day laboring we had to chip in. Of course when Len came home with my sister Grace and a friend I was drawn to him. He was funny looking but he had such a nice car and how he bragged about his money! So when he lost interest in Grace(she wouldn’t let him place his hand on her leg) and abruptly turned to me I was secretly happy. Both my sisters were much prettier than I so…I guess I had to be a bit more willing than most girls you know.

He would take me on long rides and tell me that if I was nice to him he would take me to movie. Of course I wanted to see a movie and get treated to a nice time out. So yes I would neck with him in the car. So much for my “repressed sexuality”!!

This whole thing has caused me to go back in time to try to get into what that opinion writer meant about the Victorian era. I went off to the library and found an interesting piece that discussed ideas of sexual purity:

“…the popular idea of sexual purity, (freedom from fornication or adultery, abstinence from sexual intercourse before marriage, and fidelity to its exclusive vows afterwards), rests on intrusive laws made and sustained by men.”[1]

When I read that part I almost shouted in the library! Because it is the men who break these so- called codes of conduct!! Think of it- when Len first started pressuring me to sleep with him when he would drive me in his car I knew it is was not the sort of thing I should do. In fact my sister Grace was right to move his hand from her leg. But I must admit- I knew he was rich and I wanted to increase my chances of getting in his good graces so I let him neck with me so that I could get some money and some dates to the movies. I couldn’t spend my money on those trifling things!!! I had to help in the house. These men they dictate social mores and  the create the distinctions between what is considered acceptable and what is socially deviant. From the houses of worship, street corner stoops and senate floors men could dwell in and out of actual and semi-actual spaces of respectability while escaping at will into “dens of iniquity” whenever they felt the need.

Looking back on those many rides with Len I  provided him  with an escape to unbridled lust. But what did I get for allowing him to be intimate with me?? An accusation that I was aggressive adventuress who hoped to score Len a “hapless dupe” with money.[2] They put it all out there in the courtroom (Good God it was dreadful)- they told about our first time together intimately at the Hotel Antoinette in Manhattan and described it as premeditated act of seduction by me an “experienced woman” who preyed on an “innocent boy”—they even suggested that I lied about the abortion! I had to find a midwife to help me, Lord knows no doctor would take me and until this day I am thankful that she helped me out.[3] Had I carried the child of such a coward of a man which would have bound me to him forever that would be a punishment rivalling being eternally bitten and tortured by the demon dogs of Hell.

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[1] Kathy Lee. Peiss, Major problems in the history of American sexuality: documents and essays (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).249

[2]Elizabeth M. Smith-Pryor, Property rites: the Rhinelander trial, passing, and the protection of whiteness (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009). 67

[3]Leslie J. Reagan, When abortion was a crime: women, medicine, and law in the United States, 1867-1973 (Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 2008),52

For more on Alice Jones Rhinelander see this NPR story HERE

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