Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White


A modern Cinderella must defend her fairy-tale marriage in a scandal that rocked jazz-age America. Upon marrying Leonard Rhinelander in 1924, Alice Jones, a former nanny, became the first black woman to be listed in the Social Register as a member of one of New York's wealthiest families. When their marriage became a national scandal, Alice and Leonard found themselves thrust into the glare of public scrutiny--and into a Westchester courtroom. Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone tell the story of the marriage and the ...
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A modern Cinderella must defend her fairy-tale marriage in a scandal that rocked jazz-age America. Upon marrying Leonard Rhinelander in 1924, Alice Jones, a former nanny, became the first black woman to be listed in the Social Register as a member of one of New York's wealthiest families. When their marriage became a national scandal, Alice and Leonard found themselves thrust into the glare of public scrutiny--and into a Westchester courtroom. Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone tell the story of the marriage and the annulment trial that opened the lives of two vastly different families to the media. Tracking the public obsession with the case, they unfold a fascinating story with a dramatic cast of characters. Would the jury believe Alice's claim that her husband had known she was of mixed racial ancestry before their marriage? Would Leonard's social status sway the verdict? How much ancestry made one black? Love on Trial recalls a struggle that raised questions about race and identity that continue to haunt us today.
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Editorial Reviews

Clarence E. Page
With echoes from today's headlines...reopens a scandal that exposed the racially ugly side of New York's high society.
Chicago Tribune
Boston Globe
A compelling read.
Chicago Tribune
This is a great story....Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone tell it very well.
Too important to be ignored....A fascinating look at America's obsession with race, pride, and privilege.
Darlene Clark Hine
[C]hallenges us to reorient our thinking about what makes a person black and under what conditions class and race matter.
Clarence E. Page
With echoes from today's headlines...reopens a scandal that exposed the racially ugly side of New York's high society. —Chicago Tribune
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393050134
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/28/2001
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Heidi Ardizzone is assistant professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame and lives in Niles, Michigan. She is coauthor of Love on Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White.

Earl Lewis is dean of graduate studies at the University of Michigan.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Waiting for Leonard

Alice Beatrice Jones Rhinelander, fashionably dressed, sat quietly in the hard wooden seat and smiled. Leonard was late and Alice was waiting. It was a familiar feeling. She had waited for him before, waited while he traveled the world and went to school. Waited in her bedroom in her parent's house, reading his letters and writing poetry and copying song lyrics that reflected the drama of her longing and uncertainty:

Sitting alone at the window, watching the moonlit street, Bending my head to listen for the sound of your feet, I have been wondering, darling, how I can bear the pain, When I watch the signs with tear-wet eyes and wait for your coming in vain, You will grow weary of sighing, you will long for a love that is purer than we know; Remember me dear!

Waiting for the next letter, for the next visit, for the news that he was finally moving on ... or finally coming back for good. And all those nights and months and even years of waiting had brought her here to the Westchester County Supreme Courthouse, where she sat, once again, and waited.

    On this particular day, November 9, 1925, Alice did not wait alone. She sat between her lawyers, flanked by her parents, sisters, and brothers-in-law. Fully aware of the "white light of publicity," that illuminated this vigil, the Jones family sat upright, outwardly composed and calm. They sat and waited together as journalists, photographers, and a crowded courtroom of curious onlookers occupied their timewatching Alice and her family, scrutinizing their every movement, dress accessory, and facial expression. She wore a "tight-fitting tan gown, black silk stockings and black pumps, a cloth coat trimmed with gray fox fur and adorned with a gardenia." Her mother, Elizabeth Jones, a small, determined woman perched primly beside her daughter, plainly dressed, white hair pulled into a bun. Her father, George Jones, sat fingering his chin, a "long-faced, dark-skinned man, with long wavy hair."

    Everyone in that courtroom was waiting for Leonard. He had been expected, according to his own lawyers, early in the morning when the proceedings began. Twelve middle-aged and older white businessmen, a few retired, sat in the jury box and waited to be confirmed. Leonard's own lawyers were waiting to begin the opening arguments. Everyone was ready for the event to begin, but where was Leonard? The trial could not proceed without its plaintiff. Perhaps he would not come; perhaps he had changed his mind.

    It had been just short of a year since Leonard had filed the charges that led to this trial. A year of lawyers' statements, media speculation, and public debate. A long year for Alice to wait, unable to talk with Leonard about his feelings and motivations. The court recessed for lunch and reconvened. Leonard, however, was still missing. Yet all the onlookers knew that if there was to be a trial Leonard would have to show. Everyone in the courtroom watched Alice and wondered: What would she do when he arrived? How would they react to seeing each other for the first time in a year?

    Anticipation rivaled tedium. The morning of jury selection had passed slowly. Those inside had been privy to a relatively uneventful selection process. Leonard's lawyers had made sure that all the jurors were married and that nine out of the twelve were fathers. Meanwhile, Alice's lawyers had asked only one question of prospective jurors: "Do you feel that you can be absolutely fair to this girl?" Alice and her family had sat silently through these hours, watched by the assembled crowd, everyone waiting for the real action to begin. Gathered outside the White Plains courtroom early in the morning, the eager crowd had jostled for entrance. Extra guards had been called in, as they would be many more times in the weeks to follow, to help control the court watchers. The audience, an estimated third of whom were black, whispered audibly as the prospective jurors were questioned about their jobs, families, and attitudes. At some points the black spectators were described as particularly enthralled by the courtroom transactions. At other times it was white women who seemed most invested in witnessing the proceedings. But all agreed that the trial had attracted an unusual mix of spectators. Drawn by the hope of sensational testimony and a spilling of Rhinelander family secrets, New York City and Westchester County citizens vied with hundreds of travelers for admission into the small courtroom. The Rhinelander case, after all, promised to be one of the most sensational legal battles fought in New York State that decade.

    Finally, at 2:30 P.M., the doors opened and Leonard Kip Rhinelander entered the courtroom, accompanied by a bodyguard. He appeared pale and drawn, "obviously," according to one observer, "wishing that he were anywhere else in the world than in the Supreme Court room at White Plains." Those expecting sparks or drama between the couple were disappointed: The young plaintiff studiously took no notice of her. She, however, searched his face intently as he entered, "as though expecting a sign of love, or recognition, at least, from him. It was not forthcoming." Leonard walked past Alice without a glance and took his place at his lawyers' table. As the jurors were officially seated and the trial began, the young man sat unmoving, his eyes fixed straight ahead.

    It had been almost one year since Alice and Leonard had been in the same room together. One year since they had last laid eyes on each other. One year and one month since their wedding day.

On October 14, 1924, Alice and Leonard had appeared at the New Rochelle courthouse and been married by Mayor Harry Scott. No descriptions remain of the brief ceremony, witnessed only by courthouse employees. No photographs tell us what the couple wore for the wedding, what mixture of nervousness, happiness, excitement, tension, or relief their faces revealed. We don't know why or how they chose that particular day. Leonard had reached legal maturity that spring; perhaps the paperwork on his trust fund took several months to clear; perhaps they were waiting for that money to be able to live independently. Perhaps he delayed, hoping he would be able to tell his family and include them in the celebration of his marriage.

    The only direct record of the event was registered in the courthouse marriage license files that day. In an even, looping hand a city employee dutifully copied the marriage application information into the county books, filling in the form's blanks for groom and bride:

Full Name: Leonard Kip Rhinelander
Color: white
Address: ... Pelham Rd., New Rochelle, N.Y.
Age: 22
Occupation: Real Estate
Birthplace: New York City
Father: Philip Rhinelander
Birthplace: U.S.
Mother: Adeline Kip
Birthplace: U.S.

The same clerk's hand recorded Alice's information:

Full Name: Alice Beatrice Jones
Color: white
Address: ... Pelham Rd., New Rochelle, N.Y.
Age: 23
Birthplace: Pelham, N.Y.
Father: George Jones
Birthplace: England
Mother: Elizabeth Jones
Birthplace: England

Both gave as their address the home of George and Elizabeth Jones.

    At first glance, there was little here to distinguish this marriage from any other entered in the days and weeks of October 1924. The pages of New Rochelle's marriage records were filled with the children of immigrants and the native born, marrying within and across ethnic lines, coming from religious or civil ceremonies, starting lives with the promise of hard work and modest gains.

    Their marriage duly recorded, Leonard and Alice Rhinelander returned to her parents' home in New Rochelle, where they quietly began making plans to move into their own place. They rented an apartment in the recently built Pintard, on Huguenot Street, one of the main roads in the older section of New Rochelle. Together they began ordering housewares and decorations for their first home together, into which they planned to move by Thanksgiving. They bought from a local furniture dealer, Joseph Rich, striking up a friendship with Rich and his wife, Miriam. Alice began to build a wardrobe fit for her new role as Mrs. Leonard Rhinelander, visiting several exclusive Westchester shops. She showed off some of her new clothes to friends and coworkers, who agreed that her selections were exquisite and expensive.

    Separated for most of the three years they had known each other, Alice and Leonard no doubt luxuriated in being together, finally, despite the many obstacles their courtship had endured. For months, even years, "young Rhinelander [had been] seen by neighbors to park his sport roadster in the lane almost every evening and march up to the Jones's front door carrying flowers or candy or a book." In those first few weeks after the wedding, little changed in outward appearances. Not yet ready to occupy their new apartment, the newlyweds continued to stay with her parents on Pelham Road, which Leonard had done intermittently since that spring. Leonard also continued to visit his father in Manhattan and sometimes stayed nights with either his father or his aunt, even after his marriage to Alice. According to some reports he was still working in the family's real estate company during that month. Apparently he told none of the Rhinelanders of his marriage. The Joneses' neighbors themselves "were inclined to hold themselves aloof" from the family and therefore knew neither who Leonard was nor that he had married Alice until they read it in the New Rochelle Standard Star.

    It is not difficult to understand how the newlywed Rhinelanders were able to hide out for so long without great effort. George and Elizabeth Jones lived in a row of attached units at the end of a long driveway. Set behind two larger houses, theirs was physically secluded from their neighborhood. Although the building had three apartments, no mention was ever made of non-family members living in one. One of Alice's sisters, Grace, lived in one of the apartments with her husband, Albert Miller. The other sister lived in the neighboring town of Pelham Manor, New York, with her husband, Robert Brooks, and their daughter, Roberta. Exactly what the division of the row house was in 1924 and precisely where Alice and Leonard were staying is not clear.

    This seclusion may have helped the couple keep a low profile during the first weeks of their marriage, but local reporters soon got wind of the news. Eventually someone divulged the secret: A local girl had married a Rhinelander! For professional newshounds, a quick check of the courthouse records confirmed it. Everyone knew who the Rhinelanders were, of course: They were one of the founding families of New York's economic and social elite. Leonard's grandfather William Rhinelander had married Matilda C. Oakley, daughter of T. J. Oakley and Matilda C. Cruger, two other proud families whose names were passed down the line along with their status and wealth. These families, more than one newspaper hastened to remind its readers, had been rich and powerful when the Vanderbilts were still farming on Staten Island. The Rhinelander family made its fortune as provision merchants, shipping agricultural goods to the West Indies. In fact Philip Jacob Rhinelander had originally settled in New Rochelle and Pelham Manor in the mid-1700s, owning an extensive tract of land just a few miles from the Jones home. Leonard's father (and his older brother, at least one cousin, and two uncles) were named for this particular Rhinelander. And the Rhinelander family continued to play a significant role in New York society and finance through the Rhinelander Real Estate Company and the philanthropic and cultural contributions of individual family members. Not surprisingly Leonard's mother came from similar roots. Adelaide Kip's family name was important enough to be given to each of her five children: Isaac Leonard Kip Rhinelander (who died in infancy), Philip Kip Rhinelander, T. J. Oakley Kip Rhinelander, Adelaide Kip Rhinelander, and Leonard Kip Rhinelander.

    In 1924 the first thing many middle- and upper-class Americans thought to ask about a prospective spouse was his or her lineage and social status. When it was a spouse of someone in the Rhinelander's social circles, the question became even more urgent. Who was Leonard Kip Rhinelander's bride? Who were her parents? What kind of woman had this heir to millions chosen? With what kind of family had he associated the Rhinelander name? Local reporters made it their business to find out.

    Following the paper trail of birth certificates, immigration papers, and marriage licenses left by the Joneses in their forty years in the United States, New Rochelle reporters soon realized that they had more than a socialite's marriage announcement on their hands. By mid-November it was ready for press. Both the Rhinelander family and the newlyweds themselves seem to have tried to prevent its publication. Most reports identified the Rhinelander family, and Leonard's father, Philip, in particular, as the force behind these attempts. According to the New York Daily Mirror, the New Rochelle editor had been approached by agents representing the Rhinelanders, threatening "dire punishment" if he dared print the story. The Daily News described Philip's secretary rushing to New Rochelle to examine the marriage record and phoning in his findings to Philip's lawyer, James Gerard. According to this story, witnesses at the clerk's office could plainly hear the father's sobs through the phone wire. Philip's secretary and a clerk from the county office then rushed over to the Standard Star building to try to "wrest [the article] from the presses." They failed.

    Money, some suggested, may have been offered, or even changed hands. In an interview reported by several New York papers, Alice's sister Grace maintained that "we were betrayed." She declared that the Joneses and even Alice and Leonard themselves had tried to dissuade the Standard Star editor from publishing the news of their marriage. Her sister and new brother-in-law, Grace complained, had "paid well to keep this out of the newspapers." She deemed it a "dirty trick for this story to get out now." In a different version Harris Forbes, the publisher of the Standard Star, simply consulted legal advisers and then decided to print the story despite the family's protest.

    Whatever the circumstances surrounding it, Forbes's decision to publish the story set in motion what may have been an inevitable shift in the couple's future together. On November 13, 1924, a scant four weeks after the quiet wedding ceremony, the New Rochelle Standard Star broke the story. The front page article featured a large, bold, and capitalized headline: RHINELANDER'S SON MARRIES DAUGHTER OF COLORED MAN.

    In this fateful headline both Alice and Leonard were reduced to the family lineage that defined them. Leonard's greatest claim to fame was his family name: He was, as the article pointed out, the "scion of a prominent New York family." And her family background, too, primarily defined Alice in the article: Her parents were both English immigrants but only one, Elizabeth, was white. Alice's father, George, was the "colored man" of the headline. What the Standard Star did not make explicit, but would be understood as such by most Americans, was that having one black parent made Alice black. The paper also reported that this was the first marriage for both, that they had apparently been involved for three years, and that the groom's father, Philip Rhinelander, attempting to end the relationship, had sent his son away three times. The main sensation, however, was clear: A Rhinelander had married a black woman.

    By evening at least one New York City paper had picked up the news. Having been unsuccessful in their attempts to reach the Rhinelander family for comment, the Evening Post could only repeat the information in the Standard Star article, even quoting it directly at times. But there was one crucial difference: Unlike the Star, the Post made no mention of the racial identity of the Jones family in its coverage of the story. Given the powerful financial and social connections of the Rhinelanders, they may have felt it prudent to wait until they could confirm the report that Leonard's father-in-law was not only a "cabby" but also a "colored man." Having read the earlier article, with its blaring headline, the Post must have realized that there was some evidence that Alice's father was "colored." But the Post editors did not have the sources the Standard Star used at their disposal. So they simply said George Jones was "a native of England, ... said to be of West Indian descent" and Elizabeth was "an Englishwoman." This was an interesting choice of terminology. It might have been unacceptable to call George an Englishman because doing so would have carried a strong connotation that he was white. "West Indian" both avoided naming a racial category and implied the possibility of not being white.

    Two themes thus emerged from this first day of news coverage of the trial: first that the racial status of the Jones family might be suspect but was not yet determined, and second that the families' disparate class standings alone made the marriage a news story and a scandal. The marriage was a sensation for the Post simply because the groom was the son of Philip Rhinelander, a member of New York's social elite, and the bride was the daughter of a cabdriver who had a taxi stand at the Pelham Manor railroad station. By omitting all overt mention of race, the Post chose to err on the side of caution—if she was black, they could report that the next day. Even the Standard Star, which repeatedly identified Alice's father, George Jones, as a "colored man," never directly referred to Alice as "colored," or for that matter with any racial category or description whatsoever. This reticence to label her "black" was very apparent in the way newspapers around the country announced and reported on the marriage in the days and weeks that followed.

    In fact, the first round of stories breaking the news of the marriage gave class as much—and in some cases even more—emphasis than race in the headlines and articles through November 16. To take an extremely cautious example, the New York Times printed a very short article—"Society Youth Weds Cabman's Daughter"—never suggesting the possibility that Alice or her father might be anything other than white. The only hint of any racial impropriety was that Alice's sister Emily had married a "negro butler." The Poughkeepsie News Eagle published a similarly brief piece—"Rhinelander's Son Marries Nurse Maid"—with no mention of race. The Boston Daily Globe detailed the various working-class occupations of members of the Jones family (nursemaid, taxi driver, gardener, and laborer) and the "shock" to high society of their marriage into an "old New York family." It also ignored reports of their racial status.

    When Alice and Leonard woke up on the morning of November 14, 1924, they found that their quiet honeymoon was over. New Rochelle was in an uproar. Through the night of the thirteenth, telegraph wires had carried the story to newsrooms across the country, where it was picked up immediately and usually carried the next day. As people read their papers over breakfast in almost every major city in the United States, they read that Leonard Kip Rhinelander, son of one of the leading New York real estate families, had married Alice Beatrice Jones, an "obscure" woman who had worked as a nanny. Whether or what they learned about her racial ancestry, however, depended on where they lived and what paper they read. For although the initial New Rochelle article had clearly reported that her father was "colored," the more widely read Post had not. Nationwide, editors had to filter conflicting reports and decide what to believe—or at least what to print—regarding Alice's racial ancestry.

    Most of the papers that opted to ignore the question of race ran only short two- or three-sentence stories reporting the marriage of a Rhinelander. Few details were revealed in these announcements; such details, one paper claimed, were "meager." What tidbits were available almost universally pointed to the wide class gulf between the Joneses and the Rhinelanders. Leonard Rhinelander was a "society youth" and a "clubman" from an old New York family of distinguished lineage. He stood to inherit millions from his father, and he had married a "nurse maid." The new Mrs. Rhinelander was the daughter of a taxi, cab, or bus driver; her sisters had married a gardener and a laborer, respectively. Her parents, with whom the couple had been living, owned a small, "humble" house at the end of an alley.

    This was quite a story in and of itself. As the Philadelphia Tribune noted, the class differences alone made Alice and Leonard's marriage "[f]ront page feature stuff." Few New York Rhinelanders had ever crossed class lines to marry a domestic servant. Despite the ideological promise that the United States held for upward social mobility and democratic blurring of economic lines, class played almost as strong a role in social stratification as did race. At the same time, however, the peasant or working-class heroines of fairy tales and movie screens were applauded by audiences when they crossed these economic lines to marry their prince or capitalist aristocrat. Love across class boundaries was both a social transgression and the stuff of romance. For those not born into money, it offered one possibility of the upward mobility promised by the American dream. For working-class women, marriage to a middle-class or wealthy man offered a fantasy fast track in a world in which the mythical rags-to-riches journey through hard work and labor eluded even most men.


Excerpted from LOVE ON TRIAL by Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone. Copyright © 2001 by Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.




Copyright © 1998 Rick Bass. All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Til Death Do Us Part ix
Chapter 1 Waiting for Leonard 3
Chapter 2 Who Was Alice Jones? 20
Chapter 3 Broken Promises 40
Chapter 4 The Vamp and the Dupe 48
Chapter 5 Concessions of Race 63
Chapter 6 Just a Commonplace Love Affair 79
Chapter 7 On the Face of It 102
Chapter 8 A Man of Standing 118
Chapter 9 The Fallen Prince 136
Chapter 10 The Last Veil Lifted 156
Chapter 11 Revelations 175
Chapter 12 Before God and Man Be Fair 193
Chapter 13 Awaiting the Verdict 202
Chapter 14 The Trial Ends 216
Chapter 15 Spotlights Are Slow to Fade 234
Conclusion: The Last Word 252
Afterword: Researching and Writing Love on Trial 261
Endnotes 264
Acknowledgments 286
Index 291
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