Seventy-five years ago this month, the book at the top of the fiction best-seller list was “Gentleman’s Agreement,” by Laura Z. Hobson, which The Times would later call a “searing portrait of insidious, pervasive antisemitism in postwar American life.” It was about a crusading magazine writer who passes himself off as Jewish in order to write a series on antisemitism.
“Gentleman’s Agreement” wasn’t a book Hobson ever expected to see at No. 1 — or on the list at all. When she first dreamed up the plot, she told her publisher, Simon & Schuster, “I’ve got an idea for a book that the magazines will never look at, the movies won’t touch and the public won’t buy. But I have to do it.” She was wrong on all three counts: Cosmopolitan magazine excerpted the novel; the film version (produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, written by Moss Hart, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Gregory Peck) would go on to win Best Picture; and the novel was a smash hit that went back to press three times before its February 1947 publication date to meet bookstore demand.
“Gentleman’s Agreement” got two reviews in The Times. In the Book Review, William Du Bois called it a “Grade-A tract which Mrs. Hobson has cleverly camouflaged as a novel”; but went on to say, “‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ … is still required reading for every thoughtful citizen of this parlous century.”
Charles Poore, the critic who reviewed the novel for the daily paper, was more effusive. “‘Gentleman’s Agreement,’ by Laura Hobson, is bound to be one of the most-discussed novels of the year,” he wrote. “It is … a courageous and penetrating study of human bigotry in terms of human lives. And it leaves unturned no stone under which the disquieting variety of bigots it exposes — among us all — can hide.” He added that it was “interesting” to think about all the people reading “Gentleman’s Agreement” during the coming summer “on the pleasant terraces of ‘restricted’ resorts. In a democracy.”
A few weeks after the book came out, the Book Review published a lighthearted interview with Hobson in its “People Who Read and Write” column. She told the reporter that as she was putting the finishing touches on “Gentleman’s Agreement,” she asked her older son, who was 9, “What’s prejudice, Mike?” He told her, “Well, I guess it’s when you decide some fellow’s a stinker before you ever met him.”
“For that moment, anyway,” the Book Review proclaimed, “Mrs. Hobson put herself at the head of the class.”