The bizarre Jazz Age tale of a dopey aristocrat and the lowly young woman he wed then tried to shed, invoking some highly charged issues of sex, class, race, and forgotten niceties.
Back in 1924, Leonard Kip Rhinelander, scion of a wealthy old New York family, married comely Alice Jones. After one month and six days, Kip left his bride and filed a noxious lawsuit seeking to have his marriage annulled. She fooled him, he said. Alice didn’t tell him that she was “colored.” The Rhinelander case was made for the press, mainstream as well as yellow. Reporters besieged Alice’s family, describing her white mother and “dusky” father (both immigrants from England), as well as her sisters and their consorts. Feckless Kip, it appeared, had known the family well before the nuptials, and after the wedding had lodged chez Jones with his bride. Disenchantment with Cinderella began when Papa Rhinelander found out about his new daughter-in-law and promptly dispatched his lawyers to redeem the blessed family name. It was a time when pseudo-science, at the service of social taboos, was preoccupied with racial assignment. The country, as well as the jury, wanted to know if a blueblood had been allied with a woman who had “black blood in her veins.” Did Alice dupe Kip by pretending to be pure white? Did she vamp him and make him her “love slave,” or was the lad simply lacking in stalwart manliness? During proceedings that resembled a carnival as much as a trial, minstrel man Al Jolson was called to testify that he never met Alice, the mother of the bride was grilled, and (because race was thought to be more evident around one’s torso) Alice was obliged to disrobe before the gentlemen of the jury. Yet demure Alice, back in her cloche, prevailed and Kip, in his spats, faded away.
A decidedly jarring echo from the Roaring Twenties, neatly culled from press reports.