On February 28, 1986 the writer Laura Z. Hobson, best known for her 1947 novel “Gentleman’s Agreement” about anti-Semitism in America, died at age 85.
Hobson, who lived nearly her entire life in or around New York, wrote nine novels, most of them topical, as well as short stories, journalism and advertising copy. She even edited word puzzles for the Saturday Review magazine for more than 25 years.
Hobson was born Laura Keane Zemetkin on June 19, 1900, together with a twin sister Alice. Their parents were the former Adella Keane and Michael Zemetkin, both Russian-Jewish immigrants to New York. Adella was a columnist for the Yiddish paper Der Tog, while Michael was an editor at the Yiddish Daily Forverts, as well as a mathematician and labor organizer.
Hobson worked her way through Cornell University. In 1930, she married Francis Thayer Hobson, president of the publishing house William Morrow. Before their divorce in 1935, the couple wrote Western novels together, with such titles as “Dry Gulch Adams” (1934). In her autobiography, Hobson wrote that a few years later she was engaged to Ralph Ingersoll, publisher of Time magazine, but that he broke off the relationship when he decided to devote his energies to launching a new newspaper, PM. (Ingersoll reportedly denied they had ever been engaged.)
As a single woman, Hobson adopted a son, Michael, and a few years later gave birth to a second, Christopher. So that Michael, the adopted son, wouldn’t feel less loved, Hobson gave birth to Christopher under a pseudonym and then, under her real name, “adopted” him, too.
She first dealt with the subject of anti-Semitism in a 1932 short story in The New Yorker, while her first novel, “The Trespassers,” published in 1943, was about Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Europe who are turned away from the United States. That book was a failure, both critically and commercially. By the time she published “Gentleman’s Agreement” in 1947, about a gentile journalist who poses as a Jew to experience and expose America’s pervasive anti-Semitism, however, readers were apparently ready to contend with the topic.
The book hit the top of the New York Times best-seller list, was translated into 13 languages, and was made into a film that same year. Directed by Elia Kazan and staring Gregory Peck, “Gentleman’s Agreement” won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Daring as Hobson was in publishing “Gentleman’s Agreement,” there’s very little that’s Jewish about it. (The writer Ring Lardner Jr., joked that the moral of the movie was that “you should never be mean to a Jew, because he might turn out to be a gentile.”) The book does not, for example, mention the Holocaust. And when the Jewish Book Council offered Hobson its prize for best novel in 1947, she turned it down.
Late in life, Hobson, who never denied being Jewish but said she saw herself as “a plain human being who happens to be an American,” acknowledged with some regret having distanced herself from Jewish life and from Israel – two subjects she took up overtly in her 1979 novel “Over and Above.”
The first volume of Hobson’s autobiography appeared in 1983, and a second volume was published the year following her death from cancer in a New York hospital.