On page 101 of Passing, Irene references the widely publicized case of Rhinelander vs. Rhinelander (“What if Bellew should divorce Clare? Could he? There was the Rhinelander case”). Occurring in the 1920’s, the Rhinelander Case remains one of the most well-known controversies surrounding racial passing, and would have been well within the memories of the novel’s initial audience. Ensuing information for this post is sourced from here and here.
In 1924, Leonard Rhinelander, a member of one of New York’s wealthiest and prominent families, married Alice Beatrice Jones, a multiracial chambermaid. Alice had been brought up against a predominantly white background, attending white churches and socializing with primarily white people- a fact that led the Jones’s non-white neighbors to denounce the family as trying to pass. Due to Rhinelander’s social status, curiosity amassed around the figure of his new wife, and it was eventually revealed and published that Jones’s father was black. Under pressure from his father, Leonard Rhinelander then sought to have his marriage annulled on the grounds that Jones had hidden her racial identity, passing herself off as a white woman.
The ensuing trial developed into a spectacle, the details of which were sensationally reported in numerous newspapers. Against Rhinelander’s accusations, Jones contended that she had never attempted to hide her racial identity. The most famous instance of the trial occurred when Jones had to disrobe before the jury to display the dusky color of her breasts. Since it had been previously proven in the trial that Rhinelander and Jones had engaged in premarital sexual relations, it was argued that certain darker colored body parts would have alerted Rhinelander to Jones’s mixed race before they were married. Based largely off of this evidence, the jury ruled in Jones’s favor, concluding that Rhinelander had been aware of Jones’s racial identity before he married her, and that Jones had not used silence to pass herself off as white.
Following the trial, Rhinelander sued Jones for divorce, and Jones sued Rhinelander for abandonment and his father for alienation-of-affection. A settlement was eventually reached in 1930.
Recent scholarship on the Rhinelander case argues that “Alice Jones symbolized a threat to the prevailing attitudes regarding racial identity in America. She was essentially placed on trial for ‘passing’ as a white, even though she contended throughout the trial that Leonard knew she was not white. She threatened attitudes of race by defying racial categorization and highlighting that race was more a social construction than a scientific category; Alice’s race depended upon the reactions of society for definition… Alice certainly played the role of an individual who belonged to white society: she attended white churches, she dated white men, and she generally did not associate with her town’s black community. However, people were quick to question her status as a white due to her ‘dusky’ skin and darker complexion. Essentially, Alice existed in a space between black and white societies. If Alice could ‘pass’ as white, then her existence affirms that the concept of race depends less upon biology, and more upon social constructs. If race is a social construct, then the prejudiced reasoning that fueled racist Jim Crow laws could be subverted and discounted.” (source)
The Rhinelander case is an important historical context for Passing due to the precedent it set for multiracial women, like the character of Clare Kendry, who sought to pass as white, especially in order to secure marriage with a white man.