Alice B. Jones was the defendant in a highly publicized 1924 case in which the plaintiff, her new husband Kip Rhinelander, sued her for annulment on the grounds of race fraud. Jones stood accused of passing as Spanish/ white Cuban to trick her white New York aristocrat husband into marrying her. Scandalous sexual secrets were revealed at the trial; Alice was asked to disrobe for juror inspection; she never testified for herself. Though she outlived her husband, Jones did not provide later insight into the events that regularly graced the front pages of newspapers. However, Jones used Rhinelander as her surname for her headstone some sixty years later, an only and last retort of sorts.
At the core of this early twentieth-century American spectacle was confusion in the understanding of how Alice and her family racially identified themselves. In fact Alice’s parents were both from England, the mother of white English descent and the father of black West Indian descent. They and their children seemed to either not comply or not comprehend American black-white binaries; rather they apparently occupied a hybrid space, moving through both white and black American worlds in ways that marked them as suspect in both racial worlds. Were they passing, and as what, and how did they actually identify themselves were some of the fraught questions at the core of the annulment trial.
Based on archival research and with a good dose of fictional license, my novel creates her memoirs posthumously. My first introduction to this case was during my dissertation research, and subsequently I read Love On Trial: An American Scandal in Black and White (Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone, 2001) which bases all of its analyses of the saga on newspaper accounts and no trial transcripts. Why?
Because these historians claim that the original court documents were lost in a courthouse fire. However, when I went to the Association of the Bar of the City of New York 4th Floor Library on West 44th Street, there, with the help of a rigid but skilled legal librarian, I found the original two-thousand-page court transcript.
As I was excitedly sifting through the pages of the first volume and right before I was planning to inquire about photocopy privileges with the competent librarian, a Rhinelander love letter, one of the scandalous, unprintable ones, disentangled itself from its evidentiary status to break down in a few tender pieces of ancient paper-skin at my feet. The letter caused me to recognize Alice’s vulnerability, to see an unexamined reflection of the joy and loss, the love and politics, in her story. Now I recall this slow-motion magical letter moment in the legal library as the narrative hook that drew me in and wrapped my mind around Alice’s story of social betrayals, of her sexual deviances, of her racial indifferences, of her class aspirations. I eyed each ghostly letter piece as it landed; and then I crouched down to read this soft flutter of evidence as it lay in yellow-winged circles on the smooth, cold granite floor.
That was when the idea for the memoir began to take shape for me as a writing project. Intellectual process excites me greatly but often all that matters in the ivory tower is the end product, the heavy theoretical text about narrative rather than the capacity of narrative itself, a truth stranger than fiction, to linger tantrically, to proffer meaning indeterminately, atemporally and imaginatively. This is the kind of art and intellectual insight I hope writing the fictional memoir allows me to humbly create and offer up to my audience and readers.
—Laura Harris, professor of English & World Literature and Black Studies