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Signs of the Times

Ad from 'The New Yorker,' June 6, 1942

Ad from ‘The New Yorker,’ June 6, 1942

The other day, I got a message on Twitter from the writer Ruth Franklin: “Re. New Yorker book, question for you. Do you have a sense of when hotels stopped advertising as ‘restricted’?”

I didn’t know the answer, but I knew what she was referring to. In researching the prolific New Yorker short-story writer Irwin Shaw, for my 2000 book on the magazine, About Town, I’d come upon a story by Shaw, published in the August 17, 1940, issue, called “Selected Clientele.” It was about an assimilated Jewish writer named Sam who experiences an anti-Semitic incident and reflects,

The disease was growing stronger in the veins and organs of America. All the time there were more hotels you couldn’t go to, apartment houses right in New York you couldn’t live in. Sam sold stories to magazines that published advertisements for vacation places that said “Distinguished clientele” or “Exclusive clientele” or “Select clientele.” A hotel advertises that its clientele is exclusive, Sam thought, if it allows in everybody but six million Jews and fifteen million Negroes. It’s exclusive for 110 million people.

As I wrote in my book, it’s an amazing passage, in part because the magazine Sam wrote for was presumably none other than The New Yorker, one issue of which that same summer of 1940 had advertisments for the Sea Spring Inn in East Hampton (“Discriminating clientele”) and the Monmouth in Spring Lake, N.J. (“Restricted clientele”). Someone at the magazine was shrewd enough to make sure no such ads appeared in the August 17 issue.

But they soon came back. I found that out as a result of Ruth’s question, which she raised because she’s working on a biography of Shirley Jackson—whose own 1948 New Yorker story, “The Lottery,” indirectly deals with the theme of bigotry and intolerance. I looked through some of the bound New Yorker volumes that weigh down the bottom shelves of my bookcases and found the 1942 ad for the Mount Washington reproduced above. Ruth later did me one better and came up with a June 1944 ad for the Montowese, in Branford, Conn., which describes itself as “Catering to a distinguished clientele.”

The inevitable word for this kind of thing is “chilling,” and not only because the Montowese ad appeared two and a half years after the United States declared war on Nazi Germany. There is also something horrifying about the euphemistic way such messages seem to want to present themselves, including the French word clientele. Restricted is at least a fancy way of saying what it means, but selected? Discriminating? Distinguished? Reality is language’s opposite, like the joke in that movie The Aristocrats or the clientele at a current-day Gentlemen’s Club.

Even in post-1944 New Yorkers, one finds hotel ads with such statements as “Advance Reservations Necessary” and “References required.” Perhaps these were still more euphemistic euphemisms, dog whistles that the right ears, and only those ears, could pick up loud and clear.

Historically, there is a whole strain of such weaselly locutions, which hide their hate in four-syllable words and inverted sentence construction. Perhaps the most famous is “No Irish Need Apply,” which in the 19th century was commonly seen in shop windows and newspaper ads, such as the one below, and which had the gall to imply through syntax that part of the intent was a thoughtful effort not to waste Irish applicants’ time.

From the (Illinois) Daily Republican, May 7, 1873

From the (Illinois) Daily Republican, May 7, 1873

I’m sure that the striking longevity and popularity of the word colored was due in some part to its appearance of being proper and even polite. Chadwick Boseman, who plays Jackie Robinson in the new film 42, was on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday recently, and Scott Simon, the host, wondered how how “jarring it might have been for you to, even just on a movie set, see signs that say whites only, that sort of thing.” Boseman replied, “You know, the crazy thing about it is that when we were filming in Macon, there’s a scene at a gas station. And when we got there, we saw, there was a real ‘Whites Only’ and ‘Colored’ sign on this gas station. Like, they painted one for the movie but there was already one there that was painted over.”

I remember visiting Washington, D.C., in 1962, when I was 8 years old. At a lunch counter—a locus of many important events in those years—I noticed a sign that said, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” I had never seen such a thing and must have asked my mother about it, because I remember her saying was that Washington was a Southern city and the sign served notice that Negroes were not welcome. It’s stuck in my mind all these years, no doubt, in part because it didn’t even deign to use the word colored. That, and the weirdly legalistic “We reserve the right. … ”

Today, one sometimes gets the idea that everything, no matter how hateful, is right there on the table. So maybe the era of genteel bigotry, expressed through euphemism and indirection, is over. Or it may be that the dog whistles are blowing in full force, and my ears just can’t pick them up.

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