Atlantic City hotel apologizes to Bertha Rayner Frank for anti-Jewish discrimination
May 21, 1907
In May 1907, Baltimorean Bertha Rayner Frank's vacation turned into a cause célèbre when she was confronted with the reality of anti-Jewish social discrimination. The recently widowed Mrs. Frank had been in residence for a few days at the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel in Atlantic City where members of her family had stayed earlier in the year. When Frank went to reserve lodgings for two of her nieces, however, she was confronted with a clerk's inquiry as to whether her nieces were "Hebrews," and the accompanying explanation that "We don't entertain Hebrews."
Greatly "affronted," Frank, who was the sister of U.S. Senator Isidor Rayner from Baltimore, left the hotel abruptly, and her predicament landed on the front page of major American newspapers. The New York Times story detailed Mrs. Frank's outrage: "I was so annoyed at this insult to Jews at large, never having heard directly of such a thing happening to self-respecting Jews of good position, that I immediately ordered my trunks packed and left the hotel."
The fact that many upscale hotels and resorts discriminated against Jews was in fact, as the Times reported, "well known." The first major public case that brought the practice to public attention occurred in 1877 when Joseph Seligman, a prominent financier and pal of President Grant, was excluded from the Grand Hotel in Saratoga, New York. In 1907, according to the Times, many prominent Jews, having sent inquiries for accommodations to hotels in Atlantic City, had received cards engraved with the message that "The patronage of Hebrews is not solicited."
In the initial Times article reporting on the Frank case, the hotel management equivocated about their policy toward Jews, noting that "We have many well-known and prominent Hebrews among our regular patrons, and we never have any difficulty with them," but also maintaining that "We have always reserved the right to exercise a certain degree of discrimination in respect to our patrons."
What seemed most shocking both in 1877 and 1907 was not the fact that hotels might choose to discriminate in their clientele, but that such socially respectable individuals as Seligman and Frank should be among those excluded. Both the Times article about the "affront" and an accompanying article described Frank's respectability and philanthropic involvement in both Jewish and "non-sectarian" causes in great detail, noting that she "is a woman of exceptional culture and wide acquaintance, received and welcomed by people of the highest social position in this country and Europe."
Frank's own comments reveal that what she found offensive was not so much that the hotel might exclude Jews but that they would dare to exclude Jews of her stature and acquaintance, declaring "if you can't distinguish people who are quite on a par with the best in the land you really should employ a detective to keep you acquainted with those who are unobjectional [sic] Jewish people. You seem to entertain a very mixed assemblage... many of whom I should not care to meet and certainly not to know." There was an implicit understanding that while hotels might have reason to exclude uncultured Jews of Eastern European origin, it was outrageous to apply such discrimination to well-established German Jews of "good position."
Apparently under some pressure from the unwanted publicity, the hotel managers sent Mrs. Frank a public apology on May 21, 1907. They assured her that she had been " a welcome guest in our house as your family had been before," and expressed their exceeding regret "that you should have been given the impression that either you were not welcome or that your friends were not wanted." Their letter, however, did not address whether the hotel intended to exclude Jews who were not among Mrs. Frank's friends and family.
One New York State senator, inspired by the affront to Mrs. Frank, brought a bill to the New York Senate that would have banned public announcements such as were used by numerous establishments stating that "Jewish patronage is not solicited." Such statements, however, continued to be promulgated for many decades.
The whole episode illustrates the unsettled place occupied even by those early 20th-century Jews who had most reason to feel that they had a firm claim to American acceptance and privilege. The fact that even the wealthy sister of a U.S. Senator could feel the unwelcome pain of exclusion emphasized the marginality of all American Jews. Implicit as well in both the outrage and apologies occasioned by the incident were the ugly prejudices and apprehensions brought forth by what both WASPs and acculturated Jews saw as the unrefined conduct of nouveau riche Eastern European Jews. As far as Bertha Rayner Frank and her family had come in America, American Jews were still a long way from the acceptance and inclusion that she and her Eastern European counterparts equally craved.
Sources: "Hotel Affronts Senator's Sister," New York Times, May 18, 1907; "Apology to Mrs. Frank," New York Times, May 23, 1907; "Bill to Protect Jews in Hotels," New York Times, May 24, 1907.