Laura Z. Hobson

Active - 1954 - 1954  |   Born - Jun 19, 1900   |   Died - Feb 28, 1986   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy Drama

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Laura Z. Hobson was one of the most influential authors of the mid-20th century, achieving renown for her novel Gentleman's Agreement, which was filmed -- over the objections of most of Hollywood -- by 20th Century Fox under production chief Darryl F. Zanuck. Hobson's career, however, was filled with works that challenged peoples' beliefs and prejudices. Born Laura Kean Zamekin in New York City, she was the daughter of Michael Zamekin, a Russian-Jewish émigré, and the former Adella Kean, and was raised on Long Island. Her progressive-minded parents taught their daughter to be a free-thinker, and,among other issues troubling the world, she was very sensitive to anti-Semitism, even in her teens. Hobson graduated from Cornell University and became a copywriter for an advertising firm, and later a reporter for the New York Post. (In those days, the Post was a bastion of progressive, pragmatic liberalism, in sharp contrast to what it became in the 1970s under publisher Rupert Murdoch.) In 1930, she married publishing executive Francis Thayer Hobson, taking his name, and in 1934, joined the promotion staff of Luce publications, which, at the time, owned Time, Life, and Fortune magazines. Her marriage ended in 1935, the same year she wrote her first short story. Hobson's work began appearing in all of the top magazines in the U.S., and she became successful enough to leave Luce in 1940.

Hobson's first novel, The Trespassers (1943), was a searing attack on the American immigration quota system that existed in the '30s, which had made it impossible for many refugees from Hitler's Germany to gain entry into the United States. In 1943, she began work on her second book, Gentleman's Agreement, telling her publisher, in an oft-quoted presentation, "I've got an idea for a book that the magazines will never look at, the movie won't touch, and the public won't buy -- but I have to do it." An account of anti-Semitism in present day America, the book, published in 1947, fulfilled the most promising elements of its predecessor and proved much more popular than anyone involved ever predicted. Serialized by Cosmopolitan, it generated the largest amount of mail in the magazine's history and became an instant bestseller when published by Simon & Schuster. An account of a non-Jewish man's effort to pass as Jewish in New York City (in order to write a magazine article) and the problems he encounters from friends, colleagues, strangers,and others, the book was, at the time, an eye-opening piece of fiction for many non-Jewish readers, and evoked much sympathy. But it also opened old wounds for Jewish readers, who took the work to heart. Zanuck, one of the few Hollywood moguls who was not Jewish, licensed the movie rights for a reported $75,000 (a huge sum in those days) plus a percentage of the profits to Hobson. Most of his peers, who were Jewish, were appalled at his decision to make the movie; as older, assimilated Jews, they believed that the film would only stir up trouble. The book and the movie had their limitations: Both dealt almost exclusively with the middle- and upper-middle classes. But the film struck like a thunderbolt in the hands of director Elia Kazan and a cast led by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Anne Revere, earning huge box-office returns and a brace of Oscar nominations. The book and the movie's impact was felt throughout society, and even received praise from the NAACP.

Hobson tried her hand at writing screenplays with the drama Her Twelve Men (1954), but she was much more comfortable in the milieu of literary creation, and her stay in Hollywood was a short one. Her later books all sold well, and several embraced difficult and challenging subjects -- and were even more groundbreaking than Gentleman's Agreement -- most notably Consenting Adult (1975). Adapted in 1985 as a made-for-TV movie, it told the story of a couple suddenly confronted by the fact that their college-age son is gay. Hobson's novel The Tenth Month, dealing with a woman who chooses single motherhood, was also made into a 1979 film starring Carol Burnett.

Hobson continued writing up until her death in 1986; in the decades since, most of her books have been in print at various times. In 2002, Kazan's film Gentleman's Agreement helped inaugurate Fox Video's Studio Classics DVD series.