A Burning Question: Skin Color and Social Class in 1937 and 2017

20170228_090407“What interests you most in this Cosmopolitan world of today?” the magazine asked in September 1937.  The answer could be found in another question: Is a person’s social standing to be “gauged by his complexion”? Columnist, cartoonist, and frequent contributor to the New Yorker and several other magazines, Weare Holbrook (d.1985), tackles this subject– and he’s not writing about American cultural diversity. He’s talking about sun worshipers.

“ The Burning Question” begins: “Since the suntan craze swept the country like a plague of jaundice, a new caste system has arisen in our summer resorts.” Of course, that system also applies to chic winter resorts in, say, Florida.  It seems that in 1937 there were three distinct color groups: “The “Cordovan ruling class, composed of the aristocrats who own cottages and stay there all summer;” “the Beige bourgeoisie who live in hotels and stay only a few weeks;” and the third, oh so unfortunate group, was “the Pink proletariat who bloom but for a single day and then return to the city.”  Holbrook acknowledges somewhat wistfully that he is, in fact, a member of this third group. With more than a twist of satire he notes how carefully sun worshipers apply oil assiduously to each body part and bake themselves like rotisserie chickens.  (This is way before Neutrogena Broad Spectrum 100+ or widespread TV. Have you noticed the golden visage of our president and so many pundits these days who appear on screens with real news and fake complexions?)

The “mania for looking leathery” distracts golfers and tennis players who feel an even suntan is more important than the score, Holbrook observes. His empathy for those who do not turn brown no matter how much they try is evident. “You can see them at any summer resort, basking away as if their little hearts would break.… from shell- pink, their color deepens to ashes of roses, and then to lobster red.” Then the peeling and blisters begin. Holbrook does not support this craze: “It seems to me that it might be simpler to intermarry with the Indians and let nature take its course. At least it would save our grandchildren  a lot of trouble.” Hmmm…that’s a provocative thought for 1937.

Holbrook will retire to the shade rather than compete with the sun worshipers. He’s happily resigned to being “a pale, anemic- looking eccentric who may be found on the front porch, fully dressed and in his right mind, with an electric fan on one side of him and a tall drink on the other. Small boys may hoot at me derisively and my café- au- lait contemporaries may point the nut- brown finger of scorn at me, but there I will remain. And perhaps, years hence, the Daughters of the American Revolution or the Colonial Dames or some other group of harker-backers may erect a monument to my memory, as the Last White Settler in America.”

I find this occasionally tongue-in-cheek essay intriguing eighty years later when, alas, a person’s social standing is still gauged by his complexion in some parts of this country, and it’s not because of a suntan or lack of it. Oddly enough, some of those doing the judging may have the deepest tans. Concerns about social status remain prevalent in the public’s consciousness.

My mother’s first Cosmopolitan story,  “Sidewalk Café,” appears in this issue. In looking back, I’m reminded how important it was to Jane Hall to have tan legs and arms, while never letting the sun touch her porcelain face; thanks to wide- brimmed hats, it remained practically free of lines until she died at age seventy-two. There’s a lesson in that.