New York, October 1927
Irene Redfield receives a letter from Clare Kendry, a childhood friend. Irene recalls that when Clare was a girl, she used to get paid to run errands for a dressmaker who lived on the top floor of the building where her father was a janitor. He was a drunkard who took all the money Clare earned. One day, he died in a fight. When policemen brought his body home, Clare reacted with a brief, theatrical outburst but otherwise displayed no emotion. Irene remembers Clare as sometimes “hard and apparently without feeling” but other times “affectionate and rashly impulsive.” Now, in the long, melodramatic letter just delivered, Clare asks to see Irene again. Clare ends by mentioning a meeting two years earlier, in Chicago. The reference makes Irene blush angrily. The postmark shows that the letter was mailed in New York the day before. Clare is in the city.
Chicago, August 1925
Irene grew up on Chicago’s south side. Back in town for a visit, she is out shopping. Feeling faint from the brutal summer heat, Irene takes a break on a breezy hotel rooftop. A couple is shown to the next table over, but only the woman sits down; the man immediately leaves. The woman, strikingly attractive, soon begins staring openly at Irene. Irene wonders, nervously, whether the woman knows that Irene is a light-skinned Black person passing for white. If the hotel staff knew that she was Black, not Mexican or some sort of unusual European, they would politely ask her to leave.
The woman comes over and introduces herself. It is Clare, whom Irene knew as a child. Clare is also a Negro, but even lighter-skinned than Irene and easily able to pass for white. Irene had not even recognized Clare, but Clare recognized her. Irene remembers that Clare lost her widowed mother while still in school, and was taken in by relatives. In later years, there were reports of Clare’s being seen about town in the company of wealthy white people. Clare asks about Irene’s family. Irene lives in New York, married, with two boys. Her widowed father still lives at the same house on Chicago’s south side. That is where she is currently staying. Irene wants to know more about Clare, especially about her “passing” and evidently marrying a white man, but she does not know how to ask.
Then, without prompting, Clare tells her story. As a sixteen-year-old orphan, she was taken in by her two great aunts, who lived on the west side. They were white and very religious. Their brother’s brief affair with a Black girl had produced Clare’s father. The aunts made Clare do most of the housework but kept her race a secret. Clare, in turn, benefited from passing for white by marrying a white man, “Jack,” when she was eighteen. He had left the neighborhood as a boy and had come back from South America a rich man. Clare kept the marriage a secret from her aunts, fearing that they might quietly tell Jack about Clare’s race. Clare convinced Jack that the aunts were opposed to her marrying, and that they should be allowed to think she and Jack were living in sin. Soon, Clare gave birth to a girl, Margery, now ten years old. Like Irene’s family, they live elsewhere, but Jack currently has business in town.
Although Irene is passing for white, she would never dream of marrying a man while concealing her race from him. She is disgusted that Clare would do so. Irene has been trying to end the conversation, due to another engagement. Clare extracts from Irene a promise to meet again the next Tuesday. Clare will phone about details. Irene does not plan to show up for the Tuesday meeting, but she cannot contact Clare to cancel. She does not even know Clare’s married name.
On Tuesday morning, Clare phones Irene’s father’s house repeatedly, until Irene finally takes the call. She agrees to come to Clare’s hotel. A mutual childhood friend of theirs, Gertrude Martin, is already seated when Irene arrives. Like the other two women, she is a light-skinned Black. Once admired for her looks, she has grown plump and is, Irene notes, unstylishly dressed. Gertrude married a white man who inherited his father’s meat market. To Gertrude’s husband and his family, her race does not matter. Nonetheless, Gertrude worried about giving birth to a dark-skinned child. She was relieved when her twin boys, like Clare’s Margery, turned out to be light-skinned. “Fred said I was silly,” Gertrude relates, but “of course, nobody wants a dark child.” Irene takes offense: “One of my boys is dark.”
In the awkwardness that follows, Irene confirms that her husband is too dark to “pass.” Clare skillfully steers the conversation to other subjects for a while. Eventually Clare’s husband, John Bellew, arrives. He is not the man Irene saw Clare with on the hotel rooftop. Bellew is a powerfully built man in his late thirties. He works in international banking. The Bellew family spends most of its time in Europe, but his work has brought him back to Chicago for at least a month. To Irene and Gertrude’s shock, he addresses Clare using a shortened form of the N-word as a nickname. Clare invites him to explain the nickname. When they were first married, Bellew says, Clare was lily-white, but she has been getting darker and darker. He says that one of these days, she may wake up and—using the N-word—"find she’s turned into a ______.” He roars with laughter.
The women laugh, too, but Irene laughs especially hard and long. With a warning glance to Irene, Clare encourages her husband to keep talking. He tells her she can get as dark as she pleases, since he knows she’s not actually Black. As Irene struggles to suppress more laughter, she notices a frightening, dark, and mysterious expression on Clare’s face. Bellew, meanwhile, goes on to say that he and Clare not only dislike Blacks but hate them. “I read in the papers about them. Always robbing and killing people.” Irene and Gertrude are appalled but manage to contain their outrage. The conversation turns to comparisons of Chicago and New York. Bellew learns from Clare that her husband, a doctor, practices in Manhattan.
As Irene and Gertrude leave together, they agree that Clare is taking “an awful chance,” and that it was strangely risky of Clare not even to tell them in advance of her husband’s feelings about race. After Irene and Gertude part ways, Irene continues to fume about being subjected to Bellew’s racist opinions. She wonders about the strange expression she saw on Clare’s face, but she decides she has more important things to worry about.
The next morning, as Clare is about to return to New York, she receives a letter from Clare, apologizing for the unpleasantness of the day before. Clare had wanted to see Irene very badly, she writes. She acknowledges that Irene may have chosen the wiser course in life. Believing the letter to be insincere, Irene tears it to pieces and tosses the pieces off her train car. She resolves that if she ever meets Clare again, she will ignore her. Irene thinks of her husband, Brian, and of her boys, Brian, Jr. and Ted. She hopes that Brian has not been too lonely. In the past, his loneliness has stirred up a longing for faraway places. This problem has lessened in recent years but has not entirely gone away.
PART TWO: RE-ENCOUNTER
New York, October 1927
Reading the new letter from Clare, the one with the New York postmark, Irene is surprised at how angry it makes her. She wonders why she did not respond to Bellew’s insults and lies, two years ago in Chicago. Yet she knows the answer: she felt a duty not to run any risk of exposing Clare’s secret. She was bound to Clare by ties of race, even though Clare sought to end those ties. However, she owes Clare nothing more now. “Not another damned thing!” she says aloud. Coming into the room, Brian asks about her outburst. Irene shows him the letter. His reaction is calmer and more philosophical than hers. He wants her to have nothing more to do with Clare, but he sees humor in white ignorance such as Bellew’s. As for Clare’s behavior, he believes that Black people who have blended into white society are drawn back to the race they have left behind. Irene is still angry, but she recognizes that “passing” is a strange thing. “It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”
Irene asks Brian to drop her off in town, so she can make arrangements for a benefit dance. The money raised will go toward helping poor Black people. Brian agrees, but suddenly his own frustration spills out: he is tired of dealing with sick people and their families, and their disgusting living quarters. He ends the conversation abruptly. Irene senses that even after all these years, he blames her for insisting that he settle down to practice medicine in New York and give up his notion of leaving the United States for Brazil. Irene believes she acted for the best, for him and for their family. In the car, she intends to distract Brian by suggesting that he take their older son to Europe for a year of school there. The conversation gets sidetracked, however, onto to the question of when boys should learn about sex, and how much. Irene will have to wait for another occasion to direct her husband’s thoughts in the direction they should go.
Irene delays answering Clare’s letter and finally decides not to reply at all. In the evening, as Irene sits by the fire and worries about her husband’s latest expression of discontent, Clare arrives, uninvited. Irene, despite her irritation, feels a rush of positive feeling and greets Clare warmly. However, when Clare asks why Irene has not replied to her letter, Irene explains that it would not be safe for Clare to be seen with the Redfields, or with other Black people in Harlem where they live. Clare bitterly dismisses the safety concern and speaks tearfully of her lonely situation. Irene softens and feels sympathetic, but she reminds Clare of the risk to Margery, now twelve, and to Clare’s relationship with her.
The conversation is interrupted by a phone call from a friend of Irene’s, the famous white author Hugh Wentworth. He and his wife want to attend the benefit dance. Clare knows of Wentworth, and now that she knows of the event, she desperately wants to attend, too. She is not worried about running into anyone who would recognize her. Irene at first firmly refuses, but when Clare again declares her loneliness and her desire to be with people of her race, Irene relents. After meeting the two boys, Clare leaves. Brian phones that he is having dinner in town. Again alone with her thoughts, Irene reflects that Brian will be annoyed, after he asked her to stay away from Clare. She thinks of all the trouble, and all the possibilities for trouble, that Clare’s presence at the benefit will create. Irene marvels at Clare’s ability to get her way.
On the day of the dance, Clare arrives at the Redfield home in a spectacular ball gown. Irene feels underdressed by comparison. She notices that Brian is more pleased than annoyed by Clare’s attention-grabbing appearance. At the event, Clare dances with many men, but more with Black men than white men, and often with Brian. After a while, Irene sits down to chat with Wentworth. They discuss how white women are sometimes strangely attracted to dark-skinned Black men, and how hard it can be to distinguish white women from light-skinned Black women passing for white. Irene asks some friends to give Clare a ride back to her hotel, so Brian will not have to do it.
After the benefit dance, Clare becomes a regular visitor at the Redfield home. She can do this because her daughter is attending school in Switzerland and her husband is often away on business. The boys grow very fond of Clare. She befriends the Redfields’ two servant girls. Irene disapproves of Clare’s lack of social boundaries but says nothing. Brian looks on with tolerant amusement and, in response to Irene’s questions, insists that he does not find Clare especially attractive. Others in their social circle find Clare pleasant company. Irene’s worries about Clare’s secret being discovered gradually fade. Next spring, however, the Bellews will be going back to Europe. Clare complains about the prospect, even after Irene reminds her that it will mean being reunited with Margery. Irene has been too kind, Clare says, even though Clare is a selfish creature who will hurt other people to get what she wants. Clare begins to cry openly.
PART THREE: FINALE
New York, December 1927
The Christmastime weather is unusually mild. Irene worries about Brian. He is not just restless but moody and withdrawn. He loses his temper with the boys. For the first time in her marriage, Irene is unsure what is going on in his mind. She drifts off to sleep. Several hours later, she is awakened by Brian, reminding her that it is almost time for the party they are hosting in honor of Hugh Wentworth. Also, Clare is downstairs. Irene had purposely not invited her, because, she says, Hugh finds her annoying. He prefers intelligent women. Brian expresses surprise that Irene would call Clare unintelligent. He then admits he invited Clare, on the assumption that Irene simply forgot to. With a flash, Irene concludes that Brian and Clare have been having an affair. After composing herself, she is able to go downstairs and carry out her duties as hostess, but she is preoccupied with feelings of betrayal, and with questions about what the affair means for her and the boys. When Irene sees that Hugh has noticed a friendly conversation between Brian and Clare, the teacup Irene is holding slips from her hand and breaks. She then pretends to Hugh that she dropped the cup deliberately. She continues hosting until the evening is over.
Over Christmas, as Irene reflects on what happened, she realizes she has no solid evidence of an affair between Brian and Clare. Irene largely convinces herself that she was wrong to suspect Brian of being unfaithful. His dark and distant mood continues, but Irene interprets this as just the latest expression of the restlessness she has observed over the years. With Bellew back in New York after a long stay in Canada, Clare no longer visits the Redfields. Still, Irene wants Clare out of the city and thereby completely out of their lives. She does not want to wait even another few months. Irene considers telling Bellew about his wife’s Harlem visits, but she cannot bring herself to act on that thought. For the first time in her life, Irene resents being Black, bound by loyalty to protect the secrets of other Black people. She will not betray Clare, but she does hope that Clare’s secret comes out.
The next day, Irene is downtown, out walking arm in arm with a darker-skinned friend, Felise Freeland. By chance, they run into Bellew. He greets Irene pleasantly, but then, seeing that her companion is Black, he realizes that Irene must be, too. Felise is amused to have caught Irene “passing,” but Irene is irritated that she did not take the opportunity to introduce Bellew as “Clare’s husband.” Her loyalty to her race again got in the way. She thinks of informing Clare of the meeting, but she has no safe way to do so. She intends to tell Brian about the incident, but something holds her back. She begins to think about what may happen next. It would be disastrous, from Irene’s point of view, if Bellew divorced Clare, leaving Clare a free woman. It would be ideal if Clare were to die, somehow. Thinking of the threat Clare represents to her pleasant family existence, Irene falls asleep.
A snowstorm lasts all the next day. Over dinner, Brian and Ted discuss a lynching reported in the newspaper. Irene objects that the boys should not be told about lynchings until they are older. Brian calls her view stupid. If she will not let him take the family someplace safer than “this hellish place,” he can at least prepare them for the realities they will face. “Don’t make me give up everything,” he says. Irene interprets his words to be not just about where the family lives but about Brian’s relationship with Clare.
Clare arrives. She is joining the Redfields at a party hosted by the Freelands, in their top-floor residence. Clare explains that she can come only because her husband had to run down to Philadelphia. Remarking that Philadelphia is not very far away, Irene asks what Clare would do if her husband learned she was Black. Clare replies that she would come live in Harlem. She would do so now, Clare says, except for Margery. “She’s all that holds me back. But if Jack finds out, if our marriage is broken, that lets me out.” For Irene, these words from Clare bring several things into focus. Irene concludes that Brian and Clare have been having an affair, she is determined to protect her family and their life against the threat Clare represents, and she is glad she kept her accidental encounter with Bellew to herself. Irene decides that her best chance of keeping Clare tied to Bellew until the Bellews leave for Europe is to do nothing that would disturb the current state of things.
Clare and the Redfields arrive at the Freelands. The conversation is lively, but Irene does not enjoy herself. She has displeased at how Clare and Brian look at each other. Irene opens a large vertical window for some fresh air. The party is violently interrupted when the doorbell rings and the new arrival turns out to be John Bellew. He pushes his way into the gathering and confronts Clare. Using the N-word, he snarls, “So you’re a _____.” Felise steps in: “Careful. You’re the only white man here.” Clare stands by the open window, looking completely unconcerned and smiling faintly. Angered by the smile, Irene rushes to Clare and puts her hand on Clare’s arm. Clare falls out of the window. Bellew reacts with shock and sudden grief, calling out to Clare, but using his offensive nickname for her instead of “Clare.”
Irene stays behind while everyone else rushes downstairs. She is not sorry that Clare is gone, but she is not able to reconstruct what happened. “What would the others think? That Clare had fallen? That she had deliberately leaned backward? Certainly one or the other. Not—” Irene cannot bring herself to think that she might have pushed Clare. “It was an accident, a terrible accident,” she mutters. Finally, she makes her way downstairs. Some official is asking questions of those gathered around Clare’s body. One partygoer says that Clare appeared to have just fainted and tumbled out the window. “You’re sure she fell?” the official asks. “Her husband didn’t give her a shove, or anything like that, as Dr. Redfield seems to think?” Suddenly noticing that Bellew is nowhere in sight, Irene speaks up. “No, no!” she says. “She just fell, before anybody could stop her.” After what seems like centuries, she hears the official conclude that the death was probably an accident.
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