Young Eileen Ford, nee Ottensoser, who was later to be founder and CEO of the trailblazing and spectacularly successful Ford Modeling Agency of New York, wanted to attend Barnard College in the 1940’s. The problem, however, was that Barnard had a so-called Jewish Quota, which limited the number of Jewish applicants who would be accepted. The solution was simple—she changed her last name.
Eileen’s mother, Loretta Ottensoser wanted her daughter to attend a truly high class college for women, and in her estimation, that was Barnard. It rivaled Vassar and it was close to the equivalent men’s Ivy League colleges, such as its “brother” college Columbia, and shared academic activities with all of them in varying degrees.
The problem for Eileen Ottensoser was that, like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and all the Ivy League schools in the 1930,s, Columbia and Barnard imposed the so-called Jewish Quota. The colleges felt they had too many Jewish students, and systematically tried to cut down that number. In 1935, for example, in his final year at high school, the future Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman won the new York University Math Championship by a huge margin that shocked the judges. Yet he was of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, and though his high school grades were perfect or near perfect in math and science, he was not accepted when he applied to Columbia. (He went to MIT instead.)
Many American colleges in the 1920’s were quite open about implementing the quota, which they regarded as a matter of racial fairness, not prejudice. ‘Never admit more that 6 Jews, take only 2 Italian Catholics; and take no blacks at all’, was the maxim of the Yale School of medicine, according to David Oshinsky, the biographer of Jonas Salk, the inventor of the Salk polio vaccine, who ended up at New York University rather than at any ivy League school. In 1935, Yale accepted just 5 out of 200 Jewish applicants.
The dilemma facing the Ivy League was comparable to that faced today by educators in cities such as New York, where Asian students, less than 10 percent of the city’s student population, routinely win more than 50 percent of the top high school places on merit. Until 1924, entry to U.S. colleges and universities was decided on the basis of an essay written in English, and Jewish students worked hard, often with special tutors, to practice and perfect their essay writing technique–as compared with relatively untutored farm boys and girls from rural schools in the Midwest.
The introduction that year of the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) was deliberately designed to counter this advantage by offering all intelligent pupils the equality of boxes to tick, and from 1924 the proportion of Jewish students in U.S. higher education started to fall, through dilution. The arrival of increasing numbers of strapping young men and women from the Farm Belt also did no harm to the record of the East Coast’s varsity sports teams.
Yet the quota remained.
‘We limit the number of Jews admitted to each class to roughly the proportion of Jews in the population of the state,’ said the dean of Cornell’s medical college as late as 1940. At the Yale School of Medicine, applications by Jewish students were marked with an H, for ‘Hebrew,’ while Harvard requested passport-size photos to help identify Semitic facial features. Using questions about religious affiliation and giving priority to the sons of alumni,the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons was able to reduce its proportion of Jewish students from 47 percent in 1920 to some 6 percent some 20 years later–to the delight of alumni who deplored Jewish students as ‘damned curve-raisers’ for working too hard and decreasing the value of the leisurely ‘gentleman’s C.’
Barnard, to its credit, tried to stand apart from such prejudice. The taboo-breaking college was largely the creation of Annie Nathan Meyer, a self-educated Sephardic Jew who had the clever idea of naming her all-female project in honor of a man, Frederick Barnard, the open-minded president of Columbia in 1889. Virginia Gildersleeve, the college’s dean from 1911 until 1946, disdained religious and racial exclusivity, encouraging the admission of young African-American women to the school and paying to support at least one through to graduation from her own personal funds.
Yet, in the interest of diversity, Gildersleeve did seek to dilute the 40 percent preponderance of Jewish students at Barnard in the 1920’s, supplementing the traditional admission essay with psychological test, interviews, and letters of recommendation, so that by the late 1930’s only 20 percent of Barnard women were Jews. This did not totally eliminate Eileen Ottensoser’s chances of gaining entry to Columbia’s sister school, and she had a better chance of securing one of Barnard’s 80 percent of non-Jewish places.
The answer was simple; change her name. It was not as if her Quaker-espousing father and Roman Catholic mother had brought her up in any remotely Jewish fashion. Her two younger brothers, age 15 and 11, had already been subjected to anti-semitic sneers at school, and this led the three children to devise a pact. Sometime in the months before Eileen’s senior year in high school and her starting of the college entry process, the brothers banded together with their sister to tell their father that hone of them would go to a university unless he changed the family surname from Ottensoser to Otte.