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Greatly Exaggerated’?

In response to:

Lost Illusions from the April 22, 1993 issue

To the Editors:

I greatly appreciated William McGrath’s thoughtful review of my book The Secret Ring [NYR, April 22]. There is one point, however, that I should like to clarify. It is true that I am not particularly sympathetic toward Ernest Jones, but I do not subscribe to the frequently repeated rumor that he described Otto Rank as “a swindling Jew.” No documentary evidence has ever been found to substantiate this.

On April 9, 1923, Jones wrote to A.A. Brill, complaining that Rank’s “general way of conducting business was distinctly Oriental.” From this remark I speculate that possibly as this was spread from one person to another, it could have been exaggerated into the even more unpleasant phrase, “swindling Jew.”

Phyllis Grosskurth
Toronto, Canada

William J McGrath replies:

Phyllis Grosskurth rightly emphasizes that the rumor that Ernest Jones described Otto Rank as “a swindling Jew” has not yet been confirmed by documentary evidence. According to her account, however, we do know from one of Jones’s letters that the New York analyst A. A. Brill had accused Jones of making the remark to him and that Jones responded by describing the accusation as “stark übertrieben” (greatly exaggerated). What gives one pause, however, is the ambiguity of this response and the evasiveness of Jones’s attempts to explain to Freud what he did say about Rank. In explaining the matter to Freud, Jones reported that when he checked his copy of his letter to Brill he found that his remark had been grossly exaggerated and that the word “Semitic” did not occur in it. It seems strikingly obvious that this latter point constitutes no denial at all, and if his remark had been exaggerated one is left to wonder (as Grosskurth points out) why he did not simply quote the passage directly to Freud. If the source of the incident was the passage in Jones’s letter to Brill of April 9, 1923, where he writes that Rank’s “way of conducting business was distinctly Oriental” Jones may have hesitated to reveal the exact phrase because he realized that it could be read as simply using polite code words to express the same objectionable stereotype of the Jew evoked by the rumored remark. So leaving aside the possibility that some other (less veiled) comment by Jones might have given rise to the accusation against him, one is left with an explanation that does little to relieve the impression of anti-Semitic prejudice.

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