The very impressive and moving film, “Green Book”, has won the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture, Movie or Comedy, and just won the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Picture. It is nominated for Best Picture again at the Academy Awards.
It is the story of a tough-talking Italian bouncer from the Bronx who joins a sophisticated, world-class, African-American pianist on a concert tour, far from their native New York in 1962. They head to the Deep South during the height of the civil rights struggle.
But the title, “Green Book”, refers to what began as a 15-page pamphlet in 1936 and grew to a comprehensive volume by the 1960s. It contained critical information for Blacks travelling throughout the country, but especially in the South — what restaurants they could eat in, what hotels and motels they could stay in, what gas stations were welcoming, what jazz clubs to go to and what towns to avoid, what curfews were in place, and what roads were safe to take. It was invaluable as Americans hit the road for vacations and many Blacks traveled back and forth between the South and their new homes in the Midwest and Northeast.
Last spring, even before we knew of the movie, my wife and I went to the exhibit at the New York Museum of Art and Design entitled “Unpacking the Green Book: Travel and Segregation in Jim Crow America.”
As someone who has spent decades in politics in Washington, the only Green Book I was vaguely familiar with was the book with the felt, emerald cover — The Social List of Washington, D.C. As a Senate aide I noticed it back in the 1970s as a resource for offices to contact members of the diplomatic corps, other members of congress, the administration, the wealthy and the socially prominent. In short, something way different from the “other” Green Book.
What we learned from the exhibit in New York was that the Green Book was published by a local postal worker, Victor Hugo Green. It began with a guide to the local metro area, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and expanded across the country and even abroad. In its 30 years, (1936-1967), it became indispensable and was called “The Negro Travelers’ Green Book.” It is featured in the film and used by Don Shirley, the musician, and Tony Vallelonga, the driver and bodyguard.
Ann Hornaday, the film critic for the Washington Post, wrote: “The great success of ‘Green Book’ lies in its modesty and the straightforward way it recognizes seismic change in the incremental turning of a human heart.”
The emerald, felt-covered Washington Green Book is anything but modest.
This Green Book, or social register, has been published by the same family since 1930. It is a highly secretive process to be admitted to the Green Book. Very exclusive, I guess. Who is in and who is out used to be a source of speculation. When former Washington Post great Ben Bradlee was dropped, he sarcastically replied, “what a cruel, cruel blow.” When former White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan was told he was left out he replied something to the effect he would have to pick up the pieces of his shattered life and move on.
The web site says: “The Green Book remains the preeminent list of Washington’s society and arbiter of social precedence in the Metropolitan Area. Selection to the book is by invitation only.”
By the way, according to the Washington Times (10/15/2005), it was not until 1971, forty years after it started publishing, that the first African American couple was included in the D.C. Green Book., Mr. and Mrs. Churchill Willoughby.
A tale of two Green Books — I think I prefer the Victor Hugo Green version.