She was a young society woman. He was an enigmatic stranger. They’d just met at a speakeasy and as dusk set in were parked lakeside in his roadster to get better acquainted.
“You mind if we stay here a while,” he asked, “or must you go home?”
She pulled back, eyes wide, insulted.
“There are no musts in my life,” she said, “I’m free, white, and 21.”
Today, “free, white, and 21” is seldom heard. But in the ’30s and ’40s the phrase was everywhere, and Hollywood embraced it. It was a catchphrase of the decade, a way for white America to check its own privilege and feel exhilarated rather than finding fault.