The first four pages of “Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care About Jews, the South, and Civil Rights”
by Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett
(Scroll down for the description in The University of North Carolina Press catalog)
Harry Golden was a middle-aged, raspy-voiced, cigar-smoking, bourbon-loving Jewish raconteur from New York’s Lower East Side when he landed in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the eve of the civil rights movement. He spent the next three decades roasting the painful realities of segregation in the warmth of his wit, first in his improbably titled one-man newspaper, Carolina Israelite, and then in more than twenty books, five of which appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.
Golden was an irrepressible contrarian, both humanitarian and mountebank, and an old-fashioned newspaperman who blogged before blogs existed. He was beloved for exalting the little guy—factory workers, prostitutes, shopkeepers—and well known for his voluminous correspondence (and in some cases, real friendships) with the likes of Carl Sandburg, Edward R. Murrow, Billy Graham, and Robert and John Kennedy. He hid a shameful past as a Wall Street swindler and federal convict until his bestselling first book, Only in America, outed him in 1958 in nearly every major newspaper in the country. In 1963, in Letter from Birmingham Jail, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. cited Golden as crucial to America’s soul, even as the intelligentsia of the era were baffled and loudly annoyed by his wide appeal.
Golden might well have served out his working days as a salesman instead of the celebrity he became. He took up the former as a boy in the early years of the twentieth century, selling afternoon newspapers on the corner of New York City’s Delancey and Norfolk Streets. He caught on fast: Shouting out the most lurid headline was sure to sell more copies to the weary sweatshop workers trudging home. A few years later he honed his cold-call salesmanship hawking stocks in 1920s Wall Street bucket shops, long before telemarketing’s sanitized scripts, and his success relied on charm, a lot of nerve, and a gift for coming up with quick, entertaining lies.
Those persuasive skills had an alchemic reaction when mixed, at midlife, with Golden’s allegiance to the labor movement, his dream of publishing a personal journal, and the need to escape a haunting prison past. He landed in Charlotte, selling ads for the Charlotte Labor Journal and Dixie Farm News, and on his own time he pursued mill workers, radical poets, segregationists, and politicians with like aggression. He charmed his way into their sitting rooms and their lives, then pecked away on his manual typewriter set on a card-table desk, turning their stories into his stories for the columns of the Carolina Israelite. Soon his little paper was a full-time job. He was a writer.
A favorite ploy of Golden’s was to add a well-known author, philanthropist, politician, or actor to the circulation list without the celebrity’s knowledge, then mention the famous person in print as one of the newspaper’s loyal subscribers. An astonishing number of real connections grew out of these manipulated courtships, including one with presidential contender Adlai Stevenson. Soon after the Illinois governor won the 1952 Democratic Party nomination, Golden fired off several witty memos to Stevenson, who in turn invited him to come to Springfield for a campaign speech-writing confab. After a long day of punditry-by-committee with a gang of journalists and political operatives, Golden retired to a guest room in the Governor’s mansion.
Some hours later, the intercom next to the bed buzzed, and Stevenson’s voice wafted through: “Put on your robe and come to my room. We’ll have some champagne and talk,” he urged his startled guest. Golden jumped out of bed and pulled on his clothes, tying his necktie as he hurried down the hallway. Stevenson, sitting in an armchair next to piles of newspapers and speech drafts, wore a smoking jacket, cravat, and elegant slippers embroidered with AES across the toes. Taking in Golden’s outfit, Stevenson said, “I thought you were in bed.” Golden answered, “Give me a drink, Governor, and I’ll tell you the whole story. What ghetto boy ever had a bathrobe?”
Perhaps it was that night that Golden first engaged a statesman in an exchange on civil rights. The issue of segregation was already shaping the Carolina Israelite, and Golden worked it into almost every conversation he had, whether with cabbies, bricklayers, ministers, or college presidents. When Only in America became an overnight blockbuster, Golden was launched. He had, it seemed, found the goods he was meant to sell, and people across the country—Christians, Jews, liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites—were lining up to buy.
I did not meet Harry Golden, who died in 1981, nearly twenty years before I decided to write about him. Yet he was as present in my childhood as an admired out-of-town uncle, his wit and folksy commentary spilling out of the books piled on tables and nightstands. Economic realities and child-raising philosophies in my 1960s New England home meant that I read whatever my mother read, and she read Harry Golden the way her Southern Baptist grandparents had whiled away the hottest part of a summer day with the Bible, closely, and with the comfortable conviction that real truth sat on the pages.
Montrose Buchanan, my mother, grew up not far from Charlotte, where Golden launched the eccentric Carolina Israelite. As a young woman, she worked briefly for him as a secretary in the mid-1940s, and decades later the clever writing she did for various small newspapers was heavily influenced by Golden. She died secure in the knowledge that I was just what she wanted me to be—a newspaper reporter and a book reviewer with at least some of her facility for humorous writing on serious subjects—but not knowing I would someday try to keep her hero alive in a book of my own.
I followed in her footsteps, dropping out of college to write obituaries for a good, independent, small daily newspaper in New Hampshire, the Concord Monitor. Many years and newspaper jobs later, I left the newsroom of the Seattle Times and went off to be an Ada Comstock Scholar at Smith College. There I had resources only dreamed of by most writers: world-class libraries, a seat in the lecture halls and offices of some of the country’s leading historians, and a scholarship to keep it going for three demanding, invigorating years. Research on Golden presented the opportunity for a full-length biography of a hugely entertaining character and a rich view of the times in which he lived, from Ellis Island to Wall Street, into prison and through the Depression, into the postwar South and on to the most visible years of the civil rights movement, with its frightening, exhilarating changes.
The becharmed early readers who gobbled up Golden’s homely little newspaper in the first few years and delighted in his first bestseller would have been decidedly less impressed had they been around to see his unspectacular arrival in Charlotte in 1941. He was a middle-aged Jewish ex-convict leaving wife and children behind in New York City, where they had to scratch out a living. Bespectacled, short of inseam, and wide of waist, he came armed with little more than a week’s worth of cotton shirts, trousers, a couple of neckties, and an armload of books. Within a few years he was putting out his oddball newspaper and taking on the Ku Klux Klan, just as lunch counters, buses, and schools were turning into southern battlegrounds. As Golden himself might have put it: There’s something to upset nearly everyone—what’s not to like about this story?
Description from the Spring 2015 catalog of The University of North Carolina Press:
This first comprehensive biography of Jewish American writer and humorist Harry Golden (1903-1981)–author of the 1958 national best-seller Only in America–illuminates a remarkable life intertwined with the rise of the civil rights movement, Jewish popular culture, and the sometimes precarious position of Jews in the South and across America during the 1950s.
After recounting Golden’s childhood on New York’s Lower East Side, Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett points to his stint in prison as a young man, after a widely publicized conviction for investment fraud during the Great Depression, as the root of his empathy for the underdog in any story. During World War II, the cigar-smoking, bourbon-loving raconteur landed in Charlotte, North Carolina, and founded the Carolina Israelite newspaper, which was published into the 1960s. Golden’s writings on race relations and equal rights attracted a huge popular readership.
Golden used his celebrity to editorialize for civil rights as the momentous story unfolded. He charmed his way into friendships and lively correspondence with Carl Sandburg, Adlai Stevenson, Robert Kennedy, and Billy Graham, among other notable Americans, and he appeared on the Tonight Show as well as other national television programs. Hartnett’s spirited chronicle captures Golden’s message of social inclusion for a new audience today.
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Listen to Harry Golden!