A humorist serious about racial injustice
Harry Golden came to the United States in 1907 as a Jewish immigrant boy from what is now Ukraine. He was probably 4 years old at the time. His family settled in New York’s Lower East Side, an area that became a fabled Jewish neighborhood in great part because of Golden’s entertaining and informing tales of himself and his neighbors there. He worked as a newspaper boy in the neighborhood and remembered for the rest of his life the day in 1915 when a Jewish factory superintendent in Atlanta named Leo Frank was murdered by a mob. Golden had to sell newspapers with the headline “FRANK LYNCHED!” How do you sell papers screaming that “distinctly American word” to immigrants? How do you learn — and live with — that word?
In “Carolina Israelite,” Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett rightly suggests that Golden’s keen awareness of America’s rituals of prejudice and violence began with the Frank case and that his feelings sharpened all the more when he became a Southerner in 1940. Golden’s 10th book, “A Little Girl Is Dead,” published in 1965, is a carefully researched account of the Frank lynching. It gave a special shape to his career as a writer and advocate for justice, as Hartnett understands.
“Carolina Israelite” takes its name from Golden’s witty, cranky one-man newspaper, begun in Charlotte in 1944. But Hartnett’s biography is not just about the years of the newspaper. It presents the entirety of Golden’s life during “the most fascinating and telling events in America’s modern history,” including the waves of immigration, the stock market crash of 1929, the wars, the election of a Roman Catholic president, Vietnam and the civil rights movement. As a biographer, Hartnett challenges herself to “place the past in context [by] mining the newspapers and books that regular folks were reading.” Regular folks were reading Harry Golden. His newspaper at times had more than 20,000 subscribers; many of his books appeared on bestseller lists. Hartnett’s great point is that to revisit Golden’s books and articles today “is to see quite clearly what many people did not know about race issues and religious and class differences.”
She suggests that Golden’s attraction to journalism may have begun in the early 1930s, when he closely followed the story of the arrest and endless trials of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama. He first read about these young black boys, accused of raping two white women, while he was in prison after being seduced by “the Siren’s call of easy money” and convicted at age 26 of fraud on Wall Street. This was the sad outcome of Golden starting a Wall Street “bucket shop” in 1926 after being introduced to the brokerage business by his sister, Clara, “Wall Street’s first modern-day female stockbroker.” Sitting in prison, he understood in the case of the Scottsboro Boys that “life sentences and death row were real things. . . . Thiswas not a ‘civil rights’ story to him then; that term was not even in common use yet. . . . It was a story about journalism, the good journalism that made people rally for the underdog.” A decade later, Golden himself started producing such journalism.
It was in North Carolina in the 1940s that Golden became friends with the poet Carl Sandburg. “Golden’s writing abilities grew within this friendship,” Hartnett writes; “his style owes something to Sandburg’s loving treatment of society’s invisible workers and wanderers. The men shared a certain ability to use wicked humor as indictment.” Years later, Golden and Sandburg campaigned together for John F. Kennedy. Golden completed a book about Sandburg during that 1960 presidential election.
In a chapter titled “Brown, Flames, and Fame,” Hartnett writes about the Supreme Court’s momentous 1954 decision against “separate but equal” schooling and about its aftermath in Golden’s life. There are doubtless many ways to portray that moment for Golden; Hartnett chooses a story that he told in his autobiography, “The Right Time” (1969). On the day of the decision, he went out after lunch to pay a visit to Ken Whitsett, a local artist who was articulate and charming but also a “diehard segregationist.” Golden hadn’t heard the news, but Whitsett had, and when Golden arrived, Whitsett flew at him and shouted: “You did it! You did it! You came down from the North and put the n-----s up to it.” With that, Whitsett slapped him.
Not long afterward, in February 1957, fire destroyed Golden’s house, books, records and correspondence. Coverage of the tragedy occurred in “just about every major newspaper and news magazine, the Congressional Record, late-night TV, and the church circuit. . . . Contributions came from actors, housewives, hotel clerks, Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, whites, blacks, racists, and pacifists,” all of which Hartnett carefully documents. Five months later, “Only in America,” a collection of Golden’s essays for his newspaper, was published, and with it came a new level of fame. Hartnett notes the many positive reviews and includes this assessment of her own: “The book was genuinely funny; it exalted the little guy and the working stiff. It captured a certain Jewish experience in America — the version that most people wanted to remember, as it turned out.” “Only in America” was a bestseller for 66 weeks.
Hartnett is forthright in her introduction about her personal reasons for writing Golden’s life. Her mother, Montrose Buchanan, briefly worked for Golden as a secretary in the 1940s and decades later produced “clever writing” for newspapers that was “heavily influenced by Golden.” Hartnett undertook “Carolina Israelite” for her mother but also for herself: She is a superb writer who knows what can be produced when you research the past and learn what “regular people” are reading.
Harry Golden, right, with Robert Kennedy during Kennedy’s 1964 Senate bid. The inscription reads: “For Harry — And afterwards I put on my coat, did what you told me and won the election. My thanks — Bob Kennedy.”
By Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett Univ. of North Carolina. 359 pp. $35 CAROLINA ISRAELITE How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights