In the following interview, author Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett talks about her new biography of Jewish American writer and humorist Harry Golden, Carolina Israelite: How Harry Golden Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights.
Gina Mahalek: Who was Harry Golden?
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett: Harry Golden (1903–1981) was a Jew, a writer, a humorist, a bit of a con man, and a fearless advocate for civil rights. He and his family immigrated to New York’s Lower East Side in 1907 from what was then Austria-Hungary, and is now Ukraine. His high-flying career on Wall Street ended in 1929 with a scandal, a trial for fraud, and a prison sentence. Struggling to make ends meet as an ad salesman, he landed in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1940, and soon launched his homely little newspaper, the improbably titled Carolina Israelite. His first book, Only in America, was a surprise bestseller in 1958, and was followed by several other popular books, including four more bestsellers, and scores of magazine and newspaper articles.
GM: Let’s start with the title: How did Harry Golden make us care about Jews, the South, and civil rights?
KMH: Golden had a gift for confronting controversial issues and talking about them in ways that educated and entertained people. He exposed racism in all its guises and deconstructed anti-Semitism, and he did it with wit and originality. By the late 1950s he had a very wide readership. Golden became a sort of cultural matchmaker in his speeches and writings. He introduced whites to blacks, Gentiles to Jews. His endless stream of anecdotes gave northerners a glimpse of Dixie and southerners a sense of the Lower East Side. Once he got his reader or listener to laugh—and it never took long—he could get them to question the status quo. Golden was a contrarian; earthy and sophisticated, well-read and sentimental, brave and irreverent. His following was appropriately diverse as a result. It helped that his life encompassed some of the most fascinating and telling events in America’s modern history.
GM: Such as?
KMH: Golden’s life story is a bit of a Forrest Gump tale. His family was part of the great wave of newcomers in the early twentieth century that shaped and enriched this country. He grabbed money with both hands during the frenzied 1920s stock market. When Brown v. Board of Education sounded a death knell for “separate but equal,” he was cheering with students on the campus of a southern black college. He wrote speeches for Adlai Stevenson, and exchanged warm letters with Robert Kennedy and Billy Graham.
While bus boycotts, protest marches, bombs, showdowns on schoolhouse steps, and black-voter registration were all over the nightly news, Golden had a front-row seat. He cajoled audiences into donating to nearly every major Jewish organization in the country, as well as the NAACP, the Urban League, and others.
He broke bread with NASA insiders as Apollo 11 headed for the moon. He faced angry college audiences when he refused to condemn Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam. Anywhere big news was breaking, Golden seemed to be there.
GM: Is Golden best described as a journalist, humorist, or Jewish activist?
KMH: It’s not easy to label Golden! He was not a conventional newspaper reporter; he rejected many of the usual rules of engagement by reporting on the momentous civil rights story while he participated in it himself. He was often deadly serious and hilarious in the same piece of writing. He was most definitely not a model Jewish activist—he regularly horrified Jews in Charlotte and beyond with his sweeping (often self-aggrandizing) criticisms of what he saw as their passivity or hypocrisy on racial issues. Nor was he a member of the Jewish literary intelligentsia of his day. Yet Golden managed something that most editorial pages and people he liked to call “super sophisticates” did not: he held on to his moral outrage over racism. He truly believed that America could and would do better. He was a pop-culture star and was recognized by many of the civil rights movement’s leaders as an effective ally. In 1963, in the revolutionary document, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. cited Golden as one of a small number of whites who wrote in “eloquent, prophetic, and understanding terms” about the civil rights struggle.
GM: How did Golden become so influential?
KMH: First, he had a deep love for America. Despite accurate criticism that he took a sentimental, simplified view of the immigrant experience, Golden hit on a theme that resonated with an enormous range of people when he reflected that this country gave newcomers “hope and life,” and they in turn gave back everything from poetry and music to medical breakthroughs and world-changing inventions. As he liked to say: “There has never been a more even trade.”
He was also an unabashed self-promoter, very funny, and at the start of his fame he had a writing style that was fresh and appealing. Golden was essentially a blogger before blogs (or the Internet) existed. He wrote in a catchy, short-essay style, and was fast on the draw with one-liners that delighted the press, keeping him in the public eye. His satire would not be out of place in a Seinfeld episode. He created a series of “Golden Plans” to solve various societal ills, beginning with the Golden Vertical Negro Plan, which urged removal of chairs from classrooms, playing off the ludicrous Jim Crow practice that allowed mixing of races as long as people were not seated. He wasn’t the first person to come up with the idea, but he was the funniest—and surely the best at promoting his own cleverness.
And, finally, he had fortuitous timing. As “brotherhood became a civil religion,” as historian Leonard Rogoff has so aptly put it, Golden’s brand of Yiddishkeit—cultural Judaism—and his “we’re-all-on-the-same-ball-of-yarn” view of his fellow man were very appealing.
GM: You call him a “blogger before blogs existed.” How did he reach so many people pre-Internet? Continue reading ‘Interview: Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett on Harry Golden, ‘Carolina Israelite’’ »