In late 1958, when I took up newspapering in Charlotte, all the shop talk was of two colleagues, one a ghost and the other an antic presence.
The ghost was Wilbur J. Cash, the editorialist who had published "The Mind of the South" in 1941 and then hanged himself the same year in Mexico City. The antic presence, very much alive, was Harry Golden, the editor, publisher and only contributor of the Carolina Israelite, a tabloid that issued on an erratic schedule from Golden's house on Elizabeth Avenue.
Harry claimed, and for all I know it was true, that the Israelite's unscheduled appearances signaled the overflow of the old cracker barrel into which he tossed pieces as he wrote them. But these were merely the mechanics; the interest lay in the substance.
Harry Golden's personal journalism had long since won a discriminating local clientele. It had been the recent publication of a collection of Israelite classics (e.g., the short Pascalian essay on the infinite distances of galactic space entitled "Why I Never Bawl Out Waitresses.") that made him a national celebrity and a figure on the television interview shows. The book was called "Only in America" and was selling faster than his publishers could print it. That was not surprising to those who had been Israelite fans for years. "Only in America" might have put Harry on the national map. He had been on the North Carolina map--a fact of importance to him as I shall suggest--for more than a decade.
Just how he had gotten there--just how this roly-poly son of Galatian immigrants from the New York sidewalks, of all people, had chosen, of all places, a starchy southern town like Charlotte as his perch--I do not know to this day. Perhaps no one does. Not even his closest friends knew in 1958 what was soon to be disclosed by an unfriendly leak to a New York drama critic: that he had once served a prison term for stock fraud. Perhaps he had come south seeking the anonymity it might offer to a stranger with a past.
His obituaries (he died last week at 79) really give no inkling of the complexity of the niche he found for himself in a somewhat insular state where, nonetheless, some eccentricity of character was tolerated and, by its better spirits, even treasured. And where a witty pen would find an audience.
It is certainly a mistake to portray Harry as a crusader. His influence leavened the racial climate, but he did not approach the evils of Jim Crow as a long-faced moralist. He flanked them as an ironist, making even the segregationalists (at least, those who had a sense of humor) smile in rueful recognition at the absurdities of the race barrier. His "white baby plan" (which recognized that a black servant shepherding a white child was welcome anywhere) and his "vertical integration plan" (it was when sitting, not standing, that whites seemed to object to black propinquity) were ingenious formulations of home truths.
My own personal exposures to Harry Golden were mostly at the soirees given occasionally for him in those days by his friends, the David Wallaces. There, perched like a Buddha with a fat cigar and a circle of eager listeners munching lox and bagels and sipping bourbon, Harry would hold forth on art, song, politics, history and poetry. Simmons Fentress, then a Charlotte Observer editorial writer, played the straight man: "Harry, tell us about the time when . . . "
These scenes were repeated in after- hours seminars that often followed Chapel Hill meetings of the state press association, with dozens of people squeezed into one of those small sweat box suites at the old Carolina Inn. There Harry would vie with Jonathan Daniels, William Polk, Phillips Russell and others at the art of storytelling. In these rivals, all natives, Harry found kindred spirtis who knew something of the world and shared an appreciation of classical literature, the magic of politics and the color of provincial tradition.
But Charlotte? Charlotte was at this time one of those booming towns of the "New South" where the Chamber of Commerce was more important than it should have been, and the city had not yet shaken free of the chrysalis of textile manufacturing and Presbyterianism. But as I think about it now, it must have been the Calvinist climate that was in some mysterious way congenial.
Southern Presbyterians, who abounded in Charlotte, might be strait- laced. But they took the Old Testament seriously and knew a lot about it. In one of his best Carolina Israelite pieces, Harry had mused on the possibility that in view of their intense absorption in the lore of Pentateuch, southern Presbyterians might be one of the lost tribes of Israel.
Having established himself in this rather improbable setting--a child of New York in the southern provinces-- it amused Harry to inquire from time to time on what terms one might finally come to be regarded as an authentic North Carolinian. Am I a Tar Heel? he once asked, in an Israelite editorial. In those days such a question did not go unanswered. From Raleigh, Greensboro, Smithfield and elsewhere, the answer was an resounding affirmative. Yes, Harry, you are a Tar Heel. Being so is a state of spirit, not origin.
I am glad the answer was affirmative. For it was true. Harry Golden gave us in those days a taste of distinguished personal journalism whose decrease with the disappearance of journals like I. F. Stone's Weekly and in 1968 the Israelite itself, has removed something savory and expressive from the profession.
Not only that, Harry Golden was, I suppose, one of the last bards of the Melting Pot. His successful entry into the Waspish preserve of Tar Heel journalism, was one of the last and best examples of its solvent power. Say what one will of the "new ethnicity," the older enthnicity assumed improbable brotherhoods under the skin and unities in colorful multiplicities; and in that it was appealing. Yes, Harry Golden was a Tar Heel: one of the best.