A warts-and-all portrait of Harry Golden (1903-1981), founder of the North Carolina newspaper Carolina Israelite.
Hartnett pulls no punches in describing the life and career of the Jewish American humorist perhaps best known for his bestselling first book, Only in America (1958). She makes clear that he was a charming man who tricked people out of money and reneged on promises. Born Hershel Goldhirsch in present-day Ukraine, he told various versions of when he was born and when he arrived in New York City’s Lower East Side. Hartnett notes his discrepancies but does not attempt to sort them out. She passes briefly over his short career on Wall Street and his prison sentence for mail fraud, focusing instead on his life in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he settled during World War II and where he founded the Carolina Israelite. Liberal quotes give the flavor of Golden’s style, his warm humor about the Jewish experience in America, his deep sympathy for the underdog, and especially his views on race relations. Hartnett shows us his friendship with Carl Sandburg, who wrote the foreword for his first book, his work for Adlai Stevenson, his relations with the Kennedy White House, and the disdain he received from Jewish intellectuals, who found him sentimental, even corny. The popularity he enjoyed in the 1950s and ’60s waned in the ’70s, as a younger generation disagreed with his views on the Vietnam War and were not charmed by his romanticized Lower East Side stories. Much more than the biography of one man, however, this is a well-told account of the civil rights movement, describing significant milestones in its history, the splits among its leaders, and the various forms that activism took.
A solid piece of research that reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of a now-forgotten man who loved a good story and could put a comic spin on important social issues.