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New York

Mar 14 2011

Willie Morris

by Greg H

I picked up Willie Morris’ book New York Days in a local thrift store some months ago and finally got around to reading it, mostly so that I could then free up space on my shelves.  I expected the book to be a writer’s love story about the New York City of Morris’ youth since so many books of that type have been written (I have a Dan Wakefield book of the same kind that has also been waiting patiently for my attention!), but before I began reading I knew only that Willie Morris was a Southern writer who had written My Dog SkipNew York Days, however, has added significantly and pleasantly to my understanding of Morris and his importance as a Southern literary figure.

Morris hailed from Yazoo City, Mississippi, was a Rhodes Scholar and, at age 32, the youngest editor-in-chief at Harper’s magazine, guiding that venerable publication through the most turbulent years of the Sixties and, in the process, making it more relevant than it had been in some time.  He gathered together a staff of excellent young writers, among them David Halberstam, Marshall Frady, and Larry L. King (NOT the elderly guy with the suspenders and talk show) and made Harper’s a magazine in which many of the greatest writers of the day wanted their work to appear.

As editor-in-chief, Morris moved among Manhattan’s elite, becoming good friends with James Jones, Truman Capote and George Plimpton; but he also saw the underside of fame.  He recounts how he once stopped in a nondescript bar and thought he recognized the woman who was bar tending from somewhere. She allowed that he probably did.  He later found out that his server has been Veronica Lake, once one of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars.

Willie Morris experienced great success and great disappointment during his tenure in New York but he remained a transplant from Yazoo City and, when he left New York, the South again became his home as well as the focus of his work.   He died of a heart attack in 1999 but not before he has written much that celebrated and explicated the South that he knew.  His friend and colleague  Larry L. King honored him with his book In Search of Willie Morris: The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor. This book and several others by Willie Morris are available through the Library.

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Jan 31 2011

Harlem on My Mind

by Veronica W

Black History Month is just around the corner,  so I decided to revisit my own history. Until the age of 12, I grew up on the not-so-mean streets of Harlem (that’s NY, not the Netherlands) . Harlem then (and I won’t say when) was an exciting, noise-filled experience for a child. Just walking from one end of the legendary 125th Street to the other gave you a cultural thrill that could not be experienced anywhere else outside the marketplaces of Africa or the Caribbean. Visits to the Apollo Theater, walks along  the Hudson River and Riverside Drive, field trips to Grant’s Tomb, the Cloisters and the Schomburg Library all made for powerful memories.

Yes, the negatives were there;  friends I couldn’t visit because they  lived in the  reportedly unsafe “projects;”  sad men sitting on stoops or standing on corners, whose lives seemed to be directionless and empty.  But if you opened your window on a sultry summer night, on those same corners you might hear the most glorious harmony from impromptu accapella groups; groups that could but never would, make it big on stage.  During the day you could listen for the arrival of the ice cream truck or the traveling merry-go-round. Although my forward thinking parents insisted we become acquainted with “downtown” and the Museum of Natural History, New York Public Library, the Empire State Building, skating at Rockefeller Center and a larger world in general, it was those brief times spent on “the block” which taught me how to jump double dutch, perform hand clapping games and play handball. The move to the suburbs may have been a step up  in some ways, but there was something missing which could not be found while playing in my own backyard.

With regentrification, much of the Harlem of my childhood is gone and  Starbucks has arrived. However for those who have never been and will probably never go to Harlem, there are numerous books and other materials which will allow you to see this still remarkable place, as it was .

Books

This was Harlem –  A cultural portrait
Harlem – Walter D. Myers celebrates the people, sights & sounds of Harlem
When Harlem was in Vogue– An illustrated history
Showtime at the Apollo – A view of the city’s most famous theater
Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate –  Harlem Renaissance poets

Audiovisuals

Against the Odds – Rich, archival footage… recalls the influential force & vibrancy of Harlem
Harlem Nights– A fictional account of the excitement and drama of Harlem night life starring Eddie Murphy
New York Songs – Includes  classics  “Take the A Train” & “Harlem Shuffle”
An Afternoon in Harlem – Jazz musician Hugh Ragin

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