Good news: The Eyes of Willie McGee has been nominated for an Edgar Award, bestowed annually by the Mystery Writers of America. More info here. I’m planning to attend the banquet in New York on the evening of April 28th. Should be a great time, win or lose. (Looks like tough competition.) Many thanks to the MWA for considering the book for such a prestigious award.
For those of you who are new to this site and haven’t read the book, note: I posted the first chapter in its entirety, so you can read it “without risk” to anything but your eyeballs. Scroll down just below to the entry labeled “The Hot Seat.”
If you have read the book and know who the character Rosalee McGee is, look for news about her just below that entry. This week, I finally got my hands on the FBI file kept on Rosalee during the years of the case—something I wasn’t able to do before the book was published. Interesting info in there, summarized in the entry called “Rosalee News.”
Below is the complete first chapter of The Eyes of Willie McGee, with sections on the notoriety the case gained in the early 1950s, my reasons for taking an interest in it (thanks again, Jim Leeson), and my first exposure to an unsolved mystery at the heart of the story. I hope you enjoy it.
ON MAY 8, 1951, a thirty-five-year-old African-American named Willie McGee was electrocuted in Laurel, Mississippi, on a much-disputed charge that he raped a white housewife named Willette Hawkins. A few days later Eleanor Roosevelt, who was traveling in Europe and stayed in holiday rentals, received a protest letter about the execution, sent by a Swiss citizen who identified himself as Mr. F. Aegerter.
Aegerter didn’t know Roosevelt and she didn’t know him. But he knew she was in Geneva for a meeting of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, so he took a moment to sound off about the human rights of Willie McGee, a man whose death he deeply mourned. During a legal battle that lasted more than five years, McGee’s story had risen from obscurity to fame, and Aegerter, who probably read about McGee in French-language newspapers, felt certain he was innocent. As he knew, the former First Lady had avoided taking part in a widely publicized campaign to stop the execution. He wanted to know why.
Roosevelt didn’t apologize. Just the opposite, she pushed back. In a reply written on the 18th, she told Aegerter she was very familiar with the facts of the McGee saga—unlike him. “[Y]ou do not seem to have much understanding of the case about which you write,” she informed him coolly. “It is quite true that all of us oppose a law which is applied differently to white and colored and that happens to still be in effect in some southern states. . . .
“In the case of Willie McGee, while I regret there should be this discrimination in the law, I have to add that he was a bad character and so was the white woman, so there was very little that one could feel personally about.”
That sounded definite, like she had inside information. But the truth was that Roosevelt knew very little about McGee or “the white woman.” A lot of what she thought she knew—and this was true for Aegerter as well—was rumor mixed with fact, unproven allegations, or simply wrong, since the story produced more than its share of inaccurate reporting, lies, and colorful but useless folklore.
The “bad character” phrase makes it clear she’d heard about and believed the most explosive allegation of all: McGee’s claim that his sexual encounter with Willette wasn’t a rape but an act of consensual sex, part of a long-standing love affair that she had instigated. As for Roosevelt’s observation that the story lacked elements that could stir the soul, she couldn’t have been more off base, because Aegerter wasn’t the only person who cared. By 1951, hundreds of thousands of people knew McGee’s name and what it represented, and many had passionate opinions about what had happened to him inside Mississippi courtrooms. Continue reading
If you’ve read The Eyes of Willie McGee, you know there was considerable mystery surrounding a woman named Rosalee McGee, who told McGee’s defense lawyers that she was his wife and the mother of his four children. She also presented herself, in a sworn statement, as a witness to the love affair that he said he’d had for years with the woman who accused him of rape, Willette Hawkins.
As I found out while reporting the book, Rosalee was an imposter. She was not married to McGee, nor was she the mother of his kids. His real wife, and the mother of the four, was a woman from Collins, Mississippi, named Eliza Jane Payton. Willie and Eliza Jane parted ways in 1942 and she divorced him in 1946, after his arrest.
So who was Rosalee? I was able to figure out what her real name was (Rosetta Saffold), where she came from (the area around Lexington, Miss., which is far from Laurel, where Willie McGee lived), and that she moved to New York after the case ended and kept an affiliation with the Civil Rights Congress, the Communist-backed group that paid for McGee’s defense. I think she met him in the late 1940s, through the bars of his jail cell in Jackson, Miss.—while visiting a cousin of hers who was on death row in the same jail. I also think she legitimately cared about him, and grew to care about the civil-rights and civil-liberties causes pushed by the CRC.
Recently the FBI released roughly four dozen pages from a file it kept on Rosalee McGee in the 1950s and 1960s. This file was created, pure and simple, because she had aligned herself with members of the Communist Party USA. She never did anything truly subversive and the government came to recognize that, letting the file peter out in the mid-1960s. The details in it match what I thought I knew but leave a couple mysteries still unsolved. Here’s a quick summary: Continue reading
If you’re a first-time visitor to this site, please note that I’ve posted chapter 1 in its entirety. Just scroll down and look for the entry labeled “The Hot Seat.”
In other news: a new review in The Washington Post appeared today. You can read it here.
This week, I’m heading south for events in Nashville, Memphis, and Atlanta. Schedule below. If you’re in the vicinity, please consider stopping by and saying hello.
Nashville, Wednesday, July 21
Sometime between 9 and 10 A.M., I’m appearing on WSMV-TV’s morning show, “Better Nashville.” The main event happens that night at the main branch of the Nashville Public Library, 615 Church Street, starting at 5 P.M. Many thanks to the Nashville Public Library Foundation, event organizers McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations (world’s best organizer of literary shindigs), and Davis-Kidd Booksellers.
Memphis, Thursday, July 22nd
Doing several broadcast interviews in Memphis: WKNO’s “Checking on the Arts,” WREG-TV (airing around 9:35 A.M.), WYPL’s Booktalk, and WUMR-FM. Talking about the book that afternoon, 6 P.M., at Davis-Kidd, 387 Perkins Extension.
In Memphis, I have cannily kept my afternoon schedule free for barbecue eating—aiming to hit three places in four hours. (And, no, I’m not kidding. I’ve been training for this.) Please send recommendations and addresses if you know of “the best” place in town.
Atlanta, Friday, July 23rd and Monday, July 26th
Appearing at Eagle Eye Bookstore on Friday at 6, 2076 North Decatur Road, Decatur, Georgia.
On Monday I’m doing an event at the Auburn Avenue Research Library in downtown Atlanta, 101 Auburn Avenue Northeast. (A great library. Auburn Avenue’s archives has a vast collection of old newspaper stories that were invaluable in my research.) Joining me there will be RALPH BOSTON, a Laurel, Miss., native—quoted in the book—and a legend in the world of track and field. Boston won a gold medal in the long jump at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.
I’m on C-Span’s Book TV program this weekend; three airtimes are available here. I’m the pale guy with the monotone. This event was recorded earlier this month at Turnrow Books, Greenwood, Mississippi. I was fortunate to do appearances at three great bookstores in Mississippi–Turnrow, Square Books (Oxford), and Lemuria (Jackson). Thanks again to everybody who made these events possible.
Nice review of the book today on the Trib’s Web site. And I don’t just mean because it was favorable. For those keeping score at home, I got a mixed/negative review in the L.A. Times a few weeks ago, author of which disliked the book for some of the same reasons the Trib reviewer liked it: Namely, that I spend a fair amount of space and calories explaining the civil rights context of the 1940s and early 1950s. (Such as it was.) More than any reviewer I’ve seen, the Tribber seemed to understand what I was trying to do with all that—and he did a great job of conveying why it matters.