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Southern Cultures 12.1 (2006) 64-71

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Harold Burson

on interviewing Faulkner for the Memphis Commercial Appeal

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Figure 1
"I was probably seventeen years old at the time and just didn't have the questions in depth to ask him." The highlight of his time at Ole Miss was the interview Harold Burson, shown here in 1937, conducted with William Faulkner at the author's home, Rowan Oak, that same year. Photograph courtesy of Harold Burson.
[End Page 64]

Harold Burson was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on February 15, 1921. His parents had moved to the city one year earlier from Leeds, in Yorkshire, England. Burson's father taught him to read by the age of three using the local newspaper, the Commercial Appeal, as his text. Burson recalls how his father began with "first the big type in the advertisements, then the headlines, finally the news stories."

Burson entered school when he was six, and by the second day his teachers moved him to the third grade. He attended Hanes High School—where Elvis Presley studied fifteen years later. While in high school, he regularly wrote articles for both the Hanes High Register and the Commercial Appeal.

At the age of fifteen, Burson entered the University of Mississippi, where he also worked as a "Stringer," writing articles for the Commercial Appeal for $60 a month to pay for his tuition and living expenses. The highlight of his time at Ole Miss was the interview he conducted with William Faulkner at the writer's home Rowan Oak in 1937. His story ran on the front page of the Commercial Appeal, was picked up by the Associated Press, and appeared in newspapers around the country. In his two-volume Faulkner: A Biography (1974), Joseph Blotner devotes two pages to Burson and his interview.

After graduating from the University of Mississippi, Burson pursued a highly successful career in advertising. In 1953 he and Bill Marsteller founded Burson-Marsteller, an advertising firm that today employs over two thousand professionals on six continents. The firm's clients include international corporations, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations. PRWeek Magazine named Burson the twentieth century's most influential figure in public relations.

Today, at the age of eighty-four, Harold Burson serves as Founder Chairman of Burson-Marsteller, where he mentors young professionals and develops new programs for the company. In 2004 he published E Pluribus Unum, a history of the company.

Harold Burson and his wife, Bette, have been married for over fifty years and are friends of my wife, Marcie, and me. We have visited with them over the years in Oxford, Mississippi; Washington, D.C.; New York; and most recently in Chapel Hill, where Harold spoke to University of North Carolina journalism students as part of the Hearst Visiting Professionals Program in 2004.

Harold Burson's dedication to his friends is unique. He generously took time from a busy schedule to describe his historic interview with William Faulkner in the text that follows. His detailed, thoughtful memory of the visit offers a rare portrait of the writer and his home.

The reason I went to Ole Miss was that I knew I could pay my way by working as a stringer for the Commercial Appeal. I had worked there for several summers while I was in high school as a copy boy. With three summers around a big metropolitan daily newspaper, I was fairly proficient as a reporter, and at the time I got to Ole Miss, of course, I was aware of William Faulkner. I started thinking about trying to get an interview with him but then learned he was in Hollywood. His step-daughter was in my class, and I knew her. Victoria [Franklin]. They called her [End Page 65] Cho-Cho. She had spent some of her earlier years in Shanghai, where her father was consul general. Faulkner's wife, Estelle, divorced him to marry Faulkner.

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Figure 2
"There was a fire in his living room...


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