Me ‘n’ George: A story of George Corley Wallace and his number one crony Oscar Harper
by Sandra Baxley Taylor
Publisher – Greenberry Publishing
Rating – 8/10
Summary – Self-decribed “crony” Oscar Harper tells some great “war stories” of his time with Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama. The book is better than it sounds and reveals a little-known side of Wallce.
Review – George Wallace (1919-1998) dominated Alabama politics for a quarter-century and had a huge influence on national politics through his four campaigns for the U.S. Presidency. As a result, scores of authors have written about Wallace. In his book The Politics of Rage, Dan T. Carter (though clearly not a fan) called Wallace “the most-influential loser” in American politics during the 20th Century.
With all of the Wallace books clogging the market, I had few expectations for Me ‘n’ George by Sandra Baxley Taylor. But the book was a pleasant surprise. While it certainly is not the final – or only – word on Wallace, it does offer the reader a unique perspective on the former Alabama governor.
Inside Wallace’s Circle
As a crony, Harper provides nice insights into what life was like around Wallace. Harper paints Wallace as a magnetic person and describes life as a “crony” as fast-paced and exciting. Me ‘n’ George relates little about the infamous moments – such as the “bloody Selma” march and Wallace’s “stand in the schoolhouse door” to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama. However, Harper does state that Wallace regretted saying “Segregation forever!” during his inaugural speech in January 1963.
Me ‘n’ George provides some interesting tidbits about “ethically-questionable” practices during Wallace’s time in office. A revealing story concerns the use of highway paving contracts in Barbour County, Alabama, (Wallace’s birthplace) as a way to reward supporters. A funny story concerns Richard Nixon’s attempts to donate $400,000 cash to Wallace’s opponent (Albert Brewer) in the 1970 Alabama race for governor. (Nixon wanted Wallace to lose so that he could not take votes from Nixon in the 1972 U.S. presidential election). While Nixon’s cronies made the donation, $200,000 of the cash disappeared, apparently swiped by Brewer’s “bagman.”
A more-salacious side of Me ‘n’ George concerns Wallace’s love life. He was married three times and was known for “running around” on his wives. Harper liked Wallace’s first wife (Lurleen) and obviously felt that George was somewhat adrift after her death in 1968. Likewise, Harper at least respects Wallace’s third wife (Lisa Taylor). Wallace married Taylor, who was almost 30 years younger than he, in 1981 – after his health and political career were in steep decline. The marriage was unhappy and ended in divorce.
The real tabloid material is in the chapter on Wallace’s second wife, Cornelia. Harper clearly loathed Cornelia, and – in Harper’s account – she did much to separate George from his old cronies. George and Cornelia certainly had a strange relationship; Harper relates that she secretly taped his phone calls, while he had her followed by state employees.
Who is Oscar Harper?
Baxley centers the story on Wallace, a wise move, given that he will be the main reason people read Me ‘n’ George. However, readers will be frustrated in that they find so little on Harper. The “crony” part of the book’s title refers to many times the press referred to Harper – and other Wallace intimates – as “cronies” of Wallace. (Wallace said that other people had friends, but he could have only “cronies”).
The charges leveled against Harper and his fellow “cronies” were that they profited from their friendship with Wallace by winning lucrative state contracts. Between chapters, the book includes a number of quotes from newspapers concerning the contracts that Harper had won from the State of Alabama. But there is almost no comment from Harper. In fact, Harper barely mentions his business career at all.
Even more strangely, Harper tells nothing of his personal life. We hear nothing of his children, education, etc. About the only thing that we learn was that – at the time of publication – he was married to a 35-year old woman named JaNell Harper. (Oscar was 66 at this time). I found an online obituary that states that Harper died at age 79 on March 27, 2001. The obituary lists two daughters and two sons as survivors. JaNell was not mentioned in the obit.
The omission of anything about Harper from his own book is one of the stranger things that I have encountered as a reader.
Enter Larry Flynt
One of the best – and most-surprising – chapters in the book is the last one, which focuses on Wallace and Harper’s interactions with Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt. In the mid-1980s, Flynt heard that Wallace was in awful pain after Wallace had been shot and paralyzed in 1972. In 1978, Flynt has also been shot and paralyzed and – like Wallace – Flynt endured years of pain until he underwent an operation at Duke University. Flynt reached out to Wallace and recommended that Wallace look into whether he might be a candidate for the procedure as well.
Harper went to California and met with Flynt, whom he liked. The attempt to reach out to a man who was his ideological opposite reveals a compassionate side of Flynt. Certainly, Wallace and Flynt qualify as “strange bedfellows.”
George Wallace has slipped from this world and into the pages of history as one of defenders of segregation. For all that has been written about Wallace’s politics, less is known of Wallace as a person. Harper’s slim, entertaining book helps fill this gap.