FAIRMONT — A person strolling the streets of New York City in the 1960s might have inadvertently caught a glimpse of a Robeson County native.
At that time, Joseph Mitchell, who was born in Fairmont, was furiously writing stories for The New York Herald Tribune, and his face and byline were plastered on the sides of delivery trucks for the newspaper.
“It would say, ‘Check out Joseph Mitchell’s byline today in the New York Herald,’” said Joey Mitchell, his nephew.
Joseph Mitchell, who died in 1996, is being honored back home by the Sidney Lanier Book Club with a sign at the Fairmont Borderbelt Museum.
“He’s our most famous literary son and we feel like it’s long overdue,” said Carol Ann Lewis, the president of the book club.
The dedication will be held at 11 a.m. on Tuesday in front of the museum, located at 101 Thompson St. Following the ceremony, a dedication video featuring Charlie Rose — the television talk show host and journalist — and colleagues of Joseph Mitchell, will be shown. The public is invited.
“He remained loyal to his hometown,” Lewis said. “He left in 1929 to go to New York but he always visited at least once a year. … He never forgot his roots.”
Joseph Mitchell’s nephews Joey and Jack Mitchell helped with the sign, doing landscaping and brick work around it. Some of the bricks are from the tobacco warehouse that was owned by the family as well as chimneys around the family farm.
The sign was made by Roger’s Screen Printing in Fairmont and was paid for by donations from the community and family members.
Joseph Mitchell was the eldest of six siblings — one of whom, Harry Mitchell, is still living in Fairmont.
He studied journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, staying for four years, but never graduating. In 1929, he moved to New York, arriving at Penn Station the day after the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression.
“He visited New York with his father … and when he visited his first time he looked around and said, ‘This is for me,’” Lewis said.
He found a job as a an apprentice crime reporter at Police Headquarters for The World, then eventually worked for The Herald Tribune and The World-Telegram, until he started working for The New Yorker in 1937. He continued to write for the magazine until his death in 1996.
“The stars aligned there at the New Yorker for him,” Joey Mitchell said. “It was the perfect place. It was the perfect time and they say that he wrote as well as anybody that ever wrote for the New Yorker.”
Mitchell’s stories represented a new type of journalism.
“Uncle Joseph, I’m sure, would’ve been embarrassed to think that he woke up one morning and was going to start a literary movement,” Joey Mitchell said. “But somehow this new journalism like Truman Capote ‘In Cold Blood,’ Hunter Thompson … all these people where the reporter became part of the story, he kind of pioneered that movement. It went from journalism to literary where the writing transcended the subject almost.”
His subjects ranged from gypsies and bums to Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt — often common people with extraordinary stories. One of his most famous works “Joe Gould’s Secret,” focused on an eccentric writer he met on the streets of Greenwich Village.
“He was a street person who was a Harvard graduate and had been a reporter for a short time,” Lewis said. “ … He walked the streets of New York and befriended them. He was a great listener.”
Joseph Mitchell often wore his signature fedora — the same hat he is wearing in a large black-and-white portrait that hangs in the Borderbelt Museum. Jack Mitchell, part of the fifth generation of Mitchells in this area, wears a similar hat as he sits and talks about his uncle. Jack lived in New York while studying art during the time Joseph was working at the New Yorker.
Hangin on the bulletin board in the museum are newspaper clippings featuring Joseph Mitchell from the News and Observer in Raleigh, the New York Times and Newsweek. He was inducted into the North Carolina Halls of Fame in Journalism, Advertising and Public Relations in April.
There are six books filled with Mitchell’s writings, some autographed, housed at the Hector MacLean Public Library in Fairmont. The most recent, “Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories ” was published in 1992.
A biography of Joseph Mitchell, written by Thomas Kunkle, the president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., is tentatively set to be released with Random House next spring.
“He stays in the forefront even though he’s not from this generation,” Lewis said. ” … He keeps surfacing. He had more influence than anybody realized.”