From The New Yorker, January 26, 2009
Reprinted with permission.
In February of 1963, twenty-four-year-old William Zantzinger, armed with a toy carnival cane and wrecked on whiskey, made a spectacle of himself at the Spinsters’ Ball at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore. He was a drunken country mouse in the big city, at a time when the notion of racial equality had barely shown itself in the neighborhood of his father’s tobacco farm. When the hotel’s black waitstaff was slow to serve Zantzinger another drink, he yelled racial epithets at Hattie Carroll, a barmaid and a fifty-one-year-old mother of eleven, and he rapped her on the shoulder with his cane. She became upset, then collapsed and died of a stroke.
Bob Dylan read about the case in the newspaper. He wrote the magnificent “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” with the paper splayed on the table of a Seventh Avenue luncheonette. Zantzinger was then and forever after a master villain.
Twenty-five years later, I tried to interview him for a newspaper story. He was working in a real-estate office (there was an equal-housing sticker on the door), and I found Zantzinger a disappointing lump of a man, with small dark eyes and black hair thinning from behind. The eyes followed me angrily as I offered up my two-sides-to-every-story patter, trying to get him to talk.
“There was a girl come down here from Baltimore five years ago,” he said. “I didn’t talk to her. And one before that. I got nothing to say.”
I tried trashing Dylan: “That son of a bitch libelled you. You could’ve sued his ass for what he did.” Zantzinger smiled. “We were gonna sue him big time. Scared that boy good!” he said. “The song was a lie. Just a damned lie.”
He enjoyed talking about how his lawyer had fired shots across Dylan’s bow. Columbia Records was on the receiving end as well, Zantzinger said, adding that he dropped the idea of a lawsuit because, after being convicted of manslaughter and assault, he’d seen enough of courtrooms and controversy.
By then, too, there was little left of Zantzinger’s reputation. But even a dispassionate reading of the facts of the case leads one to conclude that Dylan took great liberties. Hattie Carroll was not “slain by a cane” that was “doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle,” as Dylan wrote. No physical injury was done to her, nor was there any evidence to suggest lethal intent. The medical examiner’s report—citing Carroll’s enlarged heart and severe hypertension—attributed her death as much to Zantzinger’s verbal abuse as to the tap of his cane. Nor did Zantzinger have “high office relations in the politics of Maryland” to influence the case, as Dylan implied.
Zantzinger ran through all of this. He knew the song and its equivocations. He knew precisely the historical role to which it had consigned him.
“He did some good stuff, I guess,” he said of Dylan. “The blowing-with-the-wind song, that one? But I’m probably not gonna be the best judge. I mean, for me, he’s not much of a singer.”
I told Zantzinger about a note I had found in the old homicide file: “Attached is correspondence from . . . a folksinger in New York who seeks information about the aforementioned case, which was investigated by your agency.” But Dylan’s letter wasn’t attached—snatched, perhaps, as a souvenir, from the police files. But the cover sheet, dated months after the release of “Hattie Carroll,” was telling. Dylan was apparently writing too late to improve his song’s accuracy; his letter was the reaction of a worried young man.
Zantzinger enjoyed that immensely. I told him that the Carroll children would not talk. He acknowledged that he had paid them money in an out-of-court settlement.
“I know that I caused that woman’s death,” he said. “I’m responsible. Me talking does nothing for that woman or her family. Just put this in your article: I admire and respect the Carroll family for their decision not to talk publicly. Like them, I think the best thing to do is let it rest.” When I got up to go, he extended his hand, and I took it. He stayed in his chair, and I saw myself out.
Picasso said that art is the lie that shows us the truth, and that’s how Dylan and his ballad should probably be judged. But to hold that standard to William Zantzinger, the man, who died earlier this month, at the age of sixty-nine, seems too crude a measure. In 1963, he was sentenced to six months in jail for Hattie Carroll’s death, on the same day as the March on Washington.
Zantzinger lived long enough to see Martin Luther King, Jr., honored with a national holiday and to know that this week Barack Obama would be inaugurated as President. We can imagine him galled at this outcome, a small-minded racist rightly defined by his ugliest moment. Perhaps that’s him, or perhaps he was more than that. At any rate, he knew his part and he played it to the end.