discussed marriage but ultimately ruled
against it given their careers. They remained
close until his death in 1992.
What was unknown until this biography
is that Sharp had three long-term and
sometimes concurrent affairs with married
men. All three were lawyers, supportive of
her and her career throughout her life. John
Kesler ’ 24 was a fellow law student, serving
on the Law Review with Sharp. Although
he apparently was the love of Sharp’s life, he
married another woman. Nevertheless, he
and Sharp became lovers after his marriage,
finding ways to rendezvous even after she
joined the Supreme Court.
While working in Chapel Hill after a
year of private practice in Reidsville, Sharp
became involved with Millard Sheridan
Breckenridge, her UNC law professor.
Their affair continued for almost 20 years.
After returning to Reidsville to rejoin
her father’s practice in 1932, Sharp renewed
a friendship with a local lawyer, her high
school debate coach, Allen Gwyn, who later
would become a Superior Court judge.
They apparently began an affair in 1934,
the year he beat her father in an election
for solicitor of their judicial district.
Sharp’s ability to maintain romantic and
professional ties with these men for decades
is striking. Hayes writes that at her swear-ing-in ceremony as chief justice, Sharp’s
remarks featured a tribute to retiring Chief
Justice Bobbitt. Among the throng in
attendance at the ceremony were Gwyn’s
widow, Breckenridge and Kesler.
How did a novice biographer manage
to produce such an engaging and surprising biography of one of North Carolina’s
best-known jurists? The answers are in the
depth and breadth of Hayes’ research and
in the affection and respect for Sharp that
radiate from Hayes’ writing.
Hayes made great use of the huge volume of material in the public domain
written by or about Sharp — opinions,
newspaper articles and speeches. She also
obtained access to nonpublic materials that
opened up the real depth and complexity
of Sharp’s life.
Sharp’s family was “uniformly generous
and helpful,” she said, facilitating interviews
of family members, colleagues and friends.
Unfortunately, by the time Hayes began
this project, she could not interview Sharp
because Sharp’s “mind had abandoned her.”
Hayes soon discovered, however, that “it
pained Susie Sharp to discard anything.”
Sharp’s siblings turned over to Hayes
“mountains of material” from the family
home place, her old law practice and, after
Sharp died in 1996, from her apartment.
Among the documents in the crammed-full apartment were letters, journals and
The journals written by Sharp were in
shorthand; it took Hayes two years to
translate and transcribe these journals and
notebooks after teaching herself how to
read shorthand. It was from these materials
that Hayes pieced together Sharp’s romantic life.
In accordance with the wishes of
Sharp’s family, some 70 linear feet of documents have been turned over to UNC’s
Southern Historical Collection, with more
to come. Sharp’s papers span more than 50
years of a life lived at the heart of North
Carolina’s legal and political community.
Hayes candidly admits that she struggled
with whether to include in the book the
untold aspects of Sharp’s personal life, ultimately concluding “that I had to include
this side of Susie Sharp’s life in the biography if I wanted it to be a complete and
honest portrait of her.”
It is the complexity of the portrait that
makes Hayes’ biography fascinating to
those who thought they already knew
Susie Sharp. According to Andy Vanore ’ 59,
the first clerk hired by Sharp and the chief
deputy attorney general for North Carolina
for two decades, “What makes the book
interesting to those who worked with her
is new information that we did not know
about her. … I was surprised, but not
shocked, by the parts of her private life
about which I had no inkling. This new
information in no way diminishes my
respect or admiration for Justice Sharp; it
just makes her more human.”
— Susan Nichols ’ 76
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