- Historic Sites
Joseph Pulitzer and His Most “Indegoddampendent” Editor
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
Once there was an institution called, simply, the World . By the first decade of this century it had won a place in American life somewhat like that occupied by the New York Times today. It was the most influential newspaper in the biggest city in the land. Unlike the Times , which does not appeal to the masses, the World wore a double crown: it also had the most readers of any morning newspaper in the United States.
A chronic invalid who could not see well enough to sign his name owned the paper and ran it. Joseph Pulitzer set foot but twice in his gold-domed structure, briefly the tallest in Manhattan, an enormous sentinel guarding the business end of the Brooklyn Bridge. Yet the stamp of Pulitzer’s volatile personality was on that building, on each of the some 1,800 men and women working there, on every edition of the morning, evening, and Sunday Wolds that poured out of it—especially the morning: that was the World .
Frank Irving Cobb was well aware of all this on Monday, May 9, 1904, the day he first rode one of the two big hydraulic elevators fourteen stories skyward to the editorial floor. Office lore had it that one of the first visitors to scale these heights, when the building opened in 1890, had peered into a door and inquired, “Is God in?” Cobb undoubtedly was more circumspect. Besides, he knew perfectly well that Pulitzer was away —at that moment soothing his embattled nerves at Aix-les-Bains in the French Alps. Cobb was greeted instead by William H. Merrill, the scholarly old editor, and introduced around as the newest member of the editorial staff. For a boy born in Shawnee County, Kansas, raised in the timber country of upper Michigan, and schooled on the newspapers of Grand Rapids and the still hick town of Detroit, the altitude must have seemed a trirle giddy.
Frank Cobb would rue that day, and so would Joseph Pulitzer. Then again, both of them would later come almost to cherish it. It began a relationship that was stormy but productive, and at times even touching. It brought together the man commonly accounted the architect of the modern American newspaper, and liis foremost editorialist.
Cobb, of course, was unknown, but in due course he would be considered by Woodrow Wilson and many other discerning readers as the editorial writer of his generation. An odd reflection of this is that when he died, members of the staff expressed genuine sympathy for the poor chap who had to succeed him, even though the successor was a bright prospect who had already made a mark: his name was Walter Lippmann. As for Pulitzer, by 1904 he rather enjoyed his status as a kind of hall-remembered legend. Since he never appeared in public, a lot of people thought of him (as he himself noted, with sardonic humor) as long since dead. But there was no one who hadn’t heard of him, or felt the impact of his work.
By birth Pulitzer was Hungarian, the well-tutored son of a Jewish grain merchant in Makó, who died young, and of a Catholic mother, who soon remarried. At seventeen, he arrived in this country in time to serve in Mr. Lincoln’s army during the final months of the Civil War. Then he roustabouted in St. Louis. He worked ferociously for a German-language paper there, studying English on the side. By the time he reached New York, still in his mid-thirties, this wiry, nervous apparition had served in the Missouri legislature; courted and married Kate Davis, a distant, aristocratic, and quite ravishing cousin of the former Confederate president; and bought himself a decrepit evening paper at auction and immediately merged it with a fearful competitors to form the St. Louis Post-Dispatch , which he turned into a lusty, crusading sheet that minted money. In the course of all this, Pulitzer had absorbed the ideas and ideals of democracy to an extent that, to the more sober burghers of the time and place, seemed positively alarming.