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Joseph Pulitzer and His Most “Indegoddampendent” Editor
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
Pulitzer already knew about the new boy in school. J. P. had been hunting a successor to Merrill, whom he had taken to addressing as “My Dear Old Man” for more than two years. In typical Pulitzer fashion, the search became exasperatingly thorough. He had commanded Don Seitz, his able lieutenant, to send him reports on every editorial writer in New York. Xone would do. Seitz and others had scanned out-of-town papers fruitlessly. When Samuel M. Williams, one of J. P.’s favorite reporters, bet that he could find the right man, Pulitzer dispatched him forthwith on a cross-country quest that ended with a few spirited lines he found in the Detroit Free Press . Williams tracked down the author and sent an enthusiastic report to J. P., only to be ordered to interview the innocent prospect again and yet again. What did this Cobb look like? What had he read? What did he know about American history? How were his table manners? “Search his brain,” Pulitzer told Williams, “for everything there is in it.” And please send more editorials.
The word from Detroit was that Frank Gobb looked like a lumberjack, which was logical, because that was what he had been. Big, powerfully built, and carelessly dressed, he had a thatch of tousled hair that obscured a broad brow; his eyes were straightforward and intelligent, his jaw becomingly belligerent. As to his reading, writing, and table manners, the President of the United States could testify. Passing through Detroit once, Theodore Roosevelt had been so taken by a Cobb editorial on the unlikely subject of Scandinavian literature that he loo had inquired for the author and had him to lunch. On another occasion. Cobb had challenged T. R. on some point of American history now lost to the ages, and carried the day.
Pulitzer absorbed all this, and listened impatiently to batches of Cobb editorials read to him in relays by the harried young men who served him as secretaries. Hack went the verdict. Cobb was “too prolix … not incisive, terse, and direct enough.” Let Williams tell him so—test number one. Cobb retorted, “Few newspaper publishers are willing to give an editorial writer time to be brief.… I sometimes think the time varies inversely with the square of the length.” J. P. summoned him to Jekyll Island that March, then sent word to Merrill that, come May, Gobb was to go on trial at $100 a week.
The probation lasted about two years and included, along with several raises and some compliments, comments by Pulitzer that he had to leave the room for a breath of air after listening to Cobb’s efforts; that they made him sick ( a colloquialism he used frequently and often meant literally); that Seitz should present to Cobb a beautifully made set of miniature silver scales as a reminder to weigh his words more meticulously; that Cobb’s irony turned out as flippancy; that he was guilty of “silly schoolboy recklessness, overzeal and lack of restraint”; and that (on the other hand) he tended to favor a remote academic issue over a “concrete, burning one.” For his part, Cobb on at least one occasion chose to ignore J. P.’s orders for an editorial. When Puliizer inquired pointedly at what hour his instructions had been delivered, Cobb wrote Seitz that he could inform the boss they had arrived at 11 P.M. , and, “not being a damned fool,” he had not attempted an editorial at that hour; Cobb expressed resentment at “insinuations that he is neglecting his work,” and said he had “no excuses or apologies to offer.”
By December of his first year, the new boy knew he would be around for a while. Old Merrill dutifully reported to Pulitzer that he had read at least thirty editorials in other papers on Roosevelt’s annual message to Congress, and “not one of them seemed to me equal to Cobb’s in discrimination, fairness, and style.… I do not know of so capable and promising a young man for the first place.” Seitz and others were equally enthusiastic. J. P. ordered that Cobb be signed to a three-vear contract and had him come by for a talk.