Joseph Pulitzer and His Most “Indegoddampendent” Editor


The result was that Cobb was to take turns at running the editorial page, a month at a time, alternating with the milder-mannered John L. Heaton under Merrill’s fatherly eye. “Mr. P. agreed to be patient of blunders,” a memorandum about the arrangement concludes ominously, “if Mr. Cobb would be patient of criticism”—a large order either way. Mr. P. soon upset this routine, first by giving Merrill a long vacation, then by easing him out, and from time to time by depriving Cobb of his monthly turn, the worst punishment he could inflict.

Each August came the dreaded invitation from Chatwold, the Pulitzer estate at Bar Harbor. During these visits the blind man sought to pick his editor’s brains, instruct him, and chart the World ’s course. J. P. functioned best while in motion, either astride a favorite mount with his editor at his side, his watchful groom following, or cruising about the coves of Frenchman Bay in his big electric launch. He would pull news clippings, editorials, and memoranda from his pockets, thrust them at Cobb for reading, question him sharply, and then deliver a torrent of comment. When they got home he usually ordered his editor to write a report of the points he had made, to be certain they had penetrated. World editors and executives tended to pale at mention of Bar Harbor.

Whatever these visits did to the editor, in February of 1906 he wrote Pulitzer that the owners of the Detroit Free Press had offered him carte blanche and a piece of the paper to get him back, and that the offer was too good to refuse. This was in the mail to Jekyll Island when a telegram from there crossed it: “ HAVE JUST READ WEDNESDAY’S CRAZY PAGE AND IT HAS MADE ME SICK .” Cobb had run a slashing attack on New York’s Rapid Transit Board. It was, said Pulitzer, a splendid board; Cobb must run “a double-leaded paragraph expressing regret for your intemperance of language.” Cobb did nothing of the kind. As soon as J. P. returned to New York, the editor sent him a onesentence letter in an envelope marked “Personal and Immediate.” It was as terse as Pulitzer could ask:

Dear Mr. Pulitzer:

I hereby tender you my resignation to take immediate effect.

Respectfully yours, Frank I. Cobb

An urgent call on the private line from the Pulitzer mansion on Seventy-third Street fetched Seitz, and the two set out for a drive in Central Park in a snowstorm —a measure of J. P.’s agitation, for normally he would not venture outdoors without, at least one secretary’s weather report. What to do about Cobb? The bluff, pugnacious Seitz had grown fond of Cobb as a man after his own heart. (A typical J. P. telegram upbraiding him had come to his desk a few days before with an impish line added in Cobb’s hand—“Now will you be good?”) Still, Seitz saw no use in holding Cobb to his contract against his will, and said so. Pulitzer held his peace. The carriage completed its circuit. As it reached the Seventy-second Street exit he said quietly, “I liked that young man. I liked the way he swore.” The carriage turned up Fifth Avenue, half a block from home. Suddenly, in a voice full of fury that Seitz could never forget: “Go back to the office and tell that goddamned young fool I will not let him resign, goddamn him!”

Cobb took the news with a grin. Two days later J. P. came through with another raise, adding, by way of trying for the last word, that this was to be considered an inducement for better editorial writing. There were no last words between these two. Cobb gave Pulitzer to understand, in thanking him when the next raise came, that money was no object. “My tastes are rather simple,” he wrote. “What I care most about money is not having to think about it.”

Where did the World stand, in these years of its glory? Perhaps a paragraph from a Cobb editorial sums it up as well as anything can:

There is seldom more than one vital issue in American politics—government for Privilege versus government for the People. That is the beginning and end of the trust question, of the tariff question, of the financial question, of the conservation question, of the boss question.