Joseph Pulitzer and His Most “Indegoddampendent” Editor

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Cobb even came to wear his scars proudly. “Four years ago today,” he wrote Pulitzer on May 9, 1908, “I began work on the World. You will believe me, I know, when I say I would not barter these four years for any other years of my life.” Pulitzer did believe him, for by now he knew his man. In December of that year, the two held a long skull session aboard J. P.’s new ocean-going hospital, the colossal steam yacht Liberty , off New York Harbor. Cobb’s long memorandum of the conversation shows the forever dissatisfied one insisting that “the news treatment of politics and allied subjects must be raised, in temper, tone, accuracy, restraint, and moral courage, to the level… [of] the editorial columns.” Accordingly, Pulitzer outlined an experimental plan to make Cobb his overseer of both the news and editorial departments, “to the end that Mr. P.’s principles of journalism shall be… indelibly stamped upon the news columns… and that if possible the Pulitzer tradition shall remain with the World long after Mr. Pulitzer and also Mr. Cobb are dead.” The scheme never quite materialized, but it suggests the publisher’s esteem for Cobb. “The Page” was enough for Cobb. “You once said that there was more joy in making an editorial page than in anything else you knew of,” he wrote Pulitzer in 1910. “I fully agree with you.”

Not that editor and publisher had achieved permanent sweetness and light. They did enter a solemn compact, according to Seitz, “not to get mad at each other at the same time.” It went for naught. After a furious dispute aboard the Liberty once, Pulitzer ordered Cobb put off at Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, well after dark. The captain of the ship pointed out that there was no transportation to New York at that hour. Pulitzer shot back that his orders were to be obeyed, a boat was lowered, and Cobb was duly deposited on the lonely shore. (How he got home that night the records leave us to imagine.) Ralph Pulitzer’s dutifully recorded memorandum of another set-to aboard the Liberty shows that his father bridled when Cobb spoke of another editorial writer as helpful because he knew Mr. P.’s mind. No one knew his mind, snapped Pulitzer. If that were the case, Cobb retorted dryly, then Frank I. Cobb ought to be drowned.

Reflecting Pulitzer’s insistence that the editorial page stay abreast of the day’s news—he would throw a tantrum or accuse his editors of deliberately torturing him if the paper failed to comment on a major news development, no matter how late the news broke—Cobb worked incontinently long hours. Reading, researching, interviewing, briskly testing ideas and phrases on others in the corridors, in the city room, in the World ’s restaurant, keeping a hawk’s eye on all the other papers as he shaped his leader, he would turn to it only at the eleventh hour, locking himself in his small room in the dome and battering his typewriter in pent-up fury. His first marriage having ended in divorce, he gave up his home in Staten Island in 1909 and moved into a West Side flat, the better to follow this regimen, and though for years he smouldered over the injustice of the long hours, he finally admitted to Ralph Pulitzer that J. P. was right: the World was completely au courant , and there was nothing like it anywhere.

At length, Cobb appeared to be buckling under the strain. “Take entire week off for needed rest,” J. P. cabled in the spring of 1911. Two days later Pulitzer forgetfully cabled him fresh instructions (“more short, talk-making editorials for Sunday page”) and questions for immediate response. But that summer, Pulitzer gave his editor a six-week vacation in Europe, a trip that Cobb, by this time drawing a lordly $250 a week, could easily have afforded himself. J. P. not only paid his way, but took pains to instruct the captain and chief steward of the Baltic to look after him. (When J. P. gave an order, the whole White Star line snapped to attention, because for years he had been the firm’s most prodigal customer.) Cobb dutifully sat at the captain’s table and was all but suffocated with service. This and weeks of lazing in the English countryside restored him.

Pulitzer greeted Cobb’s first efforts upon his return with glee. Buy a hundred first-class cigars on me, he wrote, “but don’t… smoke more than three daily for your health.” Cobb bristled at such largess at times, but he did get the cigars—“I’m smoking two a day, thus showing my power of self-restraint.” There were still a few left, at that rate, when word came from the Liberty in Charleston Harbor that Joseph Pulitzer was dead.