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Mr. McClure And Willa
They could hardly have been more temperamentally incompatible, but the Midwestern writer Willa Cather and the crusading editor S. S. McClure enjoyed a splendid working relationship for six years and a lifetime of mutual respect
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
At the heart of the trouble was the man himself. Sam McClure was an editorial genius, but his private affairs were messy and mismanaged. The brilliant editor who could conceive an exposé of Standard Oil and get Ida Tarbell to write it, who could give Lincoln Steffens carte blanche to bring in a story of municipal corruption, who could uncover the demons in the body politic, was incapable of controlling the demons in himself. He had an agile mind, crammed with bold and imaginative ideas, but he was hopeless when it came to money and appallingly inept in his romantic attachments. His restless nature demanded that he constantly be on the move, and he had grown accustomed to spending months at a time out of the office, usually in Europe, sometimes traveling in the United States. An able staff, headed by John Phillips, with Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker, managed the magazine without him.
In the beginning the arrangement had seemed to work well. It was something of a respite for the staff to have the manic presence removed, and for McClure it was an opportunity to look around for new talent—he had first met Ida Tarbell when she was working in Paris—and to develop new markets. He not only had the magazine to occupy him but a publishing house and a highly successful syndicate as well. For ten years McClure had been able to keep his own needs and those of the magazine in some sort of balance, but it became increasingly evident that even heroic measures on the part of the staff and his own frequent acts of contrition were insufficient to prevent an explosion.
Willa Cather left her own impression of McClure in the person of O’Malley, who appears in the 1918 short story “Ardessa” as the editor of a “red-hot magazine of protest” called The Outcry . Like McClure, O’Malley had bought the magazine to make a stir, and he had built up an organization of which “he was somewhat afraid and with which he was vastly bored. There were five famous men on his staff and he had made every one of them.” In perhaps the most acute description of her own boss, Willa wrote: “Constraint was the last thing O’Malley liked. The most engaging and unusual thing about the man was that he couldn’t be fooled by the success of his own methods, and no amount of ‘recognition’ could make a stuffed shirt of him. … O’Malley went in for everything, and got tired of everything; that was why he made a good editor.”
But by 1904 McClure’s staff had grown tired of him. They hadn’t minded the absences from the office, the working trips abroad, but when word came back of his more notorious escapades, of the young women who accompanied him on his grand sweeps through Europe, of the vast sums of money he was spending, the office was disgusted. Ida Tarbell, in a private letter to John Phillips, called McClure a “canny, scheming, unstable soul—now at the height of aspiration and ambition and now in the mire.” His wife had taken to coming to the office and was given a room and a desk where she could keep an eye on things, but her seeming indifference served only to infuriate Ida Tarbell. “Mrs. McClure is stone blind and deaf and dumb,” wrote Tarbell. “She makes me wild.”
Only a woman who had never been married could seriously have believed that Hattie McClure was unaware of her husband’s philandering. No one knew him better than she did, his formidable weaknesses as well as his formidable gifts, but in her own way Hattie was as canny as he and even more tenacious. For seven years, while Sam McClure worked his way through Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Hattie had held out against her parents’ opposition to the penniless young Irishman who courted her. So strongly did her father disapprove that he sent his daughter away to school, refused to divulge her address, and forbade the young couple to correspond. He made it very clear that the front door of the Hurd home would always be closed to Hattie’s suitor. Still they persisted, until one day Hattie informed her parents that she intended to marry Sam with or without their blessing. At his wife’s urging, Professor Hurd grudgingly permitted the wedding to take place at home, but he took the occasion to reiterate his opinion of the groom in a letter to the bride: “I consider him conceited, impertinent and meddlesome,” he wrote, at the same time reassuring his daughter that, “I shall not cease to love you.”
McClure’s subsequent success somewhat mollified his in-laws, but the professor’s sentiments never really changed. For Hattie the marriage had been achieved with too much heartache for her to turn on her husband now when his staff was closing ranks against him. Besides, Hattie Hurd McClure was a proud woman who knew how to keep her feelings to herself, and she would not allow herself to be disconcerted by office gossip. She had hoped that by working in the office she would be able to look out for McClure’s interests, but the atmosphere was deteriorating daily. Meetings were held in corridors and behind closed doors to compare notes about the publisher’s latest offense. Writers and editors who had addressed themselves to the sins of society in the pages of McClure’s Magazine were now charging the publisher himself with the most heinous defects of character.