Mrs. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

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And then Frank Leslie became ill with a neck cancer and died, leaving his forty-three-year-old widow to cope with debts, attacks on her reputation, and, inevitably, lawsuits from potential heirs who felt they deserved whatever of the publishing empire remained. On the face of it one would not have thought the odds very good on her being able to come out of the situation successfully. Although she had gained fame and influence as the editor of three of Leslie’s many magazines, the talent she had revealed in those jobs chiefly consisted of an ability to give the frothy topics of the Lady’s Magazine and the Lady’s Journal a tone of importance. She could make details of fashion resound with cosmic implications.

But in her years with the Leslie publishing house she had learned the details of how that large and complex organization functioned. With an eye long trained in detecting where opportunity might or might not lie, she saw its weaknesses and its potential. She pared the list of Leslie publications, and she pared her life-style, moving into a utilitarian flat and working from eight in the morning until eight at night. She designed a decorative cover for the Illustrated Newspaper , bettered the quality of its printing stock, improved the quality of woodcut printing, and sought out new writers. She won her lawsuits in the courts and found ways to satisfy her creditors. When they demanded an immediate fifty thousand dollars, she used her diamonds as security and managed to borrow the necessary amount.

On a Saturday morning in 1881 a disappointed office seeker, Charles J. Guiteau, shot President James A. Garfield in a Washington, B.C., railway station, and Mrs. Leslie saw her chance to wipe out the last of the Leslie debts. As soon as she heard rumors of the shooting, she sent artists off to Washington. One of them returned with sketches on Saturday’s midnight train, and by working her staff through the long weekend Mrs. Leslie managed to get the story engraved, set, printed, and on the streets before the competition. By Tuesday morning Leslie readers had their fully illustrated accounts, and she had netted fifty thousand dollars from a single journalistic coup.

When Garfield died two months later, Mrs. Leslie stopped the presses to ensure that her readers would get a fast account. She was far-sighted enough to have large quantities of Leslie papers for sale in Cleveland, where final services for the President were held. She was cold-eyed enough to give her readers the kind of sensational pictures they wanted. The Leslie papers not only showed doctors performing a post-mortem on the slain President, they also pictured the morticians at work embalming his body. The Illustrated Newspaper ’s, circulation, which had fallen to around thirty thousand, climbed to the two hundred thousand mark.

Miriam Leslie also went to court and had her name legally changed to Frank Leslie. Sometimes she explained that it was one of her husband’s deathbed wishes; but as biographer Madeleine Stern has pointed out, when it was convenient, Mrs. Leslie could remember his uttering a truly astounding number of deathbed wishes, considering that the man died of a choking ailment. A son of Frank Leslie’s involved in rival publishing ventures provided a hard, pragmatic reason for the name change. The son tried to capitalize on his father’s name, and by making herself “Frank Leslie” Miriam strengthened the claim that the trademark was hers, solely and absolutely.

With the hindsight of a century one has to wonder if the action wasn’t also symbolic. As her success with the publishing business proved, she was a bright, capable woman, but most of her achievements before she took over Leslie’s business had been ancillary: most of them had depended on her winning and keeping the affections of various men. Now she had arrived where that was no longer necessary, and the name change made that clear. She was no caretaker for Frank Leslie’s enterprises; she was in fact Frank Leslie.

Her publishing house continued to flourish. The four-story iron and marble building at the corner of Park Place and College Place was jammed with artists, engravers, and editors, with electrotype machines and presses. Altogether they consumed seventeen tons of paper a week and a sea of ink. Even after Mrs. Leslie pared down the list of publications, the house put out four weeklies and three monthlies with an aggregate circulation for a single edition of a quarter million copies. Each publication had a separate editor, but Mrs. Leslie oversaw them all, shifting the house’s resources from one publication to another as the need arose. No contract was made without her approval, and no checks were paid without her signature; nor did visitors often leave the establishment without meeting its “living head and presiding genius,” as Leslie’s Popular Monthly referred to her.