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What Made The ‘World’ Great?
It exposed corruption. It hired drunks. Good writing was rewarded. No wonder every newspaperman wanted to work there.
October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
When Pulitzer bought the World in 1883, it was a lethargic, mild-mannered sheet that Jay Gould—“the Skunk of Wall Street”—employed to promote his stock swindles. Only four years after buying the paper and remaking it, Pulitzer went blind, at age forty, and eventually was overwhelmed by a mass of physical and nervous ailments. Nevertheless he continued to edit his paper with an iron hand. To put together a staff, Pulitzer raided top men from newspapers around the country and taught them a terse, hard-hitting style while he imbued them with concern about public affairs. Sometimes they complained they had been enrolled in a school of journalism.
“Gentlemen,” he once said, “you realize that a change has taken place in the World . Heretofore you have all been living in the parlor and taking baths every day. Now I wish you to understand that you are all walking down the Bowery.”
Pulitzer had a phenomenal ability to galvanize his staff. Walt McDougall, who as a young artist dropped off a drawing at the office one day and was called back to become the World ’s political cartoonist, a job he held for decades after, said, “I have known of no other boss who personally infected his employees with such fiery, ardent energy.” Loyalty went two ways. For good work JP regularly rewarded staff members with generous bonuses and raises, as well as with silk hats and fur-lined overcoats.
“The Liberator of American Journalism”—as his admirers called him for transforming the newspapers of his time from mere party organs or servitors of private interests—was born in Makó, Hungary, in 1847, son of a half-Magyar, half-Jewish father and an Austro-German Catholic mother. In search of adventure the seventeen-year-old Pulitzer, already six feet two and a half inches tall, tried to enlist in the Austrian army, the French foreign legion, and the British Indian army, only to be rejected again and again for poor eyesight and physical frailty. But a recruiting agent for the Union army grabbed him, and he wound up riding with the First New York Lincoln Cavalry in Sheridan’s army. Ever the butt of L Company for his clumsy English and endless questions, he was dubbed the “skinny kid with the big nose.” Once, when a noncom pushed him too far, Pulitzer punched him in the face. Only the intervention of a captain who enjoyed playing chess with the young soldier saved him from court-martial.
Mustered out, Pulitzer asked around about where he might settle in the United States: he wanted a place where German was not spoken, so that he could improve his English. A practical joker, it is said, sent him to St. Louis, which had a colony large enough to make a sizable town in Germany. Traveling by boxcar Pulitzer worked along the way as a stevedore, waiter, hack driver, river-steamer roustabout, and cemetery keeper.
In the city where he had gone to avoid the German language, one of the first jobs he landed was as secretary to a German immigrant-aid society. At the same time, he read law in an attorney’s office and was admitted to the bar, although he never really practiced law. He began to submit free-lance articles to the Westliche Post , a German-language daily edited by the eminent Carl Schurz. Taken on as a reporter, Pulitzer was soon attacking the “county courthouse ring” and the hordes of lobbyists at the legislature. For his outstanding work, he was made part owner of the paper.
One day a burly lobbyist publicly insulted and physically threatened Pulitzer. Pulitzer went home to get his fourbarreled Sharp’s pistol, returned to the lobbyist, and shot him in the knee. He got off with a four-hundred-dollar fine but felt it was time to leave St. Louis.
Pulitzer sold his interest in the Westliche Post and went to Washington, D. C., where he took on a law case or two but mostly wrote articles for Charles A. Dana’s New York Sun. There he met and married Kate Davis, a distant cousin of Jefferson Davis. Then, on impulse, he returned to St. Louis, bought the decrepit St. Louis Dispatch , and combined it with the equally feeble Post to form the Post-Dispatch . Master at last of his own newspaper, he initiated his policy of reform and entertainment. “You may write the most sublime philosophy,” he said, “but if nobody reads it, where are you?”
His earliest issues tell the story. Page one featured headlines like: GIRL IN RED TIGHTS, SHOCKING DISCLOSURES, KISSING IN CHURCH, LOVED THE COOK , and DUPED AND DESERTED . On the editorial page he launched campaigns against tax dodgers, the gas company, the streetcar monopoly, and insurance frauds. Working eighteen and twenty hours a day, Pulitzer increased the paper’s circulation, income, and prestige.