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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
This paradise for writers and editors was not to last. The Pulitzer brothers had sought advice from the lawyer who had drawn their father’s will as to whether it was possible for them to sell the World . His opinion was that it had been JP’s clear wish that the World be maintained, even at the cost of other assets, even if the Post-Dispatch had to be sold off to bolster the World ’s finances. When potential buyers asked the brothers if they would sell, the invariable answer was: “We wouldn’t if we could. We couldn’t if we would. ” All through the twenties the paper’s financial situation weakened. After Pulitzer’s death the brothers had taken twenty-five million dollars out of profits for personal income, leaving nothing for a rainy day or for growth and expansion. I remember hearing the night managing editor once mutter: “Another cable from Herbie. He wants $100,000 wired to him in Monte Carlo.”
In 1926 and 1927 Lippmann in quiet, reasoned editorials and Broun in raging columns campaigned for a new trial for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian-born anarchists who had been sentenced to death for a hold-up payroll murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts. Worldwide protests were being made that the men had been convicted not on the evidence but because of a prejudiced judge, and for the same reason had been denied retrial or clemency from the courts, the governor, and a special advisory committee headed by A. Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard.
Broun, with growing fury, called Harvard, his alma mater, “Hangman’s House,” and declared: “It is not everybody who has a president of Harvard throw a switch for him.… The fish peddler and his friend, the factory hand, … will die at the hands of men in dinner jackets or academic gowns.”
Lippmann, also a Harvard man, took the milder view that since the possibility of error existed, the sentences should be commuted to life imprisonment. Ralph Pulitzer, distressed by Broun’s choice of words, asked him to turn to other subjects. Broun quit and went over to Roy Howard’s Telegram .
In the late twenties Swope, now worn out and depressed, went to see a psychoanalyst—from which grew a legend perfectly in character but probably apocryphal. At the first session, the story goes, a stream of phone calls kept coming in for Swope from persons identifying themselves as financiers Thomas Lamont and Bernard Baruch, Gov. Al Smith, the industrialist Owen D. Young, and Franklin Roosevelt. The troubled analyst concluded that Swope was a paranoiac with grandiose delusions who had hired somebody to phone in under those famous names.
In any case, Swope resigned at the end of 1928 to pursue other interests, and soon Ralph Pulitzer followed him for reasons of health, making way for Herbert to take over. Herbert, now thirty-five, showed little interest in the paper. The flaming spirit that had impelled the World for almost half a century was dying. By 1930 the staff had noticed a disquieting phenomenon. Even the most extravagant expense accounts were going through the business department— generally a tiger in the matter of “swindle sheets”—totally unchallenged. The suspicion rose that management was deliberately trying to inflate the operating losses of the World . Circulation, even with the onset of the Depression, was improving for all three papers—morning, evening, and Sunday—but advertising was falling off.
Two months after Herbert Pulitzer took over, the staff learned that Roy Howard had made an offer of five million dollars for the name and goodwill of the three papers—the so-called intangible assets. But what about Joseph Pulitzer’s unbreakable will? Counsel for the brothers went before Surrogate James Foley of New York to argue that the World ’s losses were in danger of dissipating the rest of the estate’s assets and that therefore the heirs were entitled to sell.
Foley reserved decision for the moment. At once Jim Barrett dropped the mask of hard-boiled city editor and went into a storm of activity. He organized the staff into an employee association, got the free services of a former law partner of Franklin Roosevelt, and proposed that the staff buy the World themselves. Pledges of hundreds of thousands of dollars came in from all over the country, many from city rooms. Lt. Gov. Herbert Lehman privately pledged $150,000. Swope offered to form a syndicate of his rich friends and raise $10,000,000 to help the employees buy. All over town people rushed to do favors for the World staff.
On February 25, 1931, the final hearing came before Surrogate Foley. The staff’s lawyer, Gustavus Rogers, argued that the employees were preparing to make an offer that would top Roy Howard’s and that in any event no thought had been given to the 10 percent interest that Pulitzer had asked to be put aside for deserving employees. The surrogate said he would make known his decision the next day at the earliest. Barrett stationed two reporters, Bill Garrison and Emily Genauer (who later would win the Pulitzer Prize for her art criticism), outside Foley’s chambers. Early on February 27 they phoned in the death sentence: “Foley approves sale.”