October/november 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 6
It exposed corruption. It hired drunks. Good writing was rewarded. No wonder every newspaperman wanted to work there.
For three days in the fall of 1930 a bearded, former Norwegian seaman could be seen pacing back and forth at the front entrance of the Pulitzer Building on Park Row, New York City, home of the World , with a sandwich sign that read, “Hire Joe Liebling!”
Unfortunately for Joe Liebling, who had paid for the sandwich man, the World ’s city editor, Jim Barrett, generally used the back door on Williams Street, whether for lunch at Racky’s restaurant or a nip at DaIy’s, the staff speakeasy. Rarrett never saw the sign, but in the end Liebling did get to do pieces for the World ’s Sunday supplements and eventually went on to a distinguished career as A. J. Liebling, the New Yorker press critic, war correspondent, gourmand, and patron saint of U.S. reporters everywhere.
Liebling was just one of hundreds of newspapermen all over America who tried to get a job on the World .
Although the last decade has seen the death of such great newspapers as the Washington Star and the Philadelphia Bulletin , no closing ever evoked such grief from newspapermen and readers alike as the day in February of 1931 when the World suspended publication and was merged into the Scripps-Howard chain.
People sorrowed over the death of the World as over the passing of a devoted friend—a friend always sensitive to their needs and ready to intervene when rapacious elements threatened the public welfare. They admired the World ’s frequent crusades: against the Ku Klux Klan, against a peonage system in Florida, against the sugar trust or graft in building the Panama Canal. They saw the World bring justice and compensation to victims of radium poisoning in a New Jersey clock factory and protect thousands of homeowners from tax sharks. They cheered when the paper stood up to and thwarted a criminal libel action brought bv Teddv Roosevelt.
Joseph Pulitzer had set the character of the World as soon as he acquired the paper in 1883. He pledged that it would “always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing the news … never be afraid to attack wrong.”
To balance the gravity of its crusades, the paper offered entertainment in its “human interest” stories, in its op-ed columns, and in such ventures as sending Nellie Ely around the world in seventy-two days, clipping eight days from the time of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg.
What Mr. Pulitzer’s paper came to mean to its readers- 313,000 at the end— was poignantly expressed by one of its top reporters, Philip Pearl: “The World was read in Harlem, in Hell’s Kitchen, in the colleges, on the East Side, in Greenwich Village, and, especially, in all newspaper off ices. It appealed alike to the intelligent and the simple because it was imbued with a fundamental sympathy. It had a heart. It had courage. It was interested in events chiefly as they affected human beings. At times it grew maudlin over life’s little tragedies or great joys. But it could never treat them matter-of-factly.
“The World did not attempt to print all the news. For this it was branded as something less than a newspaper. Of course, it always gloried in being a good deal more than a newspaper. But, save in breathless spurts, it couldn’t approach the completeness, the mechanical precision and the impersonal proficiency of the Times . It lacked method and organization and direction.… [but] Out of the daily chaos there evolved a live, readable newspaper, usually well-written and wellbalanced.”
As much as the World was loved by its readers, it was feared by malefactors. As a boy reporter during the World ’s investigation of crooked judges in 1930, I was sent to interview a New York State supreme court justice on a totally unrelated matter. The moment I was announced, he beck-oned me into his chambers, pale and shaken.
“Look,” he said to me, “it’s true I got on the bench in a deal with the Republicans to create ten new judgeships, but I swear to you, I’ve never done one dishonest thing. I’ve worked hard. Please don’t wreck my career. Please don’t bring shame on my family.”
I assured him I wouldn’t. It was clear that at age twenty-two I had reached a peak of grandeur never to be surpassed in my later life: I was able to call myself “Davidson of the World .”
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.
A pistol shot drove him from St. Louis again. The gunman this time was his chief editorial writer, Col. John A. Cockerill, who shot and killed a politician, claiming self-defense. The incident caused great public indignation and coincided with a general failure of Pulitzer’s health. His eyes had been damaged by long hours of reading by gaslight, and he coughed blood, suffered insomnia along with attacks of asthma and spells of depression, and showed signs of incipient diabetes, all of which would plague him the rest of his life.
Bound for Europe with his wife for rest and recuperation, Pulitzer stopped over in New York and seized the chance to buy the World for $346,000. He nailed to the masthead a pledge of what the new World would be, and it stayed there until the paper’s last day: “An institution that should always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty. ” Signs were posted along the walls of the city room with Pulitzer’s standing order to his staff: ACCURACY. TERSENESS. ACCURACY . The World had no sacred cows, and it never knuckled under to advertisers. When the manager of a department store where a murder had taken place called to demand that the story be killed, the reporter was instead told by his editor: “Put the name of the store in the first line of the first sentence of the first paragraph. We’re going to teach people that when they buy space in this Daner, they don’t buy the paper along with it.”
Only a year after buying the World , Pulitzer was largely responsible for electing a President. The presidential campaign of 1884 had degenerated early into a contest of scandal and doggerel. Republicans, discovering that Democrat Grover Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate son (which Cleveland frankly and publicly admitted), chanted:
The Democrats, uncovering a letter Republican James G. Blaine had written a money baron with a postscript asking him to “Burn this letter,” worked up their own chant:
It became evident toward the end of the campaign that New York was going to be the key state. With only a week to go before the election, Pulitzer made a brilliant stroke. On the morning of October 29 a minister in a group of Protestant clergy greeting Blaine denounced the Democrats as the party of “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Blaine took no notice of the remark. In fact nobody did, except the man from the World . In a city with five hundred thousand Irish, German, and Italian Catholics, nothing could be more deadly.
That evening Blaine was given a dinner by 180 financiers, including William H. Vanderbilt, Russell Sage, John Jacob Astor, Andrew Carnegie, and Jay Gould. Reporters were strictly barred, but characteristically the World learned about the proceedings from start to finish. Pulitzer sent for his favorite cartoonist, Walt McDougall.
Next morning the World ’s front page was devoted entirely to Blaine. An article told of the “rum, Romanism, and rebellion” remark. Nearby a cartoon mimicked the Babylonian feast in the Bible where a finger wrote on the wall, “You have been weighed and found wanting,” and a seven-column streamer went across the page: “The Royal Feast of Belshazzar Blaine and the Money Kings.” The half-page, crowded drawing showed Blaine flanked by tycoons, eating “Monopoly Soup,” “Lobby Pudding,” and “Gould Pie,” while an unemployed man and his starving wife and child begged for crumbs from the table.
On November 7 the vote was in, and New York’s Union League Club lowered its flag to half-mast. Cleveland had carried the state by 1,149 votes and with it the Presidency. (And Pulitzer himself had been elected to Congress, although he resigned four months later because, he asserted, it took him away from his work.)
Occasionally Pulitzer began to feel that the World ’s do-goodism was making the paper ponderous and dull. During one such spell he called his close associate and biographer Don C. Seitz to his home in Lakewood, New Jersey, and declared: “The trouble is nobody on the staff gets drunk anymore. Bradford Merrill never gets drunk, Van Hamn never gets drunk, Pomeroy Burton never gets drunk; and you never get drunk. When I was in the office someone always got drunk and we got out a paper. Go back to New York and find a reporter who gets drunk. When you find him, hire him for life.”
Seitz dutifully went on a drunk-hunt through the Park Row saloons frequented by newspapermen, where he ran into Esdaile Cohen, former physician, brilliant writer, and heavy drinker. He had worked for almost every newspaper in town and said that he had just been fired by Hearst because, “I can’t leave the hard stuff alone.”
“You’re just the man!” said Seitz. Cohen went on the payroll and stayed there, setting a standard of brilliant writing between periodic bouts.
The growth of the World to 170,000 copies a day, surpassing the Morning Sun , the establishment of an evening edition of the World , and basic political differences spurred the Evening Sun editor, Charles A. Dana, to launch a war of vituperation against Pulitzer. Dana led off with, “Judas Iscariot … that political road agent … a renegade Jew who denied his breed …”
Pulitzer gave back as good as he got, describing Dana as “a tool of Jim Fisk and Gould…a poltroon in an hour of danger … poor, despised, disgraceful old Ananias …”
“Move on, Pulitzer, move on!” Dana shouted day after day.
“Here for good!” was Pulitzer’s regular reply.
Pulitzer was soon to face a far greater threat to his papers from a wealthy young man who had worked briefly on the World himself—William Randolph Hearst. After learning all he could from the World , Hearst bought the Morning Journal , which had been owned by Pulitzer’s estranged brother, Albert, and set out to copy Pulitzer’s policies exactly: crusades for reform plus entertainment.
Hearst’s first move was to steal a big chunk of the World ’s top brass, including editor Arthur Brisbane, by doubling their salaries. Next he lured away the entire Sunday staff, along with the nation’s most popular cartoon strip, The Yellow Kid . In inaugurating the “funnies” as a newspaper feature in 1894, Pulitzer had R. F. Outcault do his smiling slum urchin. Now Pulitzer hired the artist George Luks to continue a rival Yellow Kid in the World . For the next two years it was raid and counter raid, with both sides offering unprecedented salaries, up to ten thousand dollars a year. Hearst finally called for a truce, after using up eight million dollars of his mother’s money.
In the midst of all this Pulitzer went to his office one day after a sleepless night and called for proofs of the day’s editorials. All he could see was a blank page. It was the beginning of his blindness. His nervous condition now grew steadily more acute, making him so morbidly sensitive to certain sounds that he could not bear the clink of a fork against a dinner plate, the sipping of soup, the crunching of toast, or the rattle of paper. But he could still enjoy the sounds of galloping horses, a booming surf, or the wind in the trees. Obviously he could not go on working all day in the tumult of a newspaper office, and his doctors said he must retire.
Pulitzer had no intention of abandoning his newspaper to other hands. He found a solution of sorts but, except for three short visits, never again went to his beloved Pulitzer Building. Instead, he made elaborate arrangements with a corps of six secretary-companions who picked up preshipped batches of the World at every stop along the route of his travels, read every line of every news story to him, and took dictation of an endless flow of telegrams, cables, and letters that praised or scolded the handling of every major article and editorial. These secretary-companions had to go through a rigorous process before he accepted them. Not only did he demand that they have pleasant voices, a cheerful manner, and refrain from the forbidden noises, they also were put through a stiff interrogation on the arts, the sciences, political affairs, literature, and world problems. By this system he continued to edit the World closely from his numerous homes: at Bar Harbor, Maine; Lakewood, New Jersey; Jekyll Island, Georgia; abroad in Paris and London; from his yacht Liberty . Stanford White designed a marble palace for him on East Seventy-third Street in New York, but street noises made it so unbearable to Pulitzer that he had a windowless, completely soundproof annex built in back. There he worked and slept; it became known as the “vault.”
To keep private all telegraphed and cabled messages, Pulitzer created twenty thousand code names and words. He dubbed himself “Andes.” J. P. Morgan was “Gadroon,” Woodrow Wilson was “Melon,” Tammany Hall was “Greyhound,” and President Cleveland was “Graving.” A typical coded message read: “Continue Mohican assistant Gruesome making Gushless Gruesome during Glorify’s vacation.” This translated as: “Continue Charles Lincoln as assistant managing editor, making Oliver K. Bovard managing editor during J. J. Spurgeon’s vacation.”
“Grammarite” was Frank I. Cobb, chief editorial writer, who came from the Detroit Free Press after catching the eye of a World scout whom Pulitzer had sent around the country to study big-city editorials and meet the writers. Before hiring Cobb, Pulitzer probed him on everything from his education and politics to the technique of consuming soup noiselessly.
Once Cobb went to work, he was promptly subjected to a stream of caustic critiques. “I hope Cobb will improve with age,” Pulitzer wrote. “The first two editorials you sent as excellent specimens of irony… were to my mind or taste very poor. Flippancy … triviality, frivolity are not irony—please underscore these few words and put them in Cobb’s brain. ” Cobb, outraged, was ready to quit, but stayed on—ultimately as Pulitzer’s favorite—until his death nineteen years later.
As the crusades went on, Pulitzer complained to the English publisher Alfred Harmsworth: “I am the loneliest man in the world. People who dine at my table one night might find themselves arraigned in my newspaper the next morning.” This was the case when his cherished friend Sen. Chauncy Depew got involved in a financial scandal.
Pulitzer did make one compassionate concession to an old enemy. One day a wistful note came to him from J. P. Morgan, who was extremely sensitive about his huge strawberrylike nose. Could the cartoonist McDougall moderate his treatment of the Morgan nose? Pulitzer, sensitive about his own large nose, asked the astonished artist to go easy.
Politically, Pulitzer leaned toward the Democrats but did not hesitate to foster and support Republicans. In 1905, when the World uncovered huge frauds among the three leading insurance companies, he urged that the young lawyer Charles Evans Hughes, a Republican, be put in charge of a state investigation. His backing ultimately led Hughes to become governor of New York, secretary of state, chief justice of the United States, and very nearly President. Hughes said later that the attitude of the World perplexed him greatly “because it always seemed to speak from principle and conviction, never from personal motive. ”
Pulitzer never did get on with Theodore Roosevelt, especially after disclosing on one occasion that TR had accepted a $125,000 campaign contribution from J. P. Morgan and similar donations from other financiers. Things came to a head when the World learned that the federal government was buying at face value forty million dollars of securities of the defunct French company that had started the Panama Canal. Insiders, who had bought a large block of the shares cheaply, profited hugely when these were redeemed at face value. Arhong those insiders, the World suggested (without solid proof), were President Roosevelt’s brotherin-law, Douglas Robinson, and President-to-be William Howard Taft’s brother Charles. On his last day in office.TR, in a rage, ordered a criminal libel action against the World under an obscure 1825 statute to “Protect the Harbor Defense from Malicious Injury.” Pulitzer replied, “ The World will not be muzzled!” It was a two-year battle before a federal judge quashed the case, and the Supreme Court further ruled that the President has no power to bring such actions.
Pulitzer died on October 29,1911, of a heart attack aboard his yacht while one of his secretaries was reading to him from a biography of Louis XI. His last words were whispered in German: “Softly, very softly.”
A generous but demanding and critical father, Pulitzer had fought endlessly with his two eldest sons, Ralph, age thirty-two at his father’s death, and Joseph, Jr., twenty-six, reserving his uncritical love for sixteen-year-old Herbert, born after Pulitzer went blind. To the family’s astonishment, the will disposed of the World by leaving 60 percent of the stock to Herbert; 20 percent to Ralph, who was now to take his father’s place as editor of the World ; 10 percent to Joseph, Jr.; and the final 10 percent to be divided among deserving employees. Pulitzer stipulated that the World was to be carried on as a public trust, like the Pulitzer Prizes he had established and the Columbia University School of Journalism. “I particularly enjoin upon my sons and my descendants,” the will read, “the duty of preserving, perfecting and perpetuating The World … as a public institution, from motives higher than mere gain. ”
Joseph, Jr., went off at once to St. Louis, where, with the aid of O. K. Bovard, whom he took along as his managing editor, he made the Post-Dispatch one of the best, most influential, and profitable papers in the United States. Ralph, an able but mild-mannered editor, lacked the temperament to carry on his father’s fiercely aggressive policies. Nevertheless, as Jim Barrett said, recalling his arrival from Denver in 1912, “One could see how the World set the pace and dominated the metropolitan press. On every story it was the World man who commanded greatest attention and respect.”
In that same year and out of Pulitzer’s own original turf, St. Louis, came a young man of exactly his height, with the same Roman nose and Grecian head, and enough of a resemblance to perpetuate the legend—unfounded—that he was a natural son of Pulitzer, come to save the kingdom.
Herbert Bayard Swope at once became the World ’s spectacular star reporter. On any major story, Swope would not only get all the information the other reporters did but a great deal more besides. He had an uncanny ability to charm people into telling him more than they intended and sometimes into doing more than could have been expected.
In July of 1922 he induced a Broadway gambler, Herman Rosenthal, to give the World an affidavit charging extortions by police officials, one of whom—Lt. Charles Becker of the Broadway precinct—had even forced his way, Rosenthal said, into his business as a 20 percent partner.
Next Swope took charge of the somewhat slothful district attorney, Charles Whitman, and got him to open a grand-jury inquiry. During the early morning of July 16, a day before Rosenthal was to testify, he was called out of the Hotel Metropole and was shot dead at close range by four men who fled in a gray car. Some witnesses noted the license plates. Within an hour Swope was at Whitman’s home, shaking him awake and hauling him to the police station, where Swope wrote a statement for Whitman to the effect: “I accuse the Police Department of New York of this murder.”
Next Swope rounded up a covey of Broadway gamblers who swore Becker had ordered Rosenthal’s murder. The four gunmen were traced, found, and went down in New York history under their business names of Gyp the Blood, Lefty Louie, Whitey Lewis, and Dago Frank.
It was Swope’s story all the way through the first trial of Becker, which resulted in a mistrial, and the second, which brought the death sentence. The policeman protested his innocence to the end, and there are those who maintain that he was railroaded to the chair on the testimony of sleazy characters with their own axes to grind.
In any event, again with Swope’s prodding, Whitman also sent four police inspectors to prison for protecting vice and gambling. Next year Whitman was elected governor, and Swope was known as the reporter who had got him the job.
In 1915 Ralph Pulitzer appointed Swope city editor. In his new post, Swope attacked the news with such proprietary zest—he would talk of “my snowstorm,” “my subway accident,” “my murder trial”—that in his first year his list of triumphs was topped by one of the truly sensational stories of World War I. He exposed the entire system of espionage and sabotage emanating from the German embassy in Washington. Later he fought fake and wasteful war charities and put hundreds of such agencies out of business. He came to the aid of a Long Islander who had lost his house because of an overlooked tax bill of $8.50, and exposed a tax-shark ring that had cost thousands their homes.
It was the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 that provided Swope with his greatest opportunity for grandeur and gall. The powers in charge were permitting only a few favored journalists to attend the opening session. But Swope, costumed in a silk hat, cutaway, and striped trousers, marched in unchallenged. Day after day he obtained restricted documents and cabled exclusive stories to the World .
In 1921 came one of the paper’s greatest investigative triumphs, an exposé of the Ku Klux Klan, which had reached a national membership of half a million. The World uncovered a complete file on the Klan: its rituals, a roster of its top Kleagles, King Kleagles, and Goblins, and dossiers on scores of outrages. Readers came to the Pulitzer Building nightly to grab copies of the paper as they came off the press. Out of town, issues sold for as much as a dollar.
When Frank Cobb died in 1923, Ralph Pulitzer chose as his successor Walter Lippmann, a rising young intellectual, essayist, commentator, and student of public affairs. With him came a reduction of the stridency on the editorial page. Lippmann would say of himself, “Damn it, I can’t be sounding bugle calls.” Swope was named managing editor and promptly raised his rank a notch by inventing for himself the title of “executive editor. ” He garnished his office with the first rugs ever seen on the twelfth floor. To balance the sobriety of Lippmann’s editorials, Swope invented the “op-ed,” or page opposite the editorial page, and peopled it with stars raided from other newspapers: Heywood Broun and his column “It Seems to Me” and Franklin Pierce Adams with his “Conning Tower.” He also hired Alexander Woollcott as drama critic, Harry Hansen as book reviewer, and Deems Taylor, the noted composer, as music critic.
Two young editors and occasional columnists, Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson, thought up an idea for a play one day while eating in the grubby staff restaurant and ended up writing one of the great hits of the twenties, What Price Glory . John Balderston, the World ’s London correspondent, matched them by writing Berkeley Square . James M. Cain, a dour young editorial writer, assigned against his will to do such conventional pieces as “The First Day of Spring,” won fame later as author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity .
Harry Hansen explained why reviewing books for the World was different from reviewing anywhere else: “I had no idea that books meant life and death to so many people until I began reviewing them in a slim column seven days a week. Everywhere … men took their pens in hand to make their own comment or to administer a needed corrective. Sometimes a tired mind, or carelessness, permitted slips … none ever went unnoticed … and one week after New York had had its say I would hear from San Diego, or Tucson, or even months later from the Riviera, where forlorn New Yorkers paid a premium for The World . I knew that I was not writing into a void.”
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.”
The staff went right on working to put out one of the best-reported, best-written, and best-edited editions in the World ’s history. How they felt was another matter. Jim Barrett said later: “I was the so-called star reporter of the Denver Times in 1912, [when] it was sold. I had no feeling whatsoever about that sale. Under the cruel merging operations of Frank A. Munsey I saw the Press , the Herald , the old Morning Sun , the Globe and the Mail close up. I knew many of the boys who worked on them, but never saw any of them manifest the slightest sorrow for the passing of their paper. Not until nineteen years after the Denver experience did I learn that it was possible for men and women to cry over the death of a newspaper. Not until now did I find out that a newspaper could be as dear to men and women as their wives or husbands or religion.”
The last issue was put to bed at midnight, after which we all went to DaIy’s speakeasy feeling, we said, like “intangible assets.” At the all-night wake Heywood Broun mused on the nature of things “intangible.” He remarked that a lawyer at the surrogate’s hearing had expressed amazement that a paper that lost two million dollars in one year could command any of that intangible value known as “goodwill.” “He was reasoning,” Broun went on, “from the basis upon which fish are sold and wire wheels turned out. A newspaper is a rule in itself. It has a soul for salvation or damnation. … I was glad that for once the emphasis was taken away from mere machinery. … The intangibles of a newspaper are the men and women who make it.”
Half a century later it is still vivid to me how, on emerging from DaIy’s windowless precincts, we found that it was daylight and that people who hadn’t worked for the World were going about their business. We went to Childs to eat. Then we went back to the deserted office, because we didn’t have any other place to go.