Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print & Power
by James McGrath Morris, HarperCollins, 536 pages Biography is a craft demanding great craftiness — especially if the person being biographed has already undergone a sitting or more.
The latest biographer may choose freely from what’s already been written about the subject but must carefully rephrase what was written in the book before — and should come up with not only new insights but also new information; otherwise, why bother writing — and reading — the latest model?
When it comes to Joseph Pulitzer, there is great reason for the new work by Santa Fean James McGrath Morris, renowned as an expert in biography. It’s a fine telling of the joys and perils of the fourth estate.
Pulitzer, who battled toe-to-toe withWilliam Randolph Hearst at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries for newspaper primacy, is more than merely an American-dream subject, an immigrant who made good. In confronting another titan of the time, Theodore Roosevelt, he became part of a case study in presidential wrath.
The criminal indictment of Pulitzer for his paper’s daring to dig into corruption in Panama Canal contracting was more than unbecoming of that great national leader; it also served as an ongoing lesson to the news media: cross the powerful at your peril, but cross them just the same, if that’s what it takes to deliver truth to your readers. Morris had the devil’s own time getting a look at documents touching on Roosevelt’s attempt to put Pulitzer behind bars. Archivists claimed there were no such files— but Morris, mirabile dictu, found them when he got help with a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act. He contributes more to the Roosevelt-Pulitzer battle thanW.A. Swanberg did in his 1967 work on Pulitzer.
Morris also found new material on Pulitzer’s brother, Albert, and Albert’s move to America from the family’s native Hungary, as well as love letters to Pulitzer’s wife from someone who signed with only a single initial.
Those scooplets aside, there is all kinds of delightful but long-familiar copy about the regal splendor of the publisher’s life-and work-styles: his tower office in the great gilded-dome Pulitzer Building in New York— briefly the tallest building in the world; his gallivanting about the globe; his instructions to editors back home about how much or how little they should disturb him — and about what— and his insistence on silence, even aboard his steam-powered private vessel. On a more tragic note was the onset of blindness.
In addition to some engaging tales of Pulitzer’s high living after his St. Louis paper became a force to be reckoned with and the New YorkWorld duked it out daily with Hearst’s American as well as the Herald of James Gordon Bennett and Charles Dana’s Sun, and then later with The New York Times of Adolph Ochs, Morris recounts sometimesstrained relations between the great man and at least two of his sons. And while Pulitzer became more and more reclusive, his wife, Kate Davis, delighted in the social butterflying that might have attracted the love letters Morris unearthed.
And Morris offers some fresh and some rehashed accounts of the publisher’s role in running his papers — often as not from the comfort of his summer retreat at Bar Harbor, his winter home on the Riviera or his endless European destinations, and the great yacht Liberty that took him back and forth across the Atlantic.
But back to Teddy Roosevelt— and the wrath Pulitzer’s World unleashed when it brought to the front burner long-simmering hints of corruption in the great Rough Rider’s Panamanian adventure. In 1908, as Roosevelt’s presidency neared its end, a pair of enterprising editors put together a story of foreign intrigue and the loose spending of 40 million taxpayer dollars. The outraged Roosevelt pursued a long-passé remedy: criminal libel; he wanted Pulitzer punished, whether he had a case against him or not. His highly stretched pursuit of the publisher, who’d been literally at sea during that bit of muckraking, makes for fascinating reading as Morris writes it— and offers insightful glimpses of two giants too often portrayed purely as heroes.
A tip of this battered eyeshade to a biographer who, for this book, doubles as an investigative reporter.
— WilliamWaters James McGrath Morris reads from and signs copies of “Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print & Power” at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 9. at Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St. (988-4226)