Pulitzer: A Life in Pol­i­tics, Print & Power

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

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)

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