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The Press: Society Reporter

4 minute read

The richest gossip of his time died last week. On his deathbed, fat, vain little Maury Henry Biddle Paul, “Cholly Knickerbocker” of the New York Journal-American, could well reflect that he had made himself more famous than most of the puppets he wrote about in his quarter century as a society reporter.

A Social Registerite himself, he knew more about Manhattan and Newport society than any other man, including his famed predecessor, Ward McAllister, who invented “The 400.” Paul coined the phrase “Café Society” and made a fat living insulting it. But he differed from other society reporters in being able to keep alive the vivid fiction that a world of “real” socialites existed. The fiction will die with him.

Needling the Vanderbilts. Socialites mortally feared him. Arrogantly independent toward everyone but Hearst advertisers and his friends, whom he shamelessly plugged in his column, he built up his reputation by conducting fabulous feuds with important people. Once the late Mrs. Graham Fair Vanderbilt, irked at his constant references to her as “the daughter of a ’49er,” met him in a nightclub and scolded: “You are a rude, scurrilous man.” “Yes, I am,” he replied, “but I’d rather make a living that way than by selling bonds.” For years he needled Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt by calling her Mrs. Brigadier General Vanderbilt. Introduced to her unexpectedly one day by Vincent Astor, Paul stammered: “I’m not really the disreputable person you think I am, Mrs. Vanderbilt.” Said Mrs. Vanderbilt gently: “From what you have been writing about me, I was under the impression that you thought I was the disreputable person.”

Though he feuded with aristocrats, he preserved his awe of them. As a self-avowed snob, he considered himself the high priest of what remained of the old social aristocracy which had been all but obliterated by the rising horde of new millionaires spawned by the ’20s.

In Park Avenue drawing rooms and 52nd Street nightclubs he cut an exquisite figure. Always heavily perfumed, he was in the habit of remarking complacently: “I smell to heaven.” He carried his own special brand of tea in a silver snuffbox to drink in nightclubs. He wore evening scarves by Schiaparelli, delighted in yanking up his pants leg and displaying his solid-gold garter clasps, studded with his four initials. He took up golf once but dropped it immediately, after finding himself in a locker room with a crowd of muscular, boisterous players. “It was too goddamn manly,” he said.

Noodling the Newspapers. Maury Paul, a kinsman of the Philadelphia Biddles, broke in as a society reporter on Frank Munsey’s Philadelphia Times in 1914. He soon moved on to Munsey’s New York Press. Knowing nothing then of Manhattan society, he filled out a glowing story on his first big assignment, a Metropolitan Opera opening, by copying the names off the brass plates on box doors. Next morning Mr. Munsey summoned him and snorted: “You have succeeded in opening half the graves in Woodlawn Cemetery.” Maury had reported present many an ancestral box holder long dead.

By 1919, when Hearst hired him as Cholly Knickerbocker for the American, Paul was writing columns for three New York City papers under three different names, and making $140 a week. Hearst called him, declared: “You’re working too hard.” For $250 a week, Paul agreed to write only one column. Eventually, with his Cholly Knickerbocker column widely syndicated, Paul earned more than $100,000 a year, became the highest paid society reporter of all time.

Though his style was deliberately compounded of cliches and such revolting mannerisms as “tinsy-winsy” and “hubby,” he was a master of leering quotation marks and significant dots which hinted at what were better left unsaid. He believed that one good divorce was worth at least two royal weddings.

When he died of a heart ailment last week at 52, he looked like the last of his kind. No authority remained who could identify the 400, much less speak for it. The old high society, which reached its height in the studiedly charming ’90s, and began to decline even before World War I, was finally buried with him.

The Washington Post last week pronounced a “Farewell to Society,” announced that it would give over its society page to reporting the doings of people prominent in war work. “For the duration, and probably longer,” said the Post, “we are finished with society-as-such.”

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