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The Press: His Father’s Son

5 minute read

As a young man, Joseph Pulitzer II was a great disappointment to his father. Joseph Pulitzer I was not an easy father to satisfy. Founder of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and later the New York World, he felt that his son had not inherited his journalistic talent, never concealed his disappointment in “Young Joe.” He took him from Harvard in the middle of his second year and, instead of training him at his side on the New York World, sent him to St. Louis with a characteristically sharp note to his editor, George S. Johns: “This is my son Joseph. Will you try to knock some newspaper sense into his head?”

Hearst at Bay. In St. Louis, Young Joe had the best tutor in the newspaper business: the P-D’s late Managing Editor O.K. (for Oliver Kirby) Bovard, whom his staff reverently called a “one-man school of journalism.” Young Joe showed early signs of his father’s spunkiness. Once he encountered the awesome figure of Publisher William Randolph Hearst passing through the paper’s offices. Young Joe, strapping (6 ft. 1 in.) and just 21, had never met Hearst before. He walked up, introduced himself, and asked Hearst whether he had meant all the criticism he had voiced of Joe’s father while Hearst was running for governor of New York. Replied Publisher Hearst: “I usually mean what I say.” Without another word, Young Joe punched Hearst in the midriff, had to be pulled away by P-D staffers who broke up the fight.

Joe Pulitzer’s feeling for newspapering was almost as strong as his feelings of family loyalty. Bovard reported to old J.P. in New York: “His news instinct is keen and broad.” But old J.P. never believed it. At his death in 1911, he left four-fifths of his estate to his favored sons, Herbert and Ralph,* who took control of his bigger daily, the New York World. To Young Joe he willed only one-tenth of his estate. Within a year, at 27, Young Joe became president and publisher of the PD, in which the elder Pulitzer had only had a secondary interest.

The new “J.P.” took over the reins slowly. At first, his memos to staffers— always written on slips of yellow paper tentatively began: “Forgive me for suggesting . . .” or “It is only my impression . . .” but gradually he got some of the assurance and command of his father. He also developed his physical infirmity—a disease of the optic nerve. In time, young J.P. lost the sight of one eye completely, gradually lost 80% vision in the other. Like his father, he had three full-time secretaries, who read to him as much as eight and nine hours a day, going through almost every line of the PD, including the ads.

The Great Crusader. With Bovard leading the way, J.P. developed the P-D’s crusading zeal into a legend. The paper exposed the Teapot Dome scandals, kept an increasing watchout for city and state corruption. In the mid-’30s Pulitzer began to “modernize” the paper, with new features, more comics and other innovations that Bovard objected to. They also differed over the New Dealing editorials of the paper, and in 1936 Pulitzer put the paper behind Landon. In 1938 Bovard dramatically quit.

Pulitzer quickly proved that he had learned his lessons well. The paper went on to expose the corrupt business practices of the Union Electric Co. of Missouri. J.P. himself ordered his staff to find out who was responsible for the 1947 Centralia (Ill.) mine disaster in which 111 miners were killed. Result: a memorable series that led to a federal mine-safety law. Altogether, J.P.’s paper won five of the Pulitzer Prizes for “meritorious public service” that had been created in his father’s will. (He always withdrew from the awards committee when the P-D was a candidate.) Individual P-D staffers themselves collected another six Pulitzer Prizes.

The P-D’s New Dealing editorials often zigzagged across party lines in the spirit of liberal independence that J.P. prized above all. No party or politician could count on the paper’s support. Its circulation grew as fast as its reputation. Its profits soared above the $1,000,000 mark after taxes for many years.

Heart at Horns. But Publisher Pulitzer’s chief interest was not profits. Last week when he died, the P-D printed an obituary that he himself had edited before his death. Said the Page One obituary: “His heart was more at home in the editorial sanctum than in the counting room.”

Into his place at the Post-Dispatch went his son, Joseph Pulitzer III, 41, a Harvard graduate (’36) and a former Navy intelligence officer (lieutenant). He has worked in every editorial department of the paper. So far, he has shown no more talent for newspapering than his father had shown when he took over the paper 43 years ago. But for the new “J.P.,” running the P-D is a matter of family tradition. Says New Publisher Pulitzer: “I want to do exactly what my father did.”

*Who in 1931 sold the World to Scripps-Howard. Ralph Pulitzer died in 1939, Herbert is now out of the newspaper business, lives in Palm Beach, Fla.

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