Brief Encounters

Short reviews of books on newspaper publishers

The Magnificent Medills: The McCormick-Patterson Dynasty: America’s Royal Family of Journalism During a Century of Turbulent Splendor By Megan McKinney |
Harper | 464 pages | $27.99

Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson
By Amanda Smith | Alfred A. Knopf | 720 pages | $35

There is a bit of hype in the titling of both of these chronicles. The “magnificent” Medills? Not in my understanding of the term. As depicted by Megan McKinney, they were as a group self-seeking, quarrelsome, greedy, and adulterous; they specialized in making each other miserable. Their claim on posterity was their newspapers, which in their day were more notable for chasing circulation gains, by legal means or otherwise, than for quality journalism. Nor is “titan” precisely the right word for Cissy Patterson; there are more fitting terms (see below).

The dynasty, as defined in these volumes, comprised three and a fraction generations: 1) Joseph Medill, editor and later owner of the Chicago Tribune, instrumental in boosting Lincoln into the presidency; 2) his two strident daughters (a third died young), who married men of lesser genetic stuff and put them to work in the family business; and 3) Medill’s four grandchildren, three of whom became powerful editors and publishers in the first half of the twentieth century: Robert R. McCormick, associated with a Chicago Tribune that had approximately the reputation for even-handedness enjoyed by Fox News today; his cousin Joseph Patterson, who started out as a Socialist and founded the tabloid New York Daily News, which still holds national records for circulation; and his sister, known in her public life as Eleanor Medill Patterson, or Cissy, who was hired to run a broken-down Washington newspaper and went on to buy it and make it profitable. The significant fraction of the fourth generation was Alicia Patterson, who brought forth Newsday, an achievement that her father, creator of the Daily News, never recognized. Megan McKinney, who identifies herself as an expert on historic Chicago families, has placed more than seventy persons in the family tree at the start of her book, which means that she has to keep moving to cover them all, especially when she allots so much space to the society-page aspects of their lives. But she manages, even when slighting the historical background.

Amanda Smith’s biography of Cissy is a different matter. Cissy has been the subject of a number of biographies already—most notably the sympathetic 1966 study by a Patterson descendant, Alice Albright Hoge. The author of this most recent volume, a Kennedy, seems to understand the dynamics and misfortunes of powerful families. She traces Cissy’s life (1881-1948) from her early years as a lightly educated little rich girl in Chicago, Washington, and Europe to her debut on an international stage when she insisted on marrying a rascally Russian count. With the marriage breaking up, the count kidnapped their child, Felicia, who was recovered only by strenuous efforts and appeals to the tsar.

The account of this episode, more than a hundred pages, illustrates the thoroughness and patience of Amanda Smith, who managed to go beyond the old yellow-press accounts by excavating century-old Russian records on the dispute. Once past this brush with celebrity, Cissy fell into the doldrums; she wrote a novel or two, had another, brief marriage, did a little political correspondence for William Randolph Hearst, tended to her horses and dogs. Hearst gave her a fresh start in 1930, when he offered her the editorship of the Washington Herald, with tutoring by such elder Hearstian statesmen as Arthur Brisbane. Cissy ran the newspaper pretty much according to her own whims, hiring friends or personal employees, firing and unfiring nearly all of the staff, splashing eccentric commentary on page one. To the extent that her paper was intelligible politically, it went along for a time with the New Deal, but when her brother Joe’s Daily News turned hostile and isolationist from 1940 on, she turned the same way. By that time she had bought the Herald and its sibling, the Times, from Hearst and made them the most widely read papers in the capital. (After her death the Times-Herald was merged into The Washington Post.)

Because she joined the Tribune and the Daily News in attacking Franklin Roosevelt and the war effort, she came to be called “the most hated woman in America.” This kind of battering took a toll, as did her alienation from many friends and her closest family, including her own daughter and granddaughter. It seems fitting that Amanda Smith concludes her look at a life so filled with discord by recounting the scurrilous fight over Patterson’s will. As a model of research that explores every biographical resource, Newspaper Titan is exemplary. Yet it was, as the subtitle proposes, an infamous, rather than titanic, life. 

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James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.