Years later, when he recounted the events that would lead to his becoming the most sensational, shameless, ambitious, and tortured newspaper editor of his time, Emile Gauvreau would return to the day in 1924 when, without a job but with a letter of reference in his pocket, he stood before the desk of Carr Van Anda, the legendary and terrifying managing editor of The New York Times. The letter, written by Gauvreau’s old boss, a long ago colleague of Van Anda, brought him only as far as the great man’s desk, where Gauvreau watched him read page proofs and drink coffee from a big mug. An assistant read his letter and advised him to return the following day, when he could meet the city editor.
Gauvreau did not linger. He returned to his hotel and in the morning when he looked out the window he noticed on the building across the street the flags that bore the name Macfadden. As fate would have it, he had booked a room facing the headquarters of the publishing empire of Bernarr Macfadden, the health and physical culture enthusiast who had made a fortune selling magazines celebrating the benefits of clean living and true love. Gauvreau had written a few pieces for Macfadden’s True Story, love stories dispatched on his days off that had each earned him $150, far more than his $60 weekly newspaper salary. Perhaps, he thought, he might stop by before heading downtown to the Times, and cadge an assignment or two.
No sooner had he arrived at the Macfadden building than he was brought to Fulton Oursler, Macfadden’s top editor, who wasted little time before ushering him into the office of the boss himself—who, it quickly became clear, had plans for Gauvreau far grander than freelance gigs.
Gauvreau had come by his joblessness honorably, having recently been ousted after five years as managing editor of the Hartford Courant—a position to which he had ascended before he turned thirty. Weeks earlier, he had run a series on a medical school diploma mill that had succeeded both in exposing a factory for unqualified physicians and enraging Connecticut’s political boss. He took his beef to Gauvreau’s boss, who did Gauvreau the courtesy of allowing him to resign.
Gauvreau would spend his last night at the paper overseeing the coverage of President Woodrow Wilson’s death. His youngest child lay gravely ill at home, and only when his wife called to say that he had taken a turn for the worse did Gauvreau leave his desk. The child died shortly before he reached home; moments after the death, a messenger brought an early edition of the paper. Gauvreau did not like the lead story’s headline and was tinkering with the wording when his wife appeared on the second floor landing.
“You’re worse than a soulless gambler,” she wailed. “All you can think of, day and night, is the paper. Even now! A gambler stops when his den closes up. You NEVER stop!”
Bernarr Macfadden wanted to start a new paper, a crusading tabloid to be called The Truth. He wanted a million readers. He needed an editor for whom life meant work, and little else. He had found his man.
Journalism has yielded a surfeit of newspaper memoirs, great heaves written with the presumed wisdom of hindsight by this editor or that who, in the long quiet spaces of retirement, sit back to reminisce about the big ones they covered and, in their lighter moments, remember all the laughs along the way. My Last Million Readers, Gauvreau’s chronicle of his strange and occasionally glorious career, is not on anyone’s required reading list, and not merely because the title does not play on the word “Times.” The book appeared in 1941, and though it drew attention and favorable reviews, it vanished. Its author died in 1956, years past his last day in a city room, and though the Times marked his passing with a sizeable obituary, his name would soon slip from memory.
That is a pity. Gauvreau could write and he has a story to tell. A story that is, at turns, sad, triumphant, thrilling, bitter, and, ultimately, accepting of the life he chose for himself that day in loony Bernarr Macfadden’s office.
It is also a cautionary tale, but not merely an admonition against the evils of overwork and the dangers of an unbalanced life. Rather it offers a message that begins with the choice of the title—my last million readers. These readers existed for Emile Gauvreau the way voters existed for Lyndon Johnson. As Johnson once told an aide who could not fathom why in 1964 he was worried about reelection, You don’t understand—I want them all.