By 1924, when Macfadden and Gauvreau launched the tabloid they had renamed the New York Evening Graphic, they were not so much competing for readers as they were intruding on a relationship six years in the making. They were, in essence, trying to lure readers away with the promise of even more fun, and sensation. As Gauvreau was to learn, gimmicks can seduce for a day or so. But they do not necessarily buy loyalty.
The lesson was slow in coming.
Perhaps it might have had a chance had it been competing against only one tab; Macfadden, after all, had a loyal core of fitness buffs who presumably found a reassuring voice in the paper’s screeds against physicians, high-heeled shoes, and hats; “Air the hair” was a Macfadden credo. But three months before the Graphic’s maiden edition, William Randolph Hearst, uncustomarily late to the game, had launched the New York Daily Mirror. The tabloid war was on, and Gauvreau soon began hearing of stacks of the Graphic being dumped in the East River.
By his fifth year at the Graphic, while not necessarily wincing at what he had done in service of Macfadden’s dream, Gauvreau could certainly look back and mark the toll that chasing the Daily News had taken on his system. He was only in his mid-thirties, he wrote, but “five years of tabloidia turned my hair iron gray .” Hewing to Macfadden’s proven magazine formula of letting real people tell real stories, the Graphic’s early pages featured such headlines as “I Murdered My Wife Because She Cooked Fishballs For Dinner.” Readers’ early curiosity, however, gave way to a quick drop in sales, which only spurred Gauvreau on.
He stole like mad. The Graphic offered contests, reader confessionals, and the odd scandal, but was still panting in its pursuit of the News. The paper might enjoy a bump of 200,000 readers vying for the $5,000 first prize in its crossword puzzle contest. But the numbers faded with the end of the contest, and the Graphic had no choice but to raise the stakes to $25,000, which Hearst then bested with a prize of $30,000.
Much as he would have loved a big story—the sort of story that had made his name in Connecticut—Gauvreau now saw that he could no longer rely on events alone to draw readers. “Circulation,” he wrote, “had to be kept up by making news.”
He searched for scandal; he was sure the Miss America contest was rigged, and the ensuing exposé got him sued. In fact, he ran so many stories sure to draw legal attention that, in time, the “damages demanded” in the Graphic’s various libel suits totaled $12 million. So fevered was Gauvreau in pursuit of readers that when an aggrieved subject of a Graphic story threatened to sue for $500,000, Gauvreau advised him that he wouldn’t pay him attention unless he doubled the damages to $1 million. Macfadden would call with ideas at all hours, often phoning at three o’clock in the morning, once with an idea that lured 30,000 readers: “Some convict was executed at Sing Sing last night,” he told Gauvreau. “Run a full-page picture of his face on the front page and over it use a two-word headline, two inches high: ROASTED ALIVE.”
Nice try. But the Daily News, always a step ahead, did them one better with its page-one photo of the hooded Ruth Snyder sitting in the electric chair.
The headline: DEAD.
Gauvreau’s life, on the surface, had changed little. He had moved his wife and children from Connecticut to New York, but, as before, saw little of them. “I saw no permanency in anything,” he wrote. All that mattered was the race that he was losing.
“We could no longer wait for calamities to happen,” he wrote. “Characters were built up and paraded. Hot news became the wild, blazing delirious symptom of the time.”
One of his tools was, as he put it, “the pictorial creation known as the ‘composograph,’” a precursor of Photoshop. It represented, in literally the most graphic way, the distance Gauvreau had traveled since he made his way from Hartford to New York, in the hope of landing at the Times.