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.
The composograph combined images in a way that suggested fact where none existed. The Graphic was publishing Rudolph Valentino’s biography, and what better way to draw readers to the tale of the late heartthrob than to capture him entering the spirit world, greeting other departed celebrities. Circulation jumped by 100,000. It did not last. Macfadden began looking for a buyer. So worn out that he was unable to find an escape in his old refuge of literature, Gauvreau cashed in his Graphic shares and quit, leaving behind men and women “who knew how much harder it was to hold the attention of hundreds of thousands of lowbrows than to please 30,000 highbrows. One practically starved to death pleasing highbrows.”
Five years after standing at Carr Van Anda’s desk, his life had come to another crossroads. The run at the Graphic was at an end. His career as a tabloid editor, however, was not.
When Gauvreau came to meet William Randolph Hearst, Hearst took him to his lighthouse, handed him a hatchet, and together they set about unpacking crates of furniture.
Hearst had two New York papers—the Mirror and the broadsheet Journal. The Mirror had a storied editor in Walter Howey, the inspiration for fast-talking Walter Burns in The Front Page. No matter. Hearst, an acquisitive man, wanted Gauvreau as an editor. Gauvreau wanted $25,000 a year, a three-year contract, plus a column. It’s a deal, said Hearst, and advised him not to worry about Howey, who, Gauvreau soon discovered, had not been informed that he was out and had no intention of leaving. He walked into the newsroom on his first day to see all the editors playing with yo-yos, a Mirror giveaway. A “sure fire” circulation builder, Howey told him. It was as if he had never been away.