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.
But in his recounting of life working for Hearst, a different voice narrates My Last Million Readers. Gauvreau is still driven, still chasing the big story, still hunting for the million readers he never delivered to Macfadden. But bitterness has begun to seep into the tale. Gauvreau is an angrier man. He is angry with his old colleague and nemesis at the Graphic, Walter Winchell, who parlayed his popular, factually challenged gossip column into a better-paying gig for Hearst. Gauvreau regards him as a preening hack, and a fraud. He is angry with his boss, Arthur Brisbane, Hearst’s top editor, an aging legend whom he comes to regard as a self-aggrandizing tyrant.
Still, what little pleasure life offered him came almost exclusively from work. A wise colleague at the Graphic had once taken the bold step of offering Gauvreau his two-cents’ worth of psychological profiling: Perhaps, he suggested, the job was compensation for the pain of his past—“You are pouring out all your passion, tenderness, all you have to give, all your love, vitality and libido into jazz journalism to escape from the realities of life.” Gauvreau did not disagree. Nor did he pause. Instead, he used the insight to create a fictionalized version of himself in a novel, Hot News, that he wrote in four-thousand-word bursts at the office once the paper was put to bed. In 1932, the book became a movie, Scandal for Sale, that ends with the editor, whose chase of a million readers ends in a stunt that kills his best reporter, walking away from the job, and begging his wife’s forgiveness. In reality, Gauvreau and his wife, strangers by now, separated.
But the newsroom hummed with life, and Gauvreau captures the Front Page romanticism and lunacy of a big-city tabloid covering sin, scandal, and, with the coming of the Great Depression, hard times. Hearst orders a hatchet job on Mae West for apparently insulting his consort, Marion Davies. Winchell manages to so offend mobsters that he hires bodyguards and carries two pistols. Charles Lindbergh’s infant son is kidnapped and the Mirror calls in every underworld chit it has in the hunt for the missing child. The baby is found murdered. The Mirror is left to resume its futile chase of the Daily News.
“I had accumulated circulation by pushing into the back of my mind all that I had learned about the value of constructive news,” Gauvreau wrote. “I was now definitely part of that strange race of people aptly described….as spending their lives doing work they detest to make money they don’t want to buy things they don’t need to impress people they dislike.”