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.”
He accepted an invitation to visit Russia—fleeing the newsroom, if only temporarily. He returned and wrote a book more admiring of what he had seen than was wise for an employee of the virulently anti-Communist Hearst. But before it appeared he would have one final tabloid moment, on the night of February 13, 1935, a Wednesday, when the world’s press, sensational and not, was waiting for the verdict in the trial of Richard Bruno Hauptmann, accused in the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby.
“Sitting at the city desk .I felt for the last time in a newspaper office the hunch of instinct, that strange presentiment, beyond reasoning, which seems to turn a newspaperman’s backbone into a divining rod,” he wrote. “A fixed belief came over me that the stoical German would go to the chair.”
The aging Brisbane, who had been at this game far longer, had ordered up three different versions of the outcome—the chair, acquittal, contingencies of “disagreement of the jury”—and left Gauvreau with his hand on the button, with the understanding that on this night in particular the Mirror had better be both first and right.