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.
“Now I know that the minutes ticking off the blood-sweating moments between the return of the jury and the seating of the judge meant a national scoop ,” he wrote. “My hand guarded a telephone which connected me with the pressroom.” The city room filled with onlookers, placing bets. An office boy raced with the teletype reporting that the jury was in and the judge had been woken from his nap.
“Now was the time to obey my hunch and release the press which would roar out the news that Hauptmann was to die!” he wrote. “For the first time in my tabloid experience, something stopped me.” Good to be first. A disaster to be wrong. So he waited. The circulation manager came tearing into the newsroom screaming that the American had broken the news Hauptmann had been acquitted.
But still Gauvreau held fast. Five minutes—an eternity—passed, and he waited to hear from his man at the courthouse, sure of what was to come, and ignoring the hysterics of the circulation manager. When the call finally came—“Guilty as the devil. It’s the chair”—Gauvreau had his moment and, for that night at least, a stab at his last million readers.
The Russia book appeared in May, and Hearst, greatly displeased, ordered Brisbane to can Gauvreau. He was forty-four years old and for the first time since he was sixteen had no newsroom where he could live his life. There is no mention in his memoir that this saddened him.
In the years to come Gauvreau would bounce from job to job. He worked in government, wrote books, took part in a secret mission to buy land in Cuba as a refuge for Jews escaping Hitler’s Germany. He returned to a newspaper, though not a tabloid, one last time, to edit the Sunday magazine at Moe Annenberg’s Philadelphia Inquirer. He had been out of the business for two years. He liked Annenberg, who was loud, forceful, and in dire trouble with the Internal Revenue Service. Annenberg had been Colonel McCormick’s circulation man at the Chicago Tribune and, like Macfadden and Hearst, dreamed in the millions of readers. Gauvreau was happy to help, up to a point.
One afternoon, he was summoned to a presentation that George Gallup’s pollsters were making to Annenberg about the wisdom of appealing to woman readers by offering aspirational photos of swimsuit models. He watched Annenberg listen as the eager pollsters characterized newspaper work as “traffic in readership.” Annenberg, soon to head to prison but still hunting for readers, dismissed their charts and analysis and announced that he would continue running his paper with his gut.
Gauvreau returned to choosing his photographs and when the workday ended, headed home. He had remarried and he and his wife had settled in a Pennsylvania farmhouse. “I suppose you live in a little cottage where it’s quiet, away from everything,” Annenberg told him one day. “You get to go home there, every night, and nobody bothers you and you can forget everything—no worries—and you can sleep. And when you wake up, the sun shines. Jesus! You know, you’re not such a God-damned fool after all!”
Gauvreau never admits that he was one, though he makes a powerful case. My Last Million Readers is filled with anecdotes and fact, recollection and rueful observation, and far too many pages beefing about people Gauvreau did not like. The result is a bit of literary obfuscation, almost but never quite articulating what went wrong, and how he finally succeeded in making it right.