But it is fair to say the beginning of the end of his life in what he called “tabloidia” began with the invitation to go to Russia. He took a leave, sailed to Naples, visited Pompeii, Vienna, Warsaw, and Paris. In Russia he met Stalin’s lackeys. But he also got to talk with Maxim Gorky. He toured factories where he met workers with all sorts of innocent questions about America.
The trip catapulted him back into the world. He was talking with people who did not have gossip to peddle, who were not hounding him for this scam or that to tweak circulation. He was not spending another day engaged in what the dyspeptic Westbrook Pegler dismissed as “gents room journalism.”
It was as if that day in Bernarr Macfadden’s office he had fallen down a rabbit hole and into a realm where all life’s decisions were framed by a simple, inexorable calculus: Would this bring readers? Gauvreau recognized that he’d been a sucker for the elusive payoff. And he knew that the longer he chased those readers, the more he removed himself—physically, emotionally, intellectually—from all the things that might have once piqued his curiosity.
Only after Gauvreau had left the Mirror did he begin to see a world larger than the newsroom, and all the petty people and stories that populated the tabloid universe. “Back at my desk,” he wrote of his return, “I looked at the tabloid turmoil with increased detachment.” It was not as if he didn’t care. Quite the opposite—he began to care more. He might as well have quit the day his ship docked. He was done.
My Last Million Readers offers its lessons by way of self-incrimination. Gauvreau may have had his big-city newsroom stories, as so many news people do. But they were no match for the earlier stories, when he was beginning to learn his craft and seeing all that a limping, shy, awkward young man could accomplish armed only with his curiosity and a way with words.
Yes, he had wanted his million readers, and there is no shame in that—only a fool, or an aging editor in Connecticut, would not value circulation. His mistake came by trying to lure those readers with a louder, sillier, more vulgar version of what they had. Gauvreau had made his name as a young reporter chasing his stories. Then he came to New York and became, with rare exceptions, remarkably unoriginal.
He was hardly alone. His epoch was an era of great redundancy, with everyone trying his cut at variations of the same stories—different gangster, different showgirl—as everyone else. And how could they not, when the only world that seemed to matter was the one limited to people very much like themselves, and where the relentless pace of the news meant time measured not in days or hours, but in minutes. Time measured a deadline at a time.
Only when he began his journey to Russia—and set in motion an act of professional suicide; planned or unplanned, he never says—was Gauvreau reminded of how interesting the world could be, especially for someone with a pad and pen. On the day he left newspapers for good in 1940, his new and happy wife picked him up as the Inquirer’s presses were beginning their deafening run. She was in a hurry to get back to their farm. What’s the rush? he asked. He was, finally, in no hurry.
But she was. Their Nubian goat was about to have a calf. A small story. But their story. And she didn’t want to miss it.