second read

The Paper Chase

For tabloid king Emile Gauvreau, it took a lifetime to slow down
May 6, 2011

Years later, when he recounted the events that would lead to his becoming the most sensational, shameless, ambitious, and tortured newspaper editor of his time, Emile Gauvreau would return to the day in 1924 when, without a job but with a letter of reference in his pocket, he stood before the desk of Carr Van Anda, the legendary and terrifying managing editor of The New York Times. The letter, written by Gauvreau’s old boss, a long ago colleague of Van Anda, brought him only as far as the great man’s desk, where Gauvreau watched him read page proofs and drink coffee from a big mug. An assistant read his letter and advised him to return the following day, when he could meet the city editor.

Gauvreau did not linger. He returned to his hotel and in the morning when he looked out the window he noticed on the building across the street the flags that bore the name Macfadden. As fate would have it, he had booked a room facing the headquarters of the publishing empire of Bernarr Macfadden, the health and physical culture enthusiast who had made a fortune selling magazines celebrating the benefits of clean living and true love. Gauvreau had written a few pieces for Macfadden’s True Story, love stories dispatched on his days off that had each earned him $150, far more than his $60 weekly newspaper salary. Perhaps, he thought, he might stop by before heading downtown to the Times, and cadge an assignment or two.

No sooner had he arrived at the Macfadden building than he was brought to Fulton Oursler, Macfadden’s top editor, who wasted little time before ushering him into the office of the boss himself—who, it quickly became clear, had plans for Gauvreau far grander than freelance gigs.

Gauvreau had come by his joblessness honorably, having recently been ousted after five years as managing editor of the Hartford Courant—a position to which he had ascended before he turned thirty. Weeks earlier, he had run a series on a medical school diploma mill that had succeeded both in exposing a factory for unqualified physicians and enraging Connecticut’s political boss. He took his beef to Gauvreau’s boss, who did Gauvreau the courtesy of allowing him to resign.

Gauvreau would spend his last night at the paper overseeing the coverage of President Woodrow Wilson’s death. His youngest child lay gravely ill at home, and only when his wife called to say that he had taken a turn for the worse did Gauvreau leave his desk. The child died shortly before he reached home; moments after the death, a messenger brought an early edition of the paper. Gauvreau did not like the lead story’s headline and was tinkering with the wording when his wife appeared on the second floor landing.

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“You’re worse than a soulless gambler,” she wailed. “All you can think of, day and night, is the paper. Even now! A gambler stops when his den closes up. You NEVER stop!”

Bernarr Macfadden wanted to start a new paper, a crusading tabloid to be called The Truth. He wanted a million readers. He needed an editor for whom life meant work, and little else. He had found his man.

Journalism has yielded a surfeit of newspaper memoirs, great heaves written with the presumed wisdom of hindsight by this editor or that who, in the long quiet spaces of retirement, sit back to reminisce about the big ones they covered and, in their lighter moments, remember all the laughs along the way. My Last Million Readers, Gauvreau’s chronicle of his strange and occasionally glorious career, is not on anyone’s required reading list, and not merely because the title does not play on the word “Times.” The book appeared in 1941, and though it drew attention and favorable reviews, it vanished. Its author died in 1956, years past his last day in a city room, and though the Times marked his passing with a sizeable obituary, his name would soon slip from memory.

That is a pity. Gauvreau could write and he has a story to tell. A story that is, at turns, sad, triumphant, thrilling, bitter, and, ultimately, accepting of the life he chose for himself that day in loony Bernarr Macfadden’s office.

It is also a cautionary tale, but not merely an admonition against the evils of overwork and the dangers of an unbalanced life. Rather it offers a message that begins with the choice of the title—my last million readers. These readers existed for Emile Gauvreau the way voters existed for Lyndon Johnson. As Johnson once told an aide who could not fathom why in 1964 he was worried about reelection, You don’t understand—I want them all.

Emile Gauvreau wanted his million readers. Or, in the parlance of the moment, all those eyeballs. Only after he did everything he could to woo them did he see that he had been playing a loser’s game all along.

My Last Million Readers begins deceptively; its early pages suggest a tale that will do for journalism what Horatio Alger did for free enterprise: the story of a young man of modest means and low self-regard who finds a home in a newsroom, and by dint of his wit, enterprise, and piranha-like pursuit of a story, works his way up the career ladder, landing in the big city at the precise moment when the newspaper business was undergoing a revolution that, in its time, rivaled the one taking place today.

Gauvreau grew up poor, the son of a French-Canadian father whose forebears had fought for the British, thereby making young Gauvreau an outsider by birthright. His condition was exacerbated by a childhood leg injury that nearly crippled him and, by chance, made him a young devotee of Macfadden’s muscle-building regimens. His itinerant family finally settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where his bookish, opinionated father found work in a gun factory. Gauvreau was sixteen and training to become a musician—he played the flute—when money at home became so tight that he was forced to leave high school after two years, and, with an introduction from his disappointed music teacher, take a job at New Haven’s Journal-Courier.

There he discovered in his editor a man who “opened a door through which I was to pass to see the best and worst of what may be absorbed in a lifetime,” he wrote; “from darkest Russia to the jungles of Nicaragua; from Presidents to paupers; from high idealism to the lowest depths into which humanity can crawl.”

It was 1909 and the newsroom was a mix of aging men learning to type after careers spent writing in longhand and an annual influx of Yale undergrads, among them Sinclair Lewis. Gauvreau focused his considerable energy into extricating himself from the tedium of covering funerals and sermons, so that he could chase stories of his own, the splashier the better. He graduated from obit editor to police reporter and his editor did not stop him from trying his hand at solving the ones that vexed the local cops, among them the slaying of a local merchant at the hands of a failed playwright who, it turned out—fulfilling the darkest wish of every reporter who grew up on the chilly periphery of the smart set—had been a childhood tormentor. Gauvreau watched him hang. “When I left the prison to write my story,” he wrote, “I found out why newspapermen drank and I had my first half tumbler of cognac.”

He was making a name for himself. He exposed the local politician who pocketed $25 for every prostitute he bailed out. “I was no longer interested in printing surface facts,” he wrote. His boss, however, rewarded his enterprise with ever more desk work—sports editor, business editor, automobile editor, real estate editor, and, with the outbreak of World War I and the need for someone to plow through 100,000 daily words of dispatches from the fronts, telegraph editor: a pre-historic aggregator.

But the promotions, and better pay, brought him only limited joy: “I had to be a reporter again.” The managing editor of the Hartford Courant, Clifton Sherman, had been impressed with Gauvreau’s sleuthing and told him a reporting job at his paper was his when he wanted it. He headed to Hartford, pausing only long enough to marry the Journal-Courier’s young society editor who had left Mount Holyoke College for journalism, and who, much to her eventual regret, would leave journalism for him.

The Courant claimed the mantle of the nation’s oldest paper—a battle it maintains to this day with, of all places, the New York Post. It ran the Declaration of Independence as a news story and counted George Washington as a subscriber. But that history, Gauvreau would soon come to believe, had entombed the Courant in the antediluvian notion that it existed to serve the needs of the select few in what, its editor in chief liked to remind his staff, was known as “the land of steady habits.”

For a time, Sherman gave Gauvreau the freedom to chase his own stories. He was especially pleased with his discovery of an aging woman who had been a doyenne of Chicago society but who now was living the life of a hermit. The writing reflected the journalistic sensibilities of the era—long, elaborate, baroque, but which Gauvreau also imbued with elegance and heart.

There is an atmosphere of gloom about this old house of the one-time philanthropist. It seems to have withdrawn quietly from the blare of mechanical music and tinsel show of the pleasure resort, seeking protection amid the long, thin trees of the hull. The blinds are shut, the paint has long since faded from the house, and the building to all appearance is vacant. The only noise on the premises is that of the creaking hinges of the blinds.

But Sherman had bigger plans for him, plans that, in hindsight, suggest a boss looking not for a star but for a successor. Gauvreau was working, by his estimation, thirteen-hour days, and despite his youth was taking on the tasks of a manager. Sherman had been running the newsroom for twenty-two years, reporting to a proud and aging owner and editor, Charles Clark, in whom Gauvreau saw the centurion standing in the path of change.

“The age of rugged, personal journalism was dying,” he wrote. “The streamlined march of newspaper progress, as it was called, was merciless and we had to keep up with it….”

Clark did not trouble himself with circulation, and seemed at turns oblivious or hostile to the great societal changes taking place around him. Gauvreau and the paper’s business editor, meanwhile, products of the Jazz Age, began searching for ways to lure readers—comics, joke columns, syndicated features. Gauvreau launched the region’s first newsroom radio station and set off for a trip across the country, to see what other papers were doing to boost their readership. When Clark spotted a copy of the nation’s first tabloid, the New York Daily News, on Gauvreau’s desk, he snorted, “that sheet is a hopeless venture. Readers will never be satisfied with a paper that throws its news out to print pictures.”

But they were satisfied. and not because the Daily News had thrown out its news, but rather because the paper had succeeded in redefining news to suit its purposes. The paper’s founders—Joseph Patterson and his cousin, Robert McCormick, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune—had modeled the Daily News after Lord Northcliffe’s London Daily Mirror, one of the world’s first tabloids; the name of this species was derived from medicine that now came not in powdered form, but in little tablets. At the Daily News, news meant lots of photos. It meant “society news” on page six, five-dollar “stranger than fiction” stories from readers (“no attention will be paid to literary style”), advice columns (“Keep Kids Well”), and all sorts of contests—“Bright Sayings,” “My Funniest Motor Experience,” neither of which proved a keeper, and “Most Beautiful Girl,” which did.

The idea was to make the experience fun. But something far more significant was taking place than merely choosing “Gasoline Alley” as a comic strip. The business side of the News had dispatched to Manhattan’s Lower East Side a scout—enter into the journalistic hall of fame the name Sinclair Dakin—who returned with news akin to the true discovery of the Lost City of Gold: a vast and untapped market of readers. The neighborhood, she reported, was no longer the downtrodden immigrant district of the past. There were fewer immigrants, but those immigrants who remained had, over the past twenty years, steadily ascended the income ladder. They had money to spend. And they had had children who emulated them in the race to assimilate. They worked. And they read.

They read at home and they read on the subway—where the tabloid was far easier to negotiate than a broadsheet—and when they were done, they left the paper on their seats for another reader to pick up. Word of mouth: the marketer’s dream.

That reader had a name: Sweeney. And at the paper, a guiding maxim evolved: “Tell it to Sweeney.” In its early years, the Daily News tried all sorts of ways to please Sweeney. It made stories shorter. It gave him newsier photos. It provided him with help wanted ads. And, perhaps most importantly, it gave him a voice—from the “Vox Pop” column to the “Love Story Plot Contest.”

By 1924, when Macfadden and Gauvreau launched the tabloid they had renamed the New York Evening Graphic, they were not so much competing for readers as they were intruding on a relationship six years in the making. They were, in essence, trying to lure readers away with the promise of even more fun, and sensation. As Gauvreau was to learn, gimmicks can seduce for a day or so. But they do not necessarily buy loyalty.

The lesson was slow in coming.

Perhaps it might have had a chance had it been competing against only one tab; Macfadden, after all, had a loyal core of fitness buffs who presumably found a reassuring voice in the paper’s screeds against physicians, high-heeled shoes, and hats; “Air the hair” was a Macfadden credo. But three months before the Graphic’s maiden edition, William Randolph Hearst, uncustomarily late to the game, had launched the New York Daily Mirror. The tabloid war was on, and Gauvreau soon began hearing of stacks of the Graphic being dumped in the East River.

By his fifth year at the Graphic, while not necessarily wincing at what he had done in service of Macfadden’s dream, Gauvreau could certainly look back and mark the toll that chasing the Daily News had taken on his system. He was only in his mid-thirties, he wrote, but “five years of tabloidia turned my hair iron gray….” Hewing to Macfadden’s proven magazine formula of letting real people tell real stories, the Graphic’s early pages featured such headlines as “I Murdered My Wife Because She Cooked Fishballs For Dinner.” Readers’ early curiosity, however, gave way to a quick drop in sales, which only spurred Gauvreau on.

He stole like mad. The Graphic offered contests, reader confessionals, and the odd scandal, but was still panting in its pursuit of the News. The paper might enjoy a bump of 200,000 readers vying for the $5,000 first prize in its crossword puzzle contest. But the numbers faded with the end of the contest, and the Graphic had no choice but to raise the stakes to $25,000, which Hearst then bested with a prize of $30,000.

Much as he would have loved a big story—the sort of story that had made his name in Connecticut—Gauvreau now saw that he could no longer rely on events alone to draw readers. “Circulation,” he wrote, “had to be kept up by making news.”

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.

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.

“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.

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.

Michael Shapiro , founder of The Big Roundtable, is the author of six previous nonfiction books. His work has appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, GQ, and Columbia Journalism Review. He is a professor at Columbia Journalism School.