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A conversation with James McGrath Morris, author of a new Pulitzer biography

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 19, 2010 - Ask most Americans what they think of when they hear the name Pulitzer, and the word "prize" is most likely to come to mind. Students of journalism may think sensationalism; St. Louisans may mention the family that was the longtime owner of the Post-Dispatch.

Biographer James McGrath Morris, whose new biography of Joseph Pulitzer is subtitled "A life in politics, print, and power," writes of all of those topics and more. He said in a recent telephone interview from New Mexico, where he lives, that in many ways Pulitzer's life is a classic example of someone who rises from humble beginnings and along the way forgets the values and background of his youth.

Pulitzer emigrated from Hungary, arriving penniless in New York City in 1864. He enlisted to serve in the Union Army in the Civil War, receiving $200 to take the place of a New York farmer. When the war ended, he was discharged and headed west to St. Louis, where the large German-language population seemed a good match for an enterprising newcomer.

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It didn't take him long to become heavily involved in politics and journalism. He was elected to a term in the Missouri House and, in 1878, combined two newspapers into what became the Post-Dispatch. But St. Louis proved to be too small a stage for his ambitions, and he soon went to New York.

There, he bought the World and turned it into a powerhouse in both circulation and influence. His method was simple but successful: Tell people the stories they will want to hear, in a way that grabs their attention and doesn't let go.

Along the way, he engaged in famous feuds with the most powerful people of the day, including Theodore Roosevelt, fellow publisher William Randolph Hearst and political power William Jennings Bryan. He also suffered serious health setbacks, losing his sight and developing such a sensitivity to sound that he spent long periods on his yacht traveling the world, seeking a solace he rarely found.

Toward the end of his life, trying to salvage a legacy he feared would be more about sensationalism than achievement, he endowed both the prizes that bear his name and a school of journalism at Columbia University, though he had once ridiculed the thought of journalism as an academic subject, saying:

"It is as absurd to talk of it as to talk of a professorship of matrimony, it being one of those things of which nothing can be learned by those who never have tried it."

Pulitzer died in 1911, having rarely returned to the city that gave him his start in journalism. His son and grandson, also named Joseph Pulitzer, guided the Post-Dispatch to a position of prominence in the world of newspapers before the family sold it and other holdings to Lee Enterprises in 2005. Morris says the paper "continues today as a shell of its once distinguished self."

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Morris, who once was a reporter in Jefferson City and wrote a column for the St. Louis Business Journal, is editor of the monthly newsletter "The Biographer's Craft."

There was an earlier biography of Pulitzer -- why did you want to do a new one?

Morris: When you write a biography, you worry from the start that you're writing a story that others have already told, and will you contribute something new. That is one of the aims of writing a biography. I was very fortunate that some things in my research turned up that painted a broader picture of him.

People in the past are often portrayed as one-dimensional. In later years, Pulitzer was always portrayed as a sensationalist, someone who helped ease entry into the Spanish-American War. These are things I presumed when I started my research, and it turns out that nothing was as simple as that. The real Pulitzer was not a warmonger like he's portrayed. At that time, his papers were being run by soldiers without a general. When he came back, he put a stop to it.

The process of writing his life changed my understanding of him. I hadn't realized what an ambitious politician he was. Had he not lost his election in 1870 for the Missouri House, I might have written a biography about a minor Missouri politician.

Another thing that thrilled me as a writer was that even though my subject was a real person's life, I was looking in it for some art. He grew more conservative as he grew older, and that humanized him. He becomes less iconic. He has clay feet. As he rationalizes his defense of wealth, it made him very human.

Of the three topics in your subtitle - politics, print and power - which was closest to Pulitzer's heart?

Morris: Politics, without question. He loves politics the way football fanatics today like football. What he wanted from politics was power, and what he wanted it for originally was progressive reforms. That drive only waned as he got older.

He kept that dream until 1884, when he was elected to the House and quit. But he never really gave up that dream. What a lot of people don't understand is how much politics in the 19th century was a participatory sport. There were things like torchlight parades. Answering the question "what newspaper do you take" was an expression of your politics.

Politics today is a sideshow. For him, even when he wasn't involved in politics, he knew the numbers. He could predict electoral votes. If you wanted to get Pulitzer animated, you talked politics.

After his initial success in St. Louis, Pulitzer didn't seem to think much of the city. Why?

Morris: The Post-Dispatch would always be his first-born, but I think he was alienated by a number of things that happened in St. Louis. It was a smallish city, and it was somewhat of a cliquish city, and the big show for him was New York. That combination prompted him to turn his back not only on the Post-Dispatch but on St. Louis itself. It was more a feeling toward the city than the paper. There are three or four episodes where he comes very close to selling the paper, and I think he couldn't bring himself to cut himself off from it.

He does get reports on how it's doing, so he does know about it, but he really does abandon the paper, which is a shame. I'm the black sheep of my family, so I identify with Joseph Pulitzer II. Clearly, the person who is going to be the best publisher is the one he named after himself, then sent to Siberia. I often wondered if Joseph Pulitzer II didn't wish his father was alive so he could say, look, I was the one who kept the paper going and made it one of the best in the country. Pulitzer himself was unable to see it was that son who had the gift.

What would Joseph Pulitzer make of the media landscape today, with online news sites, social media and other ways to inform the public?

Morris: I like to joke that Pulitzer would be twittering, only because he used all of the technology that was available to him at the time. He was not an Edison, not an inventor, but he had a prescience of what the trends were.

I think one of the very dramatic moments comes when he creates the Post-Dispatch out of two newspapers, because he realized that evening papers were going to grow. He saw the advent of the electric light and the fact that people were coming off the farm to the city. He didn't look at these trends academically, but he saw them and harnessed them.

I think the press needs a Pulitzer today, people who can see developments much like Ted Turner saw the growth of cable television. Such people aren't inventors, but they can see the trends.

He also saw the importance of telling a story. If you open up a newspaper today and it says the Euro has fallen in value, that makes for pretty dry reading. Open it up and learn about a farmer in Greece who is pouring his milk on the street, that is what captures our interest. That's part of the legacy of Pulitzer, what keeps pushing us back to the question of what is a story.

Talk about Pulitzer the man as opposed to the press tycoon. His life wasn't a very happy one.

Morris: He's tragic in the Greek sense. He becomes a Howard Hughes figure of the 19th century because of his own internal flaws. I don't think he had manic depression. I think he suffered a kind of generalized anxiety that led to the manifestation of all those problems he had, like a hypersensitivity to sound.

People wrongly believe that someone who goes blind hears better. Generally speaking, people who go blind tend to use their hearing a little bit better, but that doesn't mean like in the Ray Charles movie, where he can suddenly hear bird sounds that no one else can hear.

His family life was ghastly. I knew it would be bad, but I didn't know how bad. I just felt so sorry for his kids. His wife, Kate, was a heroine to me in this story. I'm somewhat of a romantic, and she understands him in ways that nobody else did. She sticks by him even when he constantly pushes her away. It was not an era when people got divorced; they just made other arrangements to live apart.

The incredible anxiety that he feels is about everything, ranging from his children not loving him to anxiety over work. It manifests itself in part because of things he can't control. He is in a dark womb. He descends into a vortex of feeling he is going to die at any time. The business of going to Europe, back and forth, fleeing his own shadow - Pulitzer was looking for a geographical solution to psychological ailments.

In your acknowledgements, you thank film director Martin Scorsese for giving you lodging during your research in New York. Would the life of Joseph Pulitzer make for a good movie?

Morris: Scorsese has been married to my sister for more than a decade, and he has been very supportive.

The problem with Pulitzer is that it's a great life for a movie, but it was pretty much precluded by "Citizen Kane." That sucked the air out of doing a movie about a newspaper giant of the 19th century. But a Pulitzer movie would have been better than one modeled on Hearst. He spent a lot of time at his desk, writing memos. Pulitzer was out there doing things.

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