Downsizing the myth of CBS' William Paley

BOOK REVIEW

November 17, 1990|By Sherryl Connelly | Sherryl Connelly,New York Daily News

In All His Glory: William S. Paley.

Sally Bedell Smith.

Simon & Schuster.

782 pages. $29.95.

Sally Bedell Smith answers in "In All His Glory," that other question of our times: What does not become a legend most? The truth.

"Glory" shows Smith to be a writer of stylistic ease who can whistle skeletons from the closet. Page by page, Smith dismantles the Paley myth, a lifetime in the making -- Paley died last month at 89 -- giving us in its place a hard look at a hard, cold man.

The son of a cigar maker, Paley did not found CBS, but rather bought the fledgling radio network. He was a rich man's son making a bold investment, with the right touch when it came to building the business. But he was not the visionary or risk taker he later claimed to be, resisting even the move into television when the time came.

Possibly most illustrative of Paley's style is the story of his relationship with Frank Stanton, the son of an industrial arts teacher in Columbus, Ohio, a lifelong CBS stalwart who, as company president, ran the show after Paley -- fabulously wealthy and married to Babe -- had absented himself from the helm to pursue gentrified pleasures in the company of the conservative rich.

Stanton's devotion to duty was inspired by the assumption that when Paley retired at 65, CBS would be his -- he was encouraged to believe so -- but in the end Paley, acting from jealously, did him in, precipitating a series of events that eventually brought CBS low.

Stanton was but the first in a series of ambitious men to whom Paley handed the scepter merely to snatch it back, in the end losing his company to Laurence Tisch, a Paley ally in his campaign to unseat yet another one of his anointed successors, Tom Wyman.

Smith makes excellent copy of the disintegration of Paley's relationship with Edward R. Murrow as well as other stains on the company escutcheon: the '50s collaboration with the CIA, its in-house witch hunts during the McCarthy years, plus a medley of intrigues in which Paley and others at CBS indulged themselves.

And then there was Babe, one of the three Cushing sisters who formed their own chic elite in Manhattan during the '40s. Babe, married to Paley, brought him into the conservative cloister of the moneyed with unassailable social standing. Jock Whitney was a brother-in-law, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt a friend and, across the ocean, dukes and viscounts were his hosts.

Babe was an icon, the first, foremost modern society lady, an American princess of sorts. But Paley, whose indifference to their six children showed, made such demands upon her that she disappeared into neurotic perfectionism.

Sexually spurned by him, she knew that, to Paley, another day brought another assignation with yet another woman. Only during her final illness, when she had nothing left to lose, was she free with her anger toward her despotic husband.

"Glory" might well be the little man's gift of choice for Christmas in that it offers the opportunity to assuage unrealized ambitions by seeing how a big man can be reduced to size by the measure of his ruthless self-interest.

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