'Pulitzer, A Life': deeply flawed giant

October 21, 2001|By Mike Pride | By Mike Pride,Special to the Sun

Pulitzer: A Life, by Denis Brian. John Wiley & Sons. 438 pages. $30.

Joseph Pulitzer translated pluck, luck and sweat into the classic American success story. As a penniless 18-year-old Hungarian, he jumped ship into Boston Harbor to ensure that he, not the man who recruited him in Europe, got his Union army enlistment bonus. In short order, he became a lawyer, a Missouri state senator and a newspaper owner. Having succeeded as a publisher in St. Louis, he combined his work ethic, ingenuity and brain power to transform The World in New York City into a powerful metropolitan daily.

In Pulitzer: A Life, Denis Brian mines a wealth of previous scholarship, newspaper content and personal correspondence in his quest to recreate Pulitzer's long-gone universe. It is a shame that such an able digger was not better equipped to shape and write his story.

His book is three books. In the first, an account of the early life, Brian quotes previous biographers like a college freshman making sure the prof knows he has done his research. In the second, Brian riffles through the front pages of The World, often losing sight of Pulitzer himself. In the third, he relies heavily on letters and memos, providing the personal insights upon which the best biographies turn.

Brian writes briskly but with little polish. He describes immigrants "who didn't give a damn who won the war" and calls The World's 1880 election coverage "reporting with a hell of a twist!" Characters as large as Nelly Bly, the renowned reporter, and William Randolph Hearst, Pulitzer's great rival, remain dead under Brian's hand.

And yet, for an author who researched as thoroughly as Brian did, Pulitzer's life is too grand to mangle.

The infirmities Pulitzer suffered made his rise as a newspaper baron all the more remarkable. He was blind from the age of 42 and so sensitive to noise that he cruised the oceans in a soundproof yacht. Afraid he might damage his brain if he bent over, he paid someone to tie his shoelaces.

As an absentee publisher, Pulitzer became a string-puller who could be very hard on the help. He judged job applicants on how quietly they ate their soup and once fired a reporter whose voice grated on him. He communicated with his editors through incisive memos that referred to people by code name -- he was "Andes," Teddy Roosevelt "Glutinous."

For all his brilliance, Pulitzer was -- like most of us -- a prisoner of his time. He forbade reporting on abortion unless the practice was referred to as "criminal activity" or "systematic iniquity." Rival editor Charles A. Dana called him a tool of world Jewry (both parents were Jews, but he practiced no religion). Pulitzer dismissed Dana as a closet Greek, writing: "The modern Greek is a treacherous, drunken creature."

Pulitzer's genius was in devising a news formula that dominated the marketplace for decades and survives, in part, in the age of O.J., Monica and Gary Condit. Although his passions were to expose the corruption of the rich and the exploitation of the poor, he expected his minions to pursue every scandal to the juiciest detail. He wanted to raise the public's morals, but he also wanted to sell papers.

The World lasted for more than half a century after Pulitzer's death before folding under a hyphenated flag. His name endures on the prizes he endowed, and, despite its flaws, Brian's book reaffirms his status as a giant of journalism.

Mike Pride is the editor of the Concord Monitor, New Hampshire's capital newspaper, where he has worked since 1978. A former Nieman fellow, he has earned the National Press Foundation's editor of the year award. With Mike Travis, he is author of My Brave Boys, a Civil War history from University Press of New England.

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