Before reading this book pretty much all I knew about Joseph Pulitzer I learned from Newseis. He was very short sighted with over sensitive hearing. His arch nemesis was William Randolph Hearst. He was tyrannical and given to manipulation and intimidation to get what he wanted.
That is all true but is only a fraction of the whole man.
It took me some time to realize the “baddy” from my favorite movie was THE Pulitzer as in the Pulitzer prize. It was hard to reconcile the two, how could the originator of one of the most famous literary prizes possibly be this tyrannical, persecutor of newsboys?
Needless to say this book was full of surprises for an innocent 1880’s girl.
In short Joseph Pulitzer was a remarkable person, difficult to live or work with, explosive, obsessive, a workaholic driven by idealism. He possessed an intellectual capacity that we mere mortals can only dream of. Nearly every aspect of this man was a surprise and warrants further investigation.
To get you started here are 5 things I bet you didn’t know.
#1 He came to America to fight in the civil war
At 17 Pulitzer left home, sights set on a brilliant military career.
However due to his poor eyesight he was rejected by the Austrian army, in which his Uncles had distinguished themselves. Undeterred he volunteered to fight for the British in India and the French Foreign Legion in Mexico. Both rejected him. Finally the Americans accepted him despite his poor eyesight because he could ride a horse and shoot.
He fought for the last six months of the Civil war.
The only person he harmed was a superior officer. He punched the officer for pulling his nose.
#2 He finished his law degree at age 21
From the time he landed in Maryland in 1864, speaking no English to when he was admitted to the bar was only 4 year. FOUR years!! To learn a language, study law and pass his examinations.
I was not exaggerating his mental capacity.
#3 He was elected to congress
Pulitzer was a crusader for the poor, vigilante extraordinaire in attacking the ‘fat cats’ of New York, uncovering corruption and abuses of power.
He took his crusade all the way to Washington as an elected member of Congress but decided he could effect more change through The New York World than by wrestling with bureaucratic red tape.
He left after 3 months
#4 the St Louis Dispatch was his first Newspaper
If you are from St Louis or Missouri you might know this already but my Dad is from Missouri and it was news to me.
The World was the second paper he pulled from the ruins, the first was The St Louis Dispatch. .After purchasing the crumbling building and machinery of the Dispatch in December 1879, he joined forces with the Evening Post and became the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
3 1/2 years later, in May 1883, he bought The New York World which was making a $40,000 a year loss. Not only did he successfully resurrect both newspapers but he maintained a tight reign on both papers writing editorials for both and successfully driving the staff in both cities to distraction.
#5 He payed men and Women the same salaryPulitzer believed women doing the work of a man deserved equal pay, a standard many publishers today still struggle to implement. There were many women on his New York World staff including journalists Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman) and Elizabeth Jordan.
Pulitzer was a man of extremes and contradictions in his personality and in his work. Even his enemies and rivals acknowledged and begrudgingly respected his abilities.
If you you want to know more about the man behind the prize I recommend you read Denis Bryan’s book Pulitzer: A Life, from which I have gleaned this information.
My favorite line from the book is:
“The phoenix had nothing on Pulitzer”
This could be said both about him personally, his struggle with chronic debilitating illness, and professionally, as seen in the fortune he amassed from the purchase of two ruined papers.
To read about Pulitzer and the advent of yellow journalism see: The Fathers of Yellow Journalism.