Glory and misery

Pulitzer Prizes are coveted, but Joseph Pulitzer was no prize

Issue: "Showing the alternative," April 21, 2001

Pulitzer prize winners (the announcement this year was scheduled for April 16) often toast their benefactor, Joseph Pulitzer, the editor who dominated St. Louis and New York journalism from the 1870s to his death in 1911. But few know much about the life of Pulitzer: Born in 1847, he had a penetrating intellect and superb journalistic instincts, but he also was known as a man who "exudes the venom of a snake and wields the bludgeon of a bully."

That was the verdict of a competitor, yet even Pulitzer's friend and top editor said that Pulitzer was the "best man in the world to have in a newspaper office for one hour in the morning. For the remainder of the day he was a damned nuisance." Pulitzer instructed his editors and reporters to spy on each other and send reports directly to him. He purposefully created overlapping authority so that he would have to be called in to break deadlocks.

One reporter wrote that "When anything went wrong, and things seemed to go wrong with him very often, there would come from his office ... a stream of profanity and filth." Pulitzer's fellow newspaper editor Henry Watterson noted that "Absolute authority made Pulitzer a tyrant." Pulitzer's system, according to one journalist, "produced in time a condition of suspicion, jealousy and hatred, a maelstrom of office politics that drove at least two editors to drink, one into suicide, a fourth into insanity."

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Why did Pulitzer create such chaos? One biographer described him as "the helpless megalomaniac and egocentric, the perfectionist who loved to criticize." When Pulitzer gradually went blind during the 1890s, he called himself "the loneliest man in the world"-but that isolation was largely self-imposed. Pulitzer was separated from his wife and children for most of his last 20 years because he wanted around him only "compliant attendants." He would swear at an assistant, swing a whip at him, and then plead with the assistant to explain why others did not want to be with him.

Pulitzer's wife often wanted to join him, writing that "You would be much happier my dear Joseph if you would only believe in the friendly intentions & good feeling of the people about you." But Pulitzer raged at her, then complained that he had to eat dinner with "nobody at my table except paid employees." Many of those assistants admired him at first, but later or usually sooner he would turn on them. He would then write letters such as the following: "How much I would give if I could only deceive myself with the thought that my anxiety to attach you to me as my long lost and longed for friend is not entirely unappreciated."

I've read through much of Pulitzer's writing, and my sense is that he truly wanted God's love but was too proud to acknowledge anyone above him. When Charles Evan Hughes, later to be the Supreme Court's Chief Justice, visited Pulitzer in 1903, he reported that "One would have supposed that Mr. Pulitzer was sitting as the judge of all the earth." For a time Pulitzer sent an atheistic employee to church every week to place a new $5 bill on the offering plate and then leave. Another of Pulitzer's assistants explained, "Mr. Pulitzer has then attended church."

Pulitzer spent his last years sailing constantly in a yacht with 75 employees trained to cater to his whims. As one biographer put it, "The yacht represented the logical end toward which the eccentric despot, so concerned with democracy, had been working for decades. It gave him complete control. It was an absolute monarchy." But Pulitzer still had no peace of mind, and ended his life agitated by what he called his "constant and manifold failures."

Having forsaken God, he was left merely to complain that he had been "forsaken and deserted and shamefully treated by fate." Now, on the days Pulitzer Prizes are handed out, Pulitzer is remembered, and perhaps even loved by the winners. And yet, regardless of his personal failings, his theoretical aspirations are worth remembering. In May 1904, writing in The North American Review, he observed that "Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself."

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