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Dead People Can't Sue You: Even more facts you didn't know about Joseph Pulitzer

February 3, 2010, 12:00 am
By SFR Staff
Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power

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Tuesday, Feb. 9


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In this week's SFR, we talk with James McGrath Morris, the Tesuque author whose extensive biography of Joseph Pulitzer, Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power is set for release from HarperCollins on Feb. 9. He had a ton more information to share about Pulitzer, the writing of the tome and the nature of biographies in general. In our print edition this week we offer "10 Things You Didn't Know About Joseph Pulitzer," and here he offers a few more.

JMM: Pulitzer's New York World newspaper was published in color—but we don't know that, because we read it in black and white microfilm. Thanks to Nicholson Baker, he saved a huge set of Worlds and he's published a book called Sunday at the World. It has color reproductions.

The World was the first newspaper with comics. Newspapers were boring before Pulitzer came along.

More facts and a Q&A with the author below the jump.



In 1878, Pulitzer was courting two different women at the same time. The reason I was able to date it was because Eric Fettman, a reporter at the New York Post, likes to collect journalism memorabilia. He had the fourth letter in the series of correspondence by Nannie Tunstall. It was dated. The others had no dates on them. So, by using that letter, I was able to piece together which months she was writing them, so it builds to the tension of the book. I was able to show he was going out with two women [Tunstall and Kate Davis, later Kate Pulitzer] simultaneously.

In 1890, Pulitzer built the building that housed his newspaper. It was the tallest building in the world at that point. So as immigrants would arrive in the United States—it sounds so corny to us today because we don't understand the power of this—but they would see the Statue of Liberty, and to them it meant freedom from oppression. So the ship would go by that, and they would have their first view of this new world of opportunity, and what they'd see would be the sunlight gleaming off the gold dome of the tallest building in the world, and the building was not a bank, it was not a monument to commerce—it was a monument to the media. I think it's such a powerful image for explaining how important the World newspaper was to people back then.

In the cornerstone of the building, when they put it in in 1889, they put a copper box. In it they put a wax cylinder recording of reporters talking. Voices had only been recorded for a few years at that point. In 1955, when the building was torn down, that box fell out and the wax cylinder recording was saved and transfered to tape, and on my website I have a version. You can listen to voices from 1889! And they're real reporters! They talk about the New York Giants baseball team and they talk about the 1892 exposition. They say, 'New York's gonna get the 1892 exposition.' Of course, it goes to Chicago. So I have the actual recording up on my website.

Across the World newspaper building was the equivalent of Times Square's ticker tape. People used to come down to the building to read the news. It was put up in chalk across the building. One year there was a yacht race, and they had guys moving model yachts as the telegrams would say who was ahead. People by the thousands stood to watch this.

The World delivered everything. It delivered sheet music, recipes, fashions, how to cut dresses, serials, all this kind of stuff. If Macy's or Bloomingdale's wanted to reach their customers, hey had only one choice, and that was to advertize in the World. When they boycotted the World, the World sent reporters into the stores to write stories about how there are no shoppers there today—and it would be true!

They used to boast how many trees and how many pounds of lead it took to produce the World every day. Could you imagine that today? If the Reporter said, 'We destroyed one hillside of trees to bring this paper to you'—people would jump away. Talk about changing times.

When Pulitzer first arrived in the US, he went into French's Hotel and was thrown out of there for loitering. That's the hotel he buys, tears down, and builds the tallest building in the world years later. It's a delicious irony.

In addition to fun tidbits (or, what Morris calls "Way Cool Facts"), Morris is also full of information about... well, a lot of things!

SFR: You worked on this book for six years. Can you talk about the labor involved?
JMM:
There are two kinds of writers. A lot of writers write a book to get the book done, and a lot of writers who write the book for the trip, the journey. I am the latter. Being in a small village in the southern part of Hungary, walking in the steps of where Pulitzer grew up, or spending days in archives, to me, is the best part. The closest a guy can come to post-partum depression is to finish a book. It's a loss. I woke up every day with Pulitzer on my mind and went to bed every night with Pulitzer on my mind. It's now closed.

What brought you to this subject?
The thing that started me was an editor at HarperCollins who called up my agent and said, 'Would Jamie be interested in writing a biography of Pulitzer?' And I said it had been done—it was done in 1967 by a guy named [WA] Swanberg. Swanberg was a hero of mine whose books first got me reading biographies. I did a little research to see if Tim Duggan, the editor [at HarperCollins], was right [that another one needed to be written]—and it turns out he was. There was so much that Swanberg missed. And I know this era—I've spent 20 years researching 19th century journalism and characters, so I knew everybody to start with. So it was a very comfortable home.

So it seems that many pieces have only recently been discovered.
I had unbelievable luck in research. I found this missing memoir in Paris and all these different things. This is a story that wrote itself. That's what every biographer hopes for, and it happened to me.

Did these discoveries crop up just before you wrote the book?
They happened during it. Some of it was luck, but Frederick Douglass said, 'Luck is the combination of opportunity and preparedness.' I'm a good historical gumshoe, I know how to do research, and we knew that there were certain elements missing. There's one [discovery] that I don't get any credit for, but it was great—there was this carpenter in St. Louis who found a box of Pulitzer papers in the trash, and Columbia University called me up and asked me to go and look at the papers. That was luck—they decided to make it public while I was still finishing the book. I would have been really upset if this year, they'd done so.

A famous story in biography is A Scott Berg, who wrote a biography of [Charles] Lindbergh. And he said, 'Nobody else will ever have anything new after I'm done!' and of course a year later, it was discovered that Lindbergh had two families, one in Germany that no one knew about. So you have to be careful as to what you claim.

What's another example of something lucky?
It's in the minute details. You know, when you build a house out of brick, the people who buy the houses don't notice how all the bricks work, but the builder does. And I found some little bricks that made the whole thing. One was a coin collector in St. Louis who kept a signature of Pulitzer's—and it turns out to be on a note, a financial note, meaning someone lent him money, and that allowed me to determine how much money Pulitzer made in one of his original newspaper purchases.

Pulitzer went blind at the height of his career, at age 41. Why did his blindness so destroy him?
He had what we today call social anxiety. But we're doing a pathological interpretation of someone who's long dead, plus, these concepts didn't exist. But basically, the anxieties he had—mostly self-induced—connected in part with his blindness. It was so overwhelming that they manifested themselves physically. A lot of people believe that blind people have increased hearing, so people assume that Pulitzer had increased hearing. That's a myth. He had acousticophobia, which we now call hyperesthesia [excessive sensitivity to stimuli], which is brought on by generalized anxiety disorders. So some people believe there's a chemical that's occurring in your brain, and all these things get triggered—so the trauma of becoming blind brought on the anxiety and all these other phobias.

How did he become blind?
Pulitzer had detatched retinas, so he went to work one day and couldn't read. It happened in his right eye and then his left eye. He went gradually blind. It was a genetic thing.

Now, here's a tale for you. Last January, on the 26, I turned in the last part of my manuscript the old-fashioned way—I went to FedEx. And the next morning I was on an operating table in Albuquerque. I had detatched retinas. Talk about psychosomatic identification! And of all people, I should have known what was happening, but I was so obsessed with finishing the book, getting to the last line, that I thought it was really bad cataracts. I delivered the package FedEx, went to see a doctor at 4 pm, and he scheduled me for surgery the next morning. And I can see today, thanks to him. I had what happened to Pulitzer, but medical science saved me but couldn't save him.

What was Pulitzer family life like?
He and [his wife] Kate led very separate lives. He was so cruel to his children. Unspeakably cruel. They were desperate to please him, but nothing they did could please him. He was so self-centered. For example, his daughter has a small operation [on her mouth], and she was bleeding a lot. So the whole dinner table is all worried about her and Pulitzer stands up and says, 'Hello! Does anyone care about me? I'm the one who's suffering! Not my daughter!' And Kate banned him from the second floor that night. That was very typical of him.

The great love story in here, even though she ends up having an affair, is Kate. She is the only person who truly understands him. Later, at the end of his life, he has a locket with a painting of his mother that he can't see any more—she has it enlarged, she has a painter paint a big version of that so he could see his mother. She's the unwritten heroine here. She was able to tolerate him and still love him, though at one point she had to find solace in the arms of one of his editors.

What is the Pulitzer family like now?
I talked earlier about a Pulitzer in Paris who had memoirs—she was hard to find because she doesn't use the name Pulitzer, because she was trying to be religious sculptress, and whenever she did work, they said, 'Ah, are you related to the famous Pulitzer?' And she didn't want that. She wanted to make it on her own. She took her mother's maiden name, and had it not been for a lucky bit of genealogical research, I never would have found her.

You have had contact with the Pulitzers in the writing of this book; have any stories?
This summer, Vivian Pulitzer—well, she goes by Vivian Elmsley—came to stay in Santa Fe. She stayed in the house that her mother built [at Bishop's Lodge]. When the man carrying her luggage told her the house was built by Constance Pulitzer, she never said anything. She never said, 'That was my mother.' She's humble, and she enjoyed the anonymity.

Last summer I did a preview reading of the book, and Vivian and another family member were here in Santa Fe and they came to it, and—I don't know how much you know about your great-grandparents—but for them, it's the same experience. They don't know that much about it. I brought them back to the house, and I showed her a picture of her mother that she'd never seen. She didn't know her mother was born in Paris. For me, that was really a thrill.

On that note, what was it like working with the family?
Well, he died in 1911, so nobody in the family [who is alive now] knew him. The closest I came was Emily Pulitzer, who is the widow of Joseph Pulitzer III. This is not an authorized book, but the family was glad to cooperate. But frankly the stuff that makes the book is not in their hands, it's in archives elsewhere.

What is the difference between an authorized and unauthorized biography?
Usually an authorized biography who's either still alive or close enough to being alive—meaning, somebody controls the material—like Kurt Vonnegut. He only died a few years ago, so his wife controls the estate, so the only way you can get to his papers is through his wife. That's why there's a famous [phrase by Justin Kaplan], "First, shoot the widow." In that case, they authorize the book. You have to wonder, when you're reading an authorized book, are there things left out of it?

For an authorized biography, does the family read the manuscript?
They very often insist on reading the manuscript and insist on cutting out stuff. But what often now is the case, because w'ere trying to be more transparent, you might see in the preface, 'This was authorized by the famliy, they read it, they only removed two references'—kind of a disclosure statement. Sometimes the only way you can write about certain people is to get it authorized, because they own the rights to the material. That's why I write about people who have been dead for a while. Dead people can't sue you, and no one can stop you from getting to their materials.

Do you think, then, that an unauthorized biography may be more accurate?
Yes, but you see, then you could be limited. [In reference to an unauthorized biography of Oprah, by Kitty Kelley, due out this April], for example, I'm betting she sent out an email to all her friends saying, 'If you talk to Kitty Kelley, your name is mud.' So you lose the cooperation, whereas an authorized one, the person might say to their friends, 'Please feel free to talk to the writer as much as you want, I've authorized this project.' Some authorized biographies are very revealing. But for many figures an unauthorized biography may be closer to the truth, because no one's controlling what's said.

Can you give me an idea of Pulitzer's wealth?
This was a period where you could buy a steak dinner, a drink and a dessert for 15, 20 cents, and Pulitzer accumulated, in the early 1880s, millions of dollars. He maintained a mansion in Maine, a mansion in New York, a house on a private island in Georgia, the second largest yacht in the world, a personal staff of 17—money wasn't an issue. And he made so much money from the paper that his income from stocks and bonds equaled that.

 

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