Everyone’s heard of the Pulitzer Prize. Scarcely anyone remembers Joseph Pulitzer.
Pulitzer (1847-1911) was a publishing magnet. He was among the first to recognize and harness the power of mass media. Pulitzer’s World had one of the largest circulations of any newspaper of the day. It influenced presidential elections, spearheaded a successful campaign urging readers to contribute their pennies for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, and revived publication of the World Almanac still around today. Along with William Randolph Hearst (of Citizen Kane reknown), Pulitzer stoked American jingoism with sensationalist articles, sparking the Spanish-American War and coinage of the term “yellow journalism” as a condemnation of the tabloid press.
Pulitzer’s life fascinates. Blind during his final two decades, he, nonetheless, oversaw the publication of his beloved World, relying upon a team of secretaries and readers. He was born a Hungarian Jew but circulated the myth that his mother was Catholic so that he would not be viewed as Jewish, as Judaism follows the matrilineal line. A rival publisher, in an effort to capture more Jewish readers, denounced Pulitzer as a “renegade Jew” and as “Judas Pulitzer.” Pulitzer inveighed against corruption, privilege, and monopoly power, even as he dealt with political machines, invested in trains and utilities, and became one of the wealthiest men in America.
Pulitzer arrived in the United States in 1864 as cannon fodder for the Union Army. During the Civil War, draftees could avoid service by paying substitutes. Recruiters searched for willing immigrants overseas; Pulitzer was one of these. On board ship, Pulitzer learned that New York recruiters were offering larger bounties than his Boston recruiters. After disembarking at Deer Island in Boston Harbor, Pulitzer swam ashore and made his way to New York.
After the Civil War, Pulitzer went to St. Louis, drawn by the large German population. He rotated through a number of menial and clerical jobs, eventually finding a position as a reporter for a German-language newspaper. He dabbled in politics and was arrested for shooting and wounding a lobbyist. Pulitzer purchased two failing newspapers at auction, then merged them to create the successful St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Post-Dispatch remained in print until 2005.
Pulitzer, however, longed for a New York newspaper. New York was the center of journalism, politics, society, and commerce. In 1883, Pulitzer purchased the World from the robber baron Jay Gould. At the time, the World was hemorrhaging funds. Through astute marketing aimed at the underprivileged and the growing population of immigrants, circulation soared. Pulitzer saw the value of bold headlines, illustrations, color, simple language, and short articles. He understood the importance of an evening edition, with updated news available at the end of the workday, the evening newspaper playing the same role that the evening television news performed during the second half of the twentieth century. The paper’s stance against political and economic corruption appealed to the masses. The World had the power to make or break political candidates. Pulitzer himself had the power to defuse international crises, including a saber-rattling incident between the United States and Britain over Venezuela’s border with British Guiana. In addition to taking the Statue of Liberty out of her crates and putting her on a pedestal, the World sponsored reporter Nellie Bly’s successful effort to travel around the world in 80 days to match the Jules Verne novel. Less responsibly, in a fierce circulation war with Hearst’s Journal, the World focused upon Spanish atrocities in Cuba and blamed the Spanish for the sinking of the Maine, triggering the Spanish-American War.
Pulitzer’s wealth grew with his power. He was a millionaire many times over. He migrated between a mansion in New York City, a home in Bar Harbor, Maine, and a third home on Jekyll Island, Georgia with intermittent stays in Europe seeking cures for his eye problems and many other real and imagined ailments. With his blindness, Pulitzer developed a hypersensitivity to sound. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a tower of silence in his Bar Harbor home and a sound-proof room in his New York mansion. When he traveled abroad, he routinely replaced the windows in his dwellings; he could not abide even being at the table with a companion who slurped his soup. Pulitzer owned a yacht and hired private train cars with abandon, even as he and Hearst suppressed a strike by newsies, the ragged newsboys who were essential to the distribution of the press. His wife, Kate Davis, a distant relation of the Confederate President, struggled on a $6,000 monthly allowance ($72,000 in 1900 is equivalent to over $2 million today). Kate’s globe-trotting partners included her cousin Winnie Davis, Jefferson’s daughter, known as the “daughter of the Confederacy.” Devotion to the Lost Cause contributed to Winnie’s broken engagement with a Syracuse, New York lawyer who was the grandson of an abolitionist. Winnie turned to writing, publishing two novels before her death at age 33.
In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt, who inaugurated the imperial Presidency, pressured federal prosecutors to indict Pulitzer over news stories about alleged kickbacks from the government’s $40 million purchase of the assets of the French company that had first attempted to build a canal in Panama. Although records about who actually got the money had surprisingly vanished, Roosevelt considered the stories to be libelous and wanted Pulitzer muzzled. The Supreme Court dismissed the indictments on jurisdictional grounds. While Pulitzer hungered for power and money, was demanding, self-absorbed, and often miserly with both his funds and affections, perhaps the single principle from which he never veered was his conviction that a free press was essential to democracy.
For more about Joseph Pulitzer, James McGrath Morris, Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power (2010).