“the most powerful woman in America”
“When your grandmother gets raped, put it on the front page”
“Our patience has come to a breaking point,” Chancellor Adolf Hitler bellowed in the frenzied crescendo of his address to the Reichstag on December 11, 1941: “a plan prepared by President Roosevelt has been revealed in the United States, according to which his intention was to attack Germany by 1943 with all of the resources at the disposal of the United States.” In joining with Italy and Japan to declare war that afternoon, it was less the case that Hitler had awakened the sleeping American giant than that he had stumbled upon its stealthy predawn preparations for battle. Indeed, for several years grim auguries had reached Berlin suggesting that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was perhaps less committed to American neutrality in the face of the conflicts raging across the globe than he professed to be publicly. Having long suspected the “insane” and “particularly despicable” president of the United States of promoting the “work of hatred and warmongering” throughout the world, Hitler had recently been presented with what he took to be irrefutable proof that his mistrust had been well justified.
The führer was not alone in questioning the sincerity of the president’s long-expressed unwillingness to entangle the United States abroad. A week before the German declaration of war, eager to galvanize isolationist sentiment nationwide, two of the most stridently anti-Administration members of the American press had jointly published in their respective Chicago and Washington, D.C., newspapers, what appeared to be confirmation of their own fears that “President Roosevelt was lying the United States into war with Germany.” This “monumental scoop” consisted not only of excerpts of the leaked top-secret “Rainbow Five” plan, the Army and Navy’s joint estimate that the United States would be ready to launch its own multi-pronged assault on Germany by July 1943, but perhaps even more damning, a copy of the president’s own letter ordering the assessment. The German Embassy wasted no time in cabling a copy of the astounding revelations to Berlin upon the story’s publication in Washington on December 4, 1941. A week later, Hitler would bark to the Reichstag that, despite his many efforts at peace, the recently published proof of Roosevelt’s sneaking belligerence toward Germany had left him no alternative but to declare war on the United States. On December 14, 1941, the German high command would present the führer with its radical strategic reassessments, based likewise on the “Anglo-Saxon war plans which became known through publication in the Washington Times-Herald.”
In November 1946, nearly half a decade after the Washington Times-Herald’s “Rainbow Five” revelations had been cabled to Berlin, Collier’s Weekly magazine would venture, “One day the movies will doubtless get around to filming the fabulous life of Eleanor Medill Patterson.” Two months earlier, Eleanor Medill Patterson had been selected to fill the void left by the recent death of her brother, Joseph Medill Patterson, as chairman of the board of the New York Daily News. After launching the Daily News in 1919, Joe Patterson had made it not only the United States’ first viable tabloid, but the newspaper with the largest daily circulation of any—tabloid or broadsheet—in the nation and the widest Sunday circulation of any in the world. The choice of the late publisher’s sister had not been an exclusively sentimental one. In her own right, Eleanor Medill Patterson was already owner and publisher of the most widely read daily in the nation’s capital, the Washington Times-Herald, called by many, both inside and out of the profession, “the damndest newspaper to ever hit the streets.” According to popular journalistic axiom, the Pattersons, like their first-cousin Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick, had “printer’s ink blood.” Their grandfather, the firebrand abolitionist, Joseph Medill, had been editor-in-chief and eventual principal owner of the Chicago Tribune from the tense years immediately preceding the Civil War until his death in 1899. By the mid-1940s, under nearly three decades of Colonel McCormick’s sanctimonious, anti-Roosevelt, isolationist direction, the Tribune had grown into the most widely read newspaper in the Midwest and the most widely circulated full-size daily in the nation. Eleanor Medill Patterson, as both the youngest and the only girl of her generation among fractious boys, had been her grandfather’s darling. As such, she had inherited a disproportionate share of Tribune Company stock and a considerable fortune. Bypassing Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman, Clare Boothe Luce, Dorothy Schiff, Emily Post and every other prominent American woman of the 1940s, Collier’s contended that with her patrimony, her own attainments and her latest accolade, “Cissy Patterson—no one calls her Eleanor—is probably the most powerful woman in America.” It added, “And perhaps the most hated.”