Paper Tigress

When owning a newspaper was profitable — and fun.

By Richard Norton Smith

I said a lot of things, but Cissy did them.
—Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Long before Marilyn, Jackie, or Liz, there was Cissy—more precisely, Eleanor Medill “Cissy” Patterson—the imperious, principled, dissolute, cheerfully malevolent dynamo behind “the damndest newspaper ever to hit the streets.” From 1930, when she signed on to edit William Randolph Hearst’s failing Washington Herald, until her death in 1948 amid suitably melodramatic circumstances, Washingtonians grew accustomed to the newsboy’s cry: “Have You Heard What Mrs. Patterson Says Today?” Whether goading the reptilian Walter Winchell as a “middle-aged ex-chorus boy” ashamed of his Jewish heritage, Vice President Henry Wallace (“a crystal-gazing crackpot”), or “that lovely asp” Clare Boothe Luce, Cissy made no pretense to objectivity. “I’d rather raise Hell than raise vegetables,” she boasted.

It was a family tradition, as Amanda Smith makes clear in this vast, hugely readable saga of five generations with printer’s ink in their veins and a sixth sense for what sells newspapers. “When your grandmother gets raped,” advised Cissy, “put it on the front page.” This formula alone makes her at once a flamboyant anachronism and depressingly relevant. Forget the Murdoch press; with its multiple, round-the-clock editions, highly spiced features, and blatant partisanship, Mrs. Patterson’s rechristened Times-Herald supplied a bridge between the score-settling personal journalism of her legendary grandfather, Joseph Medill, and the shrill editorializing of today’s cable gabfests and much of the blogosphere.

Until now, Cissy’s notoriety has obscured her journalistic significance. Amanda Smith’s unblinking group portrait of a dynasty unraveling is a model of its kind. Combining her subject’s vitality with an accuracy and restraint wholly absent in the mercurial publisher, Smith pays Cissy the ultimate compliment of taking her seriously. Widely praised for her skillful editing of the correspondence of her grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, here Smith gives us the fullest, fairest portrait we are ever likely to have of Cissy Patterson, her extended family, and their colorful, contentious approach to the news. Entertaining as it is, this volume should dispel any misplaced nostalgia for city room hijinks, even as it raises fresh doubts about a journalism that seeks the highest profit through the lowest common denominator.

Richard Norton Smith is a scholar in residence at George Mason University and the author, most recently, of The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, 1880-1955.


Drawing deeply on letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and family archives, Smith (Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy) captivatingly traces the rapid rise and quite sudden fall of a woman who ambitiously and with canny journalistic wiles fashioned herself into the only woman editor-in-chief of a major metropolitan newspaper. Smith’s absorbing biography recounts the spellbinding tale of the woman who followed the motto: “When your grandmother gets raped, put it on the front page.”


“Brief Encounters”

By James Boylan

The Magnificent Medills: The McCormick-Patterson Dynasty: America’s Royal Family of Journalism During a Century of Turbulent Splendor By Megan McKinney | Harper | 464 pages Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson By Amanda Smith | Alfred A. Knopf | 720 pages

Megan McKinney, who identifies herself as an expert on historic Chicago families, has placed more than seventy persons in the family tree at the start of her book, which means that she has to keep moving to cover them all, especially when she allots so much space to the society-page aspects of their lives. But she manages, even when slighting the historical background.

Amanda Smith’s biography of Cissy is a different matter. Cissy has been the subject of a number of biographies already‚ most notably the sympathetic 1966 study by a Patterson descendant, Alice Albright Hoge. The author of this most recent volume, a Kennedy, seems to understand the dynamics and misfortunes of powerful families. She traces Cissy’s life (1881-1948) from her early years as a lightly educated little rich girl in Chicago, Washington, and Europe to her debut on an international stage when she insisted on marrying a rascally Russian count. With the marriage breaking up, the count kidnapped their child, Felicia, who was recovered only by strenuous efforts and appeals to the tsar. The account of this episode, more than a hundred pages, illustrates the thoroughness and patience of Amanda Smith, who managed to go beyond the old yellow-press accounts by excavating century-old Russian records on the dispute. It seems fitting that Amanda Smith concludes her look at a life so filled with discord by recounting the scurrilous fight over Patterson’s will.

As a model of research that explores every biographical resource, Newspaper Titan is exemplary. Yet it was, as the subtitle proposes, an infamous, rather than titanic, life.


“Cissy Patterson, At the Heart of Two New Books”

By Arthur H. Miller

This fall, two impressive new nonfiction books have appeared, both of which have at their core a story of a young single mother, Cissy Patterson (the Countess Gizycka), and her little daughter, Felicia. Published October 11 was Chicagoan Megan McKinney’s The Magnificent Medills: America’s Royal Family of Journalism During a Century of Turbulent Splendor (HarperCollins). The other book, out in September, is Washingtonian Amanda Smith’s Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson (Knopf).

Both books are fascinatingly told accounts of Chicago and Lake Forest’s larger-than-life Medill-McCormick-Patterson dynasty, must-reads for anybody who follows the colorful lives of former Lake Foresters like Ginevra King, who was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary muse, polo greats like Freddie McLaughlin, and little theatre pioneer and playwright Mary Aldis, spouse of Onwentsia’s Master of the Hunt Arthur Aldis. Cissy (Eleanor Medill) Patterson (1881–1948) was the granddaughter of Lake Forest founder the Rev. Dr. Robert W. Patterson (1814–1894), who was pastor of Chicago’s Second Presbyterian Church, where the plans were developed in the mid-1850s for what would become Lake Forest, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. She was also the granddaughter of early Chicago Tribune publisher and builder Joseph Medill (1823–1899), and after a traumatic early marriage from which she recuperated in Lake Forest by riding and acting, etc., Cissy went on to be the first woman to head and then own a major national daily newspaper, the Washington Times-Herald.

Author of the over 700-page but fast-moving Newspaper Titan, Amanda Smith has built on the experience of editing the letters of her grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, Hostage to Fortune: the Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy (Viking, 2001). In Newspaper Titan, Smith covers Cissy’s first marriage and local period and the family context in greater but no less gripping narrative development than there is space for in McKinney’s broader topical coverage. Cissy acted in plays by her brother, Joe, locally and on tour, but annoyed her mother in doing so. Cissy’s daughter, Felicia, previously held in Europe for ransom or dowry, depending on point of view, was guarded at all times by uncle-like bodyguards as she played around town with her little friends. For Smith, this “infamous” early Lake Forest phase of Cissy’s adulthood (1909–15) and what had led up to it becomes the background for appreciating more fully her accomplishment in rising above a chaotic personal and familial situation to become in another decade and a half a major force in American media. Indeed, she blazed a trail that later would make a path for legendary women newspaper moguls Katharine Graham (1917–2001) of The Washington Post and Alicia Patterson (Guggenheim, 1906–1963), founder of Long Island’s Newsday. Of course, Cissy was not without some means, but her gifted employment of those and of her high-profile position propelled her to the outer fringe of opportunity for women in that era.

Please watch for a possible future announcement about an event with author Amanda Smith.


“Washington Read”

By Drew Brachter

By 1940, a year after [Cissy Patterson] bought the Herald from Hearst and merged it with the Washington Times to create the Times-Herald, the paper had more readers than any other publication in town.  But the main draw, as Amanda Smith makes plain in Newspaper Titan, was Patterson herself, whose wild life and personal trials–she married a Polish count who later kidnapped their daughter before divorce proceedings–provided a perpetual publicity blitz…Smith’s last book, a compilation of letters by her grandfather Joseph P. Kennedy, showcased a gift for interpretation, if only in the margins.  In Newspaper Titan she’s picked a gold mine of a character on which to expand her range.  The writing has about it the thrill of discovery.


“Fierce Women in Fall Books”

By Megan O’Grady

Filled with more backstabbing, social climbing, and decadence than a season of Dynasty, Amanda Smith’s Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson (Knopf) is the story of canny Medill heiress Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson, the 20th century’s first major female editor in chief (of the Washington Herald), whose personal life was a Whartonian saga of American entitlement colliding with dubious European aristocracy.


By Brian Bethune

“When your grandmother gets raped, put it on the front page,” was the pugnacious if never observed motto—presumably the occasion never arose—of the Medill family, rulers of the Chicago Tribune newspaper empire. That guiding principle was never supposed to apply to the Medill women, of course, but when 48-year-old Cissy Patterson, who had spent most of her life as a society matron, gained control of William Randolph Hearst’s floundering Washington Herald in 1930, she took to the tabloid life with a vengeance. By 1945, after a merger with another Hearst paper, the Washington Times, the Times-Herald had 10 daily editions and annual profits of $1 million. Almost unknown today, Patterson was unprecedented in her time: sole owner of a major newspaper and perhaps the most influential woman in America.

A classic old-school Republican, hyper-capitalist and deeply isolationist, Patterson usually had kinder words for Hitler than for FDR. And even the war stopped only the pro-Axis comments; her paper remained vigorously anti-Roosevelt. Readers forgave the attacks on the popular president (mostly: one did send a letter bomb), because they loved everything else about the Times-Herald, particularly its enticing gossip columns. They were in large part the work of well-connected young women (called “Cissy’s hen house” by her male rivals) hired on the cheap—they didn’t need the money—and ferociously protected by Cissy. Kathleen Kennedy, sister of John F., was one, as was her future sister-in-law, Jacqueline Bouvier, who took on the “inquiring camera girl” position in 1951. (There were men on the gossip beat too: one was tarred and feathered in the Virginia woods by the male relatives of a young woman maligned in his column.) Six years after Patterson’s death in 1948, her failing paper was sold off. The Times-Herald had tried to keep up the old winning formula—animals, crime and gossip—Smith writes, but some animating (belligerent, actually) spark was fatally missing.


Back when newspapers created family fortunes

By Donald D. Breed

This is an exciting account of the tumultuous life of Eleanor Medill (Cissy) Patterson, who was described in the 1940s as “the most powerful and most hated” woman in America. It is also the history of an era — gone forever, alas, but not that distant — when newspapers could be so profitable and powerful that they created family fortunes. It reads like a novel except, as they say, you couldn’t make it up.


By Julia Jenkins

Amanda Smith’s (Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy) exhaustively researched biography of Cissy Patterson begins several decades before her birth, with her grandfather Joseph Medill and his creation of the Chicago Tribune. The extended family of Medills, Pattersons and McCormicks would be newspaper royalty for several generations; but perhaps none cut a stranger figure than Cissy.

Eleanor Medill Patterson, known as Cissy, led was born in 1881 into a fractious, influential newspaper family and married a dissolute Polish count who turned out to be broke and who kidnapped their daughter, Felicia. With great effort and the interventions of powerful political figures from around the world, she regained her daughter and divorced. The countess then had a series of unsatisfying relationships and grew estranged from Felicia; published two acclaimed novels; and married a Jewish man despite her apparent anti-Semitism and eventual sympathy with the Nazi cause in World War II.

Late in life, she began a newspaper career as journalist, editor and, finally, publisher and owner of the enormously successful Washington (D.C.) Times-Herald, which she created out of two failing papers. When she died in 1948, alcoholic, vindictive and erratic Cissy left a fortune, including ownership of the Times-Herald, whose disposition was held up by court battles sparked by conflicting wills and accusations of her insanity. Called “perhaps the most powerful” and the “most hated” woman in America in the 1940s, Cissy’s fascinating and curious life is examined here in detail. But this lengthy book is never boring, because its subject is such an outrageously flamboyant and historically significant figure.

–Julia Jenkins, librarian and blogger at Pages of Julia

Discover: The exhaustive–but not exhausting–biography of a complicated and difficult woman, heiress to a newspaper dynasty and a fascinating and controversial figure.


By Larry Cox

Cissy Patterson was a sassy, determined, headstrong woman. The daughter of Robert Wilson Patterson, Jr., publisher of The Chicago Tribune, she pulled off an almost impossible feat when she asked William Randolph Hearst for a job and he named her the first woman editor-in-chief to run a major newspaper in America, the Washington Times-Herald. As a newspaperwoman, she thought outside the box. She added a gossip column to the Times-Herald, she got an exclusive interview with Al Capone by knocking in his door and asking for one, and fought for such issues as the humane treatment for animals and hot school lunches. Cissy was a celebrated debutante and socialite and the product of elite private schools including Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut. Her love of newspapers was probably in her DNA. Her grandfather, Joseph Medill, and her father, Robert, were publishers of The Chicago Tribune, her brother, Joseph, founded the New York Daily News, and her niece, Alicia, was the trigger behind Newsday. Under her leadership, the circulation of the Times-Herald soared as she practiced the Medill family’s editorial motto, “When your grandmother gets raped, put it on the front page.”

Her messy divorce from her first husband, Count Josef Gizycki, became a national scandal. When Josef kidnapped the couple’s daughter, Cissy turned in desperation for help from both President William Howard Taft and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.

Cissy Patterson was a fascinating, complex woman. Amanda Smith has written a highly readable account of her life in a book that blends twentieth-century Washington’s politics, its society, scandals, feuds, and at the very center, fierce newspaper wars that helped define the 1920s and 30s. Drawing on letters, diaries, newspaper archives, and family papers, this is the remarkable story of a woman who took a sleepy newspaper and turned it into “the damndest newspaper to ever hit the streets.”

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