- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 15, 2007


By Marilyn Nissenson

St. Martin’s Press, $29.95, 500 pages, illus.


For nearly 40 years, from 1939 until 1976, Dorothy Schiff was the publisher and guiding spirit behind the New York Post, that city’s most reliably liberal newspaper. Schiff’s grandfather was the legendary Jacob Schiff, head of the investment banking house Kuhn, Loeb and doyen of the interlinked families of New York’s German-Jewish elite group memorably dubbed by Stephen Birmingham as “Our Crowd.”

Despite her moneyed and staunchly Republican background, the Great Depression had converted Schiff into a fervent New Deal supporter and before long a close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt — more intimate than that, she sometimes liked to hint in later years. He insisted that she buy some land on his Hyde Park estate and build a house there; this gave her proximity to the man at the center of American politics, and she certainly had more access to him than any of her fellow newspaper publishers did when she acquired the Post.

Influenced by her current husband — the second of four — the writer George Backer, Schiff took over the Post for practically no money down by agreeing to be responsible for its considerable debts. Over the years she poured millions of dollars of her considerable but not bottomless fortune into the paper. She could not have known that when the time came for her to sell to Rupert Murdoch in 1976, she would profit handsomely from her investment.

Although hard-headed and careful with a dollar at home and work, in buying and running the newspaper she was primarily concerned with putting across her firmly held views on political matters. In this she succeeded, becoming a powerful force in the local New York, as well as the national, scene. In this exhaustive, detailed biography, Marilyn Nissenson paints a portrait of a dynamic yet oddly simple-minded figure, and in doing so has also succeeded in shining a spotlight on a vanished era in American political and social life. Ms. Nissenson does a good job of humanizing her subject, although it is easier to admire things about Schiff than to actually like her.

Although there were other powerful women in the elite club of New York newspaper publishers — Helen Rogers Reid of the Herald-Tribune and Alicia Patterson of Newsday come to mind — Schiff was undoubtedly a pioneer in this role. Unsurprisingly, with the advantage of hindsight from today’s more equitable world, her biographer emphasizes this aspect of her career. Rightly so, but especially given Schiff’s own awareness of — and the war stories to go with — the discrimination she encountered, especially at the beginning of her long career.

As the only woman at a meeting of newspaper publishers, she was alone in her opinion not being solicited; at certain briefings, she actually had to sit in the balcony while her male confreres sat downstairs closer to the action. But it is clear from “The Lady Upstairs” that Schiff managed to function very effectively as a woman in what was indubitably a man’s world. The many ways she achieved this not inconsiderable feat make for salutary and fascinating reading.

Ms. Nissenson is also adept at exploring the interesting question of Schiff’s Jewishness and its importance in her life and career. Unlike her observant grandfather, Jacob, her parents were singularly uninterested, almost hostile, in their attitude toward being Jews. When she married her first non-Jewish husband, Richard Hall, Schiff had no compunction in converting to Christianity. Her marriages would be divided evenly between Jew and non-Jew, and when it suited her to marry Jews, she again considered herself Jewish.

Interestingly, two of her husbands, the gentile Ted Thackrey and the Jewish Rudolf Sonneborn, were both much more fervent and activist in their Zionism than was she, though after the establishment of the state of Israel, she and her newspaper were unwavering in their support. It is clear, though, that she was most passionate politically in being an American citizen, profoundly interested in advocating for the causes she believed in and shaping the dialogue of social and political issues in New York and Washington.

Initially a practitioner of what she called “militant liberalism,” Schiff was always a dedicated foe of Communism. Her politics often spilled over into her personal life. Her marriage to Backer was directly instrumental in her becoming a newspaper publisher, as was, fascinatingly, the lingering effect of a doomed but intense fling in the 1920s with the British Fleet Street magnate Lord Beaverbrook.

Her third marriage, to Ted Thackrey, her editor at the Post, appears to have broken up largely because of his support for the soft-on-Communism third-party candidacy of Henry A. Wallace in 1948. As turned off as was her husband by the eventual victor, Harry Truman, Schiff interestingly cast her vote for the Republican candidate, Gov. Dewey of New York, preferring his progressivism to what she regarded as the incumbent president’s mediocrity and lukewarm stewardship of New Deal policies.

As the decades wore on, Schiff’s liberalism more and more took on a default quality, more dependent on custom and loyalty than passion. Ms. Nissenson’s biography would have been stronger and more enlightening had she paid more attention to analyzing this phenomenon. For example, she has a chapter on the fraught relationship between blacks and Jews in New York and nationally, but while it describes a lot of incidents like the controversy surrounding Albert Shanker and the Teacher’s Strike, it does not dig deeply enough to be really fruitful in understanding Schiff’s evolution.

Certainly, had she been still that dedicated to her liberalism, she would not have sold the Post to Rupert Murdoch. The rote quality of Schiff’s later liberalism was brilliantly illuminated by Victor Navasky’s wicked parody of a typical Post headline in his humor magazine, Monocle: “Cold Snap Hits Our Town. Jews, Negroes Suffer Most.” By then it was easy to take potshots at Dorothy, and there were some doozies, including a skewering portrait by Nora Ephron, who had briefly worked for her.

In the end, I think it was her complacency and the self-referential, closed world of her shrinking political milieu that contributed to the decline and fall of Dorothy Schiff and her brand of liberalism. At the outset of her reign as publisher of the Post, Schiff “said that she thought she would be a good publisher because she had average taste. ‘I like what most people like. I enjoy the play every one raves about, and I like the book every one is reading.’”

As she grew older and more isolated in her cocooned world, filled almost exclusively with people who thought as she did, read as she did, did as she did, she lost her finger on the pulse of New York, the United States and the world. Supple as she could be in her personal and business dealings, she became too rigid to move with the times politically and culturally and thus, long before she had to, she ceased to be a force in the politics of the city and nation she held so genuinely dear.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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