- - Friday, December 30, 2011

By Amanda Smith
Alfred A. Knopf, $37.50 696 pages

A serious biography of Eleanor Medill “Cissy” Patterson was long overdue. During the 1940s, she was part of the “royal family of American journalism.” A descandent of abolitionistJoseph Medill, owner of the Chicago Tribune, sister of Joe Medill Patterson of the New York Daily News and cousin to Col. Robert R. McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, she outshone them all with her flamboyance, grit and intelligence.

As Amanda Smith writes in this handsomely produced door-stopper of a book, the course of Cissy Patterson’s early life might have been lifted from the pages of Henry James or Edith Wharton. Beautiful, rich and headstrong, against the objections of her family she married Josef Gizycki, a Polish count with connections to the Austro-Hungarian and Russian courts. Four years later, she had to flee from him, still bleeding from another of his beatings. It took the intercession of President William Howard Taft and Tsar Nicholas II to gain her freedom, along with that of her daughter, whom the count had kidnapped. The melodramatic divorce made the news.

Her second marriage to Elmer Schlesinger, a Chicago lawyer, proved unhappy, but his death left her even richer. Such lavish wealth might have settled Cissy for a life of play. Instead, in her roles as heiress, countess, actress, divorcee, dude rancher, big-game hunter, novelist and champion equestrian, she found real happiness in her work as a newspaper publisher. In 1930, she took over William Randolph Hearst’s foundering Washington Herald.

Arriving at the office refreshed from galloping her horse through Rock Creek Park, she was a hands-on editor. She built up the paper with improved typography, cartoons, layout and writing by encouraging women reporters and raiding the staff from the rival Washington Post.

Then she bought Hearst’s evening paper, the Washington Times [Editor’s note: The paper is not connected to the current paper of the same name.], and merged the two, becoming the first woman editor, publisher and sole proprietor of a major metropolitan daily newspaper. By 1945, the Washington Times-Herald, with its round-the-clock daily editions (a precursor of the 24-hour news cycle) was clearing more than $1 million in profit annually.

Isolationist and conservative, she agreed with titans Hearst and McCormick that the United States must forget Europe’s troubles and concentrate on America. Few members of the New Deal escaped the lashing of her tart tongue. For their own part, writes Ms. Smith, many cherished their Times-Herald epithets as badges of honor.

In a stunt reminiscent of another reporter, Nellie Bly, during the depths of the Depression, Cissy once left the luxury of her Dupont Circle mansion and disguised herself as a destitute beggar, eating handouts. Her reporting gig introduced her and her readers to the widening gap of rich and poor. Her feature series, “Suffer Little Children,” examined conditions in the District of Columbia’s schools, resulting in the initiation of a hot lunch program. She also pushed for the clean-up of the Potomac River and the protection of the watershed’s fish and wildlife.

In 1941, she charged that President Franklin Roosevelt “had lied us into war.” Like many of her contemporaries, including the journalist H.L. Mencken, who had experienced the propaganda of atrocities of World War I, she initially thought the Holocaust was another instance of the same. When photos of the liberated German concentration camps appeared in 1945, the horrified publisher burst into “unaccustomed tears.”

Cissy adored animals - more than people, groused daughter Felicia. She traveled everywhere with her horse, Exclusive. In old age, when those closest to her were dead or estranged, Cissy’s poodles and horses provided friendship and love. Even after her death in 1948, she still made the news as relatives contested her will.

Amanda Smith has done a herculean job of researching the primary and secondary sources. Unfortunately, there is not a factoid the author does not offer. Too often, characters are introduced with a resume of years and dates that clutter the text. We do not need to know (as on Page 351) what said the masthead of “Editor and Publisher” magazine - another instance of the biographer cramming meticulous archival detail into a narrative that threatens to tangle the reader from its flow. While accuracy and atmosphere are paramount to any biography, selection is essential.

Nonetheless, for those who wish to acquaint themselves with (or remember) the personalities and flare of Washington’s past, “Newspaper Titan” takes you on that journey. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, another society powerhouse, summed up her contemporary best: “I said a lot of things, but Cissy DID them.” They were amazing women, these: tough, witty, smart, rich, well read, well dressed. Spending time with them in this absorbing and fascinating book is well worth the effort.

• Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast.”

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