- - Friday, October 14, 2011

By Megan McKinney
Harper, $27.99 448 pages

”Printer’s ink raged in their veins throughout a century,” writes Megan McKinney of Joseph Medill and his McCormick and Patterson heirs. Although “individually headstrong, quirky, and often thoroughly disagreeable, each was brilliantly creative, and together the achievement was immense.”

The patriarch, Joseph Medill, former mayor of Chicago and an abolitionist, who helped engineer Abraham Lincoln’s upset victory over William Seward for the 1860 Republican nomination at the Wigwam in Chicago, set the stage with the purchase of the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1855.

His daughters, Kate McCormick and Nellie Patterson, “the worst two she-devils in Chicago,” as he once put it, produced the four children who would transform American journalism. Col. Robert R. “Bert” McCormick, whose military title was earned in France on the staff of Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing during Word War I, set out to build the Chicago Tribune into what he proclaimed it to be the “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” WGN would become the call letters of the Tribune’s radio and then television superstation.

“With an Anglo personal style but a disdain for the British Empire,” Ms. McKinney writes in “The Magnificent Medills,” Col. McCormick “expressed devotion to a portion of the nation populated by those who in no way looked, spoke or behaved as he did - the American Midwest.” The Tribune dominion, as he saw it, spread into “significant portions of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa. He even had a name for his domain: he christened it Chicagoland.”

In the eyes of many employees, “he was an awesome, godlike presence … and perceived as thoroughly exotic by journalists who lived normal workaday lives. Some rarely saw him at all; when they did, he might be glimpsed marching through the city room in polo gear on his way to the roof to practice shots while riding his mechanical horse.”

Eccentricities aside, the colonel also saw to it that the Tribune Co. provided “exceptional benefits for its employees, whose compensation ranked among the industry’s highest.” There was a full range of benefits, including medical and life insurance, home financing and job security. Every employee who served during wartime had a job waiting upon return. Also, writes Ms. McKinney, “in a business in which alcohol has always played a prominent role, the Tribune maintained a ‘drunk bank’ for workers who found themselves without money the day after a bender.”

The colonel’s cousin, Cissy Patterson, whose alleged affairs (she was “a magnet for men”) and free-spirited lifestyle once resulted in a National Press Club skit featuring missing undergarments, was also a crack reporter, editor and writer (her interview with Al Capone is considered a classic), who transformed the Washington Times-Herald.

Cissy’s brother, Joe Medill Patterson, whose nickname in the Army (he also fought in France) was “Sloppy Joe,” and who suffered from “an insistent - and ultimately fatal - need for alcohol,” early on numbered among his friends “socialists, derelicts, and bar flies.” But after partnering with the colonel in Chicago, he would find purpose and direction in New York, where he created a new tabloid, the New York Daily News. Part of his formula, writes Ms. McKinney, was to “concentrate on the three subjects he considered of most interest to readers: Love/Sex, Money and Murder - in that order.”

Alicia Patterson, daughter of Joe and niece of Cissy, was a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter and “hands-on” writer and editor who built Newsday into “America’s most successful post-WWII newspaper.” Married to Harry Guggenheim, she was courted passionately by Adlai Stevenson, also then married, who penned some embarrassingly gooey love letters, portions of which are reprinted here. Had he become president, they would no doubt have found their way into print.

“With their collective genius for creating, packaging and publishing news,” writes Ms. McKinney, “these journalists shared a genetic brilliance that swept across decades, through wars and presidential administrations, bridging periods of prosperity and depression, upheaval and change - always in the forefront of events.”

Nevertheless, Ms. McKinney writes, despite fine individual biographies and company histories, “there has not been a comprehensive chronicle covering the sweep of the dynasty, concentrating on its … riveting, complex and sometimes relatively neglected personalities - interweaving the personal daily activities of each and their public achievements against a larger historic canvas.”

“The Magnificent Medills,” she writes, “has been designed to fill that niche.” And with this thoroughly researched and vividly written book, that is precisely what she accomplishes.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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