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Despite a flamboyant anglophobia, Bertie McCormick ended up looking English to Chicago voters when he made his young run at politics. Here was a man who rode to hounds, played polo, dressed in Savile Row clothes, and kept English bulldogs. In all these aspects he imitated his father’s idea of what a Virginia gentleman should be.

Richard Norton Smith, who was given free use of the McCormick papers, has produced a judicious biography commissioned by the Tribune for its 150th anniversary. He sees McCormick as quixotic in defending his feckless father and dogged in trying to please his brutally dismissive mother. Kate Medill McCormick preferred her older son, Joseph, to whom she described Bertie this way: “He has no Medill about him—all McCormick. That is the reason your father loved him best, although you were by far the most dutiful son.” She was no less candid in her hostility when she wrote to Bertie himself. At times he accepted Kate’s verdict on her inlaws, saying “all the McCormicks are crazy except me.” Smith thinks that he had no children by either of his marriages for fear of insanity in the family, which did have a high rate of suicide, alcoholism, and eccentricity. Kate tried to reassure him on that score by telling him his father was not congenitally insane, just syphilitic.

The older brother, Joseph Medill McCormick, was chosen to enter the family newspaper, while Bert went into politics. Others forget, though Bertie would not, that Joseph Medill—his grandfather—had not only been the captain of the Tribune but had served two years as mayor of Chicago, taking over the city in the aftermath of the great fire and putting it back on its feet with a clean and efficient new style of city management.28 Bertie saw his future in that kind of leadership. Graduated from Yale in 1903, he went to Northwestern University’s law school in Evanston, with an eye to Illinois politics. Even while studying law he became alderman for the twenty-first ward of Chicago, and by 1905 he was elected president of the Chicago Sanitary District, a powerful and difficult position in Chicago history. Because of its low site, Chicago had needed elaborate hydraulic engineering to dispose of sewage and maintain the clean harbor on which its early prosperity depended. McCormick continued the development of inland canals (one of his projects still runs nearby my house in Evanston), and stood up against the entrepreneur Samuel Insull, who was trying to get free use of water mills created by tax money to run his profitable electric plants. McCormick, later famed for his opposition to the New Deal, TVA, and all “big government” schemes, began his career as the advocate of public ownership of power and lighting.

But McCormick had to abandon his political career in 1910 to save the endangered family newspaper. It was then run by the son of Joseph Medill’s other daughter (Nellie), Joseph Medill Patterson. Bertie’s brother Medill McCormick had not been a source of strength, and Kate herself brought Bertie in to prevent a takeover by Victor Lawson of the Daily News and by Alfred Cowles of Cincinnati. Ironically, Medill McCormick left the paper and entered the political career that was taken from his brother. Medill went to the state legislature and then to the Senate, though his mental instability forced the doting Kate, as early as 1908, to send him to Carl Jung in Switzerland—where the psychiatrist told him his trouble was a sick dependency on Kate.

As Bertie made his way in the family business, the meddlesome Kate tried to choose him a suitable wife. But Bertie had moved into a homey ménage à trois with his financially dependent cousin, Ed Adams, and Ed’s artistic wife, Amy. In his future liaisons, McCormick would follow a pattern of preferring married women without children, and with complaisant husbands. They seemed “safe.” But Ed Adams finally rebelled and went public with accusations of adultery. Bertie did “the honorable thing,” to the horror of Kate, who called Amy “that old tart,” and did her best to ostracize her from Chicago society.

The concept of a Southerner’s code and his admiration for Teddy Roosevelt, along with memories of grandfather Medill’s bellicose approach to the Spanish-American War, made McCormick dream of military glory. When President Wilson mobilized National Guard units to threaten Pancho Villa in Mexico, McCormick raised a cavalry unit, equipping it with his own money, and rushed south breathing battle. Baffled of combat there, he scrambled to get into the next year’s European war. He even went to his old schoolmate from Groton, Undersecretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose lack of response added to a score of grievances with a man who, McCormick liked to point out later, was not doing any fighting himself. (This was before Roosevelt’s polio.) Lobbying with General Pershing finally produced a commission, and Bertie went to the front eager to prove himself.

At Cantigny in France, Bertie did act coolly in a charge on German positions. It became the proudest moment in his life (his letters leading up to the engagement had shown some doubts about his own manhood). He would rename the family country home in Wheaton, Illinois, built by Joseph Medill as “Red Oak,” to make it “Cantigny.” McCormick, who now acquired his favored designation as “Colonel,” served in the famous First Division (“the Big Red One”), and blazoned its red-on-khaki colors over later possessions.

His Cantigny estate, now a museum and park, contains a museum of the First Division with a mock-up of a bunker in the French landscape of Cantigny. You enter the rough redoubt to hear shells scream and a plane fly over, reliving for yourself the moments that the Colonel kept reliving for half a century. The First Division’s whole history is celebrated in the Cantigny museum. Another mock-up takes one down a landing craft’s ramp onto the shore at Normandy. The Gulf War has a room of its own. When I visited the museum recently, a tank from that conflict had just been added to the display of armored vehicles dotted about the grounds.

How did a celebrant of the Big Red One become the famous isolationist and opponent of “Democratic Wars” in the 1930s and after? It was not that he loved war the less but that he hated government the more. His distrust of the civilian commanders did not prevent his idolatry of Douglas MacArthur during World War II. But he had promoted Lindbergh’s pacifism before the war, and he fought Roosevelt’s war effort as a plot to extend the government into everyone’s private life.

As a self-fashioned Virginian, McCormick adopted what he took to be Jefferson’s and Madison’s suspicion of authority—which he extended to a hatred of government rivaling that of Huck Finn’s father. McCormick broadcast a warning against government from Jefferson’s library at Monticello. When he extended his house at Cantigny, it was with side wings and a central pedimented portico modeled on Madison’s at Mount Pelier. Some of this opposition to government was productive. As chairman of the Committee on Freedom of the Press in the American Newspaper Publishers Association, he raised the money and directed the legal team that defeated prior censorship in the historic Supreme Court decision Near v. Minnesota (1931). When Henry Ford sued the Tribune for calling him an anarchist, McCormick fought for the right to criticize public figures. (This was the trial in which Ford made a laughingstock of himself by testifying to things like his belief that the American Revolution occurred in 1812.)

Through much of McCormick’s tenure, the Tribune was made exciting by its very cantankerousness. It reflected all the Colonel’s many moods—chivalry one day, vindictiveness the next. His quirky curiosity, about local conditions or large historical issues, made the paper a mixture of the mad oratory in Hyde Park and solicitous correction of local abuses.

McCormick waged a lusty battle with the corrupt mayor Big Bill Thompson during the crime sprees of the 1920s. But he became protective of his own puppet’s failings after he helped put Ed Kelly into the mayor’s office in 1933. He was as unabashedly partisan as Joseph Medill had been in managing Lincoln’s election, though he was given less promising candidates on the national scene. He became the largest donor to Alf Landon’s 1936 effort against Roosevelt, turning over the seventeenth floor of his Tribune Tower to a Landon volunteer program.

McCormick had to support Willkie and Dewey for President, though he despised their “internationalist” leanings, since no devil was worse than Roosevelt, who came to embody every slight or exclusion McCormick had felt since boyhood. And, of course, anyone close to the devil-in-chief had to have a whiff of sulphur about her, too: “Is Mrs. Franklin Roosevelt cuckoo?” he asked his Washington bureau. By the time Eleanor joined the delegation to the founding meeting of the UN, he was sure she was something worse: “Stettinius represents predatory wealth [on the delegation], Eleanor Roosevelt petty graft in high office—Vandenberg and the other Republicans, men who sacrificed principle for enjoyable jobs.” Some of this hatred for Mrs. Roosevelt seems to have rubbed off on Westbrook Pegler, who had been a sportswriter for the Tribune.

As time went on, and McCormick’s biases approached paranoia, his hearing failed, and he became more remote from the outside world he sought to dominate. He was forced into a second marriage, after Amy’s death, when another complaisant husband broke up the ménage à trois McCormick seemed to think the ideal arrangement. He suspected his new wife, Maryland Hooper McCormick, who outlived him, of maneuvering for his money. His suspicion of others made him keep even mistresses at some distance from himself—though he let a painter mistress (Clara Thomas) put a mural in his New York office, and a fashion designer mistress (Grace Parker Pickering) run an annual Tribune fashion contest, and a singer mistress (Marion Claire) perform on his radio station. Orson Welles said it was this last act of patronage he was portraying in Citizen Kane when Charlie Kane promotes a talentless singer—but Welles was probably just disguising his own unfairness to another Marion, Hearst’s actress mistress, Marion Davies.29

McCormick’s demonizing of Roosevelt finally became comic, though Smith shows that he had some reason to fear the government powers wielded by FDR in wartime. The Washington administration grew as angry at McCormick’s criticism as Lincoln had been with Wilbur Storey. But rather than seize the offending paper, as General Burnside did in 1863, Roosevelt relied on more devious tactics. Smith, whose dedication of his book to Bob and Elizabeth Dole signals his sympathy for Republicans, does not spare FDR when it comes to official harassment of the Tribune—nor should he. Roosevelt had appointed Frank Knox, the publisher of McCormick’s rival, the Chicago Daily News, his Secretary of the Navy, and Smith argues that “Secretary Knox exploited rules of censorship to aid the Chicago Daily News and frustrate competitors,” especially the hated Tribune. Releases were timed to meet Daily News deadlines. Treasury agents investigated the Tribune for printing copies of government checks involved in a fraud—though other papers that did the same thing were not harassed.

When Marshall Field III, with government encouragement, began publishing a paper, the Chicago Sun, opposed to the Tribune, FBI agents pressured the Associated Press to open its service to the Sun. Wartime restrictions on paper were suspended for the Sun but not for the Tribune. The Tribune‘s ships bringing newsprint from Canada were requisitioned by the government. Was FDR aware of these concerted acts in his own administration? John Knight, Knox’s successor at the Daily News, said he was sure of it, and a memo to Roosevelt from Harold Ickes seems to confirm it. Ickes, who had once been a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, called for shutting off Canadian paper from “its place of defilement on the Chicago River.” The plan: “Why could not the Canadian government be encouraged to shut off this newsprint at the source, on the ground that when it gets to this country, it is put to a use that is of aid and comfort to the enemy?”

Yes, even paranoids do have enemies—who, unfortunately, provoke even crazier forms of paranoia. FDR became the Colonel’s King Charles’s Head, and every endorsement of the President at the polls convinced McCormick that the country had lost its freedom and gladly embraced tyranny. There is a pathos to McCormick’s last years, as with the spectacle of any form of talent imprisoning itself. In the 1920s the Colonel ran a worldwide contest to design the perfect building for “the World’s Greatest Newspaper,” as he modestly billed his journal. The winner was a modernized version of the Butter Tower from Rouen’s gothic cathedral, as if to turn his enemies’ mock about his “medieval mind” into a boast. Stuck into the lower levels of the tower’s outer walls are 136 stones from historic buildings and places—from the dome of St. Peter’s, from the Alamo, from Irish battlefields dear to anyone named McCormick (places where the Irish stood up to those damned English). They were originally meant to suggest a source of strength in judging the world, vindicating past achievements with modern valor. But as the Colonel withdrew more defiantly into the tower that reflected his own lean frame of six feet four inches, the “relics,” as Tribune publicity called them, became seals closing up a pyramid, the monument to a remote monarch. Only McCormick, McCormick felt, retained the ancient code of liberty. He was surrounded by remnants of a lost world (including a stone from his own birthplace).

Since he had no children of his own, McCormick had to turn toward a writhing serpents’ nest of intertangled Medills, McCormicks, and Pattersons to choose a successor at the Tribune. Some had eliminated themselves from the running by suicide or mental breakdown. Others, like “Cissy” Patterson, were too racily libertine for the Colonel’s taste. His best hope, he thought, was “Bazy” McCormick, his sad brother’s energetic daughter, whose husband McCormick liked. He bought the Washington Herald to get it out of Cissy’s hands and give it to Bazy to run. But she proved both too subservient to him in her paper’s format and too independent in her own style (deserting her husband for an affair with one of her editors). McCormick had nothing left to pass on but his estate at Cantigny, which he endowed as a well-tended museum. Brochures proudly inform visitors that no government assistance is given the ten acres of farm that have been turned into exquisitely maintained gardens. Cantigny is meant to be a reminder of a lost civilization—what McCormick pathetically believed was all that was left of civilization itself.

Oddly, the Tribune was revivified in the 1980s with an anti-McCormick spirit. When Rupert Murdoch bought the Chicago Sun-Times, a merged offshoot from Marshall Field’s pro-Roosevelt journal, Mike Royko and others, who had grown up hating the Colonel’s partisan rag, fled a new press lord and went to the Tribune. Even the legacy of the Colonel was better than the tycoon from Australia. (The xenophobic Colonel would have chuckled.)

The Colonel was never as bad as he seemed to people with short memories. He was no Medill for political chicanery, no Storey for sheer venom, no Howey for deviousness. He was mainly an anachronism. Even his admirable early work in the Sanitation District presidency was a throwback to the paternalistic managerialism of his grandfather. Despite his love of modern gadgets, he believed that all good things were gone or going. Dumb as Henry Ford was, there is good reason to believe that history is more or less bunk if one means by it the Colonel’s history, shining and completed and reproachful of all later things.

Though the Colonel had to take the Tribune into the age of broadcast journalism, he died in 1955 without realizing what the new media meant for newspapers. He called his radio station WGN, for the World’s Great-est Newspaper, and delivered florid nineteenth-century addresses over it (his ideal orator was Douglas MacArthur), accompanied by Marion Claire concerts. In the last decades of his life, a Chicago School of broadcast journalism was flourishing—relaxed, informal, improvisational: Dave Garroway on “Garroway’s World,” Marlin Perkins on (Lincoln Park) “Zoo Parade,” Burr Tillstrom and Fran Allison on “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” Studs Terkel, on “Studs’ Place.” NBC took Garroway to New York in 1952 to inaugurate the “Today Show,” and Marlin Perkins to host “Wild Kingdom.” The ground was shifting under journalism, leaving McCormick even farther behind than he had fallen in his attitude toward rival newspapers.

The personal journalism that Chicago newspapers were famous for has now shifted over to television. Oprah is the modern Eugene Field, folksily homiletic, dispensing tart street wisdoms. Studs Terkel, in his long-running radio interviews for WFMT, is the equivalent of Carl Sandburg in his labor-reporting days—radical, but in ways that connect with ordinary people. From 1962 to 1975 Irv Kupcinet’s “Kup’s Show” took the place of newspaper celebrity columns. The prurient scandal stories of the Her-Ex and Chicago Times now appear on talk shows like those hosted from Chicago by Jennie Jones and Jerry Springer. The old ways live on, but segmented by a division of labor, newspapers often doing the leg work on which television newscasts are based, or monitoring political ads and debates after they have been broadcast. Some regret this shift of old chores to a dramatic new medium, but I do not know that Eugene Field was any better than Oprah in reflecting the way we live, or that Sandburg surpassed Studs.

Higher standards have invaded not only newspapers but the lurider medium. Recently, Chicago’s NBC outlet, WMAQ, tried to make Jerry Springer, the purveyor of shock interviews, a commentator on its news show. The shades of Storey and Howey would have cheered such crass commercialism. But respected WMAQ investigative reporter Carol Marin resigned in anger, her colleague Ron Magers protested, and a public outcry made the station drop Springer from the news. That would not have happened in the flamboyant time of Chicago journalism. Storey’s city editor Franc Wilkie described his own product as “fitted only for the tastes and appetites of vultures and carrion-loving vermin,” but he kept shoveling it out.30 Despite all the Colonel’s efforts to impede progress, it could not be stopped, even by the “good old” bad days of Chicago journalism.

  1. 28

    See David Protess, “Joseph Medill, Chicago’s First Modern Mayor,” in The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition, revised edition, edited by Paul M. Green and Melvin G. Holli (Southern Illinois University Press, 1995), pp. 1-15.

  2. 29

    Smith confuses Welles’s own confused account of his use of McCormick when he says that Welles was thinking of Samuel Insull’s earlier Chicago favors to “Mary Garden, a dubious diva with a knack for gaining bad reviews.” That Garden was a dubious singer is an idea that would have surprised Debussy, who chose her to create the role of Mélisande; or Massenet, who wrote Cherubin for her; or Prokoviev, who wrote The Fiery Angel for her (though she refused to sing in the last work).

  3. 30

    Walsh, To Print the News, p. 212.

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