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The Front Page

The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick: 1880-1955

by Richard Norton Smith
Houghton Mifflin, 597 pp., $35.00

1.

The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, created the image of Chicago journalism in the brawling Twenties. But newspapering had actually grown tamer by that time. The first decade of this century saw a literal war between rival dailies, war waged with guns, blackjacks, hijacking, and intimidation. It started when William Randolph Hearst set up the Chicago American in 1900, a version of his New York American, promising to extinguish his rivals with gimmicks and gore. But he came up against a tough customer in the Tribune‘s pay, Max Annenberg, who had been a publicist for the World’s Columbian Exposition and knew tricks to gain attention that not even Pulitzer or Hearst had dreamed of.

Frustrated that he could not surpass Annenberg, Hearst bought him over to his side in 1907. The defection caused an escalation, from dirty tricks to violence. Annenberg created a roaming little army to steal Tribune trucks, intimidate vendors, and beat up any resisters.

In 1910, Joseph Medill McCormick of the Tribune hired Annenberg back. A true condottiere, Annenberg brought with him his own hired guns, including his brother Moe (whose son, Walter Annenberg, would become Richard Nixon’s ambassador to the Court of St. James). Hearst’s men sued Annenberg for breach of contract, but the Tribune successfully argued that a contract to perform illegal acts is invalid. The American hired its own goon squad, led by the three Gentleman brothers, one of whom was killed by an Annenberg gunman. The Hearst men tried to blackmail the Tribune‘s city editor (who had secretly been married to a black woman). Gunfire broke out in the Tribune building itself; one body was thrown down an elevator shaft. Richard Norton Smith, in his new book, describes the peak of hostilities in 1911:

With a revolver in one hand and his commission as a deputy sheriff in the other, Max Annenberg roamed the battle zone dressed in his trademark red sweater and soft cap. He beat the rap in the kidnapping of a Hearst newsdriver. He won again, this time with the help of McCormick’s law firm, after wounding a rival gunman who had tried to hijack his car.

Throughout these years of street fighting, neither side reported to its readers what was happening. They, too, had ideas about just what news was fit to print.

In all this, the Chicago Tribune was living up to the tradition of its founder, Joseph Medill, who took credit for Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency. Not only did Medill put his paper at the disposal of Lincoln. He organized “floating voters” to commit election fraud where needed. Lincoln saw the merits of recruiting men of “the ‘detective‘ class” who could “at the nick of time control” the opposite side’s false voters by guiding them into casting their ballots for Lincoln. “It would be a great thing, when this trick is attempted upon us, to have the saddle come up on the other horse.”1

Newspapers were not expected to be objective in the nineteenth century, and Medill conformed to the prevailing standard. Coaching Lincoln for his debates with Stephen Douglas, he said: “Go in boldly, strike straight from the shoulders, hit below the belt as well as above….” To promote Lincoln, his paper published not only a 4,000-word eulogistic biography of the candidate, but fourteen pamphlets in his favor, besides decidedly slanted coverage in the paper’s articles. When Lincoln wanted to assemble his own record of the debates with Douglas, he did not rely on the Tribune‘s reports of the Douglas speeches, which were taken down in distorted form, but drew that part of the series from Cyrus McCormick’s rival Chicago Times.2 At the Chicago convention that nominated Lincoln, Medill not only turned the Tribune into a Lincoln headquarters, complete with split log decorations, but helped stack the seating of the convention hall against Seward delegates (“the meanest trick I ever pulled”).

When it came to dirty tricks, however, Medill could not match his later rival, Wilbur Storey. Cyrus McCormick gave up the Chicago Times after the hated Lincoln was elected president; but Storey, who purchased it, proved an even fiercer enemy of Lincoln and all Republicans. Before he came to Chicago Storey edited the Detroit Free Press, where he had written that President Lincoln “evinces his appetite for blood,” and called the Republican Party a “bastard offspring of illicit intercourse, and the faulty amalgamation of incompatible genes.”3 After his arrival in Lincoln’s own state, Storey muted his criticism of the war president until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Storey was a virulent racist who declared in the Times that “there is in the great mass of people a natural and proper loathing of the negro which forbids contact with him as with a leper.” From the moment when Lincoln threatened to free Southern slaves, Storey declared the whole war effort just one “John Brown raid on an extended scale.”

On June 3, 1863, at 2:00 AM, on the order of General Ambrose Burnside, troops occupied the offices of the Times, charging it with sedition. Mobs formed in the street made the rival Tribune fear it would be sacked, and a member of the Tribune‘s board helped alert Lincoln to the danger. The President rescinded the order, and Storey ever after presented himself as a martyr for freedom of the press.

But despite the dark interpretation of Lincoln in its pages, the Times proved the most energetic and ingenious gatherer of war news. Its reporter, Sylvannus Cadwallader, became a particular favorite of General Grant, whose campaigns were reported with inside information by the Times. After the war, the paper proved just as imaginative in digging up scandals, threatening officials, and pioneering sex angles to coverage of the news. Storey, despite his venom and his growing mental instability, was a brilliant innovator. He introduced the first extended Sunday paper with long feature articles and cultural reporting—one issue printed the entire text of a new translation of the New Testament.

Only three papers survived Chicago’s Great Fire of 1871. Medill’s Tribune and Storey’s Times were two of the three. Storey sensationally described the fire as the “fiendish work of the Communist incendiaries.” His headlines became more and more lurid. A repentant criminal’s hanging in 1875 was trumpeted with these words: “Jerked to Jesus.” These and other touches made the Times far the most popular of Chicago’s papers in the last half of the nineteenth century—in 1878 it sold as many copies as all its rivals combined. A headline announced the reconvening of the city council this way: “Chicago’s Prize Rummers Hold Their Weekly Carnival at the City Hall, And As Usual, Disgrace the City Over Which They Should Exercise All Care.”

Storey’s defamatory ways led to personal assaults on him. One ridiculed showgirl took a horsewhip to him in the street. His prize reporter claimed there were twenty-one civil and three criminal prosecutions against the paper in 1875 alone. While the ravages of syphilis led to his own increasing incoherence, Storey posed as the defender of public purity, to the applause of religious immigrants, largely Catholic or Pietist. Storey had shrewdly courted Chicago’s immigrants by opposing “Know-Nothing” and other forms of nativism. His lowest-common-denominator approach to journalism mobilized the fears and resentments of the newcomers pouring into Chicago.

The polyglot town naturally produced a crazy-quilt journalism, in which Storey’s stridency rose above a babble of contending voices. Rudyard Kipling, in an 1889 visit to Chicago, fastidiously sneered at the way the city’s newspapers “reproduced all the war-cries and back-talk of the Palmer House bar, the slang of the barbers’ shops, the mental elevation and integrity of the [black] Pullman-car porter, the dignity of the Dime Museum, and the accuracy of the excited fishwife.”4 Even a resident could move through the city’s varied “nations” with fear as well as wonder. Here is Theodore Dreiser, at work for the Chicago Daily News in 1882:

As I walked here and there through these terrible neighborhoods—Chicago’s vast collection of riffraff from all parts of the world—I peered through open doors and patched and broken windows at this wretchedness and squalor, much as a man may tread the poisonous paths of a jungle, curious and yet fearsome and evasive.5

The city was so strange to itself that the papers felt obliged to explain it to its citizens. A survey taken in 1888 found that Chicago papers had a higher rate of commentary to straight reporting than did papers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, or Los Angeles. 6 The Tribune‘s real foreign bureau was the one that, in 1890 alone, filed reports from Chicago’s Scandinavian neighborhoods, a Chinese Sunday school, an Italian pawn shop, a French restaurant, and black ghettos.7

Those who oppose “multiculturalism” in our day would have found the gabble of competing voices in last century’s Chicago the fulfillment of their worst fears. When Daily News columnist George Ade tried to explain street argot by writing “Fables in Slang,” parents expressed outrage at his teaching their children “low” language—which brings to mind George Will’s horror, in a recent column, that Trent Lott could use the locution “get real.”8 A Chicago journalist, James Maitland, composed the nation’s first slang dictionary, and dedicated it to his fellow reporters.9 In one of Wilbur Storey’s many suits for defamation, he made what may be called the slang defense, arguing (successfully!) that “jail bird” had a “local Chicago meaning” that had nothing to do with prisons.10 Chicagoans needed interpreters to talk with each other. In this century, Colonel McCormick would be ridiculed for making the Tribune use phonetic (i.e., fonetic) spelling—things like frate for freight. But McCormick, born in 1880, grew up in a Chicago still fuddled by its polyglot inheritance, where there was some reason to make English easier for those who had a different first language.

The newspapers’ response to multiculturalism was not just to flatten differences. Sometimes it celebrated them. George Ade’s slang fables would be updated, early in this century, by Ring Lardner’s sportswriting and personal columns for the Tribune. Finley Peter Dunne’s wisdom from an Irish bar would be echoed, long after, from the Polish bars of Mike Royko.

Dunne is a good example of the opportunities available to ambitious young writers entering Chicago journalism in the 1880s. The son of Irish immigrants, Dunne was born in 1867. At age sixteen, he went to work for the Chicago Telegram. The variety of papers and the need for “native” reporters made it easy for a talented insider to rise fast. By the time he was twenty-two, Dunne was the city editor of the Chicago Times, and the 1890 murder of Dr. Cronin, a prominent physician with ties to the rebellion in Ireland, put him in the middle of police work and community outrage. Dunne helped crack the case—the murderer, he held, was the very Irish policeman (named Coughlin) who was put in charge of the investigation. Tensions ran so high, dividing the Irish community (and Catholics in general), that over 1100 people had to be questioned to form a jury, and the trial itself ran 108 days (a record at the time). Dunne had to be a diplomat as much as a journalist while he directed coverage of the explosive event in his own community:

I could think of nothing but the Cronin case. I slept with it. I ate with it. I drew on the cashier [the managing editor] of our struggling newspaper for what he considered enormous sums to pay the expenses of reporters lodging in the same houses with a score of persons under suspicion.11

In 1893, the policeman convicted in 1890 was granted a new trial, which was even longer than the first one and repeated the suspicions, expressed earlier, of jury tampering. By this time Dunne was no longer city editor but was writing his dialect column about Mr. Dooley’s bar. The need to hold the community together is expressed in Mr. Dooley’s deft swivelings:

Well sir, whin this here verdict was brought in ivry wan in th’ r-road asked me me opinion iv it. Schneider, the low Dutchman what keeps down below, he comes in an he says, says he, in his German brogue, he says: ‘Well, Mr. Dooley, what ye t’ink iv dis here Coughlin preezness,’ he says. ‘Well,’ says I, ‘Bisma-ark,’ I says (I allways calls him Bisma-ark). ‘Bisma-ark,’ I says, ‘I’m ashamed iv me race,’ I say. ‘Tis a low outrage,’ I says. ‘Tis time som wan stopped this here business,’ says I. ‘F’r,’ I says, ‘if ‘twas wan iv ye-er people he’d be hung,’ I says. He bought a dhrink or two an’ wint away.

Pretty soon I hears a r-roar an’ in bounds Maloney, th’ new sanyer guardjean iv the wolf Tone Timp’rance an’ Beniv’lent Sodality. ‘Huroo!’ he says. ‘Huroo!’ says I. ‘Who’s ilicted?’ ‘He’s acquitted,’ says he. ‘Huroo! huroo!’ says I. ‘Huroo!’ I says. “Tis a vindication iv us again th’ dips [informers?],’ says I. ‘Tis that,’ says he. An’ he bought an’ wint away. Well, sir, he’d got no further than th’ bridge whin in comes Hogan that’s wan iv th’ other side. ‘Give us a dhrink,’ he says. ‘What d’ye think iv it?’ ‘Tis a nice clear day,’ I says, duckin’. ‘I mean th’ verdict,’ he says, lukin’ at me ha-ard. ‘What verdict?” says I. ‘Haven’t ye hear-rd?’ he says, brightenin’ up. ‘They’ve acquitted him.’ ‘Acquitted him!’ says I. ‘Glory be to Gawd,’ I says, ‘How cud they do it?’ says I. ‘Tis a disgrace,’ I says, an’ he bought another wan an’ wint away.”12

In this case, Dunne used the language of an angry people to disarm anger. At other times, he expressed the community’s anger, as when he asked WASPs, who thought the Irish incapable of learning their own ways, how hard it can be to learn about burning witches.13 Only a person from within the fractious Irish neighborhoods could plead so eloquently for peace there: “Did ye iver have to wipe ye’er most intimate frinds off ye’er clothes, whin ye wint home at night?”14

To cover Chicago’s energetic enclaves took ingenuity and—often—duplicity. The tradition of journalistic trickery celebrated in The Front Page comes from a situation in which reporters had to penetrate different communities by acts of semi-espionage. To cover the secret church trial of a minister for misconduct, Tribune reporters ran a garden hose down the stovepipe of the room being used as a tribunal and listened at the upper level. 15

The Front Page tradition of Chicago journalism was picked up again by William Randolph Hearst’s Herald & Examiner, fondly (or not so) known as the “Her-Ex” (pronounced Hair-Ex), where the original of the play’s Walter Burns worked. This was Walter Howey, one of Hearst’s favorite trouble-shooters—and troublemakers. Howey had been an editor at the Tribune but he left that paper in 1917 when its management criticized his promotion of D.W. Griffith in the paper. He got his revenge by tricking the Tribune into a “scoop” that actually publicized an upcoming serial in the Herald & Examiner. He also hired the rebellious Eleanor Medill (“Cissy”) Patterson to write a series of articles on Chicago, and billed her as “Sister of Joseph Medill Patterson of the Chicago Tribune.”16

In 1930, when Hearst put “Cissy” in charge of his Washington Herald he sent Howey to the capital to offer her editorial guidance. They had an affair that eerily reflects The Front Page as it was amended by Howard Hawks. In the play, Howey’s character is teamed with a male reporter, Hildy Johnson—based on the Her-Ex reporter Hilding Johnson, a tough but laconic reporter, not at all like the word-rattling figure on the stage.17 Hawks changed Hildy’s gender and made the journalists lovers as well as professional colleagues. That reflects, no doubt accidentally, the real-life if brief liaison of the manipulative Howey and the fiery Patterson. Adela Rogers St. John, who was living with Howey in the Patterson mansion on Dupont Circle during the affair, said: “I’m sure Howey won her because she was completely sure that he would kick her right in the teeth and throw her out of the window if she crossed him. Here was another man she did not have to lie on her back to look up to.” 18 Bring on Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

2.

Chicago journalism was not all brashness and shenanigans. The paper that lasted longer than any but the Tribune was the Chicago Daily News (1875-1978), which had literary flair without the skullduggery that so often went with enterprise in Chicago reporting. Its editor was the pious son of Norwegian immigrants, Victor Lawson. His father, Iver Lawson, had prospered in the real estate business and turned to public service. As city marshall, he was in charge of policing the boisterous convention that nominated Lincoln in 1860. Later he was an alderman active in purifying the Chicago River (that perennial task of reformers) and a representative in the Springfield legislature.19 His son was sent to Phillips Andover; but he suspended his education when his father died to take over the Norwegian paper, Scandinaven, his father owned.

In 1876, Lawson bought the Chicago Daily News, founded the year before, and made Melville Stone its editor. Lawson and Stone meant to raise the moral and literary level of Chicago journalism. In that age of partisanship, they refused to let their paper be a party organ. Stone had been dismayed at the demands put on him as editor of the Republican daily, the Inter Ocean. Lawson’s religious scruples made him refuse liquor advertisements and sexually titillating stories. He later had grave reservations about publishing on Sunday.

But piety did not blunt the two men’s business acumen. Stone, during an earlier stint as a Washington correspondent, had learned of the success of penny newspapers in New York. The Daily News was launched as a penny paper at a time when Chicago’s established papers charged a nickel a copy. Price wars would be a favorite weapon of Lawson, one that several times threatened the Tribune‘s existence.

In 1883, the Daily News began the first daily signed column in American newspapers—“Sharps and Flats” by Eugene Field.20 Field is best known now for children’s verse like “Wyncken, Blynken, and Nod.” But he was known to fellow journalists as an impish prankster whose practical jokes got him expelled from three colleges. He sorely tried the staid Victor Lawson—as when his published jibes brought threats of libel against the paper, or when he protested supervision by coming into the office wearing a prison uniform and chained himself to his desk.21 The impact of Field’s column, which captured the rhythms of urban life, can be seen from Theodore Dreiser’s reaction to it as a teenager:

For two years and more I had been reading “Sharps and Flats,” a column which he wrote daily, and through this—the varied phases of life he suggested in a humorous, romantic way—I was beginning to understand that I wanted to write. Nothing else that I had read so far—books, plays, poems, histories—gave me quite the same feeling for constructive thought; for the subject of his daily notes, poems, and aphorisms was Chicago and America, whereas all the others dealt or concerned themselves with foreign lands.22

The writing standard set in the Daily News—by columnists like Field and George Ade, by literate editors like Henry Justin Smith, by its respected Wednesday book page—played into Chicago’s desire to be seen as a cultural capital as well as a place of roiling capitalist opportunity. Dreiser says that the regular advice of editors to reporters in Chicago was to imitate the journalism of Dickens—funny, humane, rich in detail.23 Ben Hecht says that the Daily News in particular had “a reportorial staff that was half daft with literary dreams.”24

The Daily News tradition continued into this century. Henry Justin Smith, who had risen in the Lawson era, hired Carl Sandburg as a labor reporter in 1917. Sandburg, whose earlier radicalism has been buried under later Lincolnian goo, came to Chicago to edit a socialist paper (after serving as a socialist organizer in Milwaukee). During World War I, the Daily News was investigated by the army’s Military Intelligence Division for suspected Bolshevism, partly because of Sandburg. The acting director of Military Intelligence warned superiors of the menace:

Carl Sandberg [sic], a poet and newspaper writer of Chicago, is of Swedish descent, highly educated, and speaks several languages fluently. He is known as a radical and is one of the original members of “The Dill Pickle,” a club composed of intellectual anarchists, radicals, freelovers and revolutionists. He has been connected with the Lithuanian radicals, the Stockyards I.W.W., and in 1918 was elected by the Lithuanian branch of the Stockyards I.W.W. to represent it in Russia on the proposed American Economic Mission.25

It was the ideal of reporters at that time to do as Sandburg did—“to listen to the sounds of many tongues, Swedes along Belmont Avenue, Irish in Bridgeport and Brighton Park, Bohemians along 26th Street, Jews on Roosevelt Road, Poles out along Milwaukee Avenue and, here and there, Germans, Italians, Austrians and Hungarians.”26 Lawson and Stone did not want Dickensian “color” at the price of accuracy, or of efficiency in news gathering. They set up a Daily News Foreign News Service, and championed the Associated Press, a non-profit and inclusive cooperative, against the competitive and exclusive United Press.27

3.

In this century, no journalist has towered over Chicago journalism like Robert (“Bertie”) Rutherford McCormick, the scion of old enemies. He was the grandnephew of Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the reaper, who came from Virginia. As a Southern sympathizer, McCormick had financed the Chicago Times to oppose Medill’s pro-Lincoln Tribune. Despite the family history, Medill’s willful daughter Kate married the son of Cyrus McCormick’s brother, William. Kate pushed her husband Robert (“Rob”) McCormick into a diplomatic career he was not fit for. Her son Bertie would grow up resenting a) the State Department that had been dissatisfied with his father, b) the foreign governments to which that father had been dispatched, and c) those who educated Bertie himself, as an insecure outsider at an English public school and at Groton and at Yale.

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. 1

    Abraham Lincoln, letter of October 20, 1858: Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858 (Library of America, 1989), p. 824. Compare p. 684.

  2. 2

    Harold Holzer, editor, The Lincoln- Douglas Debates (HarperCollins, 1993), pp. 29-32.

  3. 3

    My account of Storey is based on Justin E. Walsh, To Print the News and Raise Hell!: A Biography of Wilbur F. Storey (University of North Carolina Press, 1968).

  4. 4

    Kipling quotation from Charles Fanning, Finley Peter Dunne & Mr. Dooley: The Chicago Years (University Press of Kentucky, 1978), p. 18.

  5. 5

    Theodore Dreiser, Newspaper Days (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), p. 77.

  6. 6

    Fanning, Finley Peter Dunne, p. 6.

  7. 7

    James DeMuth, Small Town Chicago (Kennikat Press, 1980), p. 26.

  8. 8

    For criticism of Ade, see Charles H. Dennis, Victor Lawson (University of Chicago Press, 1935), p. 384. George Will, “Lott’s Wild Blue Yonder,” Washington Post, May 23, 1997, p. A29.

  9. 9

    Fanning, Finley Peter Dunne, p. 18.

  10. 10

    Walsh, To Print the News, p. 239.

  11. 11

    Fanning, Finley Peter Dunne, p. 153.

  12. 12

    Fanning, Finley Peter Dunne, pp. 165-166.

  13. 13

    De Muth, Small Town Chicago, pp. 30-31.

  14. 14

    Charles Fanning, “Mr. Dooley Reconsidered,” in At the Crossroads: Old Saint Patrick’s and the Chicago Irish, edited by Ellen Skerrett (Loyola Press, 1997), p. 77.

  15. 15

    Ellen Warren, “Scoops!” Chicago Tribune, Commemorative Edition, June 8, 1997, Section 2A, p. 7.

  16. 16

    Lloyd Wendt, Chicago Tribune: The Rise of a Great American Newspaper (Rand McNally, 1979), p. 462.

  17. 17

    For Hilding Johnson, see William T. Moore, Dateline Chicago (Taplinger, 1973), pp. 59-60.

  18. 18

    Ralph G. Martin, Cissy (Simon and Schuster, 1979), p. 283.

  19. 19

    Dennis, Victor Lawson, pp. 20-23.

  20. 20

    Dennis, Victor Lawson, p. 116.

  21. 21

    Dennis, Victor Lawson, pp. 117-118, and Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century, (Simon and Schuster, 1954), p. 250.

  22. 22

    Dreiser, Newspaper Days, p. 3.

  23. 23

    Dreiser, Newspaper Days, p. 77.

  24. 24

    Hecht, A Child of the Century, p. 341.

  25. 25

    Philip R. Yannella, The Other Carl Sandburg (University Press of Mississippi, 1996), p. 120. Among those who attended meetings of the ominous Dill Pickle Club were Ben Hecht, Sherwood Anderson, Robert Frost, Vachel Lindsay, and Sinclair Lewis. Asked on an employee’s payroll form to identify his schooling for Daily News records, Sandburg listed: “Dill Pickle Club.” See North Callahan, Carl Sandburg (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1987), p. 77.

  26. 26

    Callahan, Carl Sandburg, p. 76.

  27. 27

    Dennis, Victor Lawson, pp. 205, 26.

  28. 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.

  29. 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).

  30. 30

    Walsh, To Print the News, p. 212.

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