Recent Work By James McGrath Morris



On the afternoon of February 17, 1909, a small boat pushed off from a dock in Havana’s harbor, cut through the pearl-green waters hugging the shoreline, and slid into the ultramarine-blue bay. Out ahead of it, one of the most luxurious private yachts in the world lay at anchor.

Why would anyone want to read about some newspaper publisher from 100 years ago? Like, no one reads a newspaper anymore.

True. Fewer and fewer folks are reading newspapers anymore, especially younger people. But the question confuses content with delivery, words with paper. Newspapers that produce good journalism will morph into something else. To survive as a democratic society we need independent journalism. We need a group of people to serve as watchdogs, ferreting out corruption and wrong doing. We need agenda setters, to help bring important issues to the public’s attention. But, I’m getting off the point. These are needs and folks may decide they don’t care about democracy and a free press.

Good journalism will find readers just like good stories will continue to be told. So journalism won’t die only its form.

So back to Joseph Pulitzer. Like Alfred Nobel, Pulitzer is better known today for the prize that bears his name than for his contribution to history. This is a shame. In the nineteenth century, when America became an industrial nation and Carnegie provided the steel, Rockefeller the oil, Morgan the money, and Vanderbilt the railroads, Pulitzer was the midwife to the birth of the modern mass media. What he accomplished was as significant in his time as the creation of television would be in the twentieth century, and it remains deeply relevant in today’s information age.

Pulitzer’s lasting achievement was to transform American journalism into a medium of mass consumption and immense influence. He accomplished this by being the first media lord to recognize the vast social changes that the industrial revolution triggered, and by harnessing all the converging elements of entertainment, technology, business, and demographics. This accomplishment alone would make him worthy of a biography.

Okay, so he’s important but publishers are boring, right? They just go to their desk each day and write memos, letters, and do lunch.

Many publishers, including ones I have worked for, are boring. But not this guy, His fascinating life made him an irresistible subject. Ted Turner-like in his innovative abilities, Teddy Roosevelt-like in his power to transform history, and Howard Hughes-like in the reclusive second half of his life as a blind man tormented by sound, his tale provides all the elements of a life story that is important, timely, and compelling.

Here are some tidbits:

•    He came to the United States as a mercenary in the Union Army during the Civil War.

•    He rose up in the rough and tumbler world of immigrant politics

•    He did what many of us would like to do: He shoots a lobbyist

•    He turned one town upside town with innovative journalism of the kind never seen before that included spying on politicians through keyholes, exposing the names of the well-to-do who owned whorehouses, and publishing tax returns of the rich who claimed they had no money.

•    Same story, but now in New York.

•    May have elected a president

•    Goes blind at peak of power and can’t even read his own newspaper

•    Pushes his family away (wife has affair) and spends the remainder of his life a recluse wandering the globe in despair.

A story like that practically writes itself.

Then why did it take you five years?  Are you a slow writer?

It’s not the writing, it’s the research. My job is like that of a private investigator, hours os talking about just to ascertain one lousy fact. Hey it’s a living.

To put together this book I had to spend months in St. Louis, then months going through archival boxes of papers at Columbia University and the Library of Congress in addition to those in dozens of archives and historical societies. I also went to Paris, London, and Hungary.

Did you find anything unusual?

Great question. Yes.

Nearly a century ago, it was reported in newspapers that Pulitzer’s only living brother had written a memoir shortly before committing suicide in 1909. In 2005, I located the manuscript in the custody of his granddaughter in Paris. An extraordinarily talented sculptor of religious figures, the late Muriel Pulitzer had guarded the work all her life after her father failed to get it published as he had hoped. The memoir sheds new light on the Pulitzers’ childhood in Hungary, their separate journeys to the United States, their rise as American newspaper publishers, and the prickly relationship between them.

Another important source of material was rescued from a trash bin in St. Louis. More than twenty years ago, the contractor Pat Fogarty spotted some wooden cigar boxes in a Dumpster near a building undergoing renovation. He thought they were too nice to be thrown out, so he took them home. When he opened them he discovered they were filled with documents from the 1800s that had once belonged to Joseph Pulitzer’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He put the boxes in his basement for safekeeping, thinking someday he might be able to sell the items.

In 2008, Pat and Leslie Fogarty generously shared the contents with me. The papers turned out to be historically significant. They included the original receipts for Pulitzer’s purchase of the Dispatch at auction in 1878, the original merger agreement several days later between the Dispatch and the Post, hundreds of canceled checks signed by Pulitzer, and a loan agreement revealing who provided Pulitzer with the money to operate his first newspaper.

Two other noteworthy sets of documents surfaced in St. Louis during my research. Eric P. Newman provided a copy of a financial note signed by Pulitzer that was instrumental in piecing together his partial ownership of the Westliche Post. The St. Louis Police Department Library gave me access to the 1872 Minutes of the St. Louis Police Commission contained in books that had been found abandoned in a closet.

In Washington, D.C., I pursued at length a large cache of documents relating to President Theodore Roosevelt’s attempt to imprison Pulitzer for criminal libel. After years of claims by archivists that there were no such files, a threat of a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act from a prominent Washington law firm sped their discovery. The files provide for the first time an inside look at this important episode in abuse of presidential power.

Last, a small file folder at the Lake County Historical Society in Ohio contained a set of intriguing love letters to Kate Pulitzer while she was married to Joseph. They were signed only with an initial. But another set of documents, donated to Syracuse University in 2001, helped me identify her lover.

So now that the book is done, what are doing with yourself?

Glad you asked. I am working day and night in trying to help create Biographers International Organization (BIO) to help advance the art and craft of biography. The idea grew from a call published in The Biographer’s Craft, a newsletter I edit, in 2008 in response to a sense that interest in, and support for, biography was growing.

In recent years, for example, the Leon Levy Center for Biography was established at CUNY’s Graduate Center, thanks to a gift of $3.7 million from the Leon Levy Foundation. The University of Southern California organized the Consortium for the Study of Biography. The Biographer’s Craft newsletter, launched with a handful of readers, found a strong reception among biographers and has grown at a prodigious rate. Sessions on biography at the Organization of American Historians and the American Society of Journalists and Authors attracted solid audiences.

In the midst of this growth, BIO plays a unique role. Its mission is to promote the art and craft of biography and to seek to further the professional interests of its practitioners. It is currently operating under the aegis of the Freedom to Write Fund in Washington, DC but will become its own 501 (c) 3 organization. It is in the process of selecting a provisional board of directors who will be formally elected during the business portion of 2010 meeting.

The “Compleat Biographer”, scheduled for May 15, 2010 at the University of Massachusetts Boston, will bring together biographers from the United States and other countries for a daylong series of workshops and panel discussion. Unlike previous gatherings of biographers, the focus of the conference is on the practical aspects of the craft and art of biography, which reflects the mission of the organization. Sessions will focus on using archives, obtaining funding for research, choosing a subject, meeting with editors and agents, examining new technological changes in publishing, and a wide array of other topics.