February 14, 2010
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.
The length of a football field, the Liberty was rivaled in size and extravagance only by J. P. Morgan’s Corsair, which had set the standard of seagoing opulence for a decade. With two raked masts front and aft of a large smokestack, the white-hulled Liberty was like the beautiful schooners that had plied the oceans years earlier. “I have never seen a vessel of more beautiful lines,” said one man on board, who had served on a yacht belonging to the second white raja of Sarawak. Inside, the spacious vessel contained a gymnasium, a library, drawing and smoking rooms, an oak-paneled dining room that could easily seat a dozen people, quarters for its forty-five-man crew, and twelve staterooms fitted by a decorator who had designed furnishings for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
At this hour, on board all was still. The engines were silent, the bulkhead doors remained closed, and the upper deck gangways were roped off. The Liberty’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer, had just gone down for his after-lunch nap, and severe consequences would befall anyone who disturbed the repose of America’s most powerful newspaper publisher.
Since becoming blind at the apex of his rise to the top, the sixty-one year- old Pulitzer suffered from insomnia as well as numerous other real and imagined ailments, and was tormented by even the smallest sound. Every consideration possible was made to eliminate noise on board. Engraved brass plaques in the forward part of the ship warned, “This door shall not be opened until Mr. Pulitzer is awake.” At sea, the ship’s twin steam engines drove propellers set at different pitches and running at varying speeds in order to minimize vibrations carried through the hull. The Liberty was a temple of silence.
It was also Pulitzer’s cocoon. The demons that beset him never rested. For two decades, he had roamed the globe. At any moment, he might be found consulting doctors in Germany, taking baths in southern France, resting on the Riviera, walking in a private garden in London, riding on Jekyll Island, hiding in his tower of silence in Maine, or at sea. Since his yacht was launched the year before, water had become his constant habitat. In fact, the Liberty carried sufficient coal to cross and re-cross the Atlantic without refueling.
Wherever he went, it was in the company of an all-male retinue of secretaries, readers, pianists, and valets. In every practical sense, they had replaced his wife and children. From morning to night, these men tended to his every whim and kept the world at bay. By long practice, they had mastered handling his correspondence, discerned the most soothing manner by which to read books aloud from his well-stocked traveling library, and found ways to entertain at meals.
However, during his long exile Pulitzer never relaxed his grip on the World, his influential New York newspaper that had ushered in the modern era of mass communications. An almost unbroken stream of telegrams, all written in code, flowed from ports and distant destinations to New York, directing every part of the paper’s operation. The messages even included such details as the typeface used in an advertisement and the vacation schedule of editors. Managers shipped back reams of financial data, editorial reports, and espionage-style accounts of one another’s work. Although he had set foot in his skyscraper headquarters on Park Row only three times, whenever anyone talked about the newspaper it was always “Pulitzer’s World.”
And it was talked about. Since Pulitzer took over the moribund newspaper in 1883 and introduced his brand of journalism to New York, the World had grown at meteoric speed, becoming, at one point, the largest circulating newspaper on the globe. Six acres of spruce trees were felled a day to keep up with its demand for paper, and almost every day enough lead was melted into type to set an entire Bible into print.
Variously credited with having elected presidents, governors, and mayors; sending politicians to jail; and dictating the public agenda, the World was a potent instrument of change. As a young man in a hurry, Pulitzer had unabashedly used the paper as a handmaiden of reform, to raise social consciousness and promote a progressive—almost radical—political agenda. The changes he had called for, like the outlandish ideas of taxing inheritances, income, and corporations, had become widely accepted.
“The World should be more powerful than the President,” Pulitzer once said. “He is fettered by partisanship and politicians and has only a four-year term. The paper goes on year after year and is absolutely free to tell the truth and perform every service that should be performed in the public interest.”
Like Pulitzer himself, however, the World was aging. Its politics had grown conservative, its novelty had spawned dozens of imitators, and its great achievements lay in the past. Most readers couldn’t remember a time before newspapers, thick as magazines, circulated in the millions, sold for as little as a penny, and were filled with dramatically written news, riveting sports coverage, comics, marital advice, recipes, fiction, and even sheet music.
On this day, a reminder of the paper’s fabled past stood nearby. Rising from the waters of Havana Bay like a cadaver’s finger was the top portion of a mast. It was the only visible remains of the USS Maine, which blew up a decade before, killing most of its crew. The disaster, coming at a time of rising tension between Spain and America, became incendiary kindling in the hands of battling newspaper editors in New York. William Randolph Hearst, a young upstart imitator from California armed with an immense family fortune, had done the unthinkable. In 1898 his paper, the New York Journal, was closing in on the World’s dominance of Park Row. Fighting down to the last possible reader, each seeking to outdo the other in its eagerness to lead the nation into war, the two journalistic behemoths fueled an outburst of jingoistic fever. And when the war came, they continued their cutthroat competition by marshaling armies of reporters, illustrators, and photographers to cover every detail of its promised glory.
The no-holds-barred attitude of the World and Journal put the newspapers into a spiraling descent of sensationalism, outright fabrications, and profligate spending. If left unchecked, it threatened to bankrupt both their credibility and their businesses. Like Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, they fought it out at the edge of a precipice that could mean death to both combatants.
In the end, the two survived this short but intense circulation war. But their rivalry became almost as famous as the Spanish-American War itself. Pulitzer was indissolubly linked with Hearst as a purveyor of vile Yellow Journalism. In fact, some critics suspected that Pulitzer’s current plans to endow a journalism school at Columbia University and create a national prize for journalists were thinly veiled attempts to cleanse his legacy before his approaching death.
In addition to forever sullying his name, remembrance of the war pained the publisher for another reason. Pulitzer’s most formidable political foe had come home a hero. Worse, Pulitzer had contributed to this enemy’s glory. When Theodore Roosevelt led his famous Rough Riders to victory on Cuba’s San Juan Hill, he had brought the press along. After unleashing and glorifying the power of the press, Pulitzer watched his nemisis Roosevelt harness it as the most potent tool of political leadership in the modern age.
For a quarter of a century, the Republican Roosevelt and the Democratic Pulitzer had battled for the soul of America’s reform movement. It had been an epic clash. On one side was an egotistical, hard-boiled politician, convinced that Pulitzer was an impediment to the resplendent future his own leadership offered the nation. On the other side was a sanctimonious publisher who believed he was saving the republic from a demagogue. “I think God Almighty made it for the benefit of the World when he made me blind,” Pulitzer had confided to one of his editorial writers a few months before. “Because I don’t meet anybody, I am a recluse. Like a Blind Goddess of Justice, I sit aloof and uninfluenced. I have no friends; the World is therefore absolutely free.”
Now, as twilight descended on his presidency, Roosevelt hoped to take revenge for all the years of abuse. The immigrant son of Hungarian Jews—blind, tempestuous, and neurotic—had become the bête noir of the brawny, bellicose scion of the American aristocracy. Triggering the president’s wrath was the temerity of Pulitzer’s World in raising the possibility that the Panama Canal, Roosevelt’s most sacred accomplishment, had been tainted by corruption. Under presidential orders the Justice Department was madly combing through dusty century-old law books hoping to find some means to punish Pulitzer for his most recent affront. Grand juries were convened in Washington and New York. If Roosevelt had his way, Pulitzer would spend his last years alive locked up in prison.
At last the small boat from the harbor reached the Liberty. It pulled alongside and a handwritten copy of a cable from New York was passed up to Pulitzer’s loyal valet and confidant, Jabez Dunningham. When he read it, Dunningham rushed to the ship’s bridge and gave orders to the captain to put out to sea. Roosevelt’s grand jury in Washington had announced its decision.