Before Katharine Graham, there was Dorothy Schiff of the Post.
Oct 29, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 07 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
Here I would like to offer from memory a two-word description of the Post's dark, dirty, and gloomy city room floor, then located near the confluence of the Hudson and East River waterfronts. Compared with the city room floors of the Times, the Herald Tribune, and the World-Telegram, which I knew from personal observation, the Post's was a slum tenement. The Lady Upstairs tells of Schiff's friendship--if not more--with Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom she often visited at his homes in Hyde Park and Warm Springs. We will never know the exact nature of their friendship. Marilyn Nissenson cites Ted Morgan, another biographer, as her source for Schiff's conversation with FDR's physician. When asked whether the crippled FDR could be sexually active, the doctor replied: "Don't forget, only his legs are paralyzed." In any case, the New York Times published a front-page story on May 27, 1976, under the headline "Dorothy Schiff Tells of Affair with Roosevelt." None of this appeared in Schiff's authorized biography by Jeffrey Potter (Men, Money & Magic), and the situation got even more complicated when the Times picked up the publisher's press release hinting that Schiff had had an affair with FDR in the 1930s. Threats of a lawsuit forced the Times to retract the "exposé."
Intelligent though she was, Schiff was blind to the problems of women on the news staff with children. She refused to let new mothers work part-time. One of those reporters recalls: "Dolly had the nerve to tell us, 'I raised three children and worked full time.' Well, sure. Give me your chauffeur, your cook, and your nursemaid and maybe I wouldn't have such a problem. It was a staggering revelation of how removed from the real world she was."
The Schiff era included a major battle in the 1950s between pro-Soviet and anti-Soviet intellectuals in the opinion business. The anti-Soviet intelligentsia, like Schiff and James Wechsler, were prepared to test their anti-Communist political convictions against the elite defenders of Alger Hiss. They were also willing to accept liberal accusations of red-baiting. Wechsler, a target of Senator Joseph McCarthy, wrote a powerful defense of anticommunism in his Age of Suspicion, and Schiff gave Wechsler her full support.
Was Schiff a nut case? Her marriage to Ted Thackrey, a newspaperman who became editor of the Post, would be evidence for an affirmative answer. Thackrey had absolutely no idea what New York's intellectual wars were about. In the early spring of 1949, when the philosopher Sidney Hook organized a protest against the Stalinist Stockholm Peace Appeal's mass meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Thackrey accepted an invitation to speak at the conference, and then asked to be allowed to address the Hook meeting! Hook told him that he couldn't dance at two weddings, and asked him to make a choice. He chose the Stalinist conclave. A year earlier, Thackrey had supported Henry Wallace in the 1948 presidential race, a candidacy actively and openly supported by the Communist party. Thackrey's opportunistic politics doomed his future, as far as Schiff was concerned, and in April 1949, Schiff fired him as editor and publisher and, finally, as husband.
Few cities have been as fortunate as New York--or, more specifically, the borough of Manhattan--in their competitive newspapers. And The Lady Upstairs tells a fascinating story about a woman who was fortunate and gutsy enough to smash the glass ceiling.
Arnold Beichman is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.