The Lady Upstairs

Dorothy Schiff and the New York Post

by Marilyn Nissenson

St. Martin's, 512 pp., $29.95

Up to the 1960s New York City boasted seven English language major dailies: the New York Times and its rival, the Herald Tribune, and the New York Post, the Daily Mirror, the Daily News, the Journal-American, and the World-Telegram. The Post, the News, and the Mirror were tabloids; the New York World had gone out of business in 1931. The rest were "broadsheets," the much larger format. Only three metropolitan dailies have survived into the new century: the Times, the Daily News, and the Post.

(In the interests of full disclosure: In my youth I was a campus correspondent for the Post, earlier a copy boy at the Herald Tribune, and later a contributor to the New York Times Magazine.)

I would say that the survival of the New York Post is a miracle, and that Dorothy Schiff, the millionaire descendant of a wealthy German-Jewish immigrant banker family, is the reason. (Her grandfather, Jacob Schiff, was so important a New York banker that the boulevard-wide Delancey Street on the Lower East Side was renamed Schiff Parkway. But nobody paid any attention to the name change, and Delancey Street it remains to this day.) The Lady Upstairs tells why the Post was able to survive, even though it was regarded with disdain by advertisers. In fact, when a Post advertising salesman once asked a department store executive why he wasn't advertising in the Post, the executive famously replied, "Because your readers are our shoplifters."

Dorothy Schiff (1903-1989) was the owner and publisher of the Post for 37 years before it was sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1977 for $30 million. The Post at that point was the only surviving afternoon daily in New York, and she was one of the few women publishers of an important American newspaper. Schiff was a tallish, attractive woman with great legs, which she delighted in showing off. She dressed to kill. Theodore W. Kheel, the famed labor mediator, watched her toughing it out during a Newspaper Guild dispute with the New York publishers. In an inelegant turn of phrase, he described Dorothy Schiff as "the only publisher in New York with balls."

True. When the Newspaper Guild threatened to strike, she countered with her threat that, if they did, she would close the paper for good. But she caved when one of her reporters came up with a series of 13 articles about New York supermarkets and how some of them short-weighted their customers or violated city ordinances. Six pieces ran, and the last one was a critical look at phony weekly supermarket specials. At that point a local supermarket chain pulled its full-page ads. Schiff killed the remaining seven installments, and Marilyn Nissenson, who obviously lacks a sense of humor, writes that "Dorothy was fearless in pursuit of new advertisers." The author does not explain what there was to fear.

Schiff was a sharp-tongued wit, according to Gloria Steinem. Nissenson describes a conversation about marriage in which Steinem told the thrice-wed Schiff that she, Steinem, couldn't marry because it would mean moving into the same apartment and "putting all your books and records together." To which Schiff merrily replied, "Well, my dear, that's the difference between you and me. I have a large apartment. They move in and they move out."

By the mid-1950s, the Post's circulation, 420,000, had peaked. (Hearst's Journal-American had a circulation of almost 800,000.) In 1960, the Post's circulation, 335,000, was down 25 percent. Why such a drop? Hard to say. Working for her were three of the most talented journalists in the country: James A. Wechsler, editor of the editorial page, columnist Murray Kempton, and Paul Sann, the managing editor. Nissenson credits Sann with saving the paper, but it was an uphill battle for the liberal Post. Afternoon papers printed in downtown Manhattan were having trouble delivering their closing Wall Street editions uptown because of traffic jams. The Post at one point was delivering its Wall Street closing edition to newsstands by subway in order to catch the Grand Central and Penn Station commuters.

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.

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