I said a lot of things, but Cissy did them.

—Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Long before Marilyn, Jackie, or Liz, there was Cissy—more precisely, Eleanor Medill “Cissy” Patterson—the imperious, principled, dissolute, cheerfully malevolent dynamo behind “the damndest newspaper ever to hit the streets.” From 1930, when she signed on to edit William Randolph Hearst’s failing Washington Herald, until her death in 1948 amid suitably melodramatic circumstances, Washingtonians grew accustomed to the newsboy’s cry: “Have You Heard What Mrs. Patterson Says Today?” Whether goading the reptilian Walter Winchell as a “middle-aged ex-chorus boy” ashamed of his Jewish heritage, Vice President Henry Wallace (“a crystal-gazing crackpot”), or “that lovely asp” Clare Boothe Luce, Cissy made no pretense to objectivity. “I’d rather raise Hell than raise vegetables,” she boasted.

It was a family tradition, as Amanda Smith makes clear in this vast, hugely readable saga of five generations with printer’s ink in their veins and a sixth sense for what sells newspapers. “When your grandmother gets raped,” advised Cissy, “put it on the front page.” This formula alone makes her at once a flamboyant anachronism and depressingly relevant. Forget the Murdoch press; with its multiple, round-the-clock editions, highly spiced features, and blatant partisanship, Mrs. Patterson’s rechristened Times-Herald supplied a bridge between the score-settling personal journalism of her legendary grandfather, Joseph Medill, and the shrill editorializing of today’s cable gabfests and much of the blogosphere.

More than a serial character assassin, Cissy was a sometime actress, bestselling novelist, erratic hostess, superb horsewoman, big game hunter turned antivivisectionist—one suspects she loved animals in part because they didn’t talk back—treacherous friend, shrewd businesswoman, and tireless self-promoter. Spectacularly unsuccessful in marriage, she also happened to be one of the least maternal women who ever lived. Victimized by a distant, self-regarding mother (I must “associate with swells or nobody,” brayed Nellie Patterson), Cissy herself elevated child neglect to an art form. Drawing on unpublished memoirs and other archival treasures, Smith re-creates a harrowing late-night reunion, as two inebriated, emotionally damaged women confront each other across the dining room table of Cissy’s lavish Maryland country house. Neither can go to bed without rehashing old hurts and inflicting as many new ones as rancid memory and a venomous tongue can generate.

“I think I’ll leave Dower House to Luvie,” Mrs. Patterson asserts with casual malice. The identity of her proposed beneficiary, the second wife of the publisher’s detested son-in-law Drew Pearson, is particularly wounding to Cissy’s intended target: her only child, Felicia, who also happens to be Pearson’s first wife. Retorts Felicia:

God damn you and may you roast in Hell. You’ve already made my life one long Hell from the time I was a baby, you stupid bitch! You stupid, stupid bitch, with your aging body, and not having learned one Goddamned thing on this earth. Nothing. You can’t even run a decent newspaper. You’re the joke of this town. You’re the joke of this whole country—with your petty feuds superseding front page news.

“You’re much too fat,” Cissy tells her daughter, a failure in love and literature alike. Twice Felicia has palmed off on readers transparently autobiographical novels showing “how awful I am and how awful the family is, and what a poor little abused girl you are.” Left out of her boozy tirade is the fact that Cissy had done the same thing when cashing in on the notoriety surrounding her disastrous marriage to a drunken Polish nobleman and fortune hunter, Count Josef Gizycki. The count’s subsequent kidnapping of the toddler Felicia had touched off an international manhunt involving President William Howard Taft and Czar Nicholas II. Ironically, her soiled Old World title was one of the few things Cissy bequeathed her estranged daughter—that, and the seemingly genetic incapacity of Patterson women to avoid repeating the mistakes of their turbulent ancestors.

In any event, Felicia was only half right in summarily dismissing the woman she loved to hate. Cissy might be a joke to many, a scandal to even more. Yet her feuds were the news in gossipy Washington, the lifeblood of a newspaper designed, like its proprietress, to call attention to itself. “A steady middle-of-the-road policy is the way to be popular and prosperous,” Mrs. Patterson once acknowledged. “But what fun is there in that?” Telling the powerful where to get off was part of her singular inheritance. Cissy’s grandfather Medill helped nominate Abraham Lincoln for president, then served as Chicago’s first mayor after the devastating fire of 1871.

Ten years later Cissy appeared, the red-haired, pug-nosed offspring of a crumbling alliance between the Tribune’s book critic cum Washington correspondent, Robert Patterson, and his fluttery, neurasthenic wife. Eventually Bob Patterson took his own life; suicide, real and rumored, would become practically a Patterson family value. Thanks to her Chicago relations, and the Tribune’s clout with Republican presidents, young Cissy felt very much at home in the gilded courts of Edwardian Europe. Amid the plainer surroundings of the White House, she mesmerized Theodore Roosevelt.

“Watch the way that girl moves,” TR remarked of his daughter Alice’s feline friend. “She moves like no one has ever moved before.”

Years later Cissy would lend her Dupont Circle mansion to President and Mrs. Coolidge during White House renovations in 1927. From its balcony Charles Lindbergh addressed an adoring throng after his historic New York-to-Paris flight. As a latter-day Nellie Bly, Cissy persuaded Al Capone to give her an on-the-record tour of his Miami mansion. Another scoop went glimmering after she caught sight of a sunbathing Albert Einstein in the nude, only to reproach herself bitterly for leaving the celebrated scientist undisturbed. Practicing such discretion was a mistake she rarely repeated.

The list of her lovers—among them Walter Howey, a Hearst editor who inspired the blustery Walter Burns in The Front Page, and Germany’s World War I ambassador to the United States, Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff—was exceeded only by the litany of her enemies. In a stunt that was over the top even by her standards, Cissy had a festively wrapped slab of raw meat—Shylock’s “pound of flesh”—hand delivered to rival publisher Eugene Meyer of the Washington Post after he denied her rights to such profitable cartoons as Gasoline Alley and Dick Tracy. That Cissy was a Great Character, her life unfurled in 96-point type, is beyond question. If presented on stage, her story would be a Jerry Herman musical, with a malignant Mame opening new windows while burning every bridge in sight. Were it a film, it would be a cross between Zelig and Groundhog Day.

Until now, Cissy’s notoriety has obscured her journalistic significance. What began as a publicity stunt by a flailing Hearst in the depths of the Depression quickly blossomed into the talk of the town, as Cissy’s unprovoked front-page attack on Alice Longworth set tongues wagging. It also set the tone for a journal that rarely saw a belt it wouldn’t hit below. Borrowing talent where available, poaching it where necessary, Editor Patterson built a formidable organization, mindful of what she claimed to be the first two long words she had lisped on her grandfather’s knee: Circulation and Advertising. In between craps games on the loading dock with her burly circulation crew, the wealthy socialite employed her own celebrity, and fortune, to cultivate upscale advertisers who had shunned Hearst.

As a proto-feminist, Cissy assembled a slate of female journalists such as the gifted art director-photographer Jackie Martin, with whom she collaborated on a series, inspired by Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, calling attention to the plight of Southern sharecroppers. Henry Luce might sneer at “Cissy’s Henhouse” but Herald circulation rose with the number of food and women’s pages added to the paper. One of Cissy’s crusades (“Suffer the Little Children”) led to a hot lunch program in Washington schools. She was less successful in fomenting a Cherry Tree Rebellion to save the capital’s signature trees at the expense of the unbuilt Jefferson Memorial.

Discovering that N’Gi, a six-year-old African gorilla, “was languishing near death” at the National Zoo, Cissy purchased an oxygen tent for the creature. Unfortunately, the device proved no more effective than the one she had dispatched a year earlier to the bedside of her sometime lover, House speaker Nicholas Longworth. In her most celebrated gambit, Cissy posed as Maude Martin, a homeless woman with a toothbrush and 11 cents in her pocket, abandoning the comforts of Lord Baltimore’s 17th-century hunting lodge for a Salvation Army shelter.

By 1936 Herald circulation had more than doubled. Three years later the paper was sold and profitably merged with the evening Washington Times. Liberated from Hearstian oversight, Mrs. Patterson indulged her sharp tongue and increasingly capricious habits of management. Rumors of drug use, in addition to the Patterson family curse of alcohol, scarcely justified the volatility with which Cissy fired, rehired, and fired again employees she deemed to have body odor, or who preceded the publisher out of an elevator. One young woman reporter was discharged because the publisher thought her eyes too close together.

Her furious isolationism (“Thank God For Munich” she trumpeted in an editorial following the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938) was the most obvious of Cissy’s bonds to her brother Joe, protean publisher of the New York Daily News, and their Chicago cousin, Robert McCormick, whose Tribune splashed across its front page a purloined copy of the administration’s war plan with Nazi Germany three days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On the night of December 7, 1941, an unrepentant Cissy Patterson pointed to the Roosevelt White House and hissed, “Do you think he arranged this?” Roosevelt was hardly alone in decrying “the Patterson-McCormick Axis,” but he was in a better position than most to do something about it. At his personal direction FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wiretapped Times-Herald columnist (and purported Nazi sympathizer) Inga Arvad in the throes of passion with a young naval officer, John F. Kennedy.

As her health deteriorated, and her charm curdled, an aging Cissy began carrying a revolver in her purse. She took grim satisfaction in writing and rewriting her will. The celebrated and the self-important still beat a path to her door. Doris Duke danced in her ballroom, far from the dismal corner to which Mrs. P. relegated the social-climbing Perle Mesta (whose characteristic response was to offer cash bribes to Times-Herald society writers for mentioning her in their party favors). Telling friends, “I don’t want to die alone,” Cissy made certain that night watchmen sat outside her bedroom door. Having excommunicated or outlived her small circle of loved ones, in the end Cissy willed the Times-Herald to its top executives, instantly dubbed the Seven Dwarves. Felicia contested the will, assisted by the opportunistic Drew Pearson.

Washingtonians sat back in anticipation of Cissy’s final and gaudiest show. Then, as abruptly as she had challenged her mother’s sanity, Felicia dropped her suit. Before her death at 93, in 1999, Felicia found sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous and a perspective that had eluded her tormented mother. By the time she made peace with Cissy’s ghost, the Times-Herald was long gone, its 1954 sale to Eugene Meyer the making of its despised rival, the Washington Post, and a very different kind of journalistic fame in Katherine Graham.

Aside from its curiously bland title, Amanda Smith’s unblinking group portrait of a dynasty unraveling is a model of its kind. Combining her subject’s vitality with an accuracy and restraint wholly absent in the mercurial publisher, Smith pays Cissy the ultimate compliment of taking her seriously. Widely praised for her skillful editing of the correspondence of her grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, here Smith gives us the fullest, fairest portrait we are ever likely to have of Cissy Patterson, her extended family, and their colorful, contentious approach to the news. Granted, Cissy’s descendants and in-laws are less interesting than the force of nature that haunts them still. And entertaining as it is, this volume should dispel any misplaced nostalgia for city room hijinks, even as it raises fresh doubts about a journalism that seeks the highest profit through the lowest common denominator.

Richard Norton Smith is a scholar in residence at George Mason University and the author, most recently, of The Colonel: The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, 1880-1955.

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