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Paper Tigress

When owning a newspaper was profitable — and fun.

Oct 10, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 04 • By RICHARD NORTON SMITH
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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 Drawing on unpublished memoirs and other archival treasures, Smith re-creates a harrowing late-night reunion, as two inebriated, emotionally damaged women confront each other across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.