The Magazine

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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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.