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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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.