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.