TOM PUTNAM: Good evening, everyone. I’m Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and on behalf of Tom McNaught, the Executive Director of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and all of my Library and Foundation colleagues, I thank you for coming this evening and acknowledge the generous underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums, lead sponsor Bank of America, Raytheon, Boston Capital, The Lowell Institute, The Boston Foundation, and our media partners, The Boston Globe and WBUR.
Amanda Smith last spoke here at the Kennedy Library on the publication of the letters of her grandfather, Joseph P. Kennedy, a volume she masterfully compiled and edited. To date, there is no definitive biography of the Kennedy family patriarch and one wonders whether any biographer can present the man as vividly as Joseph P. Kennedy does himself in his letters.
Her new book tells the fascinating life story of Cissy Patterson, once deemed “the most powerful woman in America and the most hated,” a celebrated debutante, scion of the Chicago Tribune empire, the 20th century’s first woman editor-in-chief and publisher of a major metropolitan daily newspaper, the cheerfully malevolent dynamo, lover of poodles, hyper capitalist and deep isolationist. Patterson usually had kinder words for Hitler than for FDR.
Born in 1881 into a fractious, influential newspaper family, Cissy married, over her family’s objections, a dissolute Polish count who turned out not only to be broke, but also unfaithful and who later kidnapped their daughter Felicia. With great effort and the interventions of powerful political figures from around the world, including President Taft and the Czar of Russia, she regained her daughter, divorced, and returned to the U.S.
A life out of the pages of an Edith Wharton or Henry James novel, Cissy next had a series of unsuccessful relationships, grew estranged from her daughter, published two acclaimed novels, married a Jewish man despite her apparent anti-Semitism and eventual sympathy with the Nazi cause. Even a talented novelist could not have created such a dramatic story. One reviewer observed that “Cissy Patterson’s life is filled with more backstabbing, social climbing, and decadence than a season of Dynasty.” [laughter] “I’d rather raise hell,” Cissy once observed, “than raise vegetables.”
In the summer of 1930, Cissy Patterson took over William Randolph Hearst’s foundering Washington Herald and began to learn what others believed she could never grasp: how to run a newspaper. In a world dominated by men, she entered the fierce newspaper wars of the times and, in the end, took a sleepy newspaper and turned it into what was once called “the damndest newspaper to ever hit the streets.”
It’s especially fitting that we meet today here in Smith Hall, which is named after Amanda’s father, Stephen Smith, who did so much to help his brother-in-law, John F. Kennedy, to become President and later led the effort to build this Library in his honor.
Amanda’s mother is President Kennedy’s younger sister, Jean. Amanda is a graduate of Harvard College and currently lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and two children.
We’re delighted to have back as moderator Fred Thys, WBUR’s political reporter. His distinctive accomplishments include breaking the story that the federal government may have lied to the Supreme Court in order to obtain the landmark ruling that established the state secrets privilege, a story that led President Obama and Congress to reconsider the use of the state secrets privilege. Just this weekend I heard Fred’s familiar voice offering insights into what might happen next to the Occupy Boston Movement after interviewing many of the local participants. And today he spent the day on the campaign trail in New Hampshire with Newt Gingrich.
We are honored to have both Fred Thys and Amanda Smith here with us this evening to discuss Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson, which, due to the marriage of subject matter and masterful storyteller, might well be called “The damndest biography ever to be discussed on this stage.” [laughter]
Please join me in welcoming them both back to the Kennedy Library. [applause]
FRED THYS: This is an amazing book. It’s just so well written. Obviously, you spent seven years researching this book. How did you decide to do a biography of Cissy Patterson? I had never heard of Cissy Patterson until, you know, I was asked to read this book.
AMANDA SMITH: Yeah. How did I? I think, in my experience, the subject matter has always found me when I write a book. And if anybody was likely to become a ghost, I think it was Cissy Patterson. I don’t know if it was her hand finding me or what, but she came up everywhere when I was looking for a story to write about next.
She knew my grandfather, Joe Kennedy, because she ran the leading paper in Washington in the ‘30s and ‘40s. And when he was part of the Roosevelt administration, he knew her, as everybody did, because she was also a famous hostess. She was the employer of my mother’s sister, Kathleen Kennedy, who was the sister who married the Englishman and died very young. Jack Kennedy wrote about going to dinner parties at her house where isolationists and interventionists almost literally came to blows in the fall and almost winter of 1941.
She was everywhere. I started looking into her life a little bit, because I was looking for a next book to do. I knew about her as a newspaper woman, but the more I found out about her, the more … People often described her as being very feline, very cat-like, very predatory. She was incredibly graceful. She was very careful about her appearance. She had a beautiful, graceful lithe figure. She was also very catty, personally. It struck me that she was … It was almost as if she had lived nine lives. You’ve heard that when she was a young debutante, she married a Polish count. She was a novelist. She was actually a very famous big game hunter and dude rancher. She had an amazing life story and it struck me as incredible that in 1946 she could be called the most powerful and probably the most hated woman in America. By the beginning of the next century, it could be totally forgotten so all those reasons drew me to her. Also, in the end it’s an incredible story. And it was fun to write about somebody who’s been remembered, at least, as a villain. [laughter]
FRED THYS: What was the relationship between her and Kathleen Kennedy?
AMANDA SMITH: It was very friendly, actually. One of Cissy’s great gifts was that she …Well, I should say that she came, as you know, from the family that owned the majority stake in the Chicago Tribune. Her cousin, Colonel McCormick, ran the Tribune for most of her lifetime. But her brother was an interesting character, too, a guy called Joe Patterson, who basically single-handedly imported the newfangled picture tabloid from Britain after the first World War. Joe Patterson, her brother, was basically by the measure of anyone publishing a single newspaper in the early 20th century, his New York Daily News was, by far, the most successful in the United States. It had the largest Sunday circulation of any paper in the world. Joe Patterson’s genius was that he could intuit what his audience wanted. And Cissy, although she had no education to speak of and she had very little journalistic experience, seemed to have some of that gift. One of the things she did when William Randolph Hearst allowed her to run his Washington Herald, which was running fifth in a six-paper market in 1930, she immediately started making changes, the kind of changes that her brother would have made. She added a lot of local features, a lot of local color. She hired a lot of local writers, rather than use the, as she put it, “canned stuff” that came off the Hearst wires.
One of the things she did was she hired a lot of local debutantes and party girls to write about their friends, and one of those girls was Kathleen Kennedy. And Kick Kennedy was basically exactly the kind of girl that Cissy hired. You know, she was well connected. She had lived abroad. She was popular, and she was very happy to write about her friends and Cissy seemed to really like her.
FRED THYS: How did she become the most hated woman in America, and the most powerful?
AMANDA SMITH: As was said before, she was the only woman until the mid-1940s to actually run a major metropolitan daily newspaper in the United States. She became the most hated woman because she was a really ferocious isolationist. Her paper was very pro-Roosevelt, initially, and over the course of the 1930s, she had personal fights with FDR, one of them about the cherry trees around the tidal basin in Washington and the building of the Jefferson Memorial, which she objected to.
But anyway, relations soured between them for much more serious reasons. She suspected, as the rest of her family did -- her cousin at the Chicago Tribune and her brother at the New York Daily News-- that Roosevelt was actually lying to the American public and that he was much more interventionist with regard to the war in Europe than he let on publicly to the American people. In the meantime, her ex-son-in-law was the columnist Drew Pearson, whom you may remember. He was sort of a tough cookie in his own way. But she started falling out with him, also, over the issue of intervention. She had almost lost contact with her daughter, who had divorced Drew Pearson, but she maintained very close relations with Drew Pearson and his new wife. They formed this sort of nucleus of the only family she really had and the only support system. When they fell out, she took up with this white Russian émigré doctor who had seemingly a very wide practice in D.C., during the late ‘30s and ‘40s, of giving various injections to the ladies who lunched around Washington at the time, for weight loss, or for pep, or whatever. She seems to have become very erratic over that period, too, and by all accounts, she was drinking a lot.
So she would make these outrageous pronouncements, and her newspaper was very much the embodiment of her. She would actually make statements, often defamatory ones, in the front page of her paper where she would attack, say, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who was an old friend, who became an enemy. She would make these crazy, outlandish statements. And as she became more and more isolated and more and more probably drugged and more and more drunk, the paper became more and more wacky and outlandish. But it also sold a lot of papers. I mean, it’s fascinating to read, now, 70 years later or whatever. You can't take your eyes off it and you cannot wait for the next installment to come out, because it’s so racy and so incredible. So she sold a lot of papers but she also made herself very unattractive in the process.
FRED THYS: How did she become enemies with Alice Roosevelt Longworth?
AMANDA SMITH: Oh, gosh. It’s not clear exactly what she did. Well, they were girls together, and they knew each other. I think Cissy was very competitive by nature and Alice Roosevelt Longworth, as you know, would have been a sort of a superstar at the time. Everybody knew who she was, and she had a color named after her, and everybody copied her way of dress and her way of talking. I think Cissy was jealous of her, so part of the reason that Cissy married a Polish count was in an effort to grandiose herself and outshine Alice for a little bit. And Alice, as you know, ended up marrying the Speaker of the House and had her own life in Washington. When Cissy got divorced from the nefarious Polish count and came back to Washington, it seems that she probably slept with Alice’s husband -- not only with Alice’s husband, Speaker Longworth, but with the great love of Alice’s life, Senator Bora. As you can imagine, relations soured after that. [laughter]
FRED THYS: You start this biography by telling us about the family that she comes from, the Medill family, which is also an incredible family, starting with the patriarch
Joseph Medill. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about his humble beginnings and how influential he was in the 19th century.
AMANDA SMITH: He was born a poor farm boy. His parents were immigrants from Northern Ireland. He was born in 1823, just over the border of what is now Canada. It was sort of a disputed border between Maine and Canada at the time. But the fact that he was born just over the border excluded him from ever becoming President of the United States, to his enduring resentment. He became a newspaper editor. He found he loved it.
He also credited himself with such feats as naming the fledgling Republican Party in the 1850s, and being one of the founders of the Republican Party, and also discovering a new candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who he said used to come and ask him for advice all the time. I don’t know that the advice was asked for anymore, but he would go to Washington and give advice to Lincoln after Lincoln was elected. Apparently, Lincoln didn’t take the advice as much as he had before.
He created a new sort of newspaper, basically, and made the Chicago Tribune into the most widely read paper in the Midwest. As his descendants’ newspapers were, the Chicago Tribune, under his stewardship, was very much a reflection of his own attitudes and opinions. He was a ferocious abolitionist, too, so the Tribune got its start being very much an abolitionist sheet, right before the election of 1860.
FRED THYS: And he has these two daughters who are rivals. How does that shape Cissy Patterson’s upbringing?
AMANDA SMITH: Well, Joseph Medill had two beautiful daughters, Kate, who was the elder one and apparently the more ferocious and intelligent one, and then Nelly, who is Cissy’s mother, who was also beautiful, but not quite as clever, or as mean as her older sister. And they had sort of lifelong battles, which they documented very carefully in their various ledgers and books.
And so Cissy was brought up as the only girl in her generation. She had a brother, Joe Patterson. There was also her cousin, Robert Rutherford McCormick, and there was a second McCormick son, also called Medill. But Cissy was the only girl of her generation, and she was her grandfather’s darling. She learned, very quickly, how to manipulate men through her grandfather. She was brought up, essentially, to spar with her McCormick cousins all the time. Throughout her life, she had a very fraught, very awkward relationship with Colonel McCormick, which would play itself out, actually, at the end of their lives, after the Second World War, too.
FRED THYS: Tell us more about that.
AMANDA SMITH: Well, Cissy -- fittingly for somebody who caused so much controversy during her lifetime -- died under very peculiar circumstances. And there was some thought, even within her family today, that it must have been Colonel McCormick trying to bump her off for her newspaper. In the last years of her life, when she was sort of drug-addled and drinking a lot, she would go around and buttonhole people at parties and say, “I like you, and I’m going to give you my newspaper, and if I ever get bumped off or if I get murdered or something, it’s Colonel McCormick. He’s trying to steal my Times-Herald.” And it’s not clear-- I mean Colonel McCormick, if he had anything to do with her death and it’s not clear that he did at all -- but he gave himself very good plausible deniability by being in Paris at the time that she died. But his wife -- his second wife -- records a very odd reaction that he had when he got the call that Cissy had died the night before, where he sang a little song and said, “I'm the last leaf on the tree,” not like that. [laughter] And he did end up buying her paper after she died.
FRED THYS: What happened to the paper after she died?
AMANDA SMITH: Well, the paper. One of Cissy’s great rivals within Washington was Eugene Meyer, who is Kay Graham’s father. Eugene Meyer had been Chairman of the Federal Reserve and then he retired from public service and decided that he wanted to continue in a private capacity, giving something back to his country. So he bought a newspaper at auction that was bankrupt called the Washington Post. He had bid against Cissy, but she didn’t have enough money to outbid him. So Eugene Meyer ended up getting the Post, which was something she never really forgave him for.
Finally -- they had these sort of newspaper circulation wars in Washington -- and finally they sort of made up, she and Eugene Meyer, at the end. But after she died, she left her paper and what was at the time an unprecedented move, she left her paper not to her daughter, from whom she was estranged, but to the seven executives who ran it for her, who were promptly dubbed “The Seven Dwarfs” in the national press.
And one interesting thing about Cissy, among many others, I think, was that her two papers, the two Hearst papers that she bought -- the Washington Herald and the Washington Times and merged into the Washington Times-Herald, which incidentally was one of the first 24 hour, around the clock dailies in the nation. That was her idea, too. But, anyway, those two papers had a really interesting, very formidable history of ownership. They were owned by Hearst before her and by a Hearst editor, who was very successful. But they always hemorrhaged money. Nobody could make them pay, basically. Nobody could put them in the black. Nobody could make them successful.
They always ran sort of at the end of the pack in terms of circulation.
Then Cissy made the papers, by far, the most widely read in D.C., and they turned a profit under her. When she left the paper to her seven executives, they continued the formulas that they had been using under Cissy. But they started losing money immediately after she died. Then, Colonel McCormick came in and bought the paper from the seven executives. He couldn’t make it run. He ran the Chicago Tribune, the most widely circulated full-size daily in the nation at the time, and he couldn’t make the Washington Times-Herald turn a profit.
Finally, he sold it to Eugene Meyer. And, actually, through the Watergate era, the Washington Post was published as the Washington Post in large type and then, underneath, Times-Herald. I guess the Times-Herald part shrank and shrank and shrank over the years. Then, it finally disappeared altogether, around about right after Watergate, but that was its history. Strangely, having a paper really animated Cissy, because it gave her an outlet for her abilities. But it seemed that the paper couldn’t really survive without Cissy, either, strangely.
FRED THYS: I guess maybe Cissy Patterson was more famous in their day, but today we remember Colonel McCormick as being this ardent isolationist. So they were definitely on the same page on that level. How is it that they feuded so much?
AMANDA SMITH: Well, they feuded about personal matters more than anything else. Strangely enough, they were so bellicose and so given to fighting and feuding within the family, that one of the few periods of harmony between these cousins -- the Pattersons and Colonel McCormick -- was actually during the Second World War, where they were all united in (a) their hatred of Franklin Roosevelt and (b) their commitment to really ferocious isolationism. Even after Pearl Harbor, they continued to be isolationists and were very much reviled as a result.
FRED THYS: How did she first acquire this newspaper? How did she first meet William Randolph Hearst? How did that happen?
AMANDA SMITH: Well, in the 1910s, there was this Chicago circulation war; that’s not a metaphor. It was, in fact, a war where newsboys died. There were hijackings of the various news trucks, because Hearst did come into Chicago and his great rival was the Chicago Tribune. Actually, a lot of the gangsters that did very well under prohibition a decade later were said to have come out of these Hearst-Tribune newspaper wars in the 1910s. But anyway, Hearst was basically her family’s great enemy.
After Cissy got divorced and she came back to the United States with her daughter, after the daughter was kidnapped, she was sort of at odds and ends and didn’t know what to do with herself. So she wrote two novels, and she tried acting, and she became a big game hunter. But she really wanted to run a newspaper. Her brother and her cousin wouldn’t really let her have anything to do with the New York Daily News or the Chicago Tribune. So in a stroke of gallantry -- and I think also in an effort to irritate her family -- her family’s old enemy, William Randolph Hearst, cultivated her and said, “Oh, you can run my flailing Washington Herald.”
Hearst was a very canny businessman and also a great showman. He understood that she’d probably get tired of it. And if nothing else, there would be great publicity value in this stunt of having a woman run a newspaper. As it turned out, she was really good at it and as he was going bankrupt by the end of the 1930s, he needed cash. And although he often used to proclaim that Hearst newspapers are not for sale in any sense of the word, he was forced to sell his Washington newspapers to Cissy. That’s how she got hold of them.
FRED THYS: You were talking about her two novels. One of the novels is based on her experiences marrying this Polish count and then moving … actually about her experiences visiting her McCormack cousins when her uncle was ambassador to, not her uncle …
AMANDA SMITH: Yeah, her uncle.
FRED THYS: Rright, her uncle was ambassador in St. Petersburg and then subsequently describes also her marriage to Count Gizycki.
AMANDA SMITH: I’m no Slavicist, but …
FRED THYS: Tell us a little bit more about that, about her experiences in Russia, first as a debutante and then subsequently as the wife of this Polish count.
AMANDA SMITH: As you were saying, her aunt -- the really ferocious one, the elder daughter, Kate McCormick -- was also very ambitious socially. And she managed to shoehorn her husband into a diplomat post, first in Austria and later in St. Petersburg.
And when the husband was in Austria, Cissy’s mother decided, “You know, why don’t I send Cissy over there? Because she’ll get some polish and some cachet, and she’ll meet all sorts of eligible bachelors, and maybe come back with a title.” So off Cissy went and she became sort of the companion of her aunt.
Cissy loved horses, and she was invited to a thoroughbred auction, at one point, where she met a very handsome young bachelor. Well not so young, quite a bit older than she, actually, but he knew a good thing when he saw it and he was steadily going bankrupt, this Count Gizycki. A few years before that, he had been to the wedding of President Grant’s daughter to a Russian prince in Newport, in the United States. I think that the trip to Newport really gave him an inkling of just how staggeringly wealthy the wealthiest Americans were.
So he got his hooks into Cissy, and he was handsome, and he was charming when he wanted to be, and Cissy came home very much in love. And her parents were sort of frightened. They did some research on him and found out that he had fathered lots of illegitimate children, that he was an inveterate gambler, that he was very brutal, that he drank a lot, that he was going bankrupt, and they saw the writing on the wall and said, “Well obviously, he’s just marrying you for your money.” And Cissy said repeatedly, “I don’t care. I'm in love with him, and I want to marry him.” Finally, she wore down her parents’ resistance after about two years of Count Gizycki’s following her around and writing her love letters, and Cissy’s father very shrewdly prevented her from getting a dowry. On the day of their wedding, it was said that Cissy’s father and her brother Joe weren't speaking to Count Gizycki. They wouldn’t even shake hands with him. They had the wedding luncheon and Cissy went upstairs to change into her traveling costume, to go off to Russia with her new husband and the count left, ostensibly to collect his things from his hotel, but actually he never came back. His best man was sent to find him and finally found him at Union Station ready to leave without Cissy. The message that came back was, “Now you’ll pay the dowry, right? Or I’m going to leave your daughter here.” So the father upped her yearly allowance, doubled it to $20,000 dollars, which in 1904 was a lot of money. It’s more like $3 million dollars today, which is, you know, plenty to live on. Gizycki accepted that, but was always very resentful of it.
So Cissy arrived in Russia, or actually they stopped in Vienna on their way to his Russian estate. He would leave her in the middle of the night. Even on their wedding night, he went out and left her alone. In the various accounts she left of their wedding night, he came back to their room before anything was consummated, and she heard a sort of female tittering in the hallway with her husband and then he let himself in. So obviously, he had been with some other woman. Then, he was rather brutal in the consummation of their marriage. They went off to Paris together and she started to notice that some of the women in his circle were awfully familiar with him. That alarmed her, but she was 22 years old and didn’t really know better. Everything was new to her.
They moved on to Vienna and her family had given her $12,000 dollars in cash as a wedding present. Rather than give them household goods, they just gave her money and said, “Why don’t you buy what you need in Europe.” And Gizycki came home in the middle of the night after going out without telling her where he was going and said, “Oh, I just lost a big sum gambling. I need some money fast. I don’t know where I can get it.”
And she said, “Oh, well of course, you know, take my wedding presents.” And he did and that was the last she ever saw of the money. Then he started to help himself to her bank account.
They went off to his estates in the Ukraine. And they arrived there and Cissy came in. She had been told that he lived in a splendid castle and that there were these model villages and dwellings for the serfs on his estates. She saw these model villages and dwellings first, and they turned out to be a bunch of hovels, and there were ragged, barefoot, malnourished children, some of whom seemed to look a lot like the count. [laughter] She got to the castle, which was basically just a big dilapidated building that needed a lot of repairs that he expected her to pay for. She was shown into his bedroom at one point, and it was very stark but there was a table in the middle of the room that was covered with framed photographs of various women signed lovingly to him, some of them wearing riding habits, some of them in dancing girls’ costumes, some of them naked. And then she was shown into her own bedroom. Well, there was another picture in the count’s bedroom of a woman with a little girl in her arms.
Then Cissy was shown into her own bedroom, which had been the mistress’s bedroom -- the woman with the little girl in her arms. The mistress had been sent away shortly before the count and Cissy arrived. Everything in the room was left the way that the mistress preferred. It was her sheets. Cissy found a sliver of her soap bar by the sink. There was the mistress’s hair in the drain. And she looked down at the blotter on her desk and she could see the mistress’s last letter written out. She thought that the count must have done that to sort of put her in her place and make her understand that she wasn’t really very important to him.
Their marriage progressed like that. Finally, after four years, her family cut them off totally and wouldn’t give them any more money. At that point, you know, the game was up, as Cissy put it. The count started beating her up and she finally left him in the middle of the night when she was still bleeding, when they were wintering in the south of France. She took their little girl, and she fled to England where her father was traveling on business for the Chicago Tribune.
The count finally found out where they were, and Cissy tried to reconcile with him, but the count found out the address where the little girl was staying and went and took her and held her basically for ransom, for about two years. At the time, the little girl was two and a half years old and you can imagine the trauma of her entire world was just taken away from her. Everybody who was familiar to her was just erased from her life. The count himself apparently put her in the care of a British nanny, who was sort of on the lam with this little girl. The only thing that managed to get the little girl back, eventually, was the fact that Cissy’s family was well connected in the United States and that her uncle had been the American ambassador in St. Petersburg. And the combination of having President Taft intervene and of having Czar Nicolas the II put pressure on Gizycki, whose ancestral lands were within the Ukraine and, therefore, in Russian territories. Basically the Czar threatened to confiscate his lands, which, after Cissy left, were the only source of income that he had.
Finally, she got the little girl back. But the little girl … That’s a very interesting story, too. She ended up growing up to become one of the earliest members of Alcoholics Anonymous. And in the 1940s-- and I hadn’t actually realized before I started doing research on the book that it had been in existence that long -- but she changed her life around after a very luxurious but very painful childhood.
FRED THYS: It was a common practice, I guess, for wealthy American heiresses to consider marrying European princes or for their parents to wish that they would do so.
Yet, it was very controversial. Until I read your book, I had never realized how controversial that was. President Roosevelt even looked askance at it. So I wondered if you could tell us a little bit more about that.
AMANDA SMITH: Yes, I actually hadn’t realized that either. I think we’ve all read Henry James and Edith Wharton books about American heiresses who married European aristocrats, and it usually ends badly. That was actually true in real life. There were a number of girls who were celebrated in the burgeoning gossip columns at the time, like Consuelo Vanderbilt of New York married the Duke of Marlborough and, like Cissy, ended up having a really unpleasant time and being expected to pay for the upkeep of his castles and estates and eventually divorced. There were other instances like that, too, which were very carefully followed in the society columns and the gossip columns at the time. But another interesting thing was that the United States, the Republic, was so young at that point that the country was very self-conscious about what it meant to be American and was it a proper American thing to do? Was it a Democratic thing to do for an American girl to take on a title and to bow before European monarchs, when the United States had been established expressly to separate from Europe and have no distinctions among people, no hereditary titles, and to have an elected President rather than a hereditary monarch?
These things were debated really ferociously in the press at the time. These girls were at once celebrated and also really criticized for their choices. President Grant’s daughter actually -- no, granddaughter -- married a Russian prince, and she wrote an account of how she spent the summer in Newport before her wedding answering floods of mail from people saying, “Oh, isn't it a tragedy that you're going to become a Russian princess. Oh, it’s just terrible. And you're disgracing yourself. And it’s just undemocratic what you're doing.” I think that those are not debates that we have so much anymore, what is American and whether it’s Democratic to behave in a certain way. But it really seemed to touch upon the country’s vision of itself, that these girls were marrying foreigners.
FRED THYS: What do you think is her most important impact on American society, whether it’s at the time, or what is her legacy?
AMANDA SMITH: Well, she’s been sort of pooh-poohed and dismissed because she was so outlandish and because FDR, one of her great enemies, has done really well by history, understandably. She’s made a great sort of foil and a great villain compared to him. But I think it’s worth remembering that she -- oh gosh, her legacies. She was the first person, the first publisher of a newspaper, to bring women in large numbers into her sitting room, not as members of the secretarial pool, but as actual reporters and editors. And she did this before the Second World War, which was around the time that other newspapers were forced to scramble as men were sent off into active duty. Her TimesHerald made the transition much more smoothly than many other newspapers across the United States, because they already had women in place in a lot of positions.
I was saying before, she was one of the first people to institute a 24-hour news cycle. Also, because of her isolationism, there's a really fascinating story, but it’s somewhat speculative. But if you put all the pieces together, basically I think that it’s very likely that FDR authorized the leak of secret military documents, called The Rainbow Five Plan, which was an assessment that Roosevelt had ordered from the army and navy in the summer of 1941 saying, “How long would it take the United States to mobilize for war against Germany?” The answer came back from the army and navy, “We could do it by July, 1943. And it would require this many men and this many ships and this many planes” and that sort of thing. Lo and behold, on December 4th, 1941, the Chicago Tribune correspondent in Washington was slipped a brown paper envelope and in it was a stolen copy of this top secret report. It ended up getting published in the Chicago Tribune and in the Washington Times-Herald saying -- and remember that Roosevelt had just been reelected for a third term that October; this is early December 1941. He had just been elected in early November, assuring the United States that no boys, “None of your boys will be sent into foreign wars. It’s terrible what’s going on in Europe. But rest assured the United States will not get into it, and your boys aren't going to be dying abroad.”
Cissy had always suspected that Roosevelt was actually much more interventionist than he pretended to be publicly. So when this scoop fell into her lap, she and her cousin, Colonel McCormick -- who actually had been at school with FDR and hated him from the time that they were 14 years old at Groton -- thought, “Now we’re really going to stick it to Roosevelt.” So they published this without hesitation, and it came out on December 4th, 1941. When it came out in Washington, it was promptly cabled by the German Embassy straight to Berlin and the Nazi high command got a hold of it, and it completely changed their strategic thinking for the next couple of years, because if the United States came into the war, it meant that they would be contending, obviously, with a new enemy and they might have to pull out of Russia and that sort of thing. So they presented their strategic reassessments to Hitler, who, on the 11th of January, declared war on the United States and actually said, “It’s because of this publication in the United States that I know that Roosevelt has been lying. He’s secretly intending to attack us and has been for some time. And I know this because it was published in the Washington Times-Herald,” Cissy’s newspaper. So she has many legacies, and not all of them happy ones; some of them are very ominous. But she was a really extraordinary figure and it’s an amazing story, a real adventure.
FRED THYS: It is. I’m wondering if we could open it to questions from the audience. Does anybody have questions?
QUESTION: Would you say something about her second husband?
AMANDA SMITH: Well, that’s an interesting story, too, because he was, as she put it, a Jew. And her family was outspoken in many things, one of them anti-Semitism. His name was Elmer Schlesinger. Apparently, he was, by all accounts, very intelligent and very kind and very patient with her. She was a very flighty woman and had a lot of whims and changed her mind a lot. He just adored her, by all accounts, and told her she was beautiful. She was a sort of very unusual looking woman. He took care of all her needs and sorted things out for her and was very devoted. She had known him because he was a friend of her cousin, Medill McCormick, from Chicago and then she knew him a little bit in Washington in the 1920s.
Finally, after asking her many, many times over, he persuaded her to marry him. By many accounts -- and it’s not clear because Cissy didn’t keep a lot of records during the period of her second marriage -- but she had grown tired of him within a few years. She got a call one day from a friend of his. Elmer had been golfing in South Carolina in the spring of 1929 and the friend said, “Oh, Elmer had some trouble on the golf course today, and he collapsed.” And Cissy said, “Oh my God, is he okay?” And the friend said, apparently, “Well actually, he’s dead.” [laughter] And that was that. There was some speculation that by 1929 she wanted to own her own newspaper and wanted to move back to Washington. She had been living with Elmer in New York, and that freed her.
His death freed her up to go into newspaper publishing.
Any other questions?
QUESTION: I had a couple of questions. The first is it’s not clear to me exactly how she came from being a 22 year old wife of a Russian scoundrel to running a major newspaper in Washington. The transition seems to be quite interesting. So that’s one question, how did she go from A to B. The other thing I was wondering about is that from what you said, it seems as though she was quite successful …
AMANDA SMITH: She was.
QUESTION: … at running the newspaper. It sounds as though her success was attributed to reporting on society and gossip and more of a tabloid type of thing as opposed to traditional journalism.
AMANDA SMITH: Yes, that’s very accurate. I’ll answer the second question first. The place that her family occupied from, say, the 1910s to the 1950s, was very much the place that Murdoch would occupy today, especially in terms of the preoccupations of the various newspapers. The Tribune and the other Medill papers had a very similar reputation for accuracy or inaccuracy that the Murdoch press would have today. So, yes, and her brother was the one who actually brought the first tabloid to the United States.
One thing about her grandfather, Joseph Medill, was that apparently he loved circuses. I think that that’s very telling about his sensibilities, that he knew how to produce something that was really irresistible. His grandson, Joe Patterson, Cissy’s brother … The New York Daily News in the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s was really irresistible to people. I mean, they were fun to read and had punchy headlines. While Cissy’s Times-Herald was actually a standard sized broadsheet, it was in every other way, very much like a tabloid. There were lots of features about pets and photographs of pretty girls scantily clad and horoscopes and gossip. She actually was the first paper to publish Drew Pearson’s political gossip column, The Washington Merry-Go-Round, and she really favored that sort of take on things.
As to how she got from point A to point B -- being a countess to a newspaper publisher -- she had a period where she was a little bit adrift, I think. She returned to the United States with her daughter in 1909. She had affairs with various people, including, actually, Ambassador von Bernstorff, who some of you may know was the disgraced German imperial ambassador who from his position in Washington, helped to arrange for sabotage of different American munitions depots. There’s all sorts of skullduggery that went on in the German effort to keep the United States out of the First World War on the side of the Allies. So Cissy’s boyfriend of that period … Actually, there are wiretapping transcripts of conversations that she had with Bernstorff at the time; it’s very well documented. So she had affairs with him. She had affairs with people like Speaker
Longworth, Alice’s husband, her old friend, Senator Bora. She wrote novels, and she actually was a pretty good writer. Her novels are fun to read, and they're exciting. But she was never really fulfilled. She really wanted to get into reporting, which was what she had been sort of brought up to do. That’s when she finally managed to come together with Hearst. But it took from 1909 to 1930 for her to drift around and get remarried and try her hand at writing and acting, until she actually took over a newspaper.
QUESTION: She sounds like a Machiavellian character.
AMANDA SMITH: Yeah, she was, in a lot of ways.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
AMANDA SMITH: Sure. Thank you.
QUESTION: How, in your opinion, did you determin that she was most powerful woman in her time? And what is power?
AMANDA SMITH: That’s a good question. The quotation that she was perhaps the most powerful and perhaps the most hated woman in the United States actually comes from Colliers Weekly Magazine in 1946. They were the ones who suggested it and Colliers, at the time, was a weekly rival to, say, Time and Newsweek, and had a similar reach in terms of its circulation around the country, so it was very widely read. Cissy, in terms of her power … What the Colliers piece attributed her power to was the fact that she was one of the principal owners of the Chicago Tribune Trust. It presumed that she had a say at the Chicago Tribune, the most widely circulated paper in the Midwest.
Also, her brother had recently died and she had been made Chairman of the Board of the New York Daily News, which was the most widely circulated newspaper in the entire United States at the time. And she had her own newspaper, the Washington Times-Herald, which she owned outright and which was turning a profit of at least a million dollars a year after the war and she had that as her own mouthpiece, basically. So she was very well connected in media, basically, and very rich as a result. I think those were what Colliers was referring to as the basis of her power.
QUESTION: What you said, it’s really only about that she was rich. Power is another thing, in my opinion.
AMANDA SMITH: Well, she had three newspapers that expressed her opinions.
QUESTION: Oh, power means that she can influence lives of other people, how you would describe this.
AMANDA SMITH: Well, for example, publishing a story that provoked Hitler to declare war on the United States I think gives an indication of how powerful she was.
That Roosevelt wrote to Churchill and naming names said, “I’m so sick of these Patterson people, Cissy and her brother and her cousin, they're nuts, in my opinion. But they're a burr under my saddle,” basically. Their influence and their hostility to Roosevelt and their commitment to isolationism, and their take on things gave them a real say in the war. Again, I think the analogy to Rupert Murdoch is a very good one, because he has a lot of power in terms of influencing American politics and American public opinion.
Their hold over the United States, at the time, was not unlike his today.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
AMANDA SMITH: Thank you.
QUESTION: I have two questions. How did her aunt treat her, with her aunt and her mother being such rivals? Was she kind to her niece when she traveled with her? And my second question is she sounds like a hard person to like. After spending so much time with her, what are your feelings about her as a person?
AMANDA SMITH: I’ll answer the second part first. She was more interesting than she was likable, but she was also very witty. So much of what she left behind was actually very amusing to read. Yes, she had great charm when she wanted to, and so there are things that are likable about her. I think, also, she was really likable when she was a young woman. A lot of people said that she went to Russia and her husband treated her badly, but that she adopted a lot of his characteristics. She drank very heavily after she came back from Russia. She became much more caustic and mean-spirited, much more erratic after that. So over the course of her life, she became a lot less likable. But also, she was perpetually interesting and often very amusing. I’m sorry, what was the first question?
QUESTION: How did she …
AMANDA SMITH: Oh, with her aunt. Well, her aunt -- I don’t think it’s unrelated -- her aunt lost a baby girl in infancy and had always wanted a little girl but ended up with two boys, one of whom she adored, and the other one, Colonel McCormick, who she sort of neglected, a lot of people said. I think, on the one hand, she thought of Cissy as a daughter. But she also couldn’t resist using Cissy in a way almost like a Trojan Horse against her sister. Cissy’s mother always presumed that her sister had set up this attraction, or she had allowed an attraction to grow between Cissy and the count, to make Cissy’s life difficult and the Pattersons’ life difficult. So, yes, it was always very charged.
QUESTION: Hi, I have two questions also. What became of the count after he returned Felicia? And, also, did she have any sort of relationship with her father down the road because I know she was kind of estranged from her mother?
AMANDA SMITH: Yes, that’s a really sad story, Felicia’s story is. Felicia never met her father. She married Drew Pearson when she was very young and was not quite tricked into marrying him, but it was a strange arrangement. And one of the things Drew Pearson tried to encourage her to do -- and she said later that she regretted not doing -- was contacting her father when she became pregnant with their child in the late 1920s.
Her father knew that she had gotten married and that she had had a baby, because they sent him a telegram. Apparently, his reaction was to just go -- like that. Then he died shortly afterwards. But even then, apparently, Cissy wasn’t quite done with him, or he wasn’t done with her, I guess I should say, because she woke up in the middle of the night when she was married to Elmer Schlesinger -- Cissy, this is, not Felicia -- and saw the count standing at the foot of her bed in his pink fox hunting coat. Then he vanished. The next morning, she got the New York Times saying that the count had died the day before and that he had asked to be buried in his riding clothes.
What was the first question?
QUESTION: What became of the count?
AMANDA SMITH: Oh, and the count. Well he was in debt, literally, up to his eyeballs. I think the modern equivalent, depending on how you calculate it, was something like $800 million dollars at one point. He had all manner of schemes to turn his estates into a noted stud farm. He bought a pack of English fox hounds to create a fox hunt in the English style out in the Ukraine. He was always doing stuff like that and expecting Cissy to pay for it and gambling a lot and stuff.
When he lost contact with Cissy, he really didn’t have much more money. He sold off his estates and managed to get some sort of annuity, I think, from his Cavalry service. Apparently, he signed up in the Reserves in World War I, although he would have been maybe in his 50s by then, and didn’t see active service. Then, he died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1926. Apparently, he had been very handsome when he was young. One lover of his described him as looking like an aristocratic Omar Sharif. By the time he died, apparently, because of declining liver function, his face was bloated and he was very much embittered. But that’s what happened to him and then that was that.
FRED THYS: So perhaps I’ll offer the last question, but remind people that the book is on sale in our bookstore. But I thought, Amanda, maybe you could close by just … You said partly what drew you to her was this strain of isolationism in American history. Maybe just comment more broadly about isolationism, or you were talking about it a little bit with us beforehand. But just share your thoughts about that period in American history and that particular group.
AMANDA SMITH: Okay. Well, I was born after the Second World War, and I grew up understanding that the United States was an interventionist nation that attempted or attempts to bring democracy, American style democracy, to the rest of the world. But I remember being really surprised in high school, learning that before the First World War the United States, the cornerstone of our foreign policy had been non-intervention. And that it made sense.
I mean, if you think of, say, Jefferson and Washington’s farewell addresses where they warn against entangling foreign alliances, and the United States was set up in a very selfconscious way to be separate and apart from the European squabbles that had troubled Europe and caused wars for centuries. As I was saying before when we were talking about aristocracy and Americans marrying Europeans, the controversy that it created at the turn of the last century, it was we were set up to be a democracy and not to engage in European practices or to have a court, or to participate in European wars.
The inter-war isolationists are a really interesting bunch to me, partly because they're very colorful, if you think of, say, Joe Kennedy, or Colonel Lindbergh, or Colonel McCormick, Cissy Patterson. And they’ve been very much discredited, in part, because many of them were anti-Semites. They were unpleasant people, in many ways. It was very fortuitous … Roosevelt was very much assisted by the fact that, in trying to get the United States to get behind the war effort and to get into the war or to get them involved in the war to preserve western democracy, basically, the opposite or the opposing force was isolationism in the United States, which took on the face of Colonel Lindbergh, let’s say, who flirted with Nazism, or Colonel McCormick, who was this sort of unattractive autocrat.
Anyway, these people basically ended up discrediting the very thing that they espoused, which was, in its own right, a well-established underpinning of American foreign policy.
So that transition from being an anti-interventionist nation, literally overnight at Pearl Harbor, to becoming an interventionist nation, is a really interesting one to me. The isolationists, themselves, were, many of them, bigger than life. I mean, William Randolph Hearst was another one. Of all of them, I think Cissy Patterson was, in many ways, the most colorful and the most outlandish. That’s another reason that I thought she was an interesting person to write about.
Any other questions? Well, thank you. Oh, there's one.
QUESTION: I was just curious, where did you get your resources?
AMANDA SMITH: Well, luckily, I think Cissy’s papers, apparently, were burned by her daughter -- or many of them were burned. So that gives you a sense of the hostility that existed between them by the time Cissy died. But luckily, the daughter, Felicia, kept a memoir or wrote a memoir late in her life about Cissy. Those were really important papers. Also, one thing that I had read a lot about Felicia’s kidnapping when she was a little girl. Based on the American press accounts, I couldn’t figure out what had happened. She was gone for 18 months, which is a significant amount of time. But it wasn’t really clear to me, although the newspaper accounts were mutually contradictory, and I couldn’t figure out what had happened.
There was mention at one point of something called the “Russian Imperial Chancellery for Receipt of Petitions.” I didn’t know what that was. I thought that somehow there was a Baron Budburg who had become involved and who interested himself in Felicia’s case and in getting the child back. So I just started looking into, just grasping at straws, like who was this Budburg and what was the Chancellery for Receipt of Petitions. It turns out the Chancellery was this kind of super legal, late imperial, Russian body that dealt with domestic affairs. According to the Russian Orthodox Church, you couldn’t divorce at that point. But the Czar had what was described at the time as the “supreme will” to make individual exceptions, where he would allow couples who were … You know, if the woman was in danger, or the children were in danger, there was some aberration like the child was kidnapped or something like that, the Czar would intervene through this body, the Chancellery, which was administrated by this guy Budberg.
Then, it all started to make sense. I realized, oh, Budberg wasn’t just some guy who became interested. He was administrating somehow. And it turns out that in the last decade or so, there's been a resurgence of interest in late Imperial Russian legal matters and there's a specialist on matters concerning this very Chancellery Receipt of Petitions, who is a professor at Boulder. So I got in touch with her and said, “I see in your work that you quote from these cases where people -- the Czar or the Chancellery -- ruled on different marital problems that people had. Is it possible that there is a file for the Gizyckis?” And she wrote back and said, “Oh yes, that’s quite possible. In fact, I have a list of cases for families whose names began with G that were weeded out and thrown away. Your couple, the Gizyckis, isn't on it, so that bodes well. It’s quite possible that there's still a file. But the archive is closed and won't be open again for another five or ten years or something.”
I was crestfallen at that but in the meantime, I thought, well, I don’t speak Russian. I have two small kids, and I can't just go off to St. Petersburg and go looking around for some old papers. So I thought maybe there's a university student there who I could hire to get these things for me. It turns out there's a whole company that does genealogical research in this very archive. And I think it was basically a palm-greasing fee of $50 dollars, and although the archive was closed, they would get the file for you. This company was terrific. It got me the file. It translated the Russian parts. I got the German -- I did the French translations myself. But the rest of it, the whole thing arrived and it explained exactly what had happened with Felicia and where she had been, and what Gizycki had done. Otherwise, I never would have known.
What was amazing to me was that in Washington, where I live and where a lot of the research was, much of the civil record about Cissy has been -- I don’t even know – stolen; it’s missing, it’s just not where it should be. And that’s in the capital of the free world. And lo and behold, in St. Petersburg, these documents had made it through Revolution, two World Wars, communism. I was just amazed that it hadn’t been burned for fuel at some point. But there it was and nobody had looked at it since 1909. So those were some of the really …I mean, there was a lot of documentation. I love doing that kind of research. It’s like a treasure hunt in a lot of ways, so it was really fun to do.
Well, thank you all very much for coming. [applause]
FRED THYS: It’s a great book.
AMANDA SMITH: Thank you.
FRED THYS: Amanda Smith, Cissy Patterson really just reads like a page-turner.
AMANDA SMITH: Thank you so much.
FRED THYS: No, thank you very much.