In 1930, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst hired socialite Eleanor Medill “Cissy” Patterson to run his Washington Herald. The first female editor-in-chief of a major metropolitan paper, Patterson, for all her opulence, was at heart a news hound. Her grandfather published the Chicago Tribune, her brother the New York Daily News. “When your grandmother gets raped,” the Medills liked to say, “put it on the front page.”
In a Washington still taking its seat on the world stage, Patterson employed that hard-nosed if tongue-in-cheek mantra to remarkable effect, restyling the Herald into a mix of fierce editorials (Patterson was a staunch isolationist in the run-up to World War II), gossip, and quirky columns, many penned by Patterson and her friends.
In print, the firebrand lambasted President Franklin Roosevelt, sympathized with Al Capone, and wrote about spotting Albert Einstein sunbathing naked in Palm Springs. Ignoring advice, she targeted a female audience and made Washington society seem that most unthinkable of things—sexy.
By 1940, a year after she bought the Herald from Hearst and merged it with the Washington Times to create the Times-Herald, the paper had more readers than any other publication in town. But the main draw, as Amanda Smith makes plain in Newspaper Titan, was Patterson herself, whose wild life and personal trials—she married a Polish count who later kidnapped their daughter before divorce proceedings—provided a perpetual publicity blitz.
Smith’s last book, a compilation of letters by her grandfather Joseph P. Kennedy, showcased a gift for interpretation, if only in the margins. In Newspaper Titan, she’s picked a gold mine of a character on which to expand her range. The writing has about it the thrill of discovery.
“From Cissy Patterson’s infancy,” Smith writes, “and in her every role—debutante, champion equestrian, heiress, marriageable ingénue, countess, spurned wife, wronged mother, actress, gay divorcée, femme fatale, sophisticate, dude rancher, big-game hunter, novelist, reporter (occasionally undercover and in disguise), editor, publisher, animal rights activist, political gadfly, isolationist, alcoholic, embittered crone—she made news in every sense, both in the headlines and from behind her desk in the Washington Times-Herald’s publisher’s office, both in life and after death.”
This article appears in the September 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.