Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power by James McGrath Morris

The name “Joseph Pulitzer” is familiar because of the journalism awards given annually in his name. James McGrath Morris fleshes out the man, whose own contributions to journalism might never have won one of his prizes. He started out as a penniless Hungarian immigrant, traveling to America as a mercenary soldier during the Civil War, and became one of the richest men in America – able to float a 300’ yacht with a crew in the dozens, a retinue of attendants to meet his personal needs and enough fuel to keep him on the high seas for weeks.

He spent much of his life having only one living relative from his birth family, a younger brother he pretty much ignored – plus a wife he took great pains to avoid (except to harangue her about money); and a passel of children (so we know he didn’t ignore his wife entirely) whom he alternately neglected and bullied.

And Pulitzer certainly wasn’t any more benevolent to the people who worked for him. He could, even by long distance, keep them under his thumb – he was one of the first great micromanagers – and terrify grown men with his capricious nastiness. His feuds with fellow media baron William Randolph Hearst (which brought the term “yellow journalism” to us) and President Theodore Roosevelt are the stuff of legends.

So, Joseph Pulitzer wasn’t a man we’d invite over for an evening of dinner and pinochle. Nevertheless, James McGrath Morris does a wonderful job of ferreting out details that make his subject come alive for readers. I’ve read a lot of biographies of media types, and Pulitzer is right up there with the best of them. How Pulitzer parlayed his small pile of money into ownership of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (which turned out a tidy profit every year and benefited by being left alone by the boss) and the New York World and Evening World is fascinating stuff.

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