This well-written biography demythologizes one of the most enigmatic media czars in twentieth century American history, a proudly insular Chicagoan whose provincial chauvinism personified a “Second City” mentality. Publisher’s ink was in the family bloodline; so, too, a history of mental illness and alcoholism, as well as combativeness and business acumen. Three of patriarch Joseph Medill’s grandchildren simultaneously ran big-city papers: While McCormick was stamping the Tribune with his blend of civic boosterism and Republican partisanship, cousins Joseph Medill Patterson and Eleanor Medill “Cissy” Patterson, the former a parlor socialist, the latter a red-baiting “viper,” were at the helm, respectively, of the New York Daily News and the Washington Times-Herald.
Given Richard Norton Smith’s publishing record (flattering books about Herbert Hoover and Thomas E. Dewey) and his association with Bob and Elizabeth Dole (to whom the book is dedicated), one might have expected a laudatory portrait of this larger-than-life “hard-shell” conservative, who vociferously opposed “virtually every expansion of federal authority since the Civil War.” Instead, Smith finds McCormick to have been an irascible elitist whose bombast masked an almost morbid self-doubt caused in large measure, the author speculates, by an emasculating mother who, having recently lost a daughter to illness, wanted her second son to be a girl. In his private life, the Colonel eschewed emotional intimacy while seeking sexual favors from prostitutes, mistresses, and, with pathological regularity, friends’ spouses. Writes Smith: “Something about McCormick required the ego gratification that came from stealing another man’s wife.” Cursed with a sadistic sense of humor, he once gave staff members bottles of sour champagne ruined by improper handling. Another time, he served ham on Friday to a Catholic cardinal and a Jewish rabbi. “Kike” and “nigger” were staple parts of his vocabulary. A concealed door prevented visitors to his palatial office from making a dignified exit.
McCormick’s father was no role model. An ineffectual career diplomat stationed in London midway through his undistinguished career, he sent Bertie, as the Colonel was nicknamed in his youth, to a snobbish private school that left him with a lifelong hatred of virtually all things British. Five years spent at Groton, beginning in 1894 at the age of fourteen, were little better. Seemingly the only Midwesterner in his class and rapidly approaching his adult height of six feet, four inches, he was too gangly to excel in athletics and, unlike classmate Franklin D. Roosevelt, hated the preparatory academy’s rigid conformity, spartan discipline, and Anglophilia. Yale was better, with improved grades, election as president of the University Club, and extensive travel on summer vacations, during which time he developed a liking for exploration and hunting, horsemanship, and polo.
Emerging from college an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt’s brand of “silk stocking” reform, McCormick espoused the cause of good government in a brief public career that commenced with his election in 1906 as a Chicago alderman. Overcoming his reticence with vigorous canvassing, especially in saloons, he was next elected president of the Sanitary District, which was responsible for looking after the city’s drinking water. He brought efficiency and professionalism to the former political fiefdom but nevertheless was swept out of office in the Democratic landslide in 1910. That soured him on elective politics.
The following March, after his Uncle Robert Patterson committed suicide, he and cousin Joe Patterson made an “ironclad” pact to manage the family-controlled newspaper. Joe would run the news side as chairman of the Tribune Company, and Robert would oversee the business end as president and chief executive officer. Each month, they rotated control of the editorial page.
McCormick excelled in the fiercely competitive world of journalism in the early twentieth century. To get a leg up on his rivals, for instance, he involved the Tribune in extensive Canadian paper mill ventures (perhaps his most impressive entrepreneurial accomplishment). New subscribers were offered everything from Bibles to sanitary napkins. The Tribune featured the best comic strips and Sunday supplements and pioneered advertising campaigns based on market research, as well as innovating in color print, wireless news transmission, and different metropolitan editions. One of the most eye-opening chapters of the book contains Smith’s depiction of a circulation war with William Randolph Hearst, who owned two Chicago papers, the Examiner and the American. (The main character in filmmaker Orson Welles’s classic 1941 film Citizen Kane is a composite of McCormick, Hearst, and utilities magnate Samuel Insull.) More than two dozen people allegedly died before the dust settled, and the battle also included truck hijackings, extortion threats, kidnappings, and corporate talent raids.
(The entire section is 2089 words.)