Joseph Pulitzer Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Combining a strong social conscience with a superb grasp of journalistic techniques, Pulitzer created with his New York World the prototype of the modern newspaper.

Early Life

Joseph Pulitzer was born April 10, 1847, in Mako, Hungary. His mother, née Louise Berger, was Austro-German and Catholic; his father, Philip Pulitzer, was Magyar-Jewish, a grain dealer affluent enough to retire by 1853, whereupon the family moved to Budapest. Pulitzer and his younger brother and sister (another brother died early) were educated by private tutors; he became fluent in German and French as well as his native Hungarian.

By the age of seventeen, Pulitzer was ready to make his own way. Brilliant, independent, and intensely ambitious, he first sought fame in the military. Having been rejected for enlistment by several European armies—his eyesight was very poor—he was approached by Union army recruiting agents, who were considerably less selective. Thus it was that Pulitzer came to the United States and, in September, 1864, enlisted in the Lincoln Cavalry. His military career was short, undistinguished, and unhappy; discharged in July, 1865, with very little money and no immediate prospects, he settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where there was a large German community.

Photographs of the beardless, bespectacled young Pulitzer show a profile seemingly tailor-made for the caricaturist: a prominent, beaky nose and an up-pointed, witchlike chin. At six feet two and a half inches, he was a tall man for his time, slender and ungainly. When he arrived in St. Louis, he spoke only the most rudimentary English. Nevertheless, his exceptional abilities and his capacity for hard work were soon noticed, and, after a series of subsistence jobs, he was hired as a reporter for the Westliche Post, an influential German-language paper with a strong reform bent. This association provided Pulitzer’s entrée into politics, and he was elected to the Missouri state legislature in 1869. His financial acumen soon became evident as well, and by his mid-twenties he was able to enjoy a long vacation in Europe.

By the time of his marriage, in June, 1878 (his bride, the beautiful Kate Davis, was a distant cousin of the former president of the Confederacy), Pulitzer had achieved the kind of success that most immigrants could only dream of, but the direction which his life would take was not yet clear. Maintaining a desultory law practice, he continued to take an active interest in politics, but, impatient, imperious, he was ill suited to the demands of office. Later in 1878, however, he made what proved to be a decisive choice of vocation.

Life’s Work

It was in December of 1878 that Pulitzer, acting through an intermediary, purchased at auction in St. Louis the bankrupt Evening Dispatch. The paper’s sixteen-year history had been marked by failure, but it did possess a Western Associated Press franchise—a consideration which prompted the publisher of a recently established rival paper, the Post, to propose a merger exactly as Pulitzer had planned. For the first issue of the Post and Dispatch (soon to become simply the Post-Dispatch), Pulitzer wrote an editorial that ringingly asserted the paper’s independence from special interests and its dedication to reform:

The POST and DISPATCH will serve no party but the people; will be no organ of “Republicanisn,” but the organ of truth; will follow no caucases [sic] but its own convictions; will not support the “Administration,” but criticise it; will oppose all frauds and shams wherever and whatever they are; will advocate principles and ideas rather than prejudices and partisanship.

Although Pulitzer’s great achievements are associated with New York, he laid the foundation for those achievements in St. Louis in the years from 1878 to 1883 with the Post-Dispatch. As publisher and editor, he was involved in every phase of the paper’s operation. He was an editor of genius, as his memos to his staff attest: Even today, his notes could serve as a course in newspaper journalism. Always a shrewd judge of talent, he hired the gifted editor of the Baltimore Gazette, John A. Cockerill, to serve as managing editor of the Post-Dispatch; Cockerill later followed him to New York. Indeed, Pulitzer’s ability to find good employees and treat them well played an...

(The entire section is 1838 words.)