This is the Life by Walt McDougall Chapter 10 Part 1

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Ten (Part 1) – THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS

In 1882 Albert Pulitzer, a man of much coarser caliber than Joseph, had established the Morning Journal, in the Tribune Building. The brothers, it seemed, had been at odds for many years. Albert, though producing a paper that was a joke, had secured considerable circulation among the lower classes, and was very resentful of Joseph’s invasion of the New York field. He made a terrible fuss, for one thing, over J. P.’s startling innovation of selling “reading notices,” as advertising, for which purpose a firm, Wilson and Cohen, were established. He claimed that Joseph would never have dared to venture into New York City had he not blazed the way, but Albert was a congenital tightwad and a timid soul and had no idea of his brother’s daring.
He managed after a time to seduce George Folsom into deserting us to manage his ridiculous art department, and about twice a month he would send George over to me to say that he “would give me as much per week as Joe did if I would come over to him!” The offer seemed so ludicrous that I never mentioned it to J. P. I was aware that the name of his brother exasperated him, and a comparison of the World with the Journal infuriated him. His standard, queerly enough, was the Herald. Yet upon this servant-girl’s sheet did Hearst build his structure.
There were then, I think, only five evening papers in town, the Post, the News, the Telegraph, the Mail and Express and the Commercial Advertiser, but after the Evening Sun started in 1887 under Amos Cummings, its success emboldened J. P. to try the experiment, and that is how S. S. Carvalho, the most energetic, resourceful and original of all of J. P.’s finds, came on the staff. He was a small man with muscles of iron gained by driving a fast horse every evening. He had some knowledge of painting, hence he was especially valuable when we came to experimenting with the colored supplement, but that was later.
As city editor of the Evening World, he soon showed himself capable of holding his own in the peculiar scramble for distinction and power that was just beginning to be discernible in the daily motion of the World. He rose to the very top of the ladder and then took the sudden dive that every man had to who endeavored to match his will with Pulitzer’s.
All the evening force were young fellows, but had been long enough on morning papers to lose all liking for early rising, hence few of them could get to bed early enough to meet J. P.’s requirements. I recall dropping in one morning about seven o’clock to catch Tracy Greaves, Freddie Duneka and N. A. Jennings asleep in their chairs with S. S. C. doing all the work and making a sketch of the three sleepers, which I threatened to send to the boss.
In 1888 I attended my first National Convention, at Chicago. Beyond the fact that Harrison and Morton were nominated, its proceedings are dimmed in a golden haze in which appear more or less dimly the forms of Eugene Field, Finley Peter Dunne, Altgeld, George Ade, Charles Lederer, Melville Stone, Bathhouse John, Charles Seymour, Art Young, Tom Powers and others, all vital, uproarious and vehement, and, in the background, the rowdy Whitechapel Club located several flights up creaky stairs above an obscure and noisome alley. What I had seen of the New York Bohemians was swiftly half-toned by the hospitable and entirely unrestricted Apaches of the pen and brush of Chicago. They seem to have been possessed by a wild and boyish yearning for the perverse and diabolic that found expression in such displays as the public cremation of a corpse on the lake front in the moonlight and similar barbaric excesses. A boy named John McCutcheon just about this time began to send me pen-and-ink drawings which led me into a habit of criticizing his work quite like a correspondence-school shark, drawings that even then showed marks of genius. All through this group of wild men was discernible the leaven of genius, aimless as yet and ebullient, just stepping out to supply the mixture of wisdom and nonsense which the new century would demand—and then abandon for puerile vapidity and jazz.
Just when I met Eugene Field I am uncertain, but I think it was this year. Nye, who knew him well, had often described his peculiarities, so that I felt familiar with him, and while visiting Charley Stone, my old roommate, in his office in, I think, the Herald, I learned that Field was in an adjoining room. When I entered, to find him reclining on the back of his neck with his feet upon a table, I seemed to see a resemblance to Nye in the lank, carelessly attired figure.
He looked up dreamily as I waded through a mass of papers, and a glint came into his eyes, caused, I knew, by my dude clothes, for Chicago was then far too dirty for anybody to be decent for three days. I made him a stiff bow and asked:
“Are you ‘Gene Fields, the feller that writes poems?”
His eyes glittered as he corkscrewed himself upright and, pointing to a chair, said: “I am the man. Take a seat.”
Now I had heard the story of that famous chair, seatless and carefully covered with newspapers, into which he would enveigle the unwary caller and wedge him disastrously, and I remained standing as I explained that I was a manufacturer of shoe polish, wanting eight or ten lines of good poetry to put on a label.
“Sit down, sir,” he coaxed, seductively smiling. “You’ve come to the right shop. How soon do you want the verses?” All the while waving me toward his trap.
I explained that I was not buying any poetry without seeing it, as I had already tried out two poets, Ella Wheeler Wilcox and James Whitcomb Riley, who both fell down on the job.
“Please be seated!” he wheedled, all aquiver with his eagerness.
“Say, don’t you suppose I’ve heard about that piece of comedy furniture?” I suddenly demanded. “Every hamfat actor in the country has fallen for it! What do you take me for?”
He looked me over, his expression altering, and asked: “Who are you anyway?”
When I revealed my identity, he seemed amazed and said: “Why, I understood that you were an old man with gray whiskers!” He had no realization of his own values. To his dying day he did not know that what he deemed mere trifles, idle fancies, would brighten his fame year by year, and as for making or managing money, he was far less able than I, for I often had eight or ten dollars of my salary left at the end of a week. His humor was always kindly, although some of his practical jokes seemed cruel to the victim, and one was never safe from his pranks. Of enemies he had none. His appetites were normal, his mind as clean as a dog’s tooth.
He had certain comical hobbies, the funniest of which was a custom of collecting nightgowns. From every home he visited he purloined one of these now antique garments, gloating especially over such as were marked with the owner’s initials. When he came East, nighties were already obsolete among the best dressers, but a timely hint from Nye enabled me to be prepared. We procured an ordinary muslin robe, embroidered it with a gorgeous monogram like the coat of arms of a Prussian prince, and hung it in my bedroom closet. It was pretty garish, really too ornate, and I feared he would suspect a trick, but when he departed the nightgown had vanished.
Field, like Nye, often deplored the fact that the best things were unprintable at present. I would give much to embody in this volume an imitation of one of Horace’s odes done in spurious Latin one damp evening in old Germania Hall. I had for twenty years the only copy of this remarkable production. Nye and I went West with him after this visit, commissioned by Pulitzer to seduce him from his Chicago allegiance. I think J. P. had broached the subject to him but Field had shied. He had an absurd prejudice against New York, as many Westerners still have to this day. I remember Nye’s niece, a clever and learned woman, declaring with a shudder that she feared New York more than any other place on earth!
I think it was about this period that P. F. Collier ventured upon a journalistic experiment that was novel but which, considering the psychological effect of the cartoon as an influence upon opinion, might have been expected to have nugatory results. This was the publishing of a Republican and a Democratic cartoon on opposite pages of Collier’s Weekly. There always seemed something neutralizing in this effort, as if a catalyzer had entered into the mixture that reduced both cartoons to impotency, and if this impressed me thus, what effect must they have had upon earnest political partisans? I imagined it must seem a sort of sacrilege to the voter to see both parties ridiculed and by the same cartoonist, a two-fold shock. Nugent Robinson, the editor, one of the handsomest, ablest and most affable of cultivated Irishmen, sensed this psychological effect at the outset, but Collier, who would brook no opposition, ordered us to proceed.
The experiment lasted for several months and cost some thousands; Collier’s, I think, never received anything but criticism and abuse from its readers of either party, and I was glad when the ordeal ended. A cartoonist often has good ideas that are available for either side, but this experiment proved that they cannot be successfully hatched in the same incubator.
Collier was a small, pudgy, rosy-faced man who was fuller of energy and conceit than a hydrogen atom and badly bitten by the social bug. He was for a while addicted to fox-hunting, and in a scarlet coat became a well-known figure in the hayfields around Goshen, N.Y. He presented me with a splendid bay hunter which was all that was desirable except for one little failing. This was an inability to refrain from running away whenever a dog barked! When he ran he shut his eyes, gathered up the bit, and a few yards of reins, in his mouth, and only stopped when back in the stable. I was never certain that Collier was aware of the animal’s failing, but the fact that he never showed any desire to know how I had killed the horse makes me think he had an inkling that the beast was not adapted to fox-hunting. Of course, in a dogless land or where the hounds were dumb, he would have served his purpose, but a houndless fox hunt would be an anachronism, hence I was never able to learn even the rudiments of the game, as I was never long enough in the neighborhood of the hounds to even secure my score card.

Several times, when I have been airplaning with young and frolicsome aviators, I have thought of that horse and his unrestrained actions. Had I sent him to the Isle of Dogs he might have been cured, but I sold him to a Newark man whose leg he broke in a week.

The dogma once promulgated by Pulitzer, in a moment of superenthusiasm, that the rest hours of his employees belonged to him and should be devoted to recuperating for his service was, of course, never taken seriously, but like a growing dependence upon wall slogans placarded everywhere, it indicated a change that was coming over his disposition. As his sight became poorer he grew more impatient, and as he was obliged to depend more upon others he became more suspicious. Step by step with the assurance of unbounded wealth and success came the apprehension of blindness and dependence on others. To a man of his peculiar disposition and antecedents, this was calculated to render him irascible and peremptory, and as far as self-expression went, he had never been a patient man.
Periods of depression and exasperation alternated. He came to the office against his doctor’s orders and, when there, aggravated his affliction by the effort to attend to details. Only death could repress his incredible energy and insatiable curiosity. “Why?” was his inevitable query; I heard it on the day when I first met him, and it was almost the last word I heard him utter.
The usual contentions that arise when two such men as Pulitzer and Cockerill are associated, are subordinated when success is in abeyance; in this case success overwhelmed them before they were able to analyze its constituents. Ten years later neither of them would have wrangled over the trifles that divided them. I was fairly conversant with their dissensions, yet no one thing was important enough to remain in my memory except the matter of financial relations, and that is indefinite.
What I retain is the sense that Cockerill felt that he was as potent a factor in the World‘s success as was J. P., which probably was true enough. That he had entertained all along a conviction that he would ultimately share proportionately in a moderate success, was known to his friends. But a colossal success is never big enough to be shared. Pulitzer had apportioned a number of shares in the paper to Cockerill at the outset, but on condition that he was not to sell them without giving him the buying option at a certain price. Of course, when the value of these became apparent with the World‘s amazing progress, Cockerill realized that he had been securely hog-tied by a very common business device and being profanely outspoken, certain debates over the matter were vigorous and ebullient.
It is certain that Cockerill could have made a better bargain in the first place had he been a business man or even ordinarily shrewd, for it is improbable that J. P. would have undertaken the enterprise without him. But John was engrossed in the project itself, eager, for several reasons, to get away from St. Louis, and beside, he had nothing like Pulitzer’s faith. Thus he made a bad bargain.
When they parted, it seemed that the bottom had fallen out of the World, nor did J. P. ever find another editor who was worthwhile until Frank Cobbarrived. Tall, handsome, fiery, dark with expressive eyes, Cockerill was a romantic figure upon whom the wear and tear of newspaper management had not made an abrasion, the typical Southwesterner, just the sort to be selected as Exalted Ruler of an Elk’s Lodge. He was always debonair, even to audacity, drank freely, but I never saw him affected by liquor. He was intolerant of stupidity or conceit, but very helpful to his friends.
Cockerill’s charm was marred by one defect that hampered his convivial intercourse with men of his own mental endowments. This was an unfortunate proclivity to be caustically witty at the expense of one who had just left the festive board. I have heard this trait commented upon by his boon companions, its memory persisting as though the fault were his main characteristic, whereas it was his only blemish and was unknown to those whom he encountered in business hours. The joyous cohesiveness of liberal drinkers is not materially improved by free or even pointed criticism; this has been demonstrated by the long and successful careers of many famous drinking clubs for ages, for few there be who do not quiver at the thought of poisoned arrows winging behind his back. Many a man’s departure was delayed by the thought that he would be the next victim, and it also prevented the return on the morrow of sensitive wassailers. Hence one found the witty Colonel often surrounded by men far beneath him in mentality.
Pulitzer and Cockerill parted over differences which, I think, a few years later would have been adjusted, had John lived. The two would have come together from necessity. J. P.’s burden growing heavier every month, and vastly increased by approaching blindness, diabetes, insomnia and other complications due to overwork and anxiety, was now increased by the difficulty of finding a successor to Cockerill. Half his time was spent in devising traps and tests to ascertain the fitness of the men selected as his private secretaries, it seems.

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