King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 12 Part 2


King News by Moses Koenigsberg

Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941

Chapter 12

On The Trail of the “Silver Fox” (part 2)

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Assumption of an odd mission delayed compliance with my summons to New York. Hearst was trying to organize an automobile race around the world. It gave promise of great novelty. A first prize of $25,000 was hung up. The initiatory work had been assigned to Duncan Curry, yachting editor of the New York American. A $2,000 cash bond was required from each participant. Curry reported inability to sign any entrants. A sensitive soul, he was unfitted for any kind of solicitation. Indifference to a request from him was a rebuff. How it came about I never learned, but Curry and his problem were intrusted to me.

We retraced the circuit he had made over half a dozen states, calling on the presidents of practically all the automobile companies in America. That was in November and December, 1907. Many amusing incidents cropped up. None was more ludicrous than a brush with Henry Ford at his office in Detroit. With his general manager, James Couzens—afterward United States senator— he had indicated his intention to enter a Ford car in the race. It was agreed to execute the contracts the next morning. At the appointed hour, Couzens apologized for Ford’s absence. A severe cold would keep him away. A note in Couzens’ voice set me on guard. My eyes searched the room. Through the frosted glass panes of the partition directly in front of me, the figure of a man showed with a familiar droop of shoulder. Yanking open the door, I confronted Henry Ford. The expression on his face was unforgettable. It was the quintessence of a naughty boy’s guilt.

It flashed on me that there was more to gain than lose in an exploitation of this faux pas. So my risibilities were checked by an anger that was not wholly impulsive.

“What kind of nonsense is this?” I demanded. “Why did you offer to sign up and then try to run out in this silly way? If you want to renege, why not say so like a businessman? But don’t try to insult me with such a trick!”

Maybe a bit of profanity slipped in around the edges of this harangue. Neither Ford nor Couzens spoke. Ford reached for a pen. While he was signing the contract, Couzens was making out the forfeit check.

 Different treatment awaited me at the plant of the Buick Motor Car Company in Flint, where an interesting friendship with W. C. Durant began. The next year he organized the General Motors Company and became for a period the king-pin of automotive enterprise. At twenty-five, Durant had founded the Durant-Dort Carriage Company. It reached a capacity of 150,000 vehicles annually. He developed the belt system of automatic manufacture. It was he, not Ford, who first applied it to automobile production. Durant radiated energy. A third of a century after my meeting with him, comparing the salient personalities with whom from time to time I had traveled the strenuous way, only two could be recalled with a vigor approximating Durant’s —Theodore Roosevelt and Mussolini. There the comparison ended, unless further analogy may be found between an antelope and a couple of grizzly bears.

William C. Durant

Durant told me of his plan to turn out five hundred Buicks daily. In an eight-hour day, that would mean more than one machine every sixty seconds. There was a story with a headline in the first sentence—“An Auto a Minute.” When Durant learned that it would appear in newspapers throughout the country the next day, he waxed enthusiastic. “As soon as we have won that $25,000 purse,” he chortled, “you’ll quit Hearst and be my promotion manager.” It would have been quixotic to resent the implication. But there was no prize to throw to Durant even if he had really meant that I would or could.

Eighteen manufacturers perfected entries for the race around the globe. That would have furnished an exciting competition. But all the makers of the then expensive cars—the Pierce-Arrow, Packard, Peerless and Locomobile—held aloof. They kept out because they felt they were sure to lose. Depots for repairs and replacements of parts could be provided along the route in numbers and under conditions that would build up a prohibitive advantage for the cheaper and lighter automobiles over the heavier motors. The outcome would discredit the higher-priced machines. That might arrest the progress of the industry. It would certainly work an adverse effect on advertising. I turned in the eighteen contracts with a recommendation that the race be abandoned. My advice was adopted.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 The office of Solomon Solis Carvalho, in the Rhinelander Building at the corner of Duane and William Streets in New York, should have been preserved as a museum set. It was a capsule into which had been squeezed the essence of ten thousand newspaper crises. It was even smaller, darker and more uncomfortable than the “throne room” of the Chicago American. Unlike the Chicago den, it suited its occupant. Carvalho affected, if he did not prefer, the guise of the ascetic. His desk and chair were so arranged that the lights played on his visitors’ faces while his own visage remained in the shadows. It was my feeling that he overestimated the value of this strategy. It worked well with anxious callers. But it irked others into higher demands.

One would not have chosen Carvalho’s presence for the planning of a frivolous lark. His countenance recalled El Greco’s painting of Cardinal Don Fernando, not because of a resemblance in form or feature so much as a similitude of atmosphere. If Carvalho sat for a portrait, the artist might be tempted to entitle it “Reason, Triumphant.” What an anticlimax it was then to watch the general manager of the Hearst publications pull a pair of twelve-inch scissors from his desk drawer and slowly, but with evident satisfaction, clip several strands of his meager goatee.

An artificial leg impeded the celerity of Carvalho’s gait, but nothing impeded the celerity of his mental processes—or of his temper, except with his boss. No salary could have been adequate compensation for his services over the period in which he bore the executive burden of Hearst’s affairs. Carvalho quit his job twice. Each resignation marked the beginning of a sharp decline in Hearst’s fortunes. No one with equal ability and such sterling character was found to replace him. At eighty-four, still cheerful and disavowing disillusionment, Carvalho was an advisory member of the Hearst general staff.

An incident during one of Carvalho’s visits in Chicago had convinced me that under his cloak of austerity lay a rare sense of humor. A bulletin had been thrust into his hands by a flustrated messenger boy. It was an extremely important story. “This is worth an extra!” Carvalho exclaimed. “Let’s get it out quickly!” He called for the make-up editor, William (“Red” or “Wurra! Wurra!”) McLoughlin. There was no response. A flurry flew over the office. Half the staff started a search for the missing man in lockers, desk tops and other obviously impossible hiding places. Finally, Carvalho clomped to the composing room on the floor below, waving the sheet of copy like a diminutive battle flag. As he reached the foreman’s desk, McLoughlin entered through a door leading from the alley a dozen steps away.

“I’ve been trying to find you,” Carvalho greeted with some heat. “Where have you been, Mr. McLoughlin?”

“I’ve been across the alley, getting a drink, sir,” answered “Wurra! Wurra!” with tingling directness.

“Do you do that often during working hours, Mr. McLoughlin?”

“After every edition,” came the smiling response.

The general manager wasn’t stumped for an instant. “Then I’m afraid we’ll have to cut out some of the editions,” he observed.

McLoughlin had joined the staff of the New York World long before I reported to Carvalho in the Rhinelander Building. My reception was astonishingly pleasant. My assignment was even more unexpected. “Mr. Hearst is convinced that you carry around some heavy publishing timber,” Carvalho said. “He wants you to use it to build a success in his organization. First, however, it must be trimmed and dressed. You will be given a six months’ course of preparation. During that time you will have no duty except to ask questions. My assistant, Mr. W. R. Rowe, will be on hand to get for you all the practical business information available inside the walls of a going newspaper plant. Your desk will be alongside his in the next room. If you have any problems that Mr. Rowe and our heads of departments can’t solve, give me a trial.”

The generosity of this program squelched whatever disaffection had lingered from my Chicago shut-out. Not to be overlooked was the payment of all my living expenses in addition to my regular salary. Excessive liberality to Hearst attachés was not uncommon. Offsetting cases of picayunish mistreatment were sometimes the results of opportunist policies of economy. But between the prodigalities and the parsimonies was a marked absence of middle ground—a persistent characteristic of this unexampled institution of superlatives.

Word that a managing editor was being “put through school” in the business department set me out as something of a freak. Was this just a whimsy or was it a notion the chief might expand? The gossip stirred a keen curiosity. Even Samuel S. Chamberlain decided to look me over. That was flattering. There was none among journalism’s anointed to whom the profession made more reverential genuflection. And nobody else could bring an uncreased morning suit with an unwilted boutonniere through nearly so many libations. No employee or associate held Hearst’s favor more fully or more firmly. Hearst’s affection for him matured during Chamberlain’s leadership of the staff that made the San Francisco Examiner a newspaper prodigy. Later, Arthur Brisbane followed Chamberlain as Hearst’s intimate. But Artie never quite filled Sam’s shoes. The boss sifted and combed Brisbane’s fresh ideas. He grabbed Chamberlain’s.

No phase or phrase of journalism failed of enrichment through Chamberlain’s attention. We discussed the difficulty of estimating a newspaperman’s present capability without examining his current work. “In no other calling, except the stage,” I essayed, “does so much wealth of patter turn into such poverty of performance.”

“The contortions of the sibyl, without the inspiration,” Chamberlain replied in agreement. “Which recalls the most important fact that you should keep in mind about our revered chieftain. You’re not going to stick in the purser’s cabin. When you come back to the news deck, it would be well never to forget that W. R. Hearst cannot abide mediocrity. Beware his impatience with average or second-rate materials. It is cousin to a phobia. It can’t be stated more effectively than Hearst, himself, put it in a meeting with several of us some time after he bought the New York Journal. Charlie (Charles M.) Palmer was business manager. The losses had reached a point where Charlie’s nerves were on edge. He was constantly urging retrenchment. Finally Hearst assented. But he insisted that no editorial cuts be made without his specific approval.

“Hearst met Palmer and me with the city editor. We went over the news department payrolls. Charlie started to read off a list and to make notes after each name. We got to Oscar Barnes. ‘What does he do?’ Hearst asked.

“ ‘Why, he sits in this room,’ the city editor answered, as if aggrieved over Hearst’s failure to recognize the man. ‘Barnes has been with us ever since you bought the paper. I must say about Barnes that he’s always on the job. I’ve never known him to show up late or to complain about staying on in an emergency. And he never falls down on anything that he’s given to do.’ It was a perfect case.

“ ‘That’s like recommending a whore for being good to her mother,’ was Hearst’s comment.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

My six months’ curriculum was cut in half. Carvalho relayed to me Hearst’s direction to assume active duty at once as business manager of the Boston American. Meanwhile, raids by Hearst on Pulitzer’s stars had been followed by retaliatory depredations that led to the erection of legal barricades around a selective personnel in each establishment. “Master and man” agreements—as ironclad as leading attorneys of New York could draft them at that time—were executed with every employee whom the damnable opposition might try to tempt.

It required nearly a decade of court tests to stabilize the structure of these covenants. Then a standard form was adopted. “It makes bondmen of us,” commented T. E. Powers, the cartoonist, who had several times slipped back and forth between the Hearst and Pulitzer camps despite the most elaborate ties the lawyers had contrived. My first personal service contract was signed before my departure for Boston. There was no change in my weekly salary of $125.

Hearst decided to impart my final instructions himself. Later on, I learned the reason. Carvalho had originally opposed invasion of the Boston field. After the launching of the Boston American, Hearst acted as if he were afraid to leave its fate in Carvalho’s hands. Uncomfortable days came when I knew such a fear was warranted. Carvalho believed the organization would fare better without the Boston “headache.” My second serious conference with Hearst was held in a house he then occupied at Lexington Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street. He was in a favorite posture, considerably publicized in those days—seated on the floor in the midst of colored sheets spread all around him.

It was stimulating to note the ease with which Hearst brought his massive body erect to take my hand and the still greater ease with which he slid back on his haunches. It was laughable to watch him shuffle comic pages back and forth, with frequent chuckles over the pictured humor. We sat for nearly a half-hour, he changing position from time to time like a carefree lad on a picnic ground while I commenced to fidget, at a loss whether to start a conversation or get down on all fours beside him.

As the moments dragged, an overtone of unreality settled on the scene. It smothered a fear that I was witnessing something not intended for my eyes. That big husky, rolling on the carpet and fussing with “funnies,” with an abandon a nursery scamp might envy—was that actually my forty-four-year-old employer? Was that sprawling person really the noted journalist, recipient of more execration and wider applause than had been visited on any other publisher? There was nothing about that slack figure to suggest the epic tableaux through which I was yet to see him pass. It inspired no vision of the power that would remain unmatched by any other American contemporaneously in unofficial life. It offered no hint of the influence which, holding world currents of politics in suspense, was to be charged with halting the greatest experiment of all times in international relationships, the League of Nations. And there was no indication of what I was to learn months later—that instead of being relaxed in amusement, Hearst was really at work. He studied comics from’ the planes and angles of the juvenile enthusiast.

Instead of expounding directions, Hearst asked questions. They invited a review of my theories of managerial policy. They were answered with a few platitudinous observations, such as: “A reduction of expense is an extravagance, rather than an economy, if it entail impairment of service;” and “The best way to make savings is to make sales.” Hearst’s polite interest hid a special purpose. His real concern was to assure himself that I had not absorbed Carvalho’s pessimism about the Boston American. It is noteworthy that time confirmed Carvalho’s judgment. After thirty years of a bitter struggle, the Boston Evening American retired from the conventional (full-size) field and lapsed into the tabloid class with scarcely half the readers it once boasted. Despite the large circulation of his Sunday edition and the purchase of two more local dailies—the Advertiser and the Record—Hearst never caught the brass ring riding his Boston hobby horse.

Richard A. Farrelly, who had been my close friend in Chicago, was my predecessor as publisher of the Boston American. A duodenal ulcer forced him under the surgeon’s knife. He never returned to his post on the Boston American. I replaced him. That developed a course of events no more to my liking than it had been of my seeking.

Ninety days of intensive effort brought me to the watch tower from which thereafter Hearst’s publishing policy was always visible, clearly distinguished from the ways of most of his competitors. By measuring and weighing string and wrapping paper, by counting the finger movements of bundlers tying packages, by pacing the steps taken by type-setters from their machines to the copy-cutter’s desk and by various artifices involving the most infinitesimal items of operation, a curtailment of expenses was tabulated approximating $125,000 a year. That sum was equal to the Boston American’s losses. This would “take us out of the red.” It was a knock-out. Hearst, himself, must be informed. A report in duplicate went to him and Carvalho.

A telegram came from Hearst. “Fine!” it read. “Now please add a ‘Metropolitan’ and an ‘Outing’ section in colors.” The effect of all my economies was wiped out in a single order. Evidently Hearst only saved so that he could spend. Every dollar accruing from retrenchment was turned back into betterment of the newspaper. Such a program should command admiration and respect. Unfortunately, there was a counteracting vice. Hearst stretched his financial credit to the utmost limit.

None of his properties was permitted to accumulate large cash reserves. His individual exactions kept the money drawers well drained. That explained, in part, his acquisition of the sobriquet, “America’s biggest spender.” Fuller reasons for this appellation appear later in these chronicles. Such fluid surpluses as remained in Hearst’s profitable newspapers were milked to keep afloat less prosperous units. These operated on “shoe strings.” The evasion of bill-collectors required more of my time and frequently more ingenuity than any other single task in Boston.

One day, my precautions sagged long enough for the general manager of the Boston & Maine Railroad to reach me on the telephone. That was the second Wednesday in August, 1908. The Boston & Maine regularly transported fully 300,000 copies of the Sunday American, or more than half its circulation. Shipment of the major part of this baggage and fast freight, consisting of “bulldog” editions and sections printed and distributed to dealers in advance of release dates, began on Thursday forenoon of each week. A crisp voice notified me that unless $20,000 reached the railroad cashier from the American by nine o’clock the following morning, the Boston & Maine would refuse to handle another bundle of our papers. The notice was not astonishing. There was an arrearage of $70,000.

The insistence of other creditors was hastening a serious emergency. There were no facilities for a bank loan, no corporation officers to authorize one and no available credits. At last, in despair, I telephoned Carvalho. Quickly outlining the crisis, I urged that $50,000 be supplied overnight from the New York headquarters. The conversation lasted less than a minute. “I can do nothing for you,” Carvalho snapped, hanging up the receiver.

It is possible that Carvalho acted with keen judgment, a pious and constructive purpose and a clear conscience. His failure to inquire about the immediate consequences would support this assumption. But to me his action was incomprehensible. The impulsive comment it evoked might have puzzled him more than his let-down had disconcerted me. “The tinner’s temptation” seemed to be jerked off my tongue. That was a cliché literally burned into me by a boyhood experience.

Once, when a six-year-old, playing in the shop of a tinsmith who welcomed any admiration of his skill, I used the bad judgment to grasp in my palm the heated end of a soldering iron which he proffered me. The degree of my painful astonishment literally upset him. He fell onto the flames of a charcoal brazier. His sartorial and carnal subsequences were badly scorched. When rescuing neighbors rushed in, the tinsmith tearfully complained: “It’s his fault; he asked me to let him hold the iron.” That accounts for the curiosity that always drew me toward any anatomical research into the constituents of responsibility. But, of course, Carvalho wouldn’t have known about the analogy of the soldering tool. He shied the 8-ball at me, expecting it to ricochet against Hearst’s shins. The general manager’s strategy failed. There was no appeal to Hearst. There was, instead, the sudden but indomitable urge to seek a different pasture. It was the warp and the woof of a resolution which guided me thereafter. Never again would I undertake a managerial post with accountability to anyone except the owner.

Through a Chicago friend, temporarily in control of the Siegel & Cooper store in Boston, sufficient funds were raised, by anticipating advertising commitments, to placate the Boston & Maine Railroad.

Chapter 12 Part 3 Next Week   
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