The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson
New Books in American StudiesNew Books in BiographyNew Books in HistoryNew Books in JournalismNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network February 1, 2012 Oline Eaton
“When your grandmother gets raped, put it on the front page.” That was the Medill family editorial policy and Eleanor Medill “Cissy” Patterson embraced it enthusiastically. The granddaughter of the Chicago Tribune‘s founder, the cousin of the Tribune‘s editor and the sister of the founder of the New York Daily News, Patterson’s family were said to have ink in their veins and she was no exception. By the early 1930s, this titian-haired heiress was the only female editor of a U.S. major metropolitan daily.
Patterson’s life held tremendous contrasts–great beauty, big scandals and bitter animosities and intrigue– all of which Amanda Smith elegantly explores in Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson (Knopf, 2011). As the title indicates, there is no shortage of drama here.
The heiress to a newspaper fortune, the young Cissy Patterson slinked through Gilded Age society, famous for her inimitable gait. Following the trend of Americans making socially advantageous marriages to European aristocrats, Patterson wed a Russian count who abused her and kidnapped their only child. It’s an incredible story given new life through Smith’s research, which uncovered sources that reveal how- through the intervention of Patterson’s family, President Taft and the Russian Czar- Patterson’s three-year-old daughter was finally returned home.
As a society girl, a Countess, an essayist, a rancher, a novelist and, most memorably, a newspaperwoman, Cissy Patterson pushed the boundaries of what women of her time were expected to do and her newspaper was almost a mirror of her self. Under her leadership, the Washington Times (later the Washington Times-Herald) became DC’s most profitable paper thanks to Patterson’s gossipy editorials, her fierce isolationism and her distinctive editorial bite. There was venom in her pen and readers were hooked.
It’s a testament to Smith’s skill as a writer that even the ancillary characters in Newspaper Titan seem to burst fully alive from the page, giving the reader insight not only into Patterson’s social circle but also an unusually keen sense of the personalities with whom she tussled.
Ultimately, by Newspaper Titan‘s end, the impression one gains of Cissy Patterson is that of a woman who prized newsprint over people, a woman who was delightful after a drink but whose claws came out after three. Patterson was the first to admit this. She was quoted telling TIME, “The trouble with me is that I am a vindictive old shanty-Irish bitch.” And yet, it’s that same cattiness that made her an influential force in the development of tabloid media then and which makes her such a beguiling biographical subject now. As Cissy Patterson herself said: “I’d rather raise hell than raise vegetables.”