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Newsprint in her blood

The story of the first woman to run a major newspaper in America

Created date

July 24th, 2012

Just after the turn of the century, a prominent American heiress swept through Europe, fell madly in love with a dashing Polish count, and, against the better judgment of her family, married him. She moved to his castle in the Volynia region of Russia and soon they had a beautiful baby girl...but happily ever after is not how this fairytale ends. The marriage fell apart in spectacular fashion. The handsome but penniless count kidnapped their daughter seeking ransom money from his estranged wife, and their two-year battle made headlines around the world. Only through the intervention of Czar Nicholas of Russia and President Taft was the heiress finally reunited with her daughter. This is merely the first chapter of the real life story of Eleanor Cissy Patterson, the first woman to run a major metropolitan newspaper in America.

An epic

The larger-than-life Cissy Patterson is the subject of Amanda Smith s richly detailed biographyNewspaper Titan: the Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson. The book reads like an epic novel with Patterson as a fascinating heroine who left a remarkable legacy. Smith, who previously edited a book of her grandfather Joseph P. Kennedy s letters, spent six years researching Patterson. She was so colorful and it was such a zany life in some ways, says Smith. But what really amazed me is that there was real ability underneath. If you look at her circulation statistics, she had a real ability to sell newspapers.

Knack for news

The granddaughter of newspaper scion Joseph Medill, Cissy Patterson made as much of an impact printing headlines as she did making them. Back in America with her daughter Felicia, Patterson set up house in her mother s mansion on Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. Besides making regular appearances in gossip columns, Patterson socialized, traveled, and tried her hand as an actress and novelist (writing as Eleanor Gizycka, her married name) before finding her true calling in mid-life. In 1930, a few months shy of her 49th birthday, Patterson became the editor ofThe Washington Times. Her employer was none other than William Randolph Hearst, who hired her more for her name than her ability. Hearst apparently took great joy in luring a member of the first family of newspapers onto his payroll. However, once she had the job, Patterson proved to have a true knack for news. Tough as nails, Patterson had newsprint in her blood, and like the rest of the Medill family, she was partial to the more sensational side of the news business. She put a gossip column on the front page and provided extensive coverage of Washington, D.C. s on-going social and political feuds. Readers loved it. Patterson crusaded for her own interests on the pages of the paper, including D.C. home rule and the humane treatment of animals; and she was not above using her publication to scorch her social adversaries, most notably Alice Roosevelt Longworth. In time, Patterson bought both the Times and The Washington Herald, merging the two to create theWashington Times Herald. The paper was enormously popular and enormously controversial. Patterson s staunch isolationist views and opposition to President Roosevelt created quite an uproar, not the least of which was when FDR had theTimes Herald indicted for espionage. (The charge was subsequently dropped.)

One of the greatest newspaper editors

A 1946Collier s Weeklyprofile of Patterson called her probably the most powerful woman in America. And perhaps the most hated. Writer Dickson Hartwell went on to say, To her closest friends she is an enigma; they have long since ceased trying to understand her. But on three things they will agree: Cissy is never dull, never happy, and one of the greatest newspaper editors this country has produced. Though she is hardly a household name, Patterson s legacy lives on. I see her everywhere. I think she opened a lot of doors for people, says Smith, who compares Patterson to one of today s most prominent communicators, Arianna Huffington. Cissy s transformation politically is very similar to Huffington s; her marriages and the fact that she was doing a job she wasn t trained for are also similar, says Smith. TheHuffington Postis very much like a modern-day Times Herald. Cissy hired a lot of people, her cook, her barn manager, and her friends to write gossip columns. In many ways, those were like blogs short snapshots of what was happening at a particular moment. ThatCollier sprofile also predicted that one day the movies will doubtless get around to filming the fabulous life of Eleanor Medill Patterson. To date that prediction has not come to be, but when they do, it s certain to be an epic, just like the life of Cissy Patterson.