Survey of biographies about the titans of newspapers in the late 19th century

Horace Greeley, who established and edited the Tribune, in New York City, is a fascinating rags to riches life story of hard work and success in early American journalism.  Michael Snay does a good job of telling this tale in his informative biography, Horace Greeley and the Politics of Reform in Late 19th Century America. Greeley died shortly after losing the Presidential election to Ulysses Grant in 1872, and was succeeded by a number of fascinating figures in the development of American newspapers.

James Gordon Bennett, Jr. ran the Herald from Paris, where he fled after achieving social ignominy by getting disgracefully drunk at his own engagement party. Richard O’Connonr, a reporter turned historian, writes a compassionate and somewhat humorous biography of him in The Scandalous Mr. Bennett. O’Connor also wrote an interesting biography of Ambrose Bierce, entltled Ambrose Bierce: A Biography.  Bierce might be termed the patron devil of op. ed. writers, a man who had contempt for the Midwestern Bible Belt environment that he was raised in, a subject that he made fun of in print for the rest of his life, as well as the rampant wealth of the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age.

Bierce worked for William Randolph Hearst, probably the most famous newspaper figure from that period, as he was the subject of the famous movie Citizen Kane. W. A. Swanberg wrote a masterful biography of him, entitled Citizen Hearst, a book that has been title imitated many times, often in an undeserved fashion, except for Nichols Von Hoffman’s masterful Citizen Cohn, a book about that lawyer/thief that described a similar personality type to Hearst. Swanberg also wrote a very similar book about Joseph Pulitzer, simply entitled Pulitzer, an extremely subtle and excellent biography of that brilliant and controversial man. James McGrath Morris has written a far more recent biography of Pulitzer entitled Pulitzer, a Life in Politics, Print and Power.  This book is a fair biography with some new sources that were unavailable to Swanberg but, to me, call me old fashioned, I prefer the style and wit of Swanberg, a quite accomplished historian.

 

Novels

Share a little… Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Who was Jay Gould?

Gould was probably the American man most likely to be burned in infamy in the late nineteenth century, as people regarded him as the worst of what were called the Robber Barons, who the public perceived as very wealthy men who took advantage of the poor. Gould was a master at stock manipulation, and at the height of his career could drive prices there up or down at will, infuriating other investors of whom he took advantage. Today, the Stock Market has laws to prevent such domination by greedy investors, and managers there are always having to make new laws as people find out how to take advantage of the markets with the advance of computer technology and other factors.

Gould got his start in a tannery where the owner made him a partner, entrusting him to keep the accounts. Gould kept those accounts so well that he ended up taking over the company, though he was later sued by relatives of his former partner for their assets. Using this stake, Gould turned into a master of buying and selling stocks with particular alacrity, taking advantage of conditions to reap immense profits. Railroads were his most extensive investment, where he allied with politicians, including the infamous Tammany Hall Machine of New York City, to advance his interests. He once remarked that in if he were in a Democratic district, he was a Democrat, or if it were a Republican one, he was a Republican. This remark shows the rather cold blooded cunning with which Gould preyed upon his adversaries. On one occasion, Gould bought up a massive amount of a particular stock along with his supposed cronies, who temporarily shared in the profits that accrued as the price of the stock went up due to these purchases. Then without telling his fellow investors, Gould quickly sold off all of his stock, leading to a plummet in the price of the stock, causing his cronies to lose their shirts. Two of these men were famous investors of their day, Diamond Jim Brady and Jim Fisk. One of Gould’s more notable capers became known as Black Friday, when, in 1869 Gould cornered the Gold Market to push up its price, partially for the benefit of other investments. Though Gould was successfully sued for the profits from this caper, the damages did not affect the vast wealth that he obtained by manipulation of the Stock Market.

Gould had a large yacht that he sailed around the world on, enjoying the profits of his immense wealth with aplomb. To accusers of his methodology Gould would reply that he did the same as any person could who chose to invest in the market. Like Plunkitt, the old sage of Tammany Hall, he could say, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.” 

Share a little… Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Who was John D. Rockefeller?

Rockefeller’s father was a bigamist, who had a separate wife and family in upstate New York from the family Rockefeller was raised with in Cleveland, Ohio. His father was a traveling horse and wagon salesman, who made trips back and forth between the two families, unbeknownst to either. When Rockefeller found this out, in his mid-twenties, he disowned the old man, who became a hanger-on when his son got rich, though his progeny would not give him one thin dime.

Rockefeller got rich in the oil business, having started out with buy and sell warehouses in Cleveland before concentrating his business on the refining of oil. The corporation that he developed, the Standard Oil Company, came to dominate the American oil business of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Rockefeller crushed competition and developed a virtual monopoly on oil in the United States. His competitors were invited to join his corporation or be stomped out by Standard Oil, which he did by flooding the appropriate markets with oil that was much cheaper than his competitors could produce. In doing so he established what economists call horizontal integration, where a company buys up all of the same kind of businesses in its field to establish a virtual monopoly. To those nay-sayers who believed in competition Rockefeller argued that he was providing more goods to more people at less cost, and it was competition because he had just out-competed everybody else. Without such dominance, according to Rockefeller, people would be paying different prices for oil in different parts of the country, and there would not be the needed unity of economic growth necessary for a vibrant economy. Many economists agree with this thesis.

Political forces, principally the Progressive Movement, did not agree, however, and did something about it. Ida Tarbell, the daughter of a man who had been put out of business in the oil industry by Rockefeller, wrote a book called The History of Standard Oil. This book contended that Rockefeller was no friend of the working man, and listed many instances as to what she regarded as cruel and insensitive actions taken by the economic baron. Rockefeller did not take her so seriously, however, and nicknamed her Ida Tar Barell, but the Progressives took this case to heart and brought an anti-trust case to the US Supreme Court in 1911, which broke up the company into different parts. To many economic analysts, however, the case was one of the horse is already out of the barn type, which did not stop the giant corporation domination that America still lives with today, so that Rockefeller’s actions were right in line with the growth of an economy which came to take over the world.

Rockefeller lived to a ripe old age (98), and apparently his love of golf, and the exercise it provided him, kept him physically fit and healthy. He also remained very religious until his dying day, still the member of a Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, that was in far from the wealthiest of neighborhoods. Like a good Christian man, Rockefeller donated most all of his fortune before his death to philanthropic institutions, many of which we still see today, such as the Rockefeller Foundation or Rockefeller Center. Whether one is filling their car with gas or seeing a play in New York, the influence of Rockefeller on American life is still quite profound.

 

Share a little… Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Who was Andrew Carnegie?

Carnegie was born in Scotland, where his father was a loom weaver, a group that was being displaced by the growth of factories. The family emigrated to the United States in 1848, when Carnegie was 12 years old, and they were transported across the state of New York by horse drawn barges on the Erie Canal on the way to Pittsburgh. There Carnegie started out as a telegraph operator, working his way up the economic ladder in a classic rags to riches story. Working for Thomas Scott, owner of the Pennsylvania Railroad during the Civil War, Carnegie supervised the construction of the railroad bridges that transported soldiers and weapons for the Union Army. This employ led him to curiosity about the production of iron and steel, the latter of which would be the product that led him to become one of the wealthiest men in American history.

Using the newly developed Bessemer process in steel plants, which made steel more quickly and cheaply than could be done previously, Carnegie turned Pittsburgh into a city with an economy that centered on steel production. At the height of his economic power Carnegie had a virtual monopoly on steel in the United States, stomping out competitors by providing a cheaper product to customers across the nation. His method introduced a system that economists today call vertical integration, where he owned all aspects of the steel making process, including the mines, the ships and railroads that transported coal and other minerals, and the steel plants. Before he was displaced by oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, Carnegie was the richest man in the United States, but this wealth was not without some controversy.

One of the most famous strikes in labor history was the Homestead Strike of 1892, where skilled laborers tried to protect their rights against the growing threat of being displaced by automation. By this time Carnegie had Henry Frick running his operations, and Frick cracked down hard on the strikers, bringing in replacement workers and Pinkerton Agents to quell the violence there. Frick was a mean boss, and had other instances of what some regarded as cruel administration. There was a prominent foreman in Homestead who had put laborers there on an eight hour day, contending that less exhausted workers would be safer and produce better steel. When this man died in a factory accident, Frick promptly put the laborers back on a twelve hour day, at the same wages.

Carnegie had a social theory called the Gospel of Wealth. He contended that men competed in the economic world, and those who succeeded there obtained wealth that was a sign of God’s favor, in a process that resembled survival of the fittest in the process of evolution. He also felt that people did not know how to spend their money properly, so that the philanthropy of his later life gave them blessings, as in libraries and other cultural venues that they did not have the capacity to bestow upon themselves. Late in life, Carnegie lived in a castle that he bought in his homeland of Scotland, and members of the Parliament in London thought it rather curious that this wealthy new world capitalist heaped left-wing advice upon them in a strange manner.   Whatever his political opinions, Carnegie was a man whose life had a tremendous effect on the economy of the United States, and the world.

Share a little… Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Kim Jong-Un’s PR Machine

If Kim Jong-Un were not the Dictator of North Korea, he might be successful as the star of a comedy show. On the other hand, it would not seem so funny were he not the leader of a nation, so perhaps the two jobs, unfortunately, really go hand in hand. Now that he has managed to make the world news headlines on almost a daily basis, it might be a good time to look at some of his more remarkable achievements, so called, as the leader of North Korea.

-The first time he ever picked up a set of golf clubs, he shot a 34, less than two strokes per-hole, including five holes in one.

-He posted a picture of a missile launch from a submarine that experts determined to be fraudulent.

-His hairdo, with a bushy top and sides of the head shaved, is de-rigeur for the men of North Korea, under pain of execution.

-He had his own uncle, who helped to leverage him into power, executed by being shot with anti-aircraft guns.

-He had mock videos made of North Korean missiles blowing up San Francisco.

-He had his half brother assassinated by women who applied a very powerful poisonous cloth to his face in Kula Lumpur airport.

-He berated his generals at a state party for not conquering enough countries for him, and demanded that the submit letters of resignation the next day. When they appeared with their letters, he had forgotten having told them to do so, apparently having been in a blackout because of too much drinking.

This summary, of course, is only a hint of the kind of general absurdities that witnesses unfortunate enough to be close to this bizarre dictator, must witness on a daily basis. When one looks at picture of people near him, at state affairs and such like, one can see the fear in their eyes, obviously constantly trying to determine what exact behavior they must display to avoid being put to death by him. Such was the case with Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Adolph Hitler and scores of other smaller time dictators across the globe, but it seems doubtful that any of them could match King Jong-Un for self grandiosity to the point of absurdity. One example that comes to mind is Robert Graves’ portrayal of the Roman Emperor Caligula’s announcement that he had become a God, where the giggles of some present in the Royal Court that day had to be stifled to prevent the gigglers from becoming likely candidates for execution. At least the Romans, in Caligula’s case, had the courage to assassinate their crazy leader to prevent the country from suffering more greatly under the rule of a lunatic, but it seems that there are no such plans for revolt in North Korea. Perhaps a country under the leadership of a family of dictators for three generations is likely to be subject, by force of habit, to state publicity that sets new standards for deceit in the public sphere.

Share a little… Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Who won America’s Civil War?

The North, obviously, most would answer, and from a military point of view, that is obviously correct. When we look at the issue of race relations, however, an entirely different answer is agreed on by post-war historians, that the South won the ideological war. The failure of Reconstruction, in fact, led America into government and culture dominated by racism for another 100 years following the Civil War.

The two goals of Reconstruction were to reunite the nation and provide racial equality in the South. For a time, the second goal was achieved, as Radical Republicans from the North dominated a government where the southern states had limited representation. In the late 1860s African Americans had the right to vote, and Blacks were elected to state legislatures and other important positions of power. The former leaders of the South, however, became increasingly angry at what they regarded as the ultimate injustice of African Americans achieving equality as a result of the Civil War. They gradually fought and schemed their way back into power, creating such racist political control structures as the Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws to reinstall racist government with everything but slavery. Southerners praised the attack when one of their legislators caned Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner, causing him serious head injuries that took months to recuperate from. Opinion in the North, unfortunately, compromised with the South in the years after the war, and racism took the helm nationwide until the true beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in 1954 with the Supreme Court Case Brown vs. The Board of Education, which began the end of racial segregation in America’s public schools.

The legacy of chattel slavery, unfortunately for America, was very deep, for this was the most cruel form of slavery in human history. A slave was considered a piece of property with no human rights. Such an economic system led to deep seated prejudices that took far more than a Civil War to overcome.

Share a little… Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself. The masses have to be won by propaganda. -Hannah Arendt

Share a little… Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponPrint this pageEmail this to someone

How did the Teddy Bear Begin?

The popular story is that Teddy Roosevelt, in a moment of supreme mercy, decided not to kill a small bear which thereafter lived happily ever after. As with most all political fables, the story is only partly true, with those who made it up cherry picking the proper information to enhance their candidate’s political image. In almost all cases, in fact, Theodore Roosevelt was free and easy with his rifle in hunting wild animals, and kept exact records of the results of his hunts, cataloging the large numbers of birds, bears, wolves, mountain lions, etc. that he did away with. Roosevelt, on the other hand, did begin American wilderness preservation on a grand scale, including Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks. Some have suggested that he did this because of his guilt about the large number of animals he killed, but this is somewhat unfair, because Roosevelt enjoyed the beauties of nature from an early age, often surprising guides who found him inordinately cheerful even when camping out in the worst conditions of rain and cold.

The teddy bear incident occurred when Roosevelt was on the hunt for black bears in Mississippi.  Unlike in the western US, bears were hard to find for the President. A tracker spent two days unsuccessfully hunting for them, and the Presidential Party began to get frustrated. Finally, when the tracker was away from Roosevelt, he spotted a black bear and gave chase. The quarry proved elusive, however, and the tracker’s dog had to pursue the fleeing bear into a lake. The tracker himself took part in the capture, and struck the bear on the head with the butt of his hunting rifle to subdue him. Unfortunately this did grave injury to the cranium of the bear, and the quite persistent tracker chained him to a tree so that Roosevelt could finish him off upon his arrival. President Roosevelt, of course, did not find the option of executing a gravely injured bear who was chained to a tree appealing, and let the poor bear off to attempt survival in the wild.

Often stories that originate in rumors do no good to the person or persons that the rumor is about, but such is clearly not the case here. The story, on the other hand, skilfully constructed by Roosevelt’s handlers, led to a far more complimentary tale that was favorable to the President, and millions of small children (and some adults) who treasure their Teddy Bears.

Share a little… Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponPrint this pageEmail this to someone

A Democratic Party Fighter for Farmers

Now the family farm is a lost tradition, but there once were men who fought for it, especially Thomas Jefferson, who envisaged an America where that was all that existed. Tom Watson, a Democratic Party rebel from rural Georgia in the late nineteenth century, campaigned for the rights of farmers for his entire political life. At that time farmers were the victims of wild price swings due to the process of supply and demand, and many found themselves bankrupt or deeply in debt due to the natural swings of a capitalist economy. Today the government pretty much controls agricultural prices, and many large landholders make a living off of government grants where they get paid for growing nothing at all. Watson fought for such help from the government, which did not occur until long after he left the scene. As an eight year old, during the Civil War, he was dumbfounded at Union Army prisoners of war, who loudly sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic on a train taking them to confinement. This assault on the traditions of the old south was similar to other things he saw, such as his brother’s fledgling attempt to build an old style southern plantation home with large white wooden columns for the veranda. Yet Watson fought against the southern politicians who came to power after the war, including men who used inmates as free labor to enhance their fortunes. He became one of the primary leaders of the Farmers Alliance and then the Populist Party, and fought for the rights of small farmers who begged for government assistance to protect them from the cruelties of the market place. His political fortunes were limited however, and his taste for election battles was soured by how he considered being cheated out of the Vice-Presidential nomination in 1896. Late in his life, partially as a result, perhaps, of his love for alcohol, he fell in with more coarse political cronies, men who embraced racism and made no secret of their deep nostalgia for the good old days of the old south and slavery. Watson was far from alone in this feeling, however, for much of America, even well into the twentieth century, embraced racism as a tool of political power, especially in the deep south.   

Share a little… Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponPrint this pageEmail this to someone

The Cultural War Against Hitler

There was a significant cultural rebellion against Adolph Hitler by many entertainers and artists who eventually had to leave Germany, many of whom later became big names in Hollywood. The German cabaret scene, with its brilliant stand up comedians who specialized in the poison cookie, that seemingly innocent joke with a darker twist, was a vibrant part of German culture until the cabarets were outlawed by German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Marlene Dietrich became very popular in Germany after her role in the Blue Angel, a tragicomic film about the dark side of Germany, before she fled the scene and became an international actress based in California.  George Grosz’s ink drawings of the common people of Berlin are haunting to look at, yet this German Army veteran of World War I fled his homeland in 1933 to become a prominent artist in New York City for twenty-three years. Fritz Lang, an Austrian WWI soldier who was injured three times during the war, became a very successful director in Germany, including the haunting movie M, starring Peter Lorre as a child murderer. Lang fled to France and then Hollywood during the rise of the Nazis, where he struggled to find the kind of creative license that he had known earlier in Germany. Nevertheless, Lang was very influential on prominent film makers such as Francois Truffaut. Peter Lorre, of course, was a very dynamic character actor in several classic American films, such as The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.  Like Dietrich, he fled Germany to become an international star. Billy Wilder was a Polish Jew who was quite successful as a movie director in Germany before he had to flee the Nazis, and his success in Hollywood was extraordinary. In movies like The Apartment, a very American film starring Shirley MacClain, Jack Lemon and Fred MacMurray, Wilder demonstrated an ability to transfer his talents to very different cultures. Other artists did not make such an easy international transition, such as playwright Bertold Brecht, who fled to Russia, yet never seemed to recover the creativity he had enjoyed during the heady days of the rebellion against Hitler and the Nazis. The Weimar period in Germany is known best to Americans from the movie Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli, yet this movie is slightly different than the book from which it came. Christopher Isherwood, and English writer, wrote about Sally Bowles, a young woman in Berlin who hung around seedy Berlin bars with angry veterans of World War I, a far cry from “come to the cabaret my friend,” as romanticized in the movie’s song. Yet the influence of those cabarets, and their cry out for freedom against Adolph Hitler, was a cry heard far and wide internationally, as many of the rebels were able to make their influence known elsewhere.

Share a little… Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on StumbleUponPrint this pageEmail this to someone