The editor of Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy (2001) returns with a thick, assiduously researched biography of Eleanor Medill “Cissy” Patterson (1881–1948), the powerful, tendentious editor of the Washington Times-Herald.
In this numbingly detailed biography, Smith gives us not just the story of her principal but her every element of her back story, and few minor characters walk her stage without major-character treatment. Patterson’s story is indeed complicated, engaging and even bizarre, though it takes her more than 40 pages to arrive in the narrative. A daughter of privilege and publishing, Patterson grew up without much of an education (finishing school sufficed); married an impecunious Polish count, Josef Gizycki, who had drinking, gambling, fidelity and domestic-abuse issues; bore a daughter, Felicia, with whom she would have a long, contentious relationship; fled from the count (who hid the daughter for 18 months) and retreated back into the world of her American family, whose wealth and influence defeated the count’s efforts to extract a portion of fortune for himself. Patterson would marry again, but she would also take over a struggling newspaper in Washington and convert it into an enormously profitable enterprise. She blasted away at FDR and became increasingly vindictive, mercurial and eccentric, before dying suddenly. A long, bitter battle over her complicated assets ensued. Smith seems fascinated by all the money (she frequently footnotes the estimated current value of sums made or spent by Patterson), and she seems unable to determine which biographical or contextual details are primary, secondary, tertiary or superfluous. So she includes them all, just in case.
An enormously important subject obscured in a blinding blizzard of undifferentiated fact.