A well-told life of the early media tycoon, whose influence—though not his empire—has endured to the present.
Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911) lived a life that, in the words of biographer Brian (Einstein: A Life, 1996), “often resembled a fable.” At 17, he crossed the waters to America, enticed to join the flagging Union Army in exchange for a bounty and citizenship; just before landing in Boston, he jumped ship, swam across the icy harbor, and presented himself directly to the enlistment officers so that he would not have to split the bounty with the agent who recruited him. Charming and well-educated, he easily won his commanders’ trust. After the war, penniless and without prospects, he made his way to St. Louis, where he worked his way up from gravedigger and laborer to reporter for a German-language daily. In 1878 he bought the ailing St. Louis Post-Dispatch for $2,500 and started making a name for himself as a publisher. A born muckraker, he magnified minor-league tales to scandalous proportions, insisting that he was serving the public good by revealing the misdeeds of the powerful and influential. (An example: A minister who had just taken a swig of cold medicine took a seat on a streetcar. The young woman next to him, offended by the smell of alcohol, took another seat. End of story—but the Post-Dispatch’s headline? “A Shocking Story of a Divine.”) The reporters Pulitzer hired, among them Nellie Bly, Stephen Crane, and Irwin S. Cobb, served him well as he went head-to-head with ferociously anti-Semitic rival publisher William Randolph Hearst, played at king-making, warmongering, and politics, and made a huge fortune with which he endowed the prize that bears his name, as well as Columbia University’s famed School of Journalism.
A solid biography, of interest to students of journalism and American history.