The spectacular rise of Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911), from his humble origins as the son of a Jewish merchant in Hungary to his position as the most powerful journalist and publisher in the world.
Biographer’s Craft editor Morris (The Rose Man of Sing Sing, 2003) begins, uncharacteristically, with a kind of Biography 101 maneuver. In 1909, the virtually blind Pulitzer is aboard his luxurious yacht while a teeth-gnashing Theodore Roosevelt, enraged at Pulitzer’s continuous hostile coverage, has forced the Justice Department to convene grand juries to investigate his tormenter. Then the author swoops back to 1847 and makes readers wait 450 pages to find out what happened. Despite this organizational annoyance, Morris offers a substantial, balanced biography of a complicated, mesmerizing figure who embodied both the American Dream and the American Nightmare. After emigrating to the United States during the Civil War—he served with the Union cavalry but saw little action—Pulitzer struggled through penury and depression. However, his ferocious ambition to excel and prosper sent him to the Mercantile Library in St. Louis, where he studied and learned English and began his career as a reporter on a German-language newspaper. He brawled and worked his way into increasingly responsible positions, served a bit in public office and bought the struggling St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Itching for more exposure, Pulitzer moved to New York City, where he took over the struggling New York World and converted it into a powerhouse. He eventually used his millions to endow the Columbia School of Journalism, the Missouri School of Journalism and the eponymous prizes. Morris ably depicts a volatile, irascible, impulsive, unscrupulous man who betrayed and subverted his brother, verbally abused his wife and children, preached democracy, practiced autocracy and believed fervently that he was never wrong.
A Horatio Alger tale shaded with Shakespearean darkness.