WASHINGTON — “I don’t think it’s my place to say Cissy was a contemptible, scandal-mongering bitch,” said Amanda Smith of Cissy Patterson, the no-holds-barred newspaper mogul who once ruled the nation’s capital from the power base of her newspaper, the Washington Times-Herald. “I just tried to make the story as accurate as possible.”
Accuracy is what makes her new book, “Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson” (Knopf), so compelling as it describes Patterson in all her glory as a power-mad, driven woman who turned around two failing newspapers. The book chronicles the history, politics, scandals and gossip back when newspapers were powerful, unregulated and notoriously inaccurate.
Smith, the daughter of Jean Kennedy Smith, conceded her new book reflects her own searing experience 20 years ago when her brother, William Kennedy Smith, was accused and later acquitted of rape. “That was my first introduction to the rules of evidence, and it really had an impact on the way I write,” she said. “I’ve read so many things about events I was present at, or people I’ve known all my life, that are absurd. Some of them are accurate, but there are many that are just ridiculous.”
To prove her point about media inaccuracies, Smith begins many of her chapters with outlandish headlines concerning the personal details of Patterson’s life, taken from her own newspaper, the Washington Times-Herald. She also relies on headlines from the newspapers owned by Patterson’s relations — the New York Daily News, founded by her brother Joseph Medill Patterson, and the Chicago Tribune, owned by her uncle Robert “Colonel” McCormick. More often than not, the text that follows shows how the headlines got the story wrong.
“Cissy was kind of a parable of that dinner-party question ‘What would you do if you had all the money in the world?’ ’’ Smith said. “Her answer to that question was buy a newspaper and run with it. There was so much immoderation in her life. She had all the money in the world, and she didn’t have anyone around her who would tell her no. Or if they did, they would be banished.”
After divorcing her first husband, a wife-beating Polish count, and securing custody of their only child (a daughter named Felicia, who later married and divorced Washington’s leading investigative columnist, Drew Pearson), Patterson returned to America. She tried unsuccessfully to enter the family business. When neither her brother nor uncle would hire her, she landed a newspaper job for her family’s archrival, William Randolph Hearst, running the Washington Herald. Nine years later, when Hearst found himself low on cash, she bought the paper, ultimately merging it with his afternoon daily to create the Washington Times-Herald.
She was a legendary female newspaper proprietor in the nation’s capital long before The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham.
Unlike Graham, who always kept her cool, even as her newspaper contributed to the impeachment of sitting president Richard Nixon, Patterson’s muscle was capricious, personal and often spiteful. One of her worst spats ended with her apologizing to Graham’s parents, Agnes and Eugene Meyer. In the heat of competition for subscribers, a feud erupted over the Post’s successful battle to keep the Hearst newspapers from cutting off its access to comic strips such as “Dick Tracy.” Patterson responded by sending her chauffeur to deliver a gift to the Meyers’ home, carefully disguised in a floral box and wrapped as an orchid. Inside was a wrapped up piece of meat, an insulting reference to Shakespeare’s Shylock and the merciless pound of flesh.
Smith includes plenty of other nasty stories about Patterson — including how she used bugging equipment supplied by Federal Bureau of Investigation legend J. Edgar Hoover to tap the phone of an employee she wanted to fire, and how she slept with the husband of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and then, when their friendship fell apart, used her newspaper to skewer her famous “frenemy.” Yet she also admires Patterson’s achievements. “When she bought the paper, it’s circulation was fifth. Ultimately, she turned it into the most widely read paper in town, with 10 editions daily,” said Smith, sitting in her elegant Kalorama home dressed in a Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress, her two miniature bull terriers, Lulu and Dot, at her side.
Smith cites the recent bugging scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s News International as “the modern-day equivalent of the Hearst-Patterson-McCormick newspaper wars. Certainly tapping into people’s cell phone messages is utterly reprehensible,” she said. “But part of the reason the reaction was so ferocious was because rival press outlets covered it, and everybody was delighted to stick it to Murdoch.”
Comparing the current media scene to those “Wild West” days of newspaper wars, she observed, “A hundred years later, we are back in a very rough transition period, where it’s once again hard to tell what is accurate news. I think accurate news at some stage will be preserved, but newspapers have probably done themselves in by not keeping up with the latest technologies which might have saved them.”
Smith said she read about Katherine Schwarzenegger’s response to the breakup of her parents, Maria Kennedy Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger, not in her Harper’s Bazaar interview but on her own cousin’s Facebook page. “It’s a new world. Both in our family and outside, people are more forthright about life and all the bumps and warts,” she observed. “What’s great is that Katherine recognizes it’s not her fault.”
Smith is certainly aware of all her extended family’s bumps and warts. Her first book was editing the letters of her controversial grandfather Joseph P. Kennedy, and began with a suggestion from her mother. Smith had just passed her Ph.D. orals at Harvard’s Department of History and Literature and was starting work on a dissertation about abolitionist orators such as Charles Sumner, after whom she named her own son.
“I knew about rare document preservation and my mom wanted me to look at her father’s papers. I started going in my summers during grad school to the JFK library and to the attic in Hyannis Port, and I found them really fascinating. But I had no particular plans to publish them. Then, just by happenstance,’’ she explained, her mother had a luncheon for family friend Gail Lumet Buckley, Lena Horne’s daughter. Smith found herself seated next to Buckley’s literary agent, Lynn Nesbit, who expressed an interest in learning more about her work.
Asked if she thinks her mother may have done that on purpose to get Joseph Kennedy’s letters into print, Smith, the mother of two and wife of tax lawyer Carter Hood, shook her head. “I don’t know that she’s that organized,’’ she said, adding she had her own battles getting the book into print. “I tried my best to persuade my family to make them public, and when they come out you contend with people, say, not realizing that was the case, or you’ve hidden things or you whitewashed or whatever.’’
Smith admires her cousin Caroline Kennedy for publishing the transcript of tape recordings made by her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, just months after President Kennedy was assassinated. “I was really proud of Caroline for being so forthright and for not cutting it. There’s a certain amount of tartness to it that I was surprised Caroline let out there,” she confided.
After more than 20 years researching the lives of others, Smith has never felt the need to delve into her own biological family’s history.
“I always felt I was sort of a graft onto a family tree,’’ she said, explaining that as a youngster she was teased at school for being adopted. “People say I look like my mom’s family, the Kennedys. But temperamentally I’m a rather different creature. I’m much less outgoing, more bookish, which is why I gravitate towards writing and doing research. I’ve often thought, in my case, nature must have won out over nurture. I still have these characteristics that are very much my own.
“I’ve often appreciated feeling that I am not defined by my genes,” she said. “Because I don’t know much about them, perhaps I’m not fated to end up a certain way.”