The story so far: On November 28, 1939, 75 years ago, a thick, black smoke covered St. Louis, turning day into night, snarling traffic and angering and shocking residents. A Smoke Elimination Committee was created and it met through January and into February sorting out its limited options for finagling cleaning the city’s air. Its report in late February proposed that all residents and businesses buy more expensive fuel that caused less pollution. The sun may have struggled during this time but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had begun shining a light, running an old-fashioned newspaper campaign. There were several leaders involved in the fight.
By Bob Wyss
Every year on one particular day at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the presses would screech to a halt and the lights would dim for a minute.
It was the anniversary of the death of the newspaper’s founder, Joseph Pulitzer, ordered by his son Joseph Pulitzer II. The son never let anyone forget the lessons forged by his father. A bust of his patriarch stood in the building. On the editorial page were his father’s words: “Always fight demagogues of all parties…never be satisfied with merely printing news…never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”
In 1940 the Post-Dispatch had just entered an era in which it shone as one of the nation’s greatest newspapers. JP II, as the publisher was known, often attributed all that to the heritage established by his father.
It was impressive. Joseph Pulitzer was a young Hungarian immigrant in 1879 when he bought the Post and the Dispatch, merged them, and launched a series of crusades against corruption and complacency in St. Louis. His keen journalistic intellect quickly made the newspaper enormously successful both circulation-wise and financially. That would prove to be a detriment for St. Louis, because by 1883 Pulitzer was an absentee publisher, garnering far greater praise for his stewardship of the New York World.
But the son’s record was equally impressive, especially between 1937 and 1951. Those were the years that the Post-Dispatch would win five Pulitzer Gold Medals, the highest mark in journalism, and an award that had been established and named after JP II’s father. It would take the venerable New York Times 86 years to win that many gold medals. While St. Louis had been unfortunate in losing the senior Pulitzer, it was only lucky to get the son, and it only happened because of an error in judgment by the elder Joseph Pulitzer. As a result, Joseph Pulitzer II would spend much of his career in St. Louis, build a great paper, and begin to take a keen interest in the smoke that was shrouding his adopted city.
The senior Joseph Pulitzer was a brilliant publisher but before he was 55 he was suffering from nervous disorders that made him increasing blind, demanding and cold. The father was a difficult taskmaster to his three sons. Joseph, the second son, seemed to be the ideal candidate to take over the business. He was described as “robust and outgoing,” conveying the same strong confidence as his father, and yet without the senior’s more negative command style. JP II trained under his father first at the family estate in Bar Harbor, Maine – where the elder Pulitzer had retreated from his newspapers.
The young man was eventually sent to St. Louis with the understanding he would someday take over the business. Then something happened, the elder man lost confidence in his son, and eventually Joseph took over the Post-Dispatch while brothers Herbert and Ralph tried to manage the World. By 1931 the two siblings had failed and so had the World. Meanwhile the Post-Dispatch under JP II was not only a great newspaper journalistically, it was also financially healthy and robust.
The father and son had other similarities besides a dedication to great journalism. Both had very poor eyesight and they often retreated far from the newsroom, mostly to the Chatwold estate in Bar Harbor established by the senior Pulitzer and later used by the younger.
JP II employed two secretaries to read to him five to seven hours a day because his eyes were so weak he could only make out newspaper headlines. At night his wife took over the task. He read not just newspapers but new books and plays. He hunted, but could only shoot ducks in his Ozark retreat when a bird was outlined in the sky.
Despite his long absences he kept in close and daily contact with his editors, by telephone, and by mail with yellow memos. While his eyesight may have been poor, he could see enough of the smoke that blanketed St. Louis every winter needed to know it had to be stopped. That’s why he began assembling a staff to campaign against the smoke and now as the winter continued he was closely monitoring the progress. Like everyone else, he was wondering if St. Louis had finally had enough, if it had the fortitude to end it.
More than anything he wanted to know, as in the words of his father, if St. Louis had learned to “never be afraid” again.