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In early April 1995, Joseph Pulitzer IV packed up his executive office on the third floor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch building, closed the door behind him and faded into obscurity. A few days later, an unbylined article appeared on page one of the paper's business section, stating that the 45-year-old Pulitzer had left the storied media empire to "explore other career ventures."
What the brief article, placed below the fold, failed to mention was that Joe Pulitzer had fallen on his sword, having at last accepted the painful truth that the controlling members of the company stock would never allow him his birthright.
The last heir to the Pulitzer throne -- airbrushed from the family portrait.
"Joe called me a day or two before he left the paper," recalls George Richardson, a layout editor at the Post. "He said they had given him a consulting position where he didn't really have to work. There was a definite sadness in his voice -- a disappointment. He thanked me for our times together and said goodbye. It's one of the saddest stories I know. He was a good person who wanted to do good, and to just get fucked over like that -- it's amazing."
Today the great-grandson of journalism titan Joseph Pulitzer is so far removed from Pulitzer Inc. that, according to former colleagues, he did not receive so much as a courtesy call before the company's principal shareholders (his stepmother, Emily Rauh Pulitzer, and his step-uncle, Michael Pulitzer) cast their votes January 30 to sell the business to Lee Enterprises Inc. for $1.46 billion. It was a friend in St. Louis who tracked Joe IV down in Northern California to let him know his family had bid farewell to newspapering after a 126-year run.
By all accounts, the news of the sale struck Joe like a crushing "Dear John" letter, leaving him "heartsick and heavy," according to longtime friends and acquaintances. Many of them asked not to be named in this story.
"I think he always held out some hope that they'd call him back," says a friend. "I still think the gravity of the sale has yet to fully sink in."
Emily and Michael Pulitzer did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article.
Now 55 years old, Joe lives in self-imposed exile below the rugged alpine peaks of Big Horn, Wyoming. "He is not only the redheaded stepchild," another old friend observes, "he's the redheaded stepchild who's been banished to Siberia."
Until the January sale, Joe remained on the company books as a "consultant," a trifling title that allowed him to receive Pulitzer health insurance and other benefits. People close to Joe and sources at the Post say he did little, if any, work for the paper since parting ways a decade ago.
"I don't know what type of consulting you do in the middle of Wyoming, unless it has something to do with cattle," scoffs one longtime acquaintance.
For his part, Joe is deliberately vague about describing his current employment, telling friends only that he works as a consultant for the insurance industry. He does not elaborate. "I don't think he's very proud of what he does," says a close pal. "He doesn't talk about it much."
What is known is that Joe's greater interests lie in the arts. He has spent much of his time in Big Horn producing an album of folk songs that he's written and recorded. For several years he penned a weekly human-interest column, "Impressions," for a weekly shopper in nearby Sheridan. He's also dabbled as a fundraiser and bingo caller for the local veterans' association, and he worked for a time as a volunteer firefighter.
Joe answers his cell phone to the nickname "Pilot Car," a "Rosebud"-like riddle, perhaps, whose meaning is known only to his third wife, Patricia Pulitzer, the woman he married three years ago. Patricia, who could not be reached for comment for this article, maintains her permanent residence in Casper -- a solid two-hour drive from Big Horn. It is unclear why the couple lives apart.
Joe declined multiple requests for an interview for this story. He also instructed his grown children not to talk to the Riverfront Times. Through his St. Louis attorney, Albert Watkins, Joe responded tersely to questions about the sale of Pulitzer and his departure from the company, saying only: "Given the totality of the circumstances, it would be inappropriate for any comment."
Interviews with dozens of Joe's friends, family members, former colleagues and business associates reveal a portrait of a man who aspired to one day take full control of the newspaper chain, but whose icy relationship with his father, the debonair Joseph Pulitzer III, handicapped him from the start.
The Apple Fell Far from the Tree
To fully comprehend the Pulitzer dynamic, it's necessary to know something about the two dueling family factions. The St. Louis members of the Pulitzer clan have always been the financially savvy ones in the family -- at least when compared to their cousins out East.
In his 2001 biography, Pulitzer: A Life, Denis Brian writes that when Joseph Pulitzer died in 1911, he gave the St. Louis paper to his least favorite son, Joseph Pulitzer II, as a form of punishment for years of insubordination. To his favorite sons, Ralph and Herbert, Pulitzer gave the greater prize of the New York World, once the most-read daily newspaper in the nation.