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Ever disheveled, Joe preferred corduroy Levi's, plaid workshirts and Navy pea coats to the standard reporter garb of jacket and tie. He smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes (even after his mother died of throat cancer and his father removed cigarette ads from the Post) and drove a beat-up Ford station wagon with a broken passenger door that had to be tied shut with rope.
"Nothing about his manner and certainly nothing about his attire indicated he would one day be put in charge," recalls retired Post scribe Eliot Porter. "You certainly wouldn't pick him out of the crowd and say, 'There is the heir apparent.' He looked more like he worked in a hardware store in rural New Hampshire."
Friends say Joe took after his grandfather, a man who thumbed his nose at the rituals of high society and was often at odds with his father, the first Joseph Pulitzer. While in his twenties, Joseph Pulitzer II wrote a letter renouncing his father: "For years I have resented the realization that I was nothing but a rich man's son. I feel that I was acting the part of a hypocrite in swallowing my resentment and simulating demonstrations of affection."
Like his grandfather, Joe IV eschewed the silver spoon. He carried with him a nasty and explosive temper that belied his laid-back exterior. His indignation toward his old man was reserved for behind closed doors. But in public, Joe, a product of the 1960s, demonstrated contempt for his well-heeled father by playing the role of a guitar-playing, pot-smoking bohemian. He was, in essence, the yin to his father's yang and, more often than not, a thorn in his side.
"His father was an urbane, well-spoken guy, the type of guy who wore ascots and took great care in his physical appearance and grooming," says one of Joe's St. Louis confidants. "Joe was a slob. I think his father could never quite get over that."
Even so, friends say Pulitzer III was generally pleased that Joe had taken an interest in the newspaper business and, as was family custom, put his son to work in the newsroom, mandating that he be given "no special treatment."
Joe's first role at the Post came as a general-assignment reporter on the night city desk, a position loathed by most reporters. But for Joe, who wrote under the byline J. Pulitzer IV (spawning the nickname "Jay"), the close-knit group of night reporters was far preferable to the daytime newsroom where, behind his back, he was commonly referred to as "the dauphin" (French for "prince"), and where his words and actions were under the scrutiny of gruff and jaded journeymen.
When promoted to the day desk after his first year at the Post, Joe pleaded with the night editor to let him remain on the graveyard shift.
"Three days later he asked to come back," recalls Harry Levins, the night editor at the time. "He didn't like the day desk. He said people's voices went up three octaves around him. I think people were nervous around him."
Levins allowed Joe to return on one condition: he throw a party better than the send-off celebration the night crew had given him just days before.
"He did it, and it was grand," says Levins. "He brought in Champagne and caviar."
Over time Joe's self-effacing demeanor won over many in the newsroom. Unlike his father, Joe had an ability to blend in with both the grunts and the top news dogs.
"The only way you saw his father, J.P. Jr., was to walk up the back stairs," says Levins. "He was a skier and liked to get a workout taking the stairs, but the joke was he felt uncomfortable talking to employees on the elevator."
So strong was Joe's solidarity with co-workers that when the St. Louis Newspaper Guild went on strike in 1978, he refused to cross the picket line. He even went so far as to write for a strike paper that formed in the aftermath of the labor unrest that briefly shuttered the Post.
While earning the respect of his co-workers, it was during his first few years back in St. Louis that events in Joe's private life created an irreparable rift with his father.
The Blatant Affair
On the surface, Joe seemed every bit the devoted family man. Just 22 when he married Lynne Steinsieck, a woman he met as an undergraduate at Harvard, Joe returned to St. Louis in 1976 with two baby daughters, Elkhanah and Bianca. Friends recall Lynne as strikingly beautiful, and the daughters inherited her stunning looks. The couple bought a home in the Central West End, joining a wave of urban professionals returning to the once-neglected neighborhood.
But the Cleaver-family veneer wore thin when, within the first year of returning to St. Louis, Joe began a dalliance with a local artist, Jennifer Williams. The two met while Jennifer was working as a caterer at one of his father's parties. She was four years older than Joe and had a daughter from a previous marriage.
"It was a blatant affair," recalls a former acquaintance, describing the openness in which Joe and Jennifer carried on liaisons in Central West End bars and restaurants. "I don't know what the hell was going on in his head. It was weirdness."