Pulitzer's Pain

Banished from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a decade ago, Joseph Pulitzer IV lives in self-imposed exile in Wyoming. What went wrong?

Why wasn't Joe given similar instruction? Because, say Post insiders, his father already had his sights on the man who would eventually succeed him in the editor's chair -- and his name didn't end in Pulitzer.

"His father clearly had more confidence in the un-adopted son, William Woo," says a Post employee.

Woo joined the paper in 1962 as a features writer and quickly moved up the ranks from editorial writer to editorial page editor. In 1976 he accompanied Pulitzer III on a fifteen-day trip to China, which was then largely closed to the West. The journey established Woo as Pulitzer III's prodigy.

Joe Pulitzer IV in 1989
Wm. Stage
Joe Pulitzer IV in 1989
Line of succession: (left to right) Joseph Pulitzer I 
through III
Line of succession: (left to right) Joseph Pulitzer I through III


This is part one of a two-part special report. Click to read part two, "Pulitzer's Gain."

"Woo worked himself the old-fashioned way: He sucked up to the boss," cracks a longtime veteran at the paper.

Another former scribe is a touch more diplomatic: "[Pulitzer III] liked elegant people, and Woo was both elegant and smart. Unfortunately, he was also a terrible editor."

After the China trip, the men were often in each other's company, meeting at least once a week to discuss the paper's editorial page. Few others in the newsroom had as much access to the reclusive Pulitzer III.

For many onlookers in the newsroom, the death knell for Joe first sounded in 1986, when his father stepped down from his role as editor and publisher and installed Woo as editor and Nicholas Penniman as publisher. It was the first time in the newspaper's history that the top two jobs had not been held by a Pulitzer.

"That was a big blow for Joe," remembers a close friend. "It was the beginning of the end."

Woo, now a journalism professor at Stanford University, denies he served as any official or unofficial member of the Pulitzer family and declines to speculate as to why Joe never inherited the family empire.

"I was Joe [Pulitzer III]'s editorial-page editor and editor, but I was never a member of the family," he says. "I haven't talked to the family in years."

The Writing on the Wall

The relationship between Joe and his father might not have been so distant, say friends, if Joe's mother, Louise Vauclain Pulitzer, had not died so young. She was just 54 when she succumbed to throat cancer, dying on her son's nineteenth birthday in 1968. Years later, Joe continued to talk of her absence.

"I think her death really had an impact on him," says Wiktor Szostalo, an artist who befriended Joe in the 1980s. "He mentioned several times to me that he missed his mother and that things were never the same since her death."

Five years after Louise died, Joseph Pulitzer III married Emily Rauh, then the curator of the Saint Louis Art Museum. Joe maintains a cordial, if less than familial, relationship with his stepmother. When visiting St. Louis, he stays in a friend's guest house in north St. Louis county rather than the Pershing Place or Ladue estates that Emily inherited following his father's death.

Emily is said to provide annual monetary gifts to all four of Joe's children, but she never fully embraced her stepson.

Several of Joe's friends speculate that Emily uses her massive wealth (she will receive more than $400 million from the sale of Pulitzer alone) as leverage against her stepson. They say that Joe, while disgruntled by the sale, has no access to the Pulitzer fortune and doesn't want to ruin his children's inheritance should Emily include them in her will.

Never one to showcase his wealth, Joe moved in the early 1980s from his Central West End home to a tiny house in the working-class neighborhood of Dogtown, a move that prompted mean-spirited chatter from family onlookers who saw it as a step down the social ladder.

"One would assume that, if you have a great deal of choice, why would you move to Dogtown?" says a family acquaintance.

By the late 1980s, Joe had traded in the beat-up blue station wagon for a Suzuki Samurai that leaked during rainstorms. His wife, Jennifer, drove an old Yugo.

"Jay complained from time to time that he didn't have any money," says a former colleague. "He had cousins who got a lot more income out of the Post-Dispatch than he did, and they didn't even work for the paper. He clearly didn't have much ownership stake."

Still, despite the fallout from his divorce and the installment of Woo as editor, Joe remained optimistic that the paper would be his one day.

"Joe talked occasionally of the succession of the paper," recalls Wiktor Szostalo, who would often accompany Joe on trips to his father's fourteen-acre Ladue to collect firewood. "He hoped that he would ultimately inherit the paper but understood that it didn't have to happen -- that the tradition of passing it down from generation to generation was no longer a foregone conclusion."

In public, his father paid lip service to the notion of his son one day assuming command. In a 1989 speech to members of prestigious business organization the Newcomen Society, Pulitzer III concluded his talk by addressing his son's involvement in the business.

"Family continuity continues with the fourth Joseph Pulitzer, my son, great-grandson of the founder, who joined the news staff in 1976.... He continues to sharpen his administrative skills as vice president of administration."

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