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?

In private, however, the relationship between father and son remained cool. Months before his dad's death from cancer in May of 1993, a friend remembers telling Joe that it was time the two "kiss and make up.

"Joe scoffed at the idea," says the friend.

If the blow of not becoming editor or publisher of the paper was difficult for Joe, then his father's last will and testament must have been even harder to swallow. Pulitzer III left all his ownership in the company to Emily. Probate court records show she inherited more than 4 million shares in Pulitzer Publishing Co., which at the time included the Post-Dispatch and the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson, as well as seven television stations and one radio station. All told, the shares had a market value of $124 million.

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."

What Joe got was some of the family artwork, including a bronze bust of his great-grandfather by Auguste Rodin (valued at the time at $50,000) and a portrait of his mother, Louise Pulitzer, by artist Rufino Tamayo (valued at $250,000). He also received his father's one-quarter interest in a vacation home in Maine that was jointly owned by several cousins, aunts and uncles. Joe later sold his interest in the house to pay for his Wyoming home. All told, Pulitzer III left his son a few hundred thousand dollars' worth of property -- from an estate valued at nearly $130 million.

"Everything went to Emmy," comments a friend. "It was sad."

While Emily became the largest single shareholder in the company following her husband's death, administrative power went to Michael Pulitzer, Pulitzer III's half-brother, who'd served as president and chief executive of the company since 1986. After his brother's death, Michael became chairman of the board.

Known more for being a businessman than a journalist, Michael quickly moved to undo many of his older brother's legacies, including the hiring of William Woo, who was often at odds with publisher Nicholas Penniman.

"Joe wasn't cold in his grave for long before Michael sacked Woo," recalls Eliot Porter.

The news was heralded by many in the newsroom, who viewed Woo as aloof and reluctant to go to bat for reporters on controversial stories. His vacancy led to a national search for an executive editor. By then, Joe wasn't even on the radar.

Following his father's death, Joe stayed at the paper for two years, but it was now evident to everyone that he'd never lead the company.

"He was given to feel like he had been sidelined, even though he had put in damn near twenty years in the company doing what he was told -- moving to Jefferson City and Washington, D.C., following the company orders, being the good soldier," says a friend.

In his private life, Joe sank into despair. Friends say he became a heavy drinker, often overindulging in his favorite elixir, Evan Williams bourbon, at dinner parties and social gatherings. His anger no longer in check, he became truculent and argumentative. His marriage to Jennifer began to crumble.

"By just being here I think he felt he was advertising himself as a loser," a friend ruefully recalls. "Here you have this name, Joseph Pulitzer, and it's an incredible burden living up to the traditions of that name. Whenever he met people they'd be impressed with the name and ask about his place in the company. It made him feel like shit."

Finally, in the spring of 1995, friends say Joe asked his uncle Michael for a face-saving way to leave the company. Though Pulitzer did not return phone calls requesting comment, his son, Michael Pulitzer Jr., parrots the official explanation given at the time of Joe's departure.

"Joe was happy at the paper and made a career decision to leave," maintains Michael Jr., who manages one of the family's former television stations in North Carolina. "One has a sense of respect and pride in the name Pulitzer, but one seeks happiness in one's own way, and the third generation of Pulitzers -- my father and Joe's father -- always encouraged us to pursue one's own interest."

Reached for comment prior to the news of Pulitzer's acquisition by Lee Enterprises, Michael Jr. said the potential sale of the company was unfortunate, but added that the true legacy of the Pulitzer name lives on in the Pulitzer Prizes.

"It's the prize that people respond to," he said. "It's a broader legacy. It's the lasting legacy."

Still, most of Joe's friends wish he'd had the opportunity to take control, especially in light of the sale. They say he had the editorial smarts, even if he may have lacked the business acumen of his father.

"Everyone was so intent on Joe staying away from the business, but what's the good if they could only keep the company in the family for just twelve years after his father's death?" remarks a friend. "I don't think Joe would have done worse than that."

Another close confidant provides a less sugar-coated synopsis of his friend's unrealized potential. "He was brought up a spoiled rich kid who never had to bust his ass or give a shit, but then neither did his father. As an only child, the paper was either going to be Joe's or nobody's. His father at least had his half-brother, Michael, to compete with."

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