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Monday, March 22, 2010

Was Joseph Pulitzer Gay? And Other Questions Prompted by New Biography

Posted By on Mon, Mar 22, 2010 at 3:32 PM

click to enlarge pulitzerbook2.jpg
Author James McGrath Morris is out with the most comprehensive biography to date on St. Louis Post-Dispatch founder and America's first media baron, Joseph Pulitzer.

Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power recalls chronicles the Hungarian immigrant's arrival to America his formative years engaging in media and state politics in St. Louis and his move to New York to build the largest circulation paper of its day, The World.

Morris is in town tomorrow night at Left Bank Books and Wednesday evening at the Missouri Historical Society to read from his book. (Details on the readings here and here.)

Last week Daily RFT caught up with Morris by phone to discuss our thoughts and reactions to a book that should be required reading for anyone foolish tenacious enough to take up a career in journalism.

Daily RFT: First question: What's up with Pulitzer's relationship early on in the book with his mentor and philosopher friend, Thomas Davidson? You seem to imply that they were more than just friends.

James Morris: I'm not sure I know the answer. The whole issue of sexuality in the 19th century is vastly different than ours. Men had a non-sexual intimacy that was permitted back then. You could hug, kiss or share a bed with a man and people wouldn't jump to the fact that you're gay. Thomas Davidson, in my mind, was a homosexual, but he himself would not use that word. I couldn't decide whether he had that type of relationship with Pulitzer. But Pulitzer had an extremely close relationship with Davidson that shaped his life. I'm sure Pulitzer was aware of his sexuality. And I know this because later in the book one of Pulitzer's male secretaries is arrested for soliciting male sex in Germany. Most employers would not tolerate that type of behavior. Instead, Pulitzer places the man in his London office, and when problems continue Pulitzer backs this man. My belief is Pulitzer's sympathy was from his sensitivity of knowing Davidson. For me the important thing was how Davidson influenced him and sensitized him.

Don't be confused by his professorial looks, Pulitzer was a brawler.
  • Don't be confused by his professorial looks, Pulitzer was a brawler.
It's seems almost surprising how easily Pulitzer landed jobs in media and was elected into state politics. What was it that made him so successful at such a young age, and what am I doing wrong with my life?

Well, I suspect that you're not a starving immigrant who self-selected yourself to move 3,000 miles away to a country where you knew no one. People like Pulitzer -- folks willing to give away homes far away and move to the U.S. -- had an all consuming drive that's different from people who are native to an area. That said, he also had luck. When he got chance to be a journalist he had the right sense at right time, and when he bought a bankrupt evening paper, he did it just as the evening paper was coming alive. He came to St. Louis when it was a German-speaking mecca. That's how he was able succeed.

What accounts for Pulitzer's incredible temper? You write that on two occasions he literally fired gunshots at his adversaries.

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