Friday, March 25, 2016


Walt McDougall's This is the Life: Chaper 12 Part 1

This is the Life!


Walt McDougall

Chapter Twelve (Part 1) - The Wolf Enters the Fold

In 1892 I received the following letter:

July 5th, '92.

My dear McDougall:

I think you are getting to be a very good boy—pictorially and humorously—unillustrated as well as illustrated— Now don't this spoil you [sic]—but please go on; and go downstairs to Brother Shaw, when you take your vacation, and upon showing this, he will give you two weeks' extra pay.

This may, I hope, help you to have a good time.
With cordial good wishes,
Faithfully yours,
Joseph Pulitzer. 

This was written in his own handwriting and at a period when his historians seem to be agreed in stating that he was totally blind. I remember that he had already become a sort of absentee proprietor. This and one other are the only letters that I ever received from him. The other was in response to one written to him at the time of his daughter's death a few months after my own daughter died. The 1892 letter reveals him in a light in which, it seems, none of his biographers were lucky enough to photograph him, simple, kindly, uncritical, just as I had always known him. Intending one day to frame the letter, I placed it in my coat pocket, and it thus escaped the fate of all my household effects, which
were burned in 1910.

By '96 the effect of J. P.'s system of dual management had produced a condition of office politics which reacted upon the World's owner and which might well have been the cause of the seemingly constant irascibility ascribed to him.

In the spring I had gone to Punta Rassa with Henry Guy Carleton tarpon-fishing, and met J. P. with William H. Merrill in Washington quite accidentally, when he told me that he had been informed by Brisbane that nobody in the office knew my whereabouts, whereas everybody should have been aware that I was on my regular vacation, it having always been my claim that a spring vacation is the best—if taken in Florida. This illustrates the condition of things in the World office.

J. P. was as pleasant as usual, although I swiftly learned that he was on the warpath, he having just discovered while at Jekyll Island that his paper again was being barred by the public libraries, the fact having been innocently disclosed by a lady in conversation with him. It had been carefully kept from his knowledge by his family and secretaries, and upon his arrival in the golden dome he made many discoveries which should have revealed to him the weakness of his system of espionage and divided responsibilities, but it only made him more strenuous in keeping tabs upon each of his aides and stricter in requiring a daily account of everything published in his paper. Things were lively around the office for a few days, but, the goats having suffered the penalties, J. P. departed and matters soon assumed their original shape, that of a cutthroat contest between a number of ambitious, jealous, hard-working and able men, whom it would be cruel to name. The old-time family feeling among the workers had by this time altered to a state where ill-concealed enmities or open combat prevailed in every department; one editor had gone insane, Bill Nye died, Nellie Bly had departed and married, Nym Crinkle left and took to writing books under another nom de plume after marrying the beautiful Isabelle Urquhart of the Casino, Henry Guy Carleton deserted to write plays, Reginald De Koven to write light opera, and somewhere about this period J. P.'s son Ralph, an awkward, gangling youth with a pale complexion, entered Journalism, taking a course in each department of the paper. He began his career in the art department, then managed by Folsom, perhaps considering it the very lowest level, but, having no artistic talent, he merely gained a knowledge of its general routine.

A busy year! No sooner had I returned from Florida than a number of the galaxy started for the Republican Convention in St. Louis—Creelman, David Graham Phillips, Brisbane and myself. A long hot trip in a forward May, and the train stopped in East St. Louis at the long bridge crossing the Mississippi, the cautious engineer deterred by ominous portents on the western shore. A few of us descended to the track and were rewarded by the sight of a tornado of the first magnitude making havoc not of a tiny wooden hamlet, but a great city of stone. We could see the black tail of the tornado twist and flay as it swept along hurling immense fragments of brick and granite aloft, whole stories of the tall buildings of the business section, plucking them up like feathers, twisting back on its course sharply now and then, as if to snatch an overlooked morsel, and rebounding twice or thrice clear from the city so as to show a livid space of sky. It seemed like a compact mass, balloonlike, yet alive, of a mingled purple and chocolate hue veined with saffron streaks.

We newspaper men deplored the engineer's craven caution that held us back for the best part of an hour, but when we entered the city and beheld the full horror of the disaster, we were rather grateful that he had not ventured out upon the bridge. It seemed as if colossal harrows of steel had ripped away portions of solid granite structures as if they were papier-mache, dead bodies were everywhere amid the piles of splintered timbers, brick and stone, and it seemed as if the whole city had been destroyed; yet, withal, the greater part of the city had escaped serious damage, and with it, unless my memory errs, the Convention Hall.

A few days later, while in the World box with Phillips, William Jennings Bryan, then working for the Omaha Bee, emerged from the understage depths and asked me if I could get him a seat, as his boss, Mr. Rosewater, had taken his. I told him to occupy Creelman's seat in our box, as Jim would not use it. So, for two or three days, the last days of obscurity for the Boy Orator of the Platte, he sat there and took obvious pride in his good fortune. I had met Bryan a year or so previously, when he came to New York to obtain a job as press agent, and had given him a letter to Mark Twain and Frank Mayo (then putting on "Pudd'nhead Wilson"), addressed to Nick Engel's Cafe.

He departed without telling me the result of his quest, but some time afterward I asked Mayo if Bryan had looked him up. Mayo recalled him and said that he had declined to employ the applicant although he seemed to have plenty of nerve and energy. "Why didn't you hire him?" I asked.

"He looked too damn much like an actor," responded Mayo, frowning.

William J. was two years younger than I but far more imposing and serious. He was not conceited, however, at that time; simply a rather troubled opportunist of the country lawyer-journalist type, concerned more immediately with a meal ticket than anything else and wearing the long-skirted coat, flowing tie and broad-brimmed black hat affected then by all politicians, gamblers, ministers and undertakers west of the Mississippi. I did not attend the Democratic Convention but "faked" a lot of sketches of well-known Democrats and stole off to Greenwood Lake for a few days' bass-fishing and, while there, was tremendously amused when the railroad telegrapher informed me that one William Jennings Bryan had been nominated by the Democratic Convention. I told him that he had probably mistaken the signature on a newspaper dispatch for that of the nominee.

Pulitzer promptly disowned him, and Bryan intimated to my brother Harry that I had influence enough with my boss to have prevented such action had I cared to exert myself! He would not notice me for two or three years, and in the next campaign, when Hawthorne and myself, representing the Philadelphia North American, traveled on his train when he stumped New York, he never invited me into his private car. Eventually, however, he mellowed with increasing age and our friendly relations were resumed.

At this period the aspect of Newspaper Row began to alter. The shabby buildings were refurbished, stores superseded saloons, and restaurants faded away. Ann Street lost the last of its famous gambling houses, "Number Eleven," long a downtown annex to "818 Broadway," the most prominent in town, lingering until the last. At 818 one might see all of the city's best-known sports every night, the same who frequented Daly's Club House at Long Branch and Canfield's at Saratoga. Here one night I encountered Murat Halsted and William Berri of the Brooklyn Eagle, both plainly out of their element and as interested as two hayseeds. A little later, as I was about to withdraw, having lost all interest in the proceedings, I perceived the two sitting at the roulette table with amazing stacks of yellow chips before them. As Halsted raked in another stack, I edged up and asked him if he knew what the chips were worth. With a wide and boyish grin he confessed doubt, but thought they were a quarter each.
"Those yellow chips are twenty dollars and the blues five and the whites one dollar. Cash in, for God's sake, and skip!" I urged feverishly.

He paled, nudged Berri, and the two hastily cashed in several hundred dollars apiece and agitatedly withdrew with me. They had each bought five dollars' worth of chips just to enjoy the unwonted sensation, and had won at almost every roll of the marble. The episode gave me the plot for a page story published in the Sunday paper, entitled "Number Eleven," which was my first attempt at newspaper fiction.

At this time ended the career of Ross Raymond, a celebrated crook who managed somehow to maintain certain connections with newspapers which aided his nefarious schemes. He was a handsome man of affable yet dignified mien, who slightly resembled the then Prince of Wales. He was a frequenter of my studio occasionally, but made no attempt to victimize me, for which I was duly grateful when his character was exposed. Long afterward I learned that for many months Raymond had impersonated me in various haunts of pleasure about town so successfully that I had acquired a reputation in certain dubious quarters as a high roller without having to earn it. I never could understand his purpose in thus masquerading, but had his career been unchecked his motive might have become apparent. I believe he ended his days in prison.

That summer, when President McKinley was the guest of the Plattsburg Hotel on Lake Champlain, he invited me to spend a week there. In turn I extended the invitation to Maggie Cline, whose uproarious song "Throw him down McClosky" was then convulsing the town. A pleasant time was had by all, Mrs. McKinley, although an invalid, taking a sincere delight in the antics of the big, straightforward and wholesome Irish lassie. I took several long walks with the President and found him much changed from the jolly open confiding friend of previous years. When I commented on the change, he explained at considerable length how the responsibilities of the Presidency burdened him and how he had become chary of speech because every word he uttered was likely to be distorted. He asked me if I would like to be one of the commissioners to the Paris Exposition, but I told him that Pulitzer would very likely oppose my accepting the position. We were seated deep in a wood when Cortelyou, his secretary, found us and notified him of important visitors waiting at the hotel. I think I shocked both Cortelyou and Major Pond, the military functionary at the White House, that evening by earnestly asserting that I would not be President for twice the salary. I saw the President only once afterward, two or three weeks before the Republican Convention in Philadelphia, when he congratulated me with great good humor on at last getting a job on a Republican newspaper, where I naturally belonged.

Although politics was like a religion to William McKinley, he never, like Wilson, was suspicious and wary of every man whose views differed from his. To me the tariff was a monstrosity and a pest as well as a puzzle, but my divergence from his most cherished belief merely amused him; Wilson would never have admitted me to his presence if I had dared to say that I opposed one of his pet notions.

The flood tide of the bicycle craze was now flowing in and New Yorkers, for the first time in their lives, were becoming acquainted with local geography; Long Island had been explored even to Greenpoint, Feather Bed Lane became a family word, every Sunday train returned from New Jersey at night with two baggage cars loaded with bicycles carried free as baggage, and in the city certain thoroughfares such as Eighth Avenue were already provided with yard-wide concrete side-paths for the sole use of wheelmen. At night this avenue was a spectacle! Two moving processions of fire-flies, alluring and impressive.

I resisted the lure until I had exhausted its possibilities in comic art, but having to make many advertising illustrations, for some of which I received wheels as bonuses, I secretly took lessons in an uptown riding academy in order to surprise my children. In this academy I saw a lady barred from riding a man's wheel because she wore bloomers! It was a great moment, that, when I nonchalantly pedaled up to my dooryard in Glen Ridge on one of Stearns's yellow wheels, attired in the most approved biking costume, and I got an immense kick out of it. After that, most of my afternoons were devoted to this, the greatest of outdoor sports.

Lillian Russell
Riverside Drive and the Boulevard, now Broadway, were daily and nightly thronged with riders of every class, from the gaunt and dusty "century riders" in from the Merrick Road to the wobbly beginners from Fourth Avenue accursed of all. Cliques there were already to be distinguished by the expert; from the beautiful Lillian Russell, who welcomed the wheel as a flesh-reducer, although she ate enough each night at the Claremont to add all she had taken off by day, down the long list of actresses and actors, lawyers, politicians and journalists like slim Willis Holly with his flowing streamline whiskers or austere William Shelton, the Salmagundi Club's author, to the younger members of the Four Hundred, even to aged and dreaded Judge Mott, with whom one night, after a regal banquet, I pedaled down the Drive through piles of boxes that looked like the debris of a cyclone, and demonstrated that a good judge well lit up needed no lamp. One might behold everybody of consequence and good legs in the metropolis.

It had all previous crazes totally eclipsed for magnitude and endurance. Old and young were infected, and as a result a demand for better roads was created which, starting in Union County, N.J., spread through the whole land and never subsided, making the advent of the automobile possible.

I published and sold 100,000 copies of a little guidebook entitled "Fifty Miles around New York," which were so completely absorbed that I never saw but three riders using the worthy little volume on the roads. I think this was the happiest period of my life; with different enthusiasts I penetrated into the unknown roadways of the land, on one trip as far as Chicago, on another to the Virginia battle-fields and the Mammoth Cave. For five or six years I almost completely forsook salt water and became really an expert rider, although I never went in for speed as did my nephew Duncan McDougall, who became the world champion.

I think I possessed enough saddles, lamps, cyclometers, bells and other devices to stock a shop. In a comic-supplement page devoted to the humors of the craze, I depicted various means of utilizing the wheel, such as attaching it to a grindstone, a circular saw and a coffee mill, and a few months later was presented with a large scarlet coffee mill, patented, which the makers thereof ingenuously assured me had been devised entirely from my picture! They are still selling these mills in rural communities.

It was only when the Negro element invaded Riverside Drive on wheels that the New York upper classes abandoned it and resumed horseback riding, but far into the next century certain obdurate and persistent characters persisted in the use of the wheel. Franklin P. Adams, the well-known columnist, then on the Mail, even when his muscles were flexed from age, used to ride down Eighth Avenue and Mulberry Street daily in an unremitting but unavailing protest against the rapidly increasing horde of smelly gas-wagons, until at last, aided by a greatly increased salary from the Tribune, he reluctantly joined the ranks of the joy riders.


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