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Joseph Pulitzer and His Most “Indegoddampendent” Editor

July 2024
21min read

Once there was an institution called, simply, the World . By the first decade of this century it had won a place in American life somewhat like that occupied by the New York Times today. It was the most influential newspaper in the biggest city in the land. Unlike the Times , which does not appeal to the masses, the World wore a double crown: it also had the most readers of any morning newspaper in the United States.

A chronic invalid who could not see well enough to sign his name owned the paper and ran it. Joseph Pulitzer set foot but twice in his gold-domed structure, briefly the tallest in Manhattan, an enormous sentinel guarding the business end of the Brooklyn Bridge. Yet the stamp of Pulitzer’s volatile personality was on that building, on each of the some 1,800 men and women working there, on every edition of the morning, evening, and Sunday Wolds that poured out of it—especially the morning: that was the World .

Frank Irving Cobb was well aware of all this on Monday, May 9, 1904, the day he first rode one of the two big hydraulic elevators fourteen stories skyward to the editorial floor. Office lore had it that one of the first visitors to scale these heights, when the building opened in 1890, had peered into a door and inquired, “Is God in?” Cobb undoubtedly was more circumspect. Besides, he knew perfectly well that Pulitzer was away —at that moment soothing his embattled nerves at Aix-les-Bains in the French Alps. Cobb was greeted instead by William H. Merrill, the scholarly old editor, and introduced around as the newest member of the editorial staff. For a boy born in Shawnee County, Kansas, raised in the timber country of upper Michigan, and schooled on the newspapers of Grand Rapids and the still hick town of Detroit, the altitude must have seemed a trirle giddy.

Frank Cobb would rue that day, and so would Joseph Pulitzer. Then again, both of them would later come almost to cherish it. It began a relationship that was stormy but productive, and at times even touching. It brought together the man commonly accounted the architect of the modern American newspaper, and liis foremost editorialist.

Cobb, of course, was unknown, but in due course he would be considered by Woodrow Wilson and many other discerning readers as the editorial writer of his generation. An odd reflection of this is that when he died, members of the staff expressed genuine sympathy for the poor chap who had to succeed him, even though the successor was a bright prospect who had already made a mark: his name was Walter Lippmann. As for Pulitzer, by 1904 he rather enjoyed his status as a kind of hall-remembered legend. Since he never appeared in public, a lot of people thought of him (as he himself noted, with sardonic humor) as long since dead. But there was no one who hadn’t heard of him, or felt the impact of his work.


By birth Pulitzer was Hungarian, the well-tutored son of a Jewish grain merchant in Makó, who died young, and of a Catholic mother, who soon remarried. At seventeen, he arrived in this country in time to serve in Mr. Lincoln’s army during the final months of the Civil War. Then he roustabouted in St. Louis. He worked ferociously for a German-language paper there, studying English on the side. By the time he reached New York, still in his mid-thirties, this wiry, nervous apparition had served in the Missouri legislature; courted and married Kate Davis, a distant, aristocratic, and quite ravishing cousin of the former Confederate president; and bought himself a decrepit evening paper at auction and immediately merged it with a fearful competitors to form the St. Louis Post-Dispatch , which he turned into a lusty, crusading sheet that minted money. In the course of all this, Pulitzer had absorbed the ideas and ideals of democracy to an extent that, to the more sober burghers of the time and place, seemed positively alarming.

A great change has come over the American Negro’s attitude toward the w’hite man’s government during the last four years.… He is no longer submissive but aggressii’e, and while this change has its grave dangers to the Negro himself, it is an inevitable consequence of the failure of local and State Governments to administer even-handed justice. It is the fashion to attribute most of the recent race riots to economic rivalry betw’een ichites and blacks, but economic rivalry is no new thing … and this conflict is bound to go on as long as the two races compete for their daily bread. Rivalry, however, is not riot, and back of all these miniature civil wars which disgrace the Nation from year to year is the breakdown of government and the denial of due process of law to the Negro. Lincoln said that tliis government could not endure half slave and half free. It cannot endure with one law for the white man and another law for the black man. There must be one law for both, and until there is one law for both every community of mixed population is living under the shadow of threatened anarchy. Cobb in the Wolrd , June 3, 1921

Upon this apparent chump Jay Gould, the fancy financier, performed the characteristic feat of unloading a losing property for which he no longer had use, the New York World . To the surprise of almost everyone, notably Gould, Charles Anderson Dana of the Sun , James Gordon Bennett, Jr., of the Herald , Whitelaw Reid of the Tribune , and the solemn proprietors of the Times , the World became the biggest tiling of its kind within two years. Pulitzer accomplished this with a bewildering mixture of political and general news, crime reports, crusades, stunts, human-interest stories in which women in various forms of distress and disarray predominated, plenty of illustrations of these and other matters of interest, cartoons, and editorials that thundered at the plutocrats and exalted democracy. The World ’s climb gained extra spurts through such Pulitzer strokes as promoting Grover Cleveland for President before others gave him a tumble and (more memorably) converting the erection and dedication of the Statue of Liberty into a triumphant World promotion by raising from its readers the money for the pedestal which Congress had failed to appropriate. (Thenceforth a vignette of the statue graced the World ’ nameplate, lest anyone forget.)

Swift success was followed by personal tragedy. Exhausted by a political campaign in November, 1887, Pulilzer was struck down by nervous prostration and a detached retina in his one sound eye. The rest of his life became a nightmare of doctors’ consultations, insomnia, monumental headaches, asthma, chronic indigestion, nerves that jolted him at the first hint of noise, fits of rage and of despondency. Pulitzer, a man of explosive energy, endured all this while trapped in a twilight that faded slowly into total darkness.

From the first, the doctors agreed on one point: he must stay away from the World , the farther the better. Pulitzer obeyed, but alter a few disastrous attempts at cutting himself oil altogether, he contrived to keep in touch with his paper no matter where he was—usually at Mar Harbor in summer, in Europe during spring and fall, at Jekyll Island. Georgia, in winter, and (dangerously) in New York between seasons. Others edited, sold the advertising, signed the contracts for newsprint and presses. But the voluminous Pulitzer papers now at Columbia University testify that matters of moment down to the hiring of an assistant city editor, and many that were of no moment, were settled by a telegram, cable, or memorandum signed “J. P.”

Thus Pulitzer and Cobb were apart most of the time, and that was a mercy. They possessed, said a witness of their relationship, “much the same vociferousncss of manner, headlong speech, and trick of over-assertion.” He might have added other explosive characteristics they shared: savage independence in politics, contempt for mediocrity, fluency in the art of cursing (H. L. Mencken’s American Language credits J. P. with “indegoddampendent”), and a fierce devotion to the proposition—one hopes it does not sound quaint—that a daily newspaper damned well ought to he a mighty engine of social progress.

Pulitzer already knew about the new boy in school. J. P. had been hunting a successor to Merrill, whom he had taken to addressing as “My Dear Old Man” for more than two years. In typical Pulitzer fashion, the search became exasperatingly thorough. He had commanded Don Seitz, his able lieutenant, to send him reports on every editorial writer in New York. Xone would do. Seitz and others had scanned out-of-town papers fruitlessly. When Samuel M. Williams, one of J. P.’s favorite reporters, bet that he could find the right man, Pulitzer dispatched him forthwith on a cross-country quest that ended with a few spirited lines he found in the Detroit Free Press . Williams tracked down the author and sent an enthusiastic report to J. P., only to be ordered to interview the innocent prospect again and yet again. What did this Cobb look like? What had he read? What did he know about American history? How were his table manners? “Search his brain,” Pulitzer told Williams, “for everything there is in it.” And please send more editorials.

The word from Detroit was that Frank Gobb looked like a lumberjack, which was logical, because that was what he had been. Big, powerfully built, and carelessly dressed, he had a thatch of tousled hair that obscured a broad brow; his eyes were straightforward and intelligent, his jaw becomingly belligerent. As to his reading, writing, and table manners, the President of the United States could testify. Passing through Detroit once, Theodore Roosevelt had been so taken by a Cobb editorial on the unlikely subject of Scandinavian literature that he loo had inquired for the author and had him to lunch. On another occasion. Cobb had challenged T. R. on some point of American history now lost to the ages, and carried the day.

Pulitzer absorbed all this, and listened impatiently to batches of Cobb editorials read to him in relays by the harried young men who served him as secretaries. Hack went the verdict. Cobb was “too prolix … not incisive, terse, and direct enough.” Let Williams tell him so—test number one. Cobb retorted, “Few newspaper publishers are willing to give an editorial writer time to be brief.… I sometimes think the time varies inversely with the square of the length.” J. P. summoned him to Jekyll Island that March, then sent word to Merrill that, come May, Gobb was to go on trial at $100 a week.

The probation lasted about two years and included, along with several raises and some compliments, comments by Pulitzer that he had to leave the room for a breath of air after listening to Cobb’s efforts; that they made him sick ( a colloquialism he used frequently and often meant literally); that Seitz should present to Cobb a beautifully made set of miniature silver scales as a reminder to weigh his words more meticulously; that Cobb’s irony turned out as flippancy; that he was guilty of “silly schoolboy recklessness, overzeal and lack of restraint”; and that (on the other hand) he tended to favor a remote academic issue over a “concrete, burning one.” For his part, Cobb on at least one occasion chose to ignore J. P.’s orders for an editorial. When Puliizer inquired pointedly at what hour his instructions had been delivered, Cobb wrote Seitz that he could inform the boss they had arrived at 11 P.M. , and, “not being a damned fool,” he had not attempted an editorial at that hour; Cobb expressed resentment at “insinuations that he is neglecting his work,” and said he had “no excuses or apologies to offer.”

By December of his first year, the new boy knew he would be around for a while. Old Merrill dutifully reported to Pulitzer that he had read at least thirty editorials in other papers on Roosevelt’s annual message to Congress, and “not one of them seemed to me equal to Cobb’s in discrimination, fairness, and style.… I do not know of so capable and promising a young man for the first place.” Seitz and others were equally enthusiastic. J. P. ordered that Cobb be signed to a three-vear contract and had him come by for a talk.

The World Almanac for 1920 has already been printed and tens of thousands of copies have been distributed and cannot be recalled; but the Almanac again contains the Declaration of Independence, and the new Sedition Bill as agreed to by the House Judiciary Committee provides that any person shall be deemed guilty of a felony “n>ho either orally or by writing, printing or … shall otherwise teach, incite, advocate, propose or advise, or aid, abet or encourage forcible resistance to or destruction of the Government of the United States.…” Now, unfortunately, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is defiantly seditious.… The World can easily suppress the Declaration of Independence in all future editions of the Almanac, but in the mean time the mischief has been done for 1920 and the seditions utterances of Thomas Jefferson have been scattered to the four corners of the country. For any evil consequences that may ensue … we can only beg for mercy and for such consideration as the Department of Justice may graciously grant.… January 13, 1920

The result was that Cobb was to take turns at running the editorial page, a month at a time, alternating with the milder-mannered John L. Heaton under Merrill’s fatherly eye. “Mr. P. agreed to be patient of blunders,” a memorandum about the arrangement concludes ominously, “if Mr. Cobb would be patient of criticism”—a large order either way. Mr. P. soon upset this routine, first by giving Merrill a long vacation, then by easing him out, and from time to time by depriving Cobb of his monthly turn, the worst punishment he could inflict.

Each August came the dreaded invitation from Chatwold, the Pulitzer estate at Bar Harbor. During these visits the blind man sought to pick his editor’s brains, instruct him, and chart the World ’s course. J. P. functioned best while in motion, either astride a favorite mount with his editor at his side, his watchful groom following, or cruising about the coves of Frenchman Bay in his big electric launch. He would pull news clippings, editorials, and memoranda from his pockets, thrust them at Cobb for reading, question him sharply, and then deliver a torrent of comment. When they got home he usually ordered his editor to write a report of the points he had made, to be certain they had penetrated. World editors and executives tended to pale at mention of Bar Harbor.

Whatever these visits did to the editor, in February of 1906 he wrote Pulitzer that the owners of the Detroit Free Press had offered him carte blanche and a piece of the paper to get him back, and that the offer was too good to refuse. This was in the mail to Jekyll Island when a telegram from there crossed it: “ HAVE JUST READ WEDNESDAY’S CRAZY PAGE AND IT HAS MADE ME SICK .” Cobb had run a slashing attack on New York’s Rapid Transit Board. It was, said Pulitzer, a splendid board; Cobb must run “a double-leaded paragraph expressing regret for your intemperance of language.” Cobb did nothing of the kind. As soon as J. P. returned to New York, the editor sent him a onesentence letter in an envelope marked “Personal and Immediate.” It was as terse as Pulitzer could ask:

Dear Mr. Pulitzer:

I hereby tender you my resignation to take immediate effect.

Respectfully yours, Frank I. Cobb

An urgent call on the private line from the Pulitzer mansion on Seventy-third Street fetched Seitz, and the two set out for a drive in Central Park in a snowstorm —a measure of J. P.’s agitation, for normally he would not venture outdoors without, at least one secretary’s weather report. What to do about Cobb? The bluff, pugnacious Seitz had grown fond of Cobb as a man after his own heart. (A typical J. P. telegram upbraiding him had come to his desk a few days before with an impish line added in Cobb’s hand—“Now will you be good?”) Still, Seitz saw no use in holding Cobb to his contract against his will, and said so. Pulitzer held his peace. The carriage completed its circuit. As it reached the Seventy-second Street exit he said quietly, “I liked that young man. I liked the way he swore.” The carriage turned up Fifth Avenue, half a block from home. Suddenly, in a voice full of fury that Seitz could never forget: “Go back to the office and tell that goddamned young fool I will not let him resign, goddamn him!”

Cobb took the news with a grin. Two days later J. P. came through with another raise, adding, by way of trying for the last word, that this was to be considered an inducement for better editorial writing. There were no last words between these two. Cobb gave Pulitzer to understand, in thanking him when the next raise came, that money was no object. “My tastes are rather simple,” he wrote. “What I care most about money is not having to think about it.”

Where did the World stand, in these years of its glory? Perhaps a paragraph from a Cobb editorial sums it up as well as anything can:

There is seldom more than one vital issue in American politics—government for Privilege versus government for the People. That is the beginning and end of the trust question, of the tariff question, of the financial question, of the conservation question, of the boss question.

On the equally vital issue of individual liberty versus a strong central government, the paper veered, like conservatives today, toward liberty. Pulitzer had no use for states’ rights arguments, but he wanted the federal government to be guided by Congress and the courts rather than by a strong executive branch. His sympathies lay with the underdog and hence generally with the Democrats, yet he was too independent to go down the line with them. He deplored the party’s addiction to William Jennings Bryan, whom he thought crazy on the silver issue and lacking in executive ability. The dark horse he and Cobb favored, with increasing ardor from 1906 on, was Woodrow Wilson. In New York politics, the World fought Tammany in season and out. Twice it helped elect that doughty Republican Charles Evans Hughes to the governorship, having pushed him into prominence in the first place as an investigatoi of the life-insurance company scandals it exposed in 1905. Toward the Republican Roosevelt, the paper was at times cordial, even enthusiastic. It hailed his trust busting, and was perhaps the first to nominate him for the Nobel peace prize for helping settle the Russo-Japanese War. Later, however, Pulitzer’s conservative view of the Presidency was offended by what he considered T. R.’s jingoism, immodesty, and intemperate speech; J. P. flayed Roosevelt, in one of his many rapid-fire (and equally intemperate) talks with Cobb, as “a flamboyant, roughriderish, bullyboyish, cowhiding swashbuckler.”

On most political issues, Cobb and Pulitzer saw eye to eye, but that left plenty of other subjects for combat. On April 10, 1907, his sixtieth birthday, Pulitzer resigned as president of his two publishing companies, in St. Louis and New York, in favor of his eldest son, Ralph. From his retreat on the Riviera he cabled a farewell message which, while designed to be read at employees’ dinners in the two cities, embodied a stirring statement of his philosophy of journalism and was clearly addressed to the world at large. He had polished it for days. In St. Louis, the Post-Dispatch printed it—and indeed continues to print it in capital letters under its masthead on the editorial page. In New York, other papers published the message, but not the World . Cobb would have none of it. J. P. had already resigned as editor of the World in another ringing statement back in 1890, early in his invalidism. One resignation was enough. Besides, Cobb knew better than anyone that Joseph Pulitzer could not for the life of him resign in any meaningful sense as long as he breathed. Why pretend? The blind man fairly howled with rage, but the deed was done. Cobb would run the message in his own way, and in his own good time.

Mr. Roosevelt is mistaken. He cannot muzzle The World.… We repeat what we have already said- that the Congress of the United States should make a thorough investigation of the whole Panama transaction, that the full truth may be known to the American people.… This is the first time a President ever … proposed, in the absence of specific legislation, the criminal prosecution by the Government of citizens who criticised the conduct of the Government.… If The World has libelled anybody we hope it will be punished, but we do not intend to be intimidated by Mr. Roosevelt’s threats, or by Mr. Roosevelt’s denunciation, or by Mr. Roosevelt’s power. December 16, 1908

Notwithstanding this episode, the climate abruptly improved. The following month J. P. sent word from Carlsbad that he had actually enjoyed the editorial page of late, “and particularly enjoyed your brisk, vigorous letters.” What in the world had come over him? The answer was delightfully simple. In writing Pulitzer the letters he demanded, Cobb had at last struck a tone that made his anguished employer laugh. One Cobb letter that month ran this way:

… Am devoting most of my energy to helping [Governor Charles Evans] Hughes, and nobody needs help more than he does. He is improving in many things, however. Coming down from Albany the other day he said to [Louis] Seibold [chief of the World ’s Albany bureau]: “God damn that man Hearst.” Then he repeated it three times. That’s doing very well for a hard shell Baptist who has been superintendent of a Sunday School.

It is only less meritorious in its way than Roosevelt’s remark to Tim Woodruff [a G.O.P. wheel-horse in New York] about Oswald Villard [publisher of the Evening Post ]. Something was said about Villard and the Evening Post , and Woodruff asked Roosevelt if he knew Villard. T. R. snapped his jaws together and gurgled: “You will excuse my French, Woodruff, but he’s a s-n-of-a-b-tch.”

I believe this is all the village gossip there is this week.

Samples of Cobb’s dry wit spiced life for the Chief as the two grew more closely attuned. Once Cobb scribbled, “This might interest Mr. Pulitzer” across the top of a letter from a reader, and sent it along; the letter began, “There is at least one thing for which your paper stands alone—its silly editorials.… You need an editorial writer, and badly, at that.” When J. P. blistered Cobb for failing to read an editorial in the New York Herald , Cobb sent him a statement solemnly swearing that he had done so—attested by the World ’s notary public. There was this gentle ribbing after a bet Cobb won: “By the way, I collected that Panama hat, which you told me to get, but … do you think an editorial writer can wear a hat like that, and retain his full measure of sympathy with the toiling Democratic masses?” And this, reflecting their avid interest in American history: “I am sending you Franklin Pierce’s Federal Usurpation … God help him, he seems to be a Jeffersonian Democrat, which in this day is quite as ridiculous as being a mastodon.” A Cobb epigram for J. P. on what we now call the Progressive Era: “There will soon be nothing left to reform except the weather.” Cobb to Pulitzer on New York’s Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr., son of the Civil War general: “He is the son of his father. Just as he starts to do something it rains, and he has to go back into camp again.” Cobb on William Randolph Hearst during a mayoralty campaign: “We are trying to treat Hearst ‘without prejudice,’ as you say, but I confess it is a damned hard job so far as I am concerned. I am prejudiced against Hearst.… Some day I shall consider it a precious privilege if you will lift the lid and give me permission to scatter his intestines from the Battery to the Bronx.”

A few years later, the subject of mayoral candidate William J. Gaynor, who was to succeed the drear McClellan, inspired these lines for Pulitzer’s private delectation: “Our friend, the ‘Christian jurist,’ will probably be elected. He has done what he reasonably could do to defeat himself, but the time was too short.… If he is really sane, I doubt if anyone was ever crazy; yet there is much to be said in favor of having a lively lunatic at the head of the city government for four years. Nothing has been gained by a safe and sane administration; so it is possible that an energetic crazy man could do some good.”

Lincoln once said that this Republic was founded on the rule of “root, hog, or die,” and women are no less amenable to that principle than are men.… The woman who is sheltered today may be working in a factory tomorrow to support herself and her children. Hunger knows no sex. Want knows no sex. Necessity knows no sex. Property knows no sex. Only the ballot box knows sex.… In the steady sweep of democracy the time will come when the present opposition to woman suffrage will seem as short sighted and senseless as the former opposition to manhood suffrage now seems. March 14, 1915

Part of their new-found rapport rested on Cobb’s talent for poking fun both at himself and at his hypercritical mentor. “Seitz is away on vacation,” he confided, “and I have nobody to quarrel with. That is very depressing.… I shall soon be 40 years old, and that is the most depressing thing of all. Forty is ten years older than 39, although I believe you hold to the theory that everybody is a damned fool until he is 40, and not necessarily very intelligent after that.”

Wary of subordinates who got swelled heads, Pulitzer never bestowed on Cobb the title of editor of the World , which Merrill had worn. Criticism continued like a drum beat, issue after issue. Now, however, it was sprinkled with “my dear boy” (once he called Cobb “my adopted son,” sending him, as he had to sons Ralph and Joseph, Lord Chesterfield’s Letters ), and his tone mellowed perceptibly: “And now forgive me and light a cigar and do read the news and pick out the right facts,” or, “Forgive me dear boy, child, son, anything affectionate, but why call McClellan all these names?… Is it consistent with your dignity as an unbiased judge?”

How much even these tempered admonitions would grate upon a man of Cobb’s intellect and spirit may be surmised. Periodically he sent Pulitzer his resignation, which J. P. simply ignored. In the end, the sulphurous old man’s personal magnetism, courage in adversity, and total devotion to the paper and its causes—progressive causes like vigorous antitrust enforcement (Pulitzer wanted jail terms), lower tariffs, the direct election of senators, the adoption of a graduated federal income tax, and the elimination of campaign contributions by corporations, in all of which Cobb deeply believed—could not but hold his editor, head and heart, to the fire. J. P. ran a far more rigorous school of journalism than any of the formal ones his famous legacy to Columbia served to inspire, and the discipline he imposed, in Cobb’s case almost always in the direction of restraint and fair-mindedness, unquestionably served to mold a greater editor.

Cobb even came to wear his scars proudly. “Four years ago today,” he wrote Pulitzer on May 9, 1908, “I began work on the World. You will believe me, I know, when I say I would not barter these four years for any other years of my life.” Pulitzer did believe him, for by now he knew his man. In December of that year, the two held a long skull session aboard J. P.’s new ocean-going hospital, the colossal steam yacht Liberty , off New York Harbor. Cobb’s long memorandum of the conversation shows the forever dissatisfied one insisting that “the news treatment of politics and allied subjects must be raised, in temper, tone, accuracy, restraint, and moral courage, to the level… [of] the editorial columns.” Accordingly, Pulitzer outlined an experimental plan to make Cobb his overseer of both the news and editorial departments, “to the end that Mr. P.’s principles of journalism shall be… indelibly stamped upon the news columns… and that if possible the Pulitzer tradition shall remain with the World long after Mr. Pulitzer and also Mr. Cobb are dead.” The scheme never quite materialized, but it suggests the publisher’s esteem for Cobb. “The Page” was enough for Cobb. “You once said that there was more joy in making an editorial page than in anything else you knew of,” he wrote Pulitzer in 1910. “I fully agree with you.”

Not that editor and publisher had achieved permanent sweetness and light. They did enter a solemn compact, according to Seitz, “not to get mad at each other at the same time.” It went for naught. After a furious dispute aboard the Liberty once, Pulitzer ordered Cobb put off at Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, well after dark. The captain of the ship pointed out that there was no transportation to New York at that hour. Pulitzer shot back that his orders were to be obeyed, a boat was lowered, and Cobb was duly deposited on the lonely shore. (How he got home that night the records leave us to imagine.) Ralph Pulitzer’s dutifully recorded memorandum of another set-to aboard the Liberty shows that his father bridled when Cobb spoke of another editorial writer as helpful because he knew Mr. P.’s mind. No one knew his mind, snapped Pulitzer. If that were the case, Cobb retorted dryly, then Frank I. Cobb ought to be drowned.

Reflecting Pulitzer’s insistence that the editorial page stay abreast of the day’s news—he would throw a tantrum or accuse his editors of deliberately torturing him if the paper failed to comment on a major news development, no matter how late the news broke—Cobb worked incontinently long hours. Reading, researching, interviewing, briskly testing ideas and phrases on others in the corridors, in the city room, in the World ’s restaurant, keeping a hawk’s eye on all the other papers as he shaped his leader, he would turn to it only at the eleventh hour, locking himself in his small room in the dome and battering his typewriter in pent-up fury. His first marriage having ended in divorce, he gave up his home in Staten Island in 1909 and moved into a West Side flat, the better to follow this regimen, and though for years he smouldered over the injustice of the long hours, he finally admitted to Ralph Pulitzer that J. P. was right: the World was completely au courant , and there was nothing like it anywhere.

At length, Cobb appeared to be buckling under the strain. “Take entire week off for needed rest,” J. P. cabled in the spring of 1911. Two days later Pulitzer forgetfully cabled him fresh instructions (“more short, talk-making editorials for Sunday page”) and questions for immediate response. But that summer, Pulitzer gave his editor a six-week vacation in Europe, a trip that Cobb, by this time drawing a lordly $250 a week, could easily have afforded himself. J. P. not only paid his way, but took pains to instruct the captain and chief steward of the Baltic to look after him. (When J. P. gave an order, the whole White Star line snapped to attention, because for years he had been the firm’s most prodigal customer.) Cobb dutifully sat at the captain’s table and was all but suffocated with service. This and weeks of lazing in the English countryside restored him.

Pulitzer greeted Cobb’s first efforts upon his return with glee. Buy a hundred first-class cigars on me, he wrote, “but don’t… smoke more than three daily for your health.” Cobb bristled at such largess at times, but he did get the cigars—“I’m smoking two a day, thus showing my power of self-restraint.” There were still a few left, at that rate, when word came from the Liberty in Charleston Harbor that Joseph Pulitzer was dead.

Writing the World ’s valedictory to its publisher on October 30, 1911, Cobb remembered the message he had spiked four years earlier. ”… Mr. Pulitzer’s idea of a great newspaper was concisely expressed in a cablegram … on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday—An institution which should always fight for progress and reform; never tolerate injustice or corruption; always fight demagogues of all parties; never belong to any party; always oppose privileged classes and public plunder; never lack sympathy with the poor; always remain devoted to the public welfare; never be satisfied with merely printing the news; always be drastically independent; never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty.”

Except in the Post-Dispatch ’s circulation area, where J. P.’s words sound as brave and as pertinent as they did in 1907, there is a ring of pathos in them because “always,” in the case of the World , turned out to be less than twenty years after Pulitzer’s death. (The Scripps-Howard people bought what was left of it in February, 1931.) But there was never anything pathetic about them to Cobb. Editor of the World at last, he held the paper to its creed for the rest of his tragically brief life. No editor in the land more effectively championed Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom” before the First World War, nor his course during that war, nor the League of Nations after it. Cobb remembered, too, Pulitzer’s prophetic admonition less than two months before he died: “Be kind and gentle with Woodrow Wilson, but when he goes astray, lead him back.” No one criticized Wilson more discerningly, on the very points most historians do today—the too-partisan call for a Democratic Congress in 1918, the failure to include notable Republicans like William Howard Taft and Elihu Root on the peace commission, his toleration of Jim Crowism in government departments (for which Cobb blistered him to some effect), and the sad delusion that he might run again in 1920.

Perhaps O. K. Bovard, the celebrated managing editor of the Post-Dispatch , who was another battlehardened graduate of Pulitzer’s personal school of journalism, had it right. The light really went out of the World, Bovard noted privately years later, on December 21, 1923—the day Frank Cobb died of cancer. In his own way, Cobb deserves the eulogy he gave Woodrow Wilson at the conclusion of the moving editorial that filled the whole page of the World on Wilson’s last day in office. They are the words of Paul the Apostle to Timothy:

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

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