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FROM THE MOMENT, TWO WEEKS earlier,
when he had abandoned his banker’s gray and dark blue suits for officer’s
dress at the naval base in
Still a handsome man in his sixty-fourth year – and thirty-third as president and editor of the New York Herald Tribune – he had begun to show the ravages of disease and alcohol, but there had been little diminution of his great natural dignity. The broad shoulders of the athlete he had been in his youth and the trim build he had never lost gave him the appearance of height beyond his six feet. The noble head was high-domed, almost hairless now except on the sides, and his features conspired to produce a somewhat craggy aspect: the long, straight nose, the full lips, the good jaw, the fine dark brown eyes, large and wide-set, with their hint of melancholy. The patrician’s bearing was unmistakable; he moved slowly but left a sizable wake.
He watched with pride how his boy “Whitie” deftly handled
the controls of the four-engined navy Privateer, the patrol craft he had
flown ahead of the fleet during its steady westward advance across the
Pacific in the lately concluded hostilities. A boyish blond whippet even at
thirty-two, Whitie Reid had his father’s amiable and undemonstrative
disposition and former easy grace of movement. But the face, with the strong
cheekbones and the pale blue eyes that seemed to look through whatever they
beheld, were his mother’s. Whitie would run the Tribune someday soon enough, his father supposed, but the lad had
been in no great hurry for the prize; he was too discreet, too respectful,
too nice for that. In its 104 years of life, astonishingly, there had been
only three real rulers of the paper: Ogden,
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The skies thickened as they neared the coast of
Ogden Reid toured the vanquished enemy capital with Wilbur
Forrest, his companion on the trip and assistant editor of the Tribune, and found
They went for a relaxing weekend to the Fujiya Hotel, a
On dry land, he was less sure of his bearings. His sense of time, for one thing, was notoriously delinquent. It was often as if he dwelled in a world set off from other people’s. As they waited for him in the hotel lobby the next day, and waited and waited, Forrest said to Kelley, “He’s probably up in the room, and I’ll tell you what he’s probably doing – he’s checking his cigars, he’s checking his wallet, he’s checking his fly – and don’t quote me but he’s probably checking the legs on all the chairs.”
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It was not said unkindly. Bill Forrest had been Ogden Reid’s confidant for nearly fifteen years now – some Tribune staff people called the stocky, bronchial-sounding Forrest the owner’s bootlicker and some called him his nursemaid, but neither characterization quite caught the nuanced relationship. Forrest genuinely liked the man, for all the indignities the job imposed along with the honors and delegated power.
Just why Ogden Reid had won the goodwill of his staff was hard to explain to outsiders. On the face of it, he was not an especially admirable figure: he was neither dynamic nor politic nor generous nor even very personable, although his big hearty laugh would occasionally boom across the city room or down at Bleeck’s; indeed, he was nearly inarticulate. Bill Forrest was there to speak for him and write his letters and memos. Ogden Reid, to be blunt about it as few ever were at the time, was practically dysfunctional as the editor and head of one of the great newspapers of the world – and had been for nearly twenty years now. Yet his very nonfeasance had its uses; they liked him for what he was not. For all his inherited wealth and the high social standing it brought him, he was not a stuffed shirt. His shyness, common in rich men wary of why they are befriended, did not prevent him from appearing nightly in the city room and asking, almost as litany, “Anything unusual in the news tonight, gentlemen?” And he drank with them at Bleeck’s, although he often needed Bill Forrest or one of the other editors to identify the help by name. Ogden Reid was not a smart man, which was not to say he was dumb; there was just nothing quick or deep or penetrating about his intellect. But he was an aristocrat, and aristocrats were not required to be smart. Besides, his wife had enough brains for both of them.
What Ogden Reid was not, most of all, was an autocrat. There was none of the flamboyant arrogance of W. R. Hearst or other lords of the press. He ruled instead with a light hand, deferring to the able professionals who manned the paper and submerging what personality he had within the institution itself. He had, to be sure, enormous pride in the Herald Tribune – in its literate writing, its fairness and objectivity in reporting the news, its standing as guardian of the conscience of the Republican Party, of American liberties and the fruits of the free-enterprise system. The truth was that he thought of his newspaper not so much as a family property but as a public trust, a national treasure, not to be compromised on the altar of profits. If you had accused him of noblesse oblige, he would not have argued the charge but taken it, rather, as a commendation. The Herald Tribune may have been Ogden Reid’s personal property, but it was more important by far than anyone connected with it, himself included. What mattered most was that it should endure in ink-stained immortality beyond the life spans of those who created it new every morning. The owner performed his role as The Owner. He embodied traditions and sustained standards; his staff operated. It was an atmosphere that attracted and held competent men and women. Other newspapers were larger and paid better, but in terms of individual fulfillment, there was none better to work on.
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There was one other thing about him that not only deflected the sort of resentment American hired hands feel is their birthright against their employer – especially one like him who had had the operation handed to him on the silveriest of platters – but actually endeared him to them in a perverse way. Ogden Reid was a drunk.
Everyone at the paper knew it. It had been going on for as long as anyone could remember. There had been a few vain efforts to cure him of it, but as the years passed, he seemed to work less and drink more. He drank a lot, and he drank everything. At Bleeck’s he might start with a scotch and follow with the house drink, a “rye gag” (defined officially as “an old-fashioned without the garbage in it”), and then turn to the reporter or editor nearest him, ask what the fellow was drinking, and order two of whatever it was – one for each of them – and on into the night. He was not a mean drunk or a loud one and never made a spectacle of himself, except for falling down one time in the city room, and then no one knew which would be worse, to pick him up or leave him there; they turned away and left him, and those who watched out of the corners of their eyes reported that on hoisting himself upright, Ogden appeared grateful for having been ignored.
One unfortunate effect of his alcoholism was to curtail his outreach to the men and councils of power and to leave his newspaper something of a headless wonder. Nobody knew why a man who had so much to live for habitually drank himself into oblivion. Those on the paper who bothered to theorize suggested that as the overindulged son of overbearing parents with unfulfillable expectations of him, he had been driven into a marriage with an ambitious woman who, longing for him to prove his mettle on his own, managed in the long run only to disable him further. Whatever the cause, Ogden Reid retreated deeper into his own world as his life lengthened. He took refuge in his large corner office with his father’s portrait behind him, in his homes – the big townhouse on East Eighty-fourth Street, a few doors from Fifth Avenue; the family estate at Purchase in Westchester; Camp Wild Air, carved with rough-hewn elegance from the wilderness on the shore of Upper St. Regis Lake in the Adirondacks, and Flyway, the hunting lodge with its boggy surround in southeastern Virginia near the Carolina border – and his clubs, athletic or nautical or cultural but always social, including the Knickerbocker, New York Yacht, Lotos, Apawamis, Union, Brook, Century, Union League, Army and Navy, City, Pilgrims, Riding, and Players. Others were delegated to run the family philanthropy, which happened to be a famous old newspaper.
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He was on best behavior during the trip to the Orient,
where he had never been before, and Bill Forrest monitored him extra
dutifully as their pace quickened and their agenda grew more serious. They
spoke earnestly about freedom of the press to Japanese publishers, flew over
the ruins of
By the time they touched down again on American soil, they
had logged 30,000 air miles over seven weeks. No reporters waited at the
airport to interview him about his reflections on what he had seen and heard.
Instead, Ogden Reid was greeted by a long takeout headlined “The Trib’s Mrs.
Reid” in Time magazine’s “Press”
section. Pegged to the paper’s just concluded annual forum on current
problems that drew three days of overflow crowds to the grand ballroom of the
Waldorf-Astoria, the article noted the blue-ribbon roster of speakers,
including Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, Army Chief of Staff George C.
Marshall, and war-hero generals Jonathan Wainwright and Claire Chennault, on
hand to discuss the theme “Responsibility of Victory,” and called the unique
national assemblage the brainchild of “tiny, self-assured” Helen Reid. It
went on to paint her as a dynamic executive who kept two secretaries and two
phone lines clicking all day and used her lunch hour to sell advertisers on
the pulling power of her paper. She took pains to describe herself as
For one thing, his wife reigned over the Tribune at
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More to the point, why was nobody writing about how far
the paper had come under his stewardship? The New York Tribune was selling hardly more than 25,000 copies a day
in 1912 when Ogden took over after two decades of his father’s absentee
management; it was surviving at all only because of cash subsidies from his
mother’s inherited fortune. Under his editorship the process of rejuvenation
had begun, under him the Tribune
had bought out the Herald in 1924,
under him the seamless amalgamation had flourished. There had been seven
morning newspapers in
The achievement was undeniable. The newspaper Ogden Reid
came home to in November of 1945 was about to post pre-tax profits of more
than two million dollars for the third year in a row; it had never been more
prosperous. Finally they would be able to put in badly needed press units.
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In terms of financial health, the contest was not so
close. In sales, the Tribune at
war’s end had 63 percent of the Times’s
daily circulation and 70 percent of its Sunday edition – respectable figures
but hardly neck and neck. The Tribune,
in fact, ranked only sixth in circulation among New York’s nine citywide
papers, ahead of just three evening entries, the Sun, the Post, and PM. But its advertising revenues,
based on claims of high-income readership that was especially strong in the
most affluent suburbs, had climbed to 85 percent of the Times’s total that year, and it was being heavily used by the
carriage-trade department stores. Editorially, there was no denying the Times’s lead in strictly quantitative
terms – neither the Tribune nor any
other American paper approached it for the range or depth of its compendious
news product. It was thick, solid, comprehensive, and reliable. And it was
dull. Almost defiantly so. Its dullness to the eye and the intellect was
nearly a concomitant of its solidity. The Tribune
was a serious paper, too, but it had verve and was easier to read. The Times had no editorial writer with the
bite and edge of the Tribune’s
Walter Millis. Or war correspondent with the dash and grit of Homer Bigart.
Or critic in the arts like the brilliantly knowledgeable Virgil Thomson. Or
commentator on global events like the philosophical and sometimes profound
Walter Lippmann. Or sportswriter like this new fellow, Walter (Red) Smith,
whom Reid’s doughty sports editor, Stanley Woodward, had just imported to the
As he returned home, then, from his Pacific adventure and began what was to prove the last year of his life, Ogden Reid, for all his limitations, deserved credit for having skippered his craft ably, no matter whose hands were actually on the wheel. His taste and sensibility ever reassured the crew during the choppy voyage. The New York Herald Tribune, a marriage of two newspapers that, in their nineteenth-century youth, had done more than any others to create modern American journalism, was now at its apex of power and prestige. What follows is the story of how it arrived there and then, just twenty-one years later – its influence still felt in every newsroom in the nation – was gone.