The exhaustive–but not exhausting–biography of a complicated and difficult woman, heiress to a newspaper dynasty and a fascinating and controversial figure.
Amanda Smith’s (Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy) exhaustively researched biography of Cissy Patterson begins several decades before her birth, with her grandfather Joseph Medill and his creation of the Chicago Tribune. The extended family of Medills, Pattersons and McCormicks would be newspaper royalty for several generations; but perhaps none cut a stranger figure than Cissy.
Eleanor Medill Patterson, known as Cissy, led was born in 1881 into a fractious, influential newspaper family and married a dissolute Polish count who turned out to be broke and who kidnapped their daughter, Felicia. With great effort and the interventions of powerful political figures from around the world, she regained her daughter and divorced. The countess then had a series of unsatisfying relationships and grew estranged from Felicia; published two acclaimed novels; and married a Jewish man despite her apparent anti-Semitism and eventual sympathy with the Nazi cause in World War II. Late in life, she began a newspaper career as journalist, editor and, finally, publisher and owner of the enormously successful Washington (D.C.) Times-Herald, which she created out of two failing papers. When she died in 1948, alcoholic, vindictive and erratic Cissy left a fortune, including ownership of the Times-Herald, whose disposition was held up by court battles sparked by conflicting wills and accusations of her insanity.
Called “perhaps the most powerful” and the “most hated” woman in America in the 1940s, Cissy’s fascinating and curious life is examined here in detail. But this lengthy book is never boring, because its subject is such an outrageously flamboyant and historically significant figure.
This review originally ran in the Sept. 20 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!