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Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson by Amanda Smith

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 September 20, 2011 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!

12 Responses

  1. That looks quite interesting. Have you read other books by Smith?

    • No, but I’m ready to recommend her. I do tend to get excited about chunky biographies of unknown-to-me people. (Am I weird?) They aren’t always great, of course, but sometimes I get immersed in someone whose lesser-known life turns out to be fascinating!

      • I inherited a few biographies of unusual, outstanding, and difficult women. West with the night was really fascinating, while the one about Isak Dinesen was sad in the end.
        My library doesn’t have this, so I put in a reader’s request. Here’s hoping!

  2. Oh, good! I just ordered this one for the library and debated putting it in the “popular books” section. I decided to, and it sounds like I made the right choice!

    • I’ll be interested to hear how much interest you get. I really enjoyed it, but it was no small undertaking, being 700-some-odd pages long. Not just anyone is going to pick this book up based on size alone. Then again, at the library where I work, I’m pleasantly surprised at the people who DO look for chunky biographies.

  3. Sandy, I’m so glad you mentioned West With the Night! It’s on my shelf and I can’t wait to get around to it.

  4. […] I can’t yet judge of this one); this will be my second newspaperwoman biography of the year (here‘s the first); and I like Rachel’s last name. The book begins with a prologue: Late […]

  5. Cool. Thanks! I’ve always been fascinated by newspapers and who runs then and writes for them. I also worked in the newspaper biz for a few years and loved it.

    • This was one of those biographies of a complicated, eccentric person we are likely to love (or pity) AND hate; and those are my favorite kinds of people to read about. And plenty of newspaper industry history: I learned a lot, and although you may know it already, I still think it’s a great read from both perspectives.

  6. […] in Forest Hills, Janet Malcolm Mr. Playboy, Steven Watts Hemingway’s Boat, Paul Hendrickson Newspaper Titan by Amanda Smith Share this:FacebookTwitterPrintEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  7. […] Hellman (see a recent biography, one of my favorite books of the year) and the Patterson family (another), not to mention of course threads that take me back to The Warmth of Other Suns, which is how I […]

  8. […] (and everything in between) in her lengthy and influential career. I am reminded somewhat of Newspaper Titan. But John Norris can tell it better than I can, of […]

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