This Day in Jewish History / Joseph Pulitzer, Wanna-be Soldier and Little Man’s Champion, Dies

No, aliens didn’t kidnap Elvis: The Hungarian-born reporter briefly dabbled in yellow journalism at the expense of truth, but repented.

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Image of Joseph Pulitzer, superimposed on composite front page of his newspapers.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On October 29, 1911, Joseph Pulitzer, the Hungarian-born media baron who helped bring American newspapers into the modern age, and whose gift established both the Columbia School of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prizes it bestows annually, died at the age of 64.

Pulitzer was born on April 10, 1847, in the village of Mako, some 200 kilometers southeast of Budapest, in the Kingdom of Hungary. His father, Fulop Pulitzer, was a prosperous, Jewish grain merchant whose family had emigrated from the town of Pullitz, in Moravia, in the late 18th century. His mother, Elize Berger, was a Jew from Pest. (Biographer James McGrath Morris suggests that it was Joseph Pulitzer himself who was behind the disinformation that Elize was Roman Catholic, so as to weaken his identification by others as a Jew.)

When Joseph was 6, his father retired and the family moved to Budapest, where the boy enjoyed a privileged existence, including being educated privately. But when Fulop died, and Elize remarried, Joseph, then 17, decided to headed out on his own. His attempts to join several different European armies were turned down, so he sailed to America in 1864, having heard that the Union was paying foreign recruits to fight on its side in the Civil War.

Pulitzer joined the German-speaking First New York “Lincoln” Cavalry, which had been organized by German immigrant Carl Schurz. Several years later, after Pulitzer had moved to Missouri, it was Schurz who employed him as a cub reporter at the Westliche Post, the German-language newspaper he co-owned.

After the war’s end, Pulitzer bounced from job to job and place to place, before winding up in St. Louis. There, he applied himself to perfecting his English and to studying law, before becoming a U.S. citizen and joining the bar. He also joined the Westliche Post, and within several years became its managing editor and then in 1872, its owner. A year later, he sold the paper, at a profit.

In 1878, Pulitzer married Katherine Davis, a Mississippi-born cousin of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He also bought and immediately merged two rival St. Louis newspapers, creating the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which remained in Pulitzer family hands until 2005.

Busting corruption

At the Post-Dispatch that Pulitzer developed his style of populist, champion-of-the-little-guy, corruption-busting journalism. When, in 1883, he bought the struggling New York World, he perfected a blend of political progressiveness with heavy doses of gossip and entertainment, with great success: Within six months, circulation of the World climbed from 15,000 to 45,000, and by 1895, it had reached 600,000, making it the country’s biggest-selling paper.

After being struck by blindness in 1887, and developing a rare super-sensitivity to sound, Pulitzer withdrew from public life, and in general from his family. Largely confined to his yacht, the Liberty, he sailed around seeking cures for his ailments, communicating with his offices by code.

In the years 1896-98, he famously took the World into a circulation war with William Randolph Hearst, owner of the rival New York Journal, during which truth was the main victim, and the U.S. was dragged into the Spanish-American War – and for this reason, Pulitzer is remembered by many as one of the fathers of “yellow journalism,” although he restored the paper to respectability in short time.

Joseph Pulitzer’s story has many other twists and turns, and is rife with contradictions that allow for varied interpretations of his legacy. Most dramatically, he had a brother, Albert, who also came to America and also became a rival newspaper owner: It was he who sold The New York Journal to Hearst. Albert killed himself in 1909.

Pulitzer was aboard the Liberty, off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, when he died, on October 29, 1911.

In his will, Pulitzer left $2 million to Columbia University for the establishment of both a journalism school and the prizes that bear his name. The school was founded a year after his death, in 1912, and the prizes in 1917. Ownership of his newspapers he divided among his three surviving sons.