Book about Dorothy Schiff reviewed

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History is made crisis by crisis, each small increment reported and recorded by the daily news media. What better way to live through, or re-live, mid-20th century history than by reading the life story of a great newspaper and its unconventional owner-publisher?

In “The Lady Upstairs,” Marilyn Nissenson, a veteran journalist herself, provides a scrupulously researched yet lively portrait of Dorothy Schiff and the New York Post, which she acquired in 1939 and sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1976. It is an especially enlightening journey for readers who know the Post only in its present incarnation—a 180-degree reversal of its liberal political stance during the Schiff years.

Ms. Nissenson interviewed more than 100 people and made effective use of the huge collection of original materials in the Dorothy Schiff Collection in the Manuscript and Archives Division of the New York Public Library to document the career of an often contradictory woman. Born in 1903, Dorothy Schiff was an heiress who wanted more from life than socializing, a de-facto feminist “who was more interested in being thought of as feminine than in being a feminist”—a powerful top executive nicknamed, of all things, “Dolly.”

Chapter one, “The Background,” introduces a lifelong spiritual mentor—Dorothy’s grandfather Jacob Henry Schiff, patriarch of one of the most prominent German-Jewish families at the turn of the 20th Century, renowned investment banker and philanthropist, an early partner in Kuhn, Loeb and Company. Though she would take a very different political path from this staunch Republican, Dolly would continue to honor his achievements and idealism. When she resumed using her family name after the third of her four marriages, the writer Geoffrey Hellmann characterized her as a “Don’t give up the Schiff-Schiff.”

Throughout her life, Dorothy believed that her parents favored the boy child, her younger brother over “just a girl.” She found her mother distant and unloving. As a young adult, she resented the separation of the sexes after dinner parties and conceived a determination to “get into the smoking room,” where she was sure that world-shaking events were being discussed while the ladies talked about babies and housekeeping. Small wonder she escaped, at a young age, into a marriage that did not last but did produce two children.

It was Dorothy’s second marriage, to George Backer, a political activist much involved with Jewish causes, that got her into the “smoke-filled room.” Backer was convinced to acquire the newspaper by a friend and fellow-politico. Both wanted the then money-losing Post to become a leading voice for the Democratic Party. Dorothy’s considerable inherited wealth gave the young couple the means to begin a rescue effort that would take years and literally millions of dollars. Nevertheless, Dorothy Schiff had discovered her life’s passion—the newspaper business.

By 1939, married to husband number three, Ted Thackrey, she was in full control as editor-in-chief and publisher. She oversaw every single operation, from editorials to advertising, with minute attention, from her penthouse suite at the paper’s headquarters. She was “the lady upstairs.”

Ms. Nissenson expertly guides the reader through the next tumultuous decades, as seen through the editorial lens of the increasingly successful New York Post. (The author here provides a very helpful feature: footnotes on the relevant page, instead of in an appendix.) There are thrilling history lessons—from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency and World War II, to the establishment of the new state of Israel; the Cold War and the infamous doings of Joseph McCarthy (whom the paper helped bring down); the Civil Rights movement, which the Post supported; the Vietnam War, which it opposed.

As publisher, Dorothy Schiff is rightfully credited with championing the careers of star reporters and columnists such as Max Lerner, James Wechsler, Pete Hamill, and the financial expert Sylvia Porter.

She knew, of course, everyone. Photographs in the book show the slim, exquisitely-dressed, perfectly-groomed, discreetly-bejeweled publisher with Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson, the Kennedys—and Henry Kissinger, by whom she was “fascinated, but not won over,” according to the author.

Dorothy Schiff’s personal life was the stuff tabloid newspapers like her own thrive on. She had flirtations, dalliances, romances, and affairs between and during marriages, in the United States and in Europe. A relationship with President Roosevelt may or may not have been an “affair,” but the one with Lord Beaverbrook, the British newspaper mogul, definitely was.

Ms. Nissenson’s book is frank but not sensational. She also gives touching accounts of the loving family relationships Dorothy Schiff maintained throughout her life with her three children and their children.

The reader comes away admiring both subject and biographer.

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