Eleanor Medill Patterson
Eleanor Josephine Medill "Cissy" Patterson (November 7, 1881 – July 24, 1948) was an American journalist and newspaper editor, publisher, and owner. Patterson was one of the first women to head a major daily newspaper, the Washington Times-Herald, in Washington, D.C. Beginning her life as a socialite, without any serious interests, Patterson seemed an unlikely figure to have major impact on society other than through scandals. After a disastrous marriage, and widowed by the death of her second husband, she turned to the newspaper industry, becoming editor for William Randolph Hearst's failing Washington Herald. Eccentric in her style of work as in her life, Patterson found her calling in journalism, becoming the first woman to successfully run a major American daily newspaper. Due to her efforts, the paper became successful, quickly doubling its circulation, and she bought Hearst's other paper, the Washington Times, merging them into the Times-Herald.
Patterson's life inspired other women that they could do great things despite the expectations for their gender. However, she failed in her personal and family life, and died alone and unhappy. For women, such as Cissy Patterson, to truly succeed in empowering women and using their talents for the benefit of society, their family life also needs to be successful.
Elinor Josephine Medill Patterson was born in Chicago, Illinois to Robert and Nellie (Medill) Patterson. She changed the spelling of her first name to "Eleanor" as an adult, but her childhood name "Cissy" stuck with her from the moment her brother declared it. Biographers believe that Patterson's admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt could have been a motivation to change the spelling of her first name.
Her grandfather, Joseph Medill, was Mayor of Chicago and owned the Chicago Tribune, which later passed into the hands of her first cousin Colonel Robert R. McCormick, Joseph Medill's grandson. Her older brother, Joseph Medill Patterson, was the founder of the New York Daily News.
Cissy Patterson was educated at Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut. When her uncle, Robert S. McCormick, was named ambassador to Austria-Hungary, she accompanied him and his wife, Cissy's maternal aunt Kate, to Vienna. While in Vienna, Patterson met Count Josef Gizycki and fell in love with him. The romance continued upon her return to her home in Washington, D.C.
In Washington, Patterson was a leading light in society, where the press labeled her, together with Alice Roosevelt (daughter of Theodore) and Marguerite Cassini (daughter of the Russian ambassador), as the "Three Graces." Count Gizycki came to America and married Patterson in Washington D.C. on April 14, 1904, despite the objections of her family. On September 3, 1905, Cissy gave birth to their daughter, Leonora Felicia. Cissy and Felicia went with the Count to his home, a huge feudal manor in Russia.
Cissy attempted to leave after enduring marital strife, but the Count aggressively tried to prevent her departure. She fled with their child, hiding her in a house near London, but the Count pursued her and kidnapped the little Countess, hiding her in an Austrian convent while demanding a million dollars in ransom. Cissy filed for divorce, which took thirteen years to obtain, and in which William Howard Taft and Czar Nicholas II were personally involved; the Czar ordered the Count to return the child to her mother.
After her experience abroad, Cissy moved to Lake Forest, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, but she returned to Washington D.C. in 1913. In 1920, her brother Joseph finally succumbed to his sister's entreaties and allowed her to write for his New York Daily News, founded the previous year. In April 1925 she married a Jewish New York lawyer, Elmer Schlesinger, and commenced a career as a novelist. She published two novels, romans a clef, Glass Houses (1926) and Fall Flight (1928). Her marriage was failing, when her husband died of a heart attack in February 1929.
True to her unpredictable nature, Patterson then made a mid-life career change that left its mark on American journalism history. From 1930 she began the most successful part of her life, as editor of William Randolph Hearst's Washington D.C. paper, the Washington Herald. Despite her lack of experience and apparent lack of interest in life outside the social scene, Patterson quickly assumed the role of activist editor. In 1940 Patterson was the only woman editor/publisher of a large metropolitan daily newspaper in the United States.
Patterson's personal problems continued, however. She feuded with her daughter, who publicly "divorced" her in 1945, and with her former son-in-law, Drew Pearson. Alienated from her family and friends, she turned to alcohol and secluded herself at her home, Dower House, near Marlboro, Maryland. On July 24, 1948, Patterson died alone from the cumulative effects of alcoholism. Throughout her life, Patterson had lied so often about her age that her obituary listed her birth date as 1884—three years later than her factual birthday.
Patterson tried to buy the Washington Herald and the Washington Times, then separate papers, from Hearst. Although he had never made money from his Washington papers, Hearst refused because he hated to sell anything, even when he needed the money. However, at the urging of his editor, Arthur Brisbane, Hearst agreed to make Patterson editor of the Herald. She began work on August 1, 1930. Patterson was a hands-on editor who insisted on the best of everything—writing, layout, typography, graphics, comics, and so on. She encouraged society reporting and the women's page and hired many women as reporters. Patterson covered many of her papers' stories herself, interviewing well-known people such as Albert Einstein and Al Capone. In 1936, she was invited to join the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Patterson made her paper popular with all strata of Washington society and doubled its circulation.
In 1937, Hearst's finances had worsened and he agreed to lease the Herald and the Times to Patterson with an option to buy. Eugene Meyer, the man who had outbid Hearst and Patterson for The Washington Post in 1933, tried to buy the Herald out from under Patterson but failed. Instead, she bought both papers from Hearst on January 28, 1939, and merged them as the Times-Herald.
Along with her brother at the New York Daily News and her cousin at the Chicago Tribune, Patterson was an ardent isolationist and opponent of the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1942, after the Battle of Midway, the Times-Herald ran a Tribune story that revealed American intelligence was reading the Japanese naval code. Roosevelt, furious, had the Tribune and the Times-Herald indicted for espionage but backed down because of the publicity, charges he was persecuting his enemies, and the likelihood of an acquittal (since the Navy's own censors had twice cleared the story before it was published). During World War II, Cissy and her brother were accused by their enemies of being Nazi sympathizers. Representative Elmer Holland of Pennsylvania on the floor of the United States House of Representatives said Cissy and Joseph Patterson "would welcome the victory of Hitler."
Upon her death, Patterson left the Times-Herald to seven of her editors who sold the paper to her cousin, Colonel McCormick, within a year of her death. McCormick held onto the paper for five years, and, although for several years he seemed close to returning it to profitability, it eventually proved to be too much of a financial drain. After quietly sounding out several other publishers, McCormick opted to sell the paper to Eugene Meyer, owner of the rival Washington Post. The Times-Herald was merged with the Post, called the Washington Post and Times-Herald for a while. However, the Times-Herald portion of the masthead was eventually dropped. While the Cissy Patterson's paper did not survive, it was Eugene Meyer's daughter, Katherine Graham who took over the Washington Post, further expanding recognition of the role for women in the world of newspapers that Cissy had pioneered.
In an article for the Columbia Journalism Review, James Boylan evaluated Eleanor Medill Patterson's impact upon American journalism:
If the public good of her life had been weighed at age fifty, it might not have been substantial. If she had lived out her days as she had lived her first five decades, she would probably not be remembered much more vividly than, say, her cousin Medill McCormick (who was, after all, a United States senator). But she is remembered, and it is largely because she ran the Herald (later the Times-Herald), the first woman, it is said, to head a major American daily newspaper.
- Patterson, Eleanor Medill (as Eleanor M. Gizycka). 1928. Fall Flight. New York: Minton, Balch & Co.
- Patterson, Eleanor Medill (as Eleanor M. Gizycka). 1926. Glass Houses. New York: Minton, Balch & Co.
- Jean C. Chance, Cissy "Eleanor Medill Patterson" Dictionary of Literary Biography. Retrieved February 19, 2008.
- James Boylan, "No Sissy She." Columbia Journalism Review, 19 (May-June 1980): 81-82.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Healy, Paul F. Cissy: The Biography of Eleanor M. "Cissy" Patterson. Doubleday, 1966.
- Martin, Ralph G. Cissy. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1979. ISBN 978-0671225575
- Young, Robert Clark. "The Richest Girl in the World" (excerpt). The Southern Humanities Review Spring 2005, Auburn University Southern Humanities Council
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