Patterson, Eleanor Medill (1881–1948)

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Patterson, Eleanor Medill (1881–1948)

Editor and publisher of the Washington Times-Herald who was one of America's leading press magnates, the first woman to possess such status. Name variations: Cissy Patterson; Eleanor M. Gizycka. Born Elinor Josephine Patterson on November 7, 1881, in Chicago, Illinois; changed name early in life to Eleanor Medill Patterson; died on July 24, 1948, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of Robert Wilson Patterson, Jr. (a newspaper editor) and Elinor Medill (an heiress and socialite); aunt of Alicia Patterson (1906–1963, founder of Newsday); married Count Josef Gizycki (a cavalry officer and playboy), on April 14, 1904 (divorced June 1917); married Elmer Schlesinger (a corporation lawyer), on April 11, 1925 (died February 1929); children: (first marriage) Leonora Felicia Gizycka (b. 1905).

One of the most controversial individuals in the field of journalism, in 1940 Cissy Patterson was the only woman editor and publisher of an American metropolitan daily. Moreover, she made her Washington Times-Herald the first multiple-edition daily newspaper in the United States. Some obituaries referred to her as "the greatest editor in America" and "the most powerful woman in the country."

Patterson's many-sided personality always aroused controversy. Arthur Brisbane, her journalistic father-confessor, called her "The Bird of Paradise." Times-Herald staffer Adela Rogers St. Johns thought of her as the reincarnation of Queen Elizabeth I . Gossip columnist Walter Winchell found her "the craziest woman in Washington, D.C." To Time magazine, she was "the most hated woman in America." An erratic, lonely person, whose impulsive cruelties could match her admitted kindness and talent, Patterson once referred to herself as "just a plain old vindictive shanty Irish bitch."

Cissy Patterson was born Elinor Josephine Patterson in Chicago on November 7, 1881. While still a youth she adopted the name Eleanor Medill Patterson. Her brother gave her the nickname Cissy, an appellation later adopted by the press but personally only by close friends. Patterson's family was among Chicago's blue-bloods. Her father Robert Wilson Patterson, Jr., advanced from a night telegraph operator to managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, and was later its publisher. Unhappy in marriage, he was a heavy drinker and spent long sessions in a sanitorium. Her mother Elinor (Nellie) Medill Patterson was a prominent socialite and the daughter of Joseph Medill, owner of the Chicago Tribune, a founder of the Republican Party, and an early backer of Abraham Lincoln. Cissy's brother, Joseph (Joe) Medill Patterson, founded the New York Daily News. Also later receiving prominence were her cousins, Medill McCormick and Robert (Bertie) Rutherford McCormick, the sons of her mother's sister Katherine Medill McCormick and Robert Sanderson McCormick, heir to the McCormick farm-equipment company; Medill and Bertie respectively became U.S. senator and publisher of the Tribune.

Cissy found her father indulgent, her mother a cold social climber. She loved Grandfather Joseph Medill most of all. Her youth centered on the family's 91-room mansion in Chicago, summers in Newport, and frequent trips to Europe. At age 15, she enrolled as a student at Miss (Heloise) Hersey 's School in Boston, after which she attended Miss (Sarah) Porter 's school in Farmington, Connecticut.

As a young woman, the tall, slender Cissy Patterson was striking, and throughout her life she was the center of attention. Notes Lynne Cheney , "Her nose was a little too upturned, her forehead a little too broad for classic beauty, but her red hair, elegant figure, and proud bearing helped her dominate whatever room she entered."

Patterson's entry into European court society came at age 21, when she joined her uncle, Robert Sanderson McCormick, in Vienna, where he was American minister, then ambassador, to Austria-Hungary in 1901–02. At age 22, she fell in love with the 35-year old Count Josef (Gizy) Gizycki. Tall, thin, and arrogant, Gizycki was a Polish noble whose urbanity, charm, and good looks matched his passion for gambling, horses, and women. Although his title was Austrian, his family owned estates in eastern Poland, a territory then belonging to Russia. After a whirlwind courtship, in which Gizycki followed her from one continent to another, Patterson finally won the consent of her reluctant parents. On April 14, 1904, they were married in Washington, D.C.

After the initial burst of passion had worn off, it became clear that the debt-ridden Gizycki had married Patterson for her $30,000-a-year income. Blansko, his "castle," lay in Nowosilica, a muddy village inside the Russian border lying halfway between Warsaw and Odessa. The first thing to strike her on arrival was the number of village children who looked like her husband. The "castle" resembled nothing so much as a huge dilapidated barn; even the windows lacked curtains and shutters. Suddenly Patterson found herself extremely lonely, a stranger in her own house. Soon Gizy was saying to Cissy:

You have no money, you have no children, you have no sense. You are no good as a wife. You bore me to death. And when your papa returns, I'll ask him to do me the favor of taking you back to America with him.

For several years, Patterson endured Gizycki's philandering. "He was a sensualist," she later recalled. "He simply lived for the senses, exercising and wine and women, that's all he cared for." Yet on September 3, 1905, she had a daughter, Felicia Gizycka (her last name was a feminine form of Gizycki). In January 1908, at the French resort of Pau, Gizycki beat Patterson during a quarrel about his women, and she fled to London with baby Felicia. She once wrote, "I had a longing to get away from this man, whom I hated, and whom I wished dead—or myself dead—anyway to be free of this man who had become my master from the first day I saw him."

A few months later, the count and some accomplices, disguised in fur and goggles, took the tiny Felicia from her nursery in Hampton and hid her in a convent in Austria. Headlines all over the world read COUNT KIDNAPS BABY, and Patterson suddenly became a celebrity. Several months later, she persuaded president-elect William Howard Taft to appeal directly to Tsar Nicholas II. Upon revisiting his Russian castle, Gizycki was briefly jailed by the tsar's police. In August 1909, Patterson returned to the United States with her daughter, and in June 1917, after an eight-year legal tangle, she was granted a divorce. Throughout her life, Cissy could never get close to Felicia. When Felicia married journalist Drew Pearson in 1925, Cissy herself found Pearson attractive, and remained friendly with him even when, in 1928, the marriage ended in divorce. Felicia would bitterly attack her mother in the novel Flame of Smoke, a damning account of a New York sophisticate who serves as guardian of her bewildered niece.

After Patterson returned to the U.S., she lived the life of a socialite, dividing her time between Chicago, New York, and Washington. Over the years, her name was linked with a number of prominent men, often married. Among these were the German ambassador, Count von Bernstorff; Senator William E. Borah (Rep.-Idaho); Nicholas Longworth, Speaker of the House of Representatives and husband of Alice Roosevelt Longworth ; diplomat William E. Bullitt; newspaper editor Walter Howey; and Thomas Justin White, general manager for the Hearst chain.

In August 1916, experiencing severe emotional strain, Patterson traveled to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where she took up big-game hunting, mixed with the community, and even adopted the garb of a typical Westerner—man's shirt, boots, britches, and a five-gallon hat. She bought a ranch at Flat Creek from a new lover, cowboy and former rustler Cal Carrington, who had been illiterate until age 21. In 1921, Patterson was the first woman to shoot the Salmon River rapids, called "The River of No Return."

In 1926, Patterson's first novel, Glass Houses, was published in America. Three years earlier it had been published in French under the title André en Amérique and serialized in the Revue de Paris. Using the name Gizycka, she offered a witty if cruel satire on Washington society. Readers familiar with her private life easily identified Senator Borah, Alice Longworth, Cal Carrington, and Cissy herself. After Gizycki's death in Vienna in 1926, she wrote Fall Flight (1928), a fictionalized account of her youth and marriage.

Meanwhile, on April 11, 1925, she married Elmer Schlesinger, heir to a Chicago department-store fortune. A Harvard-educated corporation lawyer whose clients included the Chicago Tribune, Schlesinger was counsel for the U.S. Shipping Board. As both Patterson and Schlesinger possessed abundant means, they leased an apartment on Fifth Avenue, bought Vincent Astor's 47-acre estate at Sands Point, Long Island, and traveled in a luxuriously fitted private railroad car. In 1927, while the executive mansion was receiving a new roof, Calvin and Grace Coolidge stayed at Patterson's Washington mansion, 15 Dupont Circle, which Coolidge found larger than the White House. The Patterson-Schlesinger marriage too became shaky, for both husband and wife possessed more than their share of narcissism. Elmer soon lost himself in high-pressure business deals, while Cissy was swept up in Washington's social whirl. In February 1929, Schlesinger died of a heart attack on a golf course in Aiken, South Carolina.

Again adrift, Mrs. Eleanor Medill Patterson—the name she assumed again after 1929—considered

a career in journalism. Writes biographer Ralph G. Martin, "Her life had largely been a world of self-indulged impulses: another trip, another house, another lover." Yet she approached her friend Arthur Brisbane, the most widely read columnist in America, the richest newspaper employee, and the right-hand man of William Randolph Hearst. Brisbane persuaded Hearst to hire Cissy as editor of his Washington Herald. Fourth in circulation among the capital's five dailies, the Herald had long been operating at a loss. Forgoing his usual drive for profit, Hearst wanted a morning paper that could, he hoped, influence one of the most important readerships in the world.

On August 1, 1930, Patterson assumed the post, in the process declaring that she shared her publisher's opposition to Prohibition, the League of Nations, the World Court, and naval disarmament. Though Hearst was her hero, she often disregarded his orders, refusing to run some of his syndicated editorials and features and designing her own format.

Entering the newspaper business as a novice, Patterson seemed at first merely to be seeking attention, as for example in her personal attacks on Alice Longworth. Other erstwhile friends also became subject to her public wrath, including son-in-law Drew Pearson, who was one of her columnists; Walter Winchell, also a columnist for her paper; and Cabinet member Harold Ickes, once a frequent dinner companion.

She was an American duchess, a product of her times, personifying in her many lives a whole succession of romanticized heroines … innocent heiress abroad, western sportswoman, feuding editor and swashbuckling boss.

—Paul F. Healy

But Patterson learned the trade quickly. Ruling with an iron hand, she revamped the entire operation. Notes biographer Martin, "Within a year, she had made it the most provocative paper in the nation's capital. She had converted Hearst's sickest paper into one of his most successful." She encouraged her reporters at every turn, fought hard for circulation and advertising, used the best paper and the best ink, and showed a genuine instinct for style, photography, and typography. She created a prototypical gossip-and-scandal section called Page 3, was the first person to cable fashion news out of Paris, and sponsored a column, "The Male Animal," that carried the first letter on homosexual problems to ever appear in an American newspaper. Seeking to attract a female readership, she invented the modern woman's page, in the process recruiting so many women reporters that Time referred to the paper as "Cissy's Henhouse."

Patterson often wrote copy herself, going over draft after draft to make her writing terse yet lively. In 1931, she interviewed gangster Al Capone; in 1932, she circulated among Washington's Bonus Marchers; in 1936, she toured the impoverished areas of eastern Tennessee in a rented Model-A Ford. Once she disguised herself as a destitute woman ("Maude Martin") to report on the plight of the jobless in the Depression, spending three nights in Salvation Army headquarters. Over the years, her contributions to the Salvation Army would tally over half a million dollars.

Often favoring local stories over international ones, Patterson focused many crusades on the nation's capital. She sought hot lunches for District of Columbia schoolchildren, anonymously underwriting the program herself until Congress acted. Other Patterson causes included home rule for the District of Columbia, slum clearance, the cleaning of the Potomac River, efficiency in the police department, decent facilities for tuberculosis victims, and adequate schooling for crippled children. The former hunter-turned-animal-lover supplied oxygen for a dying gorilla in the Washington zoo and hired a helicopter to drop food on starving ducks in Rock Creek Park. (The packages failed to hit their target, killing a number of ducks.)

Yet Patterson was by no means easy to work for. True, she could be impulsively generous, as when she invited women employees to help themselves from her tremendous wardrobe. Yet she fired seven editors in sequence, and many other staff members as well, and if some were rehired, their future was not always assured. In 1935, she lost a two-year battle with the rival Washington Post over such popular comic strips as "Dick Tracy," "Andy Gump," and "Gasoline Alley." She immediately had her chauffeur deliver one pound of raw meat, her pound of flesh, to the Post's publisher Eugene Meyer, attaching the note, "So as not to disappoint you." Meyer, who was Jewish, was not amused by the Shylock analogy, and even Patterson later admitted, "I guess I made a mistake that time."

In 1937, when Hearst faced major financial difficulties, Patterson heeded the prompting of Hearst's mistress and confidante Marion Davies and lent the California publisher $1 million. On August 7 of that year, she leased Hearst's morning Washington Herald, which she was already editing, and the evening Washington Times, taking an option to purchase. On January 28, 1939, she became their full-fledged owner, and three days later she combined the papers into the round-the-clock Washington Times-Herald. The new paper published ten editions within 24 hours: five from dusk until dawn and five others through the day. By 1943, Patterson had made the Times-Herald the most widely read paper in the city and put it in the black as well. By now she owned six residences, including establishments in Marlboro, Maryland, Siesta Key, Florida, Port Washington, Long Island, and Nassau. Her personal and business employees totalled 1,300.

Like her brother Joe, publisher of the New York Daily News, Patterson retained an early admiration for Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom she called "a real American of the finest type." To Patterson, Eleanor Roosevelt , with whom she never broke, was "the noblest woman I have ever known." From the beginning, both Cissy and Joe were strong New Dealers, in 1940 supporting FDR for a third term.

The break came in December 1940, when Roosevelt proposed the lend-lease bill. The president, both publishers believed, sought full-scale U.S. entry into World War II. By the middle of 1941, Cissy was referring to Roosevelt as a dictator. Her isolationism stemmed back to the First World War, when the entire family opposed intervention. It was strengthened by Joe's postwar disillusionment and his belief that FDR had acted deceitfully. Three days before Pearl Harbor, Cissy's Washington Times-Herald and her cousin Bertie's Chicago Tribune published War Department plans that included the drafting of ten million men, a joint U.S.-British invasion by July 1, 1943, and a five-million-man American Expeditionary Force in 215 divisions. In the summer of 1942, both papers published an account of the battle of Midway, detailed enough to indicate that the U.S. had broken the Japanese code. The government attempted to prosecute both newspapers for betraying war secrets but ended up dropping the charge.

The feud between Roosevelt and the Patterson siblings was the fiercest one of all. The president questioned their patriotism, making slurs about what he called the "McCormick-Patterson axis." The Luce publications called Cissy, Bertie, and Joe "The Three Furies of Isolationism." In August 1942, Representative Elmer Holland (Dem.-Pa.) demanded that the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigate "America's No. 1 and No. 2 exponents of the Nazi propaganda line—Cissy and Joe Patterson." Once a bomb was thrown into the Times-Herald building.

Cissy retaliated quickly. She attacked the "Yellow Potomac set," civil servants whom she claimed were avoiding combat with soft Washington berths. At one point, she collected a page of gruesome wartime scenes, juxtaposing them with Roosevelt's 1940 campaign pledge not to enter "any foreign war." She called interventionist author Clare Boothe Luce "a lovely asp," and Vice President Henry Wallace "a crystal-gazing crackpot."

Soon after the war ended, Patterson's world began to come apart. Lonely and overweight, she suffered from alcoholism and heart disease. She fought bitterly with her daughter, quarreled with old friends over trivial matters, and no longer appeared daily in the press room. Patterson suffered a crushing blow in 1946 when her brother Joe died, and she threatened to form a combination against Bertie over control of the New York Daily News. Suspicious even of her servants, whom she thought were spying on her, she kept guns by her bedside and in her car and purse. In July 1948, her stepdaughter Halle Schlesinger found her dead in the bedroom of her Dower House estate near Marlboro, Maryland, evidently of a heart attack. Patterson left the Times-Herald to seven of its executives, but as they lacked the operating capital to sustain it, they sold it to Colonel Robert R. McCormick.

The highly quotable Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, experienced both the best and worst sides of Patterson's personality. "Cissy's life was so much richer than mine," she said. "I said a lot of things, but Cissy did them."


Gizycka, Eleanor M. [Eleanor Medill Patterson]. Glass Houses. Minton, Balch, 1926.

——. Fall Flight. Minton, Balch, 1928.

Gizycka, Felicia. Flower of Smoke. NY: Scribner, 1939.

Healy, Paul F. Cissy: The Biography of Eleanor M. "Cissy" Patterson. NY: Doubleday, 1966.

Hoge, Alice Albright. Cissy Patterson. NY: Random House, 1966.

Martin, Ralph G. Cissy. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1979.

suggested reading:

John Tebbel. An American Dynasty. NY: Doubleday, 1947.

Justus D. D. , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida

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Patterson, Eleanor Medill (1881–1948)

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