Paul Y. Anderson isn’t a household name like Woodward and Bernstein. But Anderson’s Teapot Dome stories in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were to the first half of the 20th century what the Watergate stories were to the last half.
At the time of Anderson’s suicide, a decade after the Teapot Dome disclosures, the New Republic blamed Joseph Pulitzer II’s Post-Dispatch and its famed managing editor, O.K. Bovard, for mistreating Anderson. That claim is contested by a previously unreported letter provided to GJR’s St. Louis editor, Terry Ganey. It provides a new take on the sad end of the famous reporter – and a reminder of a day when the Post-Dispatch was at the center of Washington reporting.
If it hadn’t been for a doctor’s order that sent Charles Ross home to recuperate, we probably wouldn’t know as much as we do now about the demise of Paul Y. Anderson, one of the greatest reporters in the history of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Forced to take a few days off from his job as the editor of the newspaper’s editorial page, Ross had time to compose a five-page typewritten letter describing the tragic arc of Anderson’s storied career, and how the newspaper’s management, including publisher Joseph Pulitzer II and managing editor Oliver K. Bovard, attempted to salvage it.
“They did, all of us did, everything for him that was humanly possible to do,” Ross wrote. “Suffice it that Paul refused – or was unable – to bring himself under control. Certainly he was given every opportunity to do so.”
In the end, before turning on himself, Anderson would turn on Bovard and Pulitzer, too, at least according to Ross.
Written 75 years ago, Ross’ letter came at the end of a year of major changes at the Post-Dispatch, which by 1938 had achieved national journalistic prominence thanks to Pulitzer’s support, Bovard’s management and Anderson’s legwork.
That year began with Anderson’s dismissal. In August, Bovard resigned. And in December, Anderson took his own life with an overdose of sleeping pills.
Books about Pulitzer and Bovard have documented Anderson’s alcoholism as the reason for his firing. Now more details about the troubles that plagued him near the end of his career – and how the Post-Dispatch attempted to deal with them – have emerged from documents saved by Aloysia Pietsch Hamalainen, the former office manager of the Post-Dispatch bureau in Washington, D.C.
The papers include memos, letters and reports. Some of the documents show up in other collections, such as the papers of Joseph Pulitzer II in the Library of Congress. But others, such as Ross’ letter, have come to light for the first time.
Dated Dec. 20, 1938, the correspondence from Ross – who later became Harry S Truman’s press secretary – is most valuable. It was written by a man who had worked side by side with Anderson on some of the newspaper’s biggest stories. Ross sometimes covered for Anderson when he couldn’t do his work – and, as Anderson’s colleague and supervisor, Ross sometimes found himself “in the embarrassing position of having the confidence of both sides.”
The letter, addressed to Bruce Bliven, the editor of the New Republic, was written in response to an editorial note about Anderson’s death that appeared that month in the magazine under the headline, “A Great Reporter Dies.”
The editorial said Anderson had left the Post-Dispatch because of “a needless and trivial misunderstanding” between him and Bovard, “and two hot-tempered men impulsively broke off a happy relation of many years’ standing.” The editorial went on to say such an incident would be avoided by rules being developed by the Newspaper Guild “against unilateral, arbitrary action by employers.”
The point of Ross’ letter was that the New Republic’s account was “almost wholly erroneous.” There was no misunderstanding between Anderson and Bovard, a managing editor of great renown.
“Paul’s dismissal,” Ross wrote, “was the result of frequent and protracted absences from duty over a period of five years or longer. To say that these lapses were due to drunkenness would oversimplify the matter, for Paul’s drinking was both cause and effect. Unless you knew Paul, I could not, short of a book beginning with his boyhood in Tennessee, hope to make his weakness clear. I give you my word that there was never a man more generously, more patiently, treated by an employer than was Paul by the Post-Dispatch management.”
And for good reason. Anderson was considered one of the greatest journalists of his time. For most of his 24 years with the Post-Dispatch, Anderson had filed compelling stories that beat the competition and sold newspapers. And for some time, the publisher and the editor held out hope that he could do so once again.
In 1931, when the American Mercury’s Samuel Tait Jr. reflected on the lofty status of the Post-Dispatch, he singled out Anderson. “The Post-Dispatch might perhaps get along without Anderson, but it would not be the paper it is by a long, long way,” Tait wrote. “In almost every one of the achievements which have lifted it out of the gumbo, he has done a large share of the lifting.”
H.L. Mencken used the editorial page of the Baltimore Sun to call Anderson “one of the finest journalists in the country.”
Anderson risked his life to get news. His investigations put people in prison. His byline appeared over the major stories of the era: the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tenn., and the Leopold and Loeb murder trial in Chicago.
“His positive genius for reporting and writing put him in a class almost by himself,” Bovard had written to Pulitzer in 1927 when they dwelt on the topic of Anderson’s salary. “He is the ideal type of analytical reporter who gets all the salient facts and presents them in such a way as to give the dullest reader their relative values, and in a way to stir him to appreciate what he is reading, as contrasted with the more recorder type, with whom the lives of news editors are cursed, and who see only the surface indications.”
When Bovard sent Pulitzer the payroll records of Ross and Anderson, he wrote, “I think Anderson is really worth a good deal more than his present figure, and I have no doubt he could command more in the open market.”
Anderson was involved in the first two Pulitzer prizes the Post-Dispatch won for news reporting. In 1927, the Post-Dispatch’s John T. Rogers won the prize for stories that resulted in the resignation of a federal judge in the face of impeachment on corruption charges. The newspaper gave Anderson and Ross $500 each for their work contributing to that investigation.
In 1929, Anderson won the reporting prize for his investigation of what happened to $2.7 million in bonds that were part of a slush fund in the “Teapot Dome” scandal. Anderson first grappled with the story in 1922, and stayed with it on and off for six years.
His work exposed what had gone on during the Warren Harding administration, when lucrative leases to rich government oil reserves were turned over to private companies.
Anderson had exposed the “Watergate” of his time.
The Pulitzer Prize included a $1,000 award for Anderson, who earlier had received a $2,500 bonus from the Post-Dispatch for “general excellence.” In the 1930s, with the country in the depths of the Depression, the paper annually paid Anderson more than $16,000, which according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics would have the purchasing power of $223,000 today.
WITNESS TO VIOLENCE
According to “Never Been a Time,” Harper Barnes’ book about the 1917 East St. Louis, Ill., race riots, Anderson witnessed the deaths of more than a dozen African-Americans who had been lynched or shot. A special U.S. House committee that later investigated the riots said Anderson reported “what he saw without fear of consequences” and despite running “a daily risk of assassination.”
Barnes’ book described Anderson as “emotionally erratic, tough but brittle, given to bitter moods.” It also said Anderson was already drinking heavily, which was not unusual for newspapermen of the time, “but he went about it with a relentless lack of joy.”
Later working from the Washington, D.C., bureau of the Post-Dispatch, Anderson wrote about Army troops, with bayonets on their rifles, breaking up demonstrations of veterans seeking payment of military bonuses in the summer of 1932. “Paul Anderson heard an officer bark a command and then saw cavalrymen charge the crowd with drawn sabers,” according to “The Bonus Army” by Paul Dickson and Thomas Allen.
“Men, women and children fled shrieking across the broken ground,” Anderson wrote in a story that appeared in the Baltimore Sun. By then, Anderson’s copy was being shared with other newspapers, something Pulitzer had suggested to Bovard as a way of appeasing Anderson, who wanted wider exposure on the East Coast.
Anderson also was contributing articles regularly to the Nation and other national magazines, something Bovard and Pulitzer had approved in 1927, although the managing editor feared the additional work would affect his reporter’s performance.
“Anderson, as you know, is intense and conscientious and not the kind to do anything with his left hand,” Bovard wrote to Pulitzer. The editor feared for Anderson’s health, and mentioned a breakdown the reporter had suffered that “remains as a warning against overexertion.”
Among the documents included in the trove assembled by Hamalainen is a telegram from Bovard sent to Anderson in early 1937 advising him to take a doctor’s advice and “knock off 10 days or two weeks, at the end of which time I should hope you will be in good working form.”
Anderson was born in 1893 in Knoxville, Tenn., and at age 3 his father was killed in an industrial accident. Edmund Lambeth, a journalism professor who wrote a chapter about Anderson in a volume on journalists for the “Dictionary of Literary Biography,” believes the death of Anderson’s father played a role in the reporter’s later work as a muckraker. Lambeth suspected that anger and bitterness over the loss of his father generated “much of the energy that was later to be channeled into long hours of investigative reporting.”
Although he never finished high school, Anderson worked his way up into reporting positions at the Knoxville Journal, the St. Louis Times and the St. Louis Star. He joined the staff of the Post-Dispatch just when Bovard was fashioning it into a crusading newspaper.
At about the same time, Bovard hired Ross to open the newspaper’s first bureau in Washington, D.C. Ross, a childhood friend of Harry Truman, had been teaching journalism in the first school of its kind at the University of Missouri.
Anderson tried to persuade the newspaper to send him to Washington, too, and when his request was rejected,
Anderson quit and went there on his own as a freelancer. Anderson’s performance there convinced Bovard to rehire him to work with Ross and Raymond P. Brandt, who had joined the bureau in 1923.
Brandt, who had been one of Ross’ students at MU, took over the bureau in 1934, when Pulitzer named Ross to replace Clark McAdams as editorial page editor.
Documents and memos in Hamalainen’s possession show that during the time Ross and Brandt ran the bureau, the Post-Dispatch management made several attempts to help Anderson deal with alcoholism.
According to Ross’s letter to Bliven, Anderson would have been fired five years before the fact by any other publication.
“Paul’s retention by the Post-Dispatch in spite of his notorious neglect of duty was a source of constant wonderment to all his colleagues in Washington who knew anything about his relations with the Post-Dispatch,” Ross wrote.
Anderson’s frequent absences were explained to the main office as “a result of a nervous collapse – which, in a sense, was true,” Ross wrote. “I recall reporting one such collapse to O.K. Bovard, and his orders were to get Paul, at office expense and whatever expense, into the best possible hands at once, for as long a time as might be necessary for a cure.”
In 1937, according to Ross, Pulitzer made a special trip to Washington to tell Anderson that his fate was in his hands, that the Post-Dispatch wanted him to stay on and that Pulitzer personally wanted him to remain. “This was after a number of bad sprees that had kept Paul out of our paper for weeks at a time.”
According to Ross, Pulitzer told Anderson that if his conduct again made his work unsatisfactory to Bovard, Anderson’s dismissal would automatically go into effect.
On Dec. 1, 1937, Bovard sent Anderson a letter saying his lack of performance had forced him to suspend Anderson with pay until Pulitzer returned from a foreign trip. “It is with reluctance that I do this, but there is no other course open to me,” Bovard wrote. “The paper has need of the services of every man in the Washington bureau every day at this time, and I must of course think of the paper first in this situation.”
DISMISSAL AND SUICIDE
At the beginning of 1938, in response to instructions, Brandt sent detailed memos to Pulitzer and Bovard outlining Anderson’s absences, and instances in which drinking interfered with Anderson’s work during the previous two years. Brandt concluded that Anderson had missed “somewhere between 12 and 20 weeks.” “It is my personal observation that he suffers illness only when he has been drinking,” Brandt wrote to Pulitzer.
When Pulitzer returned from a trip abroad, the automatic dismissal contained in the warning of a year earlier went into effect.
“A good many of us – friends of Paul’s – felt that the shock of his dismissal might save him from himself, and it did, for a while, but only for a while,” Ross wrote.
Beginning Feb. 28, Anderson went to work in the Washington bureau of the St. Louis Star-Times. His byline also appeared regularly over weekly pieces he filed with the Nation.
But his firing seemed to deepen his bitterness. “Paul’s malice after his dismissal went to great lengths,” Ross’ letter said.
“Paul turned on Bovard after his dismissal and put it out in Washington that he had been fired ‘by a Communist.’ Later, after Bovard’s resignation, Paul spread it around town, and around the country, that both he and Bovard were the victims of a Tory publisher. There was nothing further from the truth.”
On July 29, 1938, Bovard resigned, citing differences with Pulitzer over philosophy and financial cuts Pulitzer had imposed. Although the two men had worked together for many years, the distance between them had grown during the
Depression and over the policies of President Franklin Roosevelt. Pulitzer thought the recovery program tended too much toward socialism, while Bovard believed it didn’t go far enough.
Three days after Bovard resigned, Anderson let loose in the Star-Times, contending the Post-Dispatch had abandoned its position as “a great liberal newspaper.” Anderson said it began when Ross replaced McAdams in 1934 as editor of the editorial page. “McAdams remained devoted to the aims of the New Deal,” Anderson wrote. “His employers turned against it, and in 1936 the paper supported (Republican presidential nominee Alf) Landon.”
Writing in a column in the Nation, Anderson contended the Post-Dispatch had “shifted so far to the right that the masthead bearing its founder’s ‘platform’ is virtually suspended in space.”
Benjamin Reese, the city editor, succeeded Bovard. Shortly afterward, Reese and Brandt exchanged memos that reflected a belief that opinion had been seeping into the bureau’s news reporting.
“The fact that there is to be no more editorializing in the Washington news should increase the effectiveness and prestige of the Post-Dispatch and the Washington bureau,” Brandt wrote on Aug. 15.
In his response three days later, Reese replied: “We are moving along with only one change: Mr. Bovard has retired and we have closed ranks. The only change in policy is that we will not editorialize in the news.”
That fall, Anderson attempted suicide by remaining in a closed garage with his car’s engine running. He was rescued by friends.
Sam O’Neal, Anderson’s colleague in the Star-Times bureau, later wrote that, since joining the newspaper, Anderson “had sought earnestly to rid himself of the alcoholic habit” and attempted the suicide after a relapse.“He told associates frequently since then that if he finally found he could not control his desire for alcohol, he finally would destroy himself,”
O’Neal wrote.On Dec. 5, Missouri Attorney General Roy McKittrick sued Anderson to recover $5,817 in delinquent income taxes and penalties. A day later, Anderson, 45, told his housekeeper he was tired of living and took an overdose of pills. He died two hours later at a hospital.
But Anderson was writing until the end. The day before his death, the last of his four-part series of interviews with Thomas E. Dewey, then a crime-fighting New York prosecutor, appeared in the Star-Times. The same Dec. 10 issue of the Nation that contained his death notice also published a column he had written, titled, “Economics for Congressmen.”
The eulogies given for Anderson still have meaning today.
At a memorial service in Washington, D.C., Sen. George Norris, a progressive Republican from Nebraska, said it was “a loss that will be felt generations to come, because he passed away when the world needs more than ever the fighters for the under privileged and the victims of the abuse of power by those who control our economic life.”
One letter writer to the Nation wrote: “In a day of a prostituted and debauched press, Paul Anderson and the papers which opened their columns to his talents stand out as beacon lights.”
Lambeth, a professor emeritus at the MU School of Journalism, said Anderson’s career was noteworthy because it kept investigative reporting alive in the 1920s and 1930s. Later investigative journalists cited Anderson as a precedent for their own work.
Terry Ganey is the St. Louis editor of Gateway Journalism Review. He has more than 40 years’ experience as an investigative reporter and political correspondent, and he has worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.