Carrying the Banner … for The Muny

The Newsies Strike was not the First Time Joseph Pulitzer Tangled with Newsboys

It’s not as if Newsies is the first Broadway musical to tell a story involving New York newspapers. In 1945, Up in Central Park chronicled a New York Times reporter’s efforts to expose the notorious William “Boss” Tweed, the New York City politician who held an iron (and very illegal) grip over City Hall in the 1870s. One scene even plays out in the office of Times owner George Jones. With music by Sigmund Romberg (his final successful score) and direction by John Kennedy, who was the Muny’s productions manager for 24 years, Up in Central Park was a bona fide hit than ran for more than 500 performances.

Four years later, Miss Liberty should have been a hit. All the components were there: a score by Irving Berlin, a script by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Sherwood, direction by Moss Hart, choreography by Jerome Robbins. Set in 1885, the story concerns a circulation war between the New York Herald and Joseph Pulitzer’s World just as France is presenting the Statue of Liberty to America. The show eked out a 300-performance run, primarily due to a large advance sale. Miss Liberty left little behind other than the stirring hymn, “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” which Berlin adapted from the Emma Lazarus poem.

But perhaps no musical has so brazenly caricatured a prominent journalist as does Newsies. Although Joseph Pulitzer’s presumed villainy is presented in the cause of good, uplifting fun, his function is to be little more than the Goliath-like foil for several cunning street urchins. Nevertheless, because in 1878 Joseph Pulitzer created what became the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a newspaper near and dear to the hearts of many of us, perhaps a brief précis of Pulitzer’s extraordinary career will not be out of order.

When 17-year-old Pulitzer arrived in Boston harbor from (what is today) Hungary, he spoke no English. In 1865 he moved on to St. Louis, drawn here by its large German population. He learned English by spending every available minute reading at the Mercantile Library. Pulitzer made the right contacts, and in 1872 he was able to buy a local newspaper that was printed in German. He invested his profits in James Buchanan Eads’ endeavor to dredge the mouth of the Mississippi River where it entered the Gulf of Mexico. That investment made Pulitzer a wealthy man.

On December 9, 1878, 31-year-old Joseph Pulitzer gambled his wealth when he bought the bankrupt St. Louis Dispatch for $2,500, then merged with the evening Post, to become the Post and Dispatch. Four months later the name was revised to Post-Dispatch. The now-thriving paper gave Pulitzer a podium through which he could express his convictions. He held a fervent contempt for leaders (especially those, in the late 1870s, in Germany) who exploited fear and prejudice. As Pulitzer editorialized at the time, “People without liberty have despots. People with too much liberty have demagogues. Both agree in abusing liberty. The despot thinks there is too much of it. The demagogue thinks there is not enough.”

In his early days as a publisher, Pulitzer often tangled with “newsies” who purchased the paper for three cents and sold it on the streets of St. Louis for a nickel. On one occasion, the newsboys demanded a 50 percent share of the paper’s selling price. “It is hard to fight women,” Pulitzer responded, “but still harder to argue with boys, especially newsboys. However kindly we are disposed toward the little brigades who sell our paper, it is an absurdity which we are fully determined and able to stop – no matter how long the strike may last.”

It only lasted a few days.

By 1883 Pulitzer had moved his family to New York City, where he put himself into debt by buying the World. Under Pulitzer’s leadership, it became the most widely read newspaper in American history. At its peak, the World sold more than 700,000 copies a day.

In 1884 the statue designed by Frederic Bartholdi, Liberty Enlightening the World, was sitting in crates in France because Americans had not yet raised the money necessary to provide the statue with a pedestal in New York harbor. The U.S. Congress refused to allocate the needed $100,000. Pulitzer’s own immigrant experience, combined with his devotion to American liberty, made the project of raising the money for an 89-foot granite pedestal immensely appealing.

The World went to work seeking donations. “Let us not wait for the millionaires to give this money,” Pulitzer editorialized. “[The statue] is not a gift from the millionaires of France to the millionaires of America, but a gift of the whole population of France to the whole people of America.”

In less than four months, more than 120,000 readers contributed well over a $100,000.

By 1887 the retina in Pulitzer’s right eye had become detached. Three years

later, his left retina became detached. There was no cure, procedure or therapy. For all intents, Pulitzer was blind. For the next 24 years, until he died in 1911 at age 64, his life was a series of miseries.

The eight-day strike that is fictionalized in Newsies, the Musical, began on July 18, 1899. Pulitzer was never in New York City during the strike. When it started, he was just arriving by yacht in Bar Harbor, Maine, after having spent several months in Europe. Pulitzer received word from his aide, Don Carlos Seitz (who also is a character in the musical) that “a call is out for a mass meeting of the boys in front of the Pulitzer Building.” At the time, the World was in a circulation struggle with the Journal, which was owned by William Randolph Hearst. Because these were the only two papers to raise the newsies’ wholesale price from 50 cents to 60 cents for every 100 papers, the World and the Journal were the only targets of the strike. The other papers happily supported the newsies.

As the circulation of the two competing evening papers collapsed, advertisers abandoned those newspapers in droves and demanded refunds. “It is really a very extraordinary demonstration,” Seitz told Pulitzer. “The people seem to be against us; they are encouraging the boys and tipping them and where they are not doing this, they are refraining from buying the papers for fear of having them snatched from their hands.”

According to James McGrath Morris in his acclaimed 2010 biography Pulitzer, “A clever ruse brought an end to the strike. The World and the Journal told their agents and drivers to start permitting the newsboys to return unsold copies for credit. This modest improvement was enough to bring the boys back to work. However, 50 percent of the income would continue to remain with the newspapers. Absorbing the modest cost of some unsold papers was a small price for this victory.”

The newsboys surrendered on the afternoon of July 26, eight days into the strike. “Twenty years earlier,” biographer Seitz suggests, “during his first months of running the Post-Dispatch, [Pulitzer] had been similarly confronted by newsboys who wanted a higher share of the paper’s sale price. He stood his ground then, without resorting to strike breakers or the police, and even expressing sympathy with the newsboys’ demands. At that time, however, as a struggling publisher trying to resurrect a bankrupt newspaper, he had limited financial options.

“This was no longer an excuse. The World was the richest and most successful newspaper enterprise in the nation. At any time Pulitzer could have put an end to the strike by giving the boys a chance to sell the World at the same rate as they sold other papers. But he chose not to. Although he himself had once been a teenager living on the streets of New York, Pulitzer showed no mercy over a dime.”

Obviously, this is not the story Newsies, the Musical tells. But then, regardless of how dazzling the choreography, who would want to spend an evening watching Goliath crush David?

Ten years after the newsies strike, Pulitzer found himself in a much more formidable conflict. In 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt, feeling that he had been libeled by the World, authorized his Justice Department to launch an attack on Pulitzer and, through Pulitzer, on the freedom of the press. The case dragged on for two years. The Department of Justice convened two grand juries and began issuing subpoenas that even extended to newsboys. A grand jury indicted Pulitzer on five counts of criminal libel. According to Pulitzer, the President had “perverted the powers of the government to the gratification of personal revenge.”

In January 1911 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the World. In response, an editorial in the World stated that “freedom of the press does not exist at the whim or pleasure of the United States.” When Pulitzer died later that same year, he already had put into motion plans for the Columbia University School of Journalism, writing, “Our republic and its press will rise or fall together.” In 1947 those words appeared on a three-cent stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The first Pulitzer Prizes in journalism (there were four that year) were awarded on June 4, 1917. The next night, June 5, the Municipal Theater in Forest Park officially opened with a colossal production of Verdi’s Aida. St. Louisans decided that they enjoyed outdoor musical theater – and wouldn’t it be nice if it were available every night during the summer?

Two years later, with the formation of the Municipal Opera in 1919, a new story began.

* * *

Over the course of the next year, we will be telling that story here on the Muny website. It is titled The Muny Saga. This story is indeed a saga of epic proportions. Beginning this week, we will chronicle the storied history of the Municipal Opera in monthly installments that can be found on the Muny website at muny.org. The current installment, which is titled “Nothing But a Park and a Beautiful Idea,” covers the years between 1913 and 1919 and tells an amazing story of how a handful of men came together to transform a fantastical notion of low-cost outdoor musical theater into reality.

Chapter Two, which will appear on the Muny website the first week in September, deals with the 1920s. In October, Chapter Three will recount the Depression-era 1930s.

You get the drift.

If you come along for the ride, I think you might be surprised by some of what you read here. I hope you will be entertained. But mostly I hope you will – as I have, during the course of researching and writing this great history – come to know some quite wonderful people, both on the stage and behind-the-scenes, to whom all of us who enjoy the Muny today owe a great debt.

People like St. Louis mayor Henry Kiel, who was not a great theater buff but who came to believe that an outdoor theater in Forest Park would be a great gift to the people who lived in the city he governed and loved.

People like Paul Beisman, who as a youth ran away from home and became a “newsie,” hawking papers at the corner of 12th and Locust Streets. Beisman worked in the Municipal Opera box office on its very first day in 1919. Then in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, as its manager Beisman devoted his life to the Muny.

Back in the 1950s, epic movies used to advertise CAST OF THOUSANDS! YEARS IN THE MAKING! The Muny saga does indeed have a cast of 1000s; this amazing and very human story has been more than 100 years in the making. If you read these monthly installments, surely you will be well-primed for next year’s festivities. More important, even, next summer you will have a clear understanding of what we are celebrating … and why this revered institution is so important to each of our lives.

I know I’ve enjoyed the research and the writing. Now, as The Muny Saga begins to be unveiled, I wish you happy reading!