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Paul Block: Story of success

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A portrait of Paul Block, who was the close friend of several U.S. presidents.

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THE PUBLISHER. PAUL BLOCK: A LIFE OF FRIENDSHIP, POWER AND POLITICS. By Frank Brady. University Press. 509 pages. $29 paper; $47 hardcover.

Paul Block, founder of the newspaper family that still runs The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, had a truly amazing life, one all the more awesome considering that he largely scripted, produced, and directed it himself through sheer talent and will. One could imagine it as an epic.

Born into ghetto poverty in East Prussia to parents recently arrived from even more wretched conditions in Lithuania, Paul Block came with his family to Castle Garden, the Ellis Island of its day, in New York City in 1885 at the age of not-quite-10, speaking little English.

Within a few short decades, he would go on to become a multimillionaire and a major force shaping advertising, journalism, newspaper publishing, and politics.

“That Herbert Hoover begged Block to visit him and stay at the White House so that they could discuss “the fate of the world” might be proof enough of Block's exceptional character and personality,” observed author Frank Brady, chairman of communications, journalism and media studies at St. John's University.

True enough, but an even greater testament may be that the wary William Randolph Hearst trusted him enough to make him executor of his will. Even more incredible is that Franklin D. Roosevelt, a man legendary for getting the best of any conversation, mysteriously chose Paul Block - then no political supporter of his - to be one of the first people to whom he confided his court-packing scheme.

None of that could have been imagined the day Paul's family got off the boat and his father went to work as one of the poorest rag-pickers in the town of Elmira, N.Y. His children, including Paul, helped him on Saturdays.

Yet within a decade, young Paul was striking out for New York City to take part in - and really help invent - the essentially new field of national newspaper advertising. Within another decade, Paul was running his own business, with offices in Manhattan's most prestigious office building.

Without family connections or higher education, he soon became a millionaire, then a publisher in his own right, acquiring papers of his own, beginning with the Newark Star-Eagle and the Detroit Journal.

Eventually he would be publisher, owner, or part-owner of 14 daily newspapers, the special advertising representative for countless more, and a much more important force in the development of both the editorial and print side of journalism than is commonly known.

He would be the close friend of several presidents, especially Calvin Coolidge, and play a key role in advancing the career of the one who later would become a bitter foe, perhaps the most powerful chief executive in history, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

For a man of such humble origins to have risen so far in that day is absolutely astonishing. Consider: In the 1920s, when racist and nativist sentiments were at their worst and the Ku Klux Klan was at its zenith, the immigrant Jewish rag-picker's son was a frequent and welcome guest at the White House, the best friend of the colorful mayor of New York, and perhaps the only man Hearst really trusted.

Horatio Alger's mythical success could almost, in fact, be described as a Paul Block story. Naturally, the usual ingredients of hard work and shrewd intelligence had a great deal to do with his success, as did a smart and successful marriage.

Yet what seems to have been the real story behind his success was an uncanny gift for friendship. “Paul Block's life is the story of a man who loved people,” the author says at the outset of this book. “Friendships meant everything to him, and he worked hard to build and maintain them.” That was a quality he seemingly had from earliest childhood.

Right from the start, he benefited from mentors, starting with Harry Brooks, the handlebar-mustached founder of the Elmira Telegram, who was still in his mid-30s when the bright 10-year-old was hired as a part-time newsboy and office messenger.

Brooks apparently took an almost instant shine to Block, who he may have seen as somewhat of a surrogate son, and taught him not only the business, from setting type to writing stories to selling ads, but also his own high ethical standards for both advertising and journalism, standards that heavily influenced the grown man's philosophy.

That's not to say that Paul Block was perfect. Though it is always dangerous to flirt with the slippery slope of psychobabble, it seems likely, given his humble origins, that the company of the rich and famous was especially important to him, so much so that he often turned a blind eye to their faults.

He was, for example, willing to let New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, a rogue's rogue, use his apartments for assignations with mistress Betty Compton, even though they tended to smash up the place during their meteoric fights. More tellingly, Paul Block's decision to establish a special fund for the mayor's private use proved deeply embarrassing when the details emerged during an eventual investigation.

While no one accused Paul Block of financial misdeeds, he “was painted as a sycophantic hanger-on, a bit of a patsy who Walker touched for a spot of cash when things were tight.” Nevertheless, he lived it down, and stayed loyal to his friend.

His relationship with William Randolph Hearst is more fascinating. The famous story of how starlet Marion Davies went from being Block's mistress to the richer man's is well-known. What is revealed for the first time in this book, however, is the true extent of the two men's close friendship and extensive, and extensively interwoven, business dealings.

On more than one occasion, Hearst secretly used Block as a front man to buy papers which the owners, for various reasons, may have been less than willing to sell to the notorious emperor of San Simeon. (This was originally the case with the Post-Gazette, but in a reversal of fortune, a cash-strapped Hearst eventually sold it to a relatively flush Block in 1937.) In most of the cases, Block actually ran the properties as publisher.

Such arrangements seem tailor-made for legal land mines, but how completely people tended to trust Paul Block is evidenced by Hearst's decision to make him his executor. (Hearst outlived Block by a full decade.)

Probably the most complicated and fascinating relationship was the ever-evolving one between Paul Block and FDR. Ironically, it is entirely possible that FDR would never have become president had it not been for Paul Block's intense support of his 1928 campaign for governor. Wiser than most university economists, Block knew Hoover's support of the Smoot-Hawley tariff was exactly wrong during the Great Depression. But the publisher's “Progressive Republican” views had hardened by 1932, and he couldn't bring himself to support FDR.

Later, like many self-made men, he became fiercely anti-Roosevelt. Though scarcely alone in his belief that Roosevelt could be beaten in 1936, Block's failure to understand FDR's popularity was perhaps his greatest political misjudgment.

Four years later, his possession of letters showing that FDR's choice for vice-president was a devotee of a loopy Russian guru was a more serious threat to the president's third term. Though they were never published, they may have been part of the reason FDR dumped Henry Wallace the next time - in favor of one Harry Truman.

Cancer cut Paul Block's life prematurely short. Just 65, he died the day Hitler invaded Russia and launched a war that, sadly, would erase his birthplace from the map.

Sixty years after his death, the enterprise he started still exists, and two major papers - The Blade and the Post-Gazette - are still published by his family and run in part according to principles he established; the Peach section (now Peach Plus), for example, was entirely his idea. In an era when most papers are owned by large chains and managed by corporate executives routinely shuttled from property to property, the Block papers still are run by family members who live in the cities they serve.

The book is not without flaws. The relationship between Paul and his wife, Dina, is virtually unexplored. Paul Block, Jr. (1911-1987), who succeeded his father and served as publisher in Toledo for nearly half a century, is barely mentioned. Worse, the book is plagued by sloppy factual errors.

In a typical example, the author appears to confuse Henry Wallace, FDR's vice-president, with George Wallace; he calls Henry's wife “Lurleen,” (George's wife's name) and bafflingly says, “His intransigence may well have prevented him from running for president in 1948.” Henry Wallace DID famously run for president that year!

Yet Brady has reclaimed a major personality of American journalism, a man whose example is still, in many ways, fascinating and even inspirational. Anyone in Toledo or Pittsburgh who wants to know history would do well to read this book. Anyone who wants to understand the evolution of the American newspaper can't do without it.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman.

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