The small green sign on West 43rd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue in New York City is easy to miss among the neon cacophony that is today’s Times Square.
But take a moment to notice ‘Adolph S. Ochs Street;’ its eponymous newspaper mogul died 79 years ago on April 8. And Adolph Ochs is a name worth remembering. Without him, Times Square would not have its name—and the world might not have the New York Times.
Adolph was a first generation American, the son of two German Jews. His mother, Bertha Levy, fled Bavaria to evade arrest for her connections to the liberal pro-democracy revolution of 1848. In the wake of the revolution’s failure, many German liberals emigrated, and Levy fled to the American South.
There, in Mississippi, she met Julius Ochs, another liberal German Jewish immigrant who had emigrated a few years earlier. The two married in 1855 and had a lasting effect on their son Adolph, who once wrote, “Every good mother’s son is inspired and encouraged by this well-earned climax to an extraordinary career.”
During the American Civil War, Bertha Ochs sympathized with the south while her husband enlisted with the Union army’s Ohio regiment, yet the couple’s divergent politics apparently had little effect on their domestic harmony. After the war, when Julius was demobilized at the rank of captain, the family settled in Knoxville, Tennessee.
It’s not unusual for a young boy to take a paper round. However, the Ochs’ oldest son Adolph, born in 1858, took a job at the local newspaper that would shape his life. This seemingly inauspicious first job would eventually lead him to change the fortunes of the world’s most distinguished English language newspaper—an unlikely eventuality when the 11-year-old joined the Knoxville Chronicle as an office boy.
“He swept my sanctum and cleaned up the papers and trash so methodically that he was promoted to delivery boy,” recalled his boss, Captain William Rule, the owner of the Knoxville Chronicle.
Or, as former mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani put it, “At an age when most young boys were learning how to throw a curve ball, Adolph Ochs was learning how to run a newspaper.”
After a short stint in a drug store that ended when he accidently sold borax instead of sodium carbonate to a customer, Adolph returned to the paper as a printer’s devil—the printer’s lackey who undertook the grunt work in the print room. He was 14 and would remain a newspaperman for the rest of his life.
Working from a young age, Adolph didn’t get to spend much time in the classroom. Yet all the time he worked as an office boy, delivery boy or drug store clerk he approached the role as a student, not a gopher, perennially asking questions of customers and employers.
Adolph spent a few months in Louisville working at the Courier Journal before returning to Knoxville as he both missed his family and spotted an opportunity at the new newspaper there, the Journal. He spent eighteen months at the Journal, where he gained further experience so that by the time Adolph was 20 he knew enough about the business confidently to buy half of the Chattanooga Times—and all of its $1,500 in debts—for $250 he had borrowed.
It was July 1878, and Adolph Ochs was officially the publisher of the Chattanooga Times. As his New York Times obituary explained, “The principles he announced and put into practice when at the age of 20 he took charge of a bankrupt small-town newspaper were the principles he announced and put into practice eighteen years later when he took charge of the bankrupt New York Times and carried it to influence and prosperity.”
Five years later, in 1883, Adolph married Effie Miriam Wise, the daughter of Isaac Wise, founder of the Hebrew Union College and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Adolph and Effie were a great team. They entertained visiting notables at their Chattanooga home and worked together at the Times, to which Effie contributed book and drama reviews. Adolph tuned around the newspaper’s fortunes, and life was going well in Tennessee until Adolph received a telegram one day in 1896.
“The opportunity of your life lies before you,” his friend Leopold Wallach told him from New York. Adolph was intrigued and went north to investigate. It transpired that Wallach’s suggestion to buy a struggling New York paper, the Mercury, was misguided; Adolph soon passed.
Yet a second, less bombastic telegraph from a reporter at another New York paper, the New York Times, gently suggested Adolph might consider buying that paper. Its author, Harry Alloway, recalled Adolph telling him years before that the New York Times represented the greatest opportunity in American journalism. The paper had struggled mightily since that remark and Alloway, who perhaps feared for his job as the paper downsized on the brink of bankruptcy, thought Adolph could buy it cheaply.
The Times’ circulation had fallen to 9,000—fewer than half of its daily 19,000 print run, meaning more copies returned unsold than were sold. The paper had debts of $300,000 and was losing $1,000 a day.
Nevertheless, on his 38th birthday in 1896, Adolph bought the nearly bankrupt New York Times. And so commenced a remarkable turnaround.
By the end of 1897, the paper’s circulation had doubled and Adolph had reduced its daily deficit to $200. While it was still running a loss, the Times’ future appeared secure. Adolph’s success was due in part to his vision. He insisted that the Times provide impartial coverage at a time when papers were openly partisan. He also gave the paper its famed motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”
In 1904, Adolph had another plan. He thought the intersection at Broadway and 7th Avenue between 42nd and 47th Streets—known as Longacre Square—would make a great town square for New York, and moved the paper’s headquarters there. Adolph sold George McClellan, the city’s mayor, on the idea and the city duly built a new subway station named Times Square. Three years later, Adolph launched a bold PR stunt: the first ever New Year’s Ball drop at Times Square. (The ball was crafted by a Jewish metalworker named Jacob Starr.) Although Adolph moved the paper in 1913, his vision of Times Square and the famous ball drop endure today.
Under Adolph’s rigorous editorial oversight, the paper won its first Pulitzer Prize in June 1918. By the 1920s, he had grown the Times’ circulation to 780,000 and made it one of the most respected newspapers in the world.
All the while, Adolph’s Jewish identity was important to him. His father had served as lay rabbi to the small community in Knoxville and Adolph “not only by tradition but by conviction he was a firm adherent of the reformed Jewish faith,” according to the Times obituary.
In 1927, Adolph addressed the Cleveland convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, saying, “What we as a religious people have preserved through centuries of oppression is rapidly becoming the accepted concept of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. It is called Modernism, but it harks back to the underlying faith of an ancient people, who gave to civilization the Ten Commandments, the prophets and the Psalms.”
Adolph was against Zionism; for him Jewishness was a religious, not ethnic, identity. He told The The American Israelite in 1922, “The greatest heritage of the Jew is his religion. As a distinctive race the Jews need no place in modern civilization.” Yet he was still interested in Zionism and travelled to Palestine to find out more. There, although he questioned Zionists’ objectives, he was impressed by their spirit and achievements in creating a pre-State society.
After moving to New York, Adolph became a trustee of the Temple Emanu-El. In 1924, he financed a new synagogue in honor of his parents in Chattanooga, the Julius and Bertha Ochs Memorial Temple. Two years later he became chairman of his father-in-law’s Hebrew Union College, for which he raised over $4,000,000.
“My Jewish home life and religion gave me a spiritual uplift and a sense of responsibility to my subconscious better self—which I think is the God within me, the Unknowable, the Inexplicable,” he wrote in a letter in 1931. “This makes me believe I am more than an animal, and that this life cannot be the end of our spiritual nature.”
Adolph’s sense of spirit and responsibility drove him to success with the Times. He stated his vision of the Times as “an independent newspaper, entirely fearless, devoted to the public welfare without regard to individual advantage or ambition, the claims of party politics or personal prejudice or predilection.” While he is famed for his contribution to New York City, Adolph Ochs died in his hometown of Chattanooga on this day in 1935.
“The jobs he held in his early years taught him lessons that his peers didn’t learn in the classroom, lessons that shaped the rest of his life,” said Giuliani. “And although Adolph never finished high school, he published a newspaper read by the intellectual elite of [New York] City and this nation.”
Referring to the plaque by Times Square, the mayor continued: “this street sign will forever stand as a symbol to the work of a man who created a great newspaper. The spirit that makes New York City the capital of the world, the spirit of excitement, vitality, and innovation that set this City apart, is the spirit of Adolph Ochs.”