When he died, Joseph Pulitzer left a vast estate, and one of the most prestigious legacies in the world of English language writing. Both figuratively and literally, he left the world a long way from where he started.
Born in Hungary to a German Roman Catholic mother and Hungarian Jewish father, Pulitzer died in Charleston, South Carolina as an American and an Episcopalian. In the years between, Joseph Pulitzer’s life was a 19th century version of the American dream.
His remarkable professional successes were illustrative of the opportunities for advancement that drew millions of Europeans to the United States. Pulitzer could have been their poster boy. Joseph Pulitzer’s life in America saw him move from isolation to power and from poverty to wealth. His is a story of riches to rags to riches.
In his youth, the Pulitzer family was thought to be one of the wealthiest in the area. His father was ostensibly a successful businessman, a man of means who provided his family with all the privileges that came with financial success. Joseph was educated at Budapest’s finest private schools and by tutors who taught him in Hungarian, German and French.
But when Pulitzer was 11, his father died and the apparently profitable business Pulitzer père had built was discovered to be bankrupt. The family suddenly descended into penury.
At 17, not wanting to be a financial burden on his mother, Pulitzer decided to join the army to earn his keep. An uncle was a colonel in the Austrian army, so Pulitzer applied. But his attempt to join was rejected on the grounds of an eye defect.
Undeterred, Pulitzer went to Germany in order to join the military there. Once again, however, he failed the medical examination due to his poor eyesight. Displaying the kind of resilience and determination that would serve him well, the young man tried to enlist in the English and French armies. Yet his efforts met the same result each time.
Pulitzer was clearly a fighter, even if no army saw him as such. Rarely has a young man battled to join so many armies, any army. In the process of his one-man war to join a fighting force, Pulitzer met a bounty recruiter for the American Union Army in Hamburg, Germany. At the time, the Civil War was raging in the somewhat-less-than United States, and the Civil War draft system permitted foreigners to enlist as a substitute for a draftee, which Pulitzer gladly did.
Pulitzer arrived in Boston as a 17-year-old immigrant soldier in 1864. He was penniless and spoke fluent German and French but very little English on his arrival. As soon as he made it to Boston, he jumped ship and swam to shore, so that he would receive the enlistment fee that was to be paid to the agent.
Pulitzer earned his money by fighting for a year in the Lincoln Cavalry during the American Civil War. As he fought alongside many other German-speaking Europeans, he managed to fight in this most American of wars without learning much English.
After the army and in search of work, Pulitzer went to St Louis. There, he was watching a game of chess one day when he charmed the players with his astute observations. They happened to be editors of a German language newspaper named the Westliche Post and promptly offered the young man a job.
Within four years, Pulitzer had established himself as an impressive, dynamic young journalist. There was a slight problem, however: the Westliche Post was going bust and its almost bankrupt owners were looking to offload it. In their desperate search for a buyer to bail out their debts, they offered their young star writer a chance to buy the paper. Pulitzer took it. He was 25 and a newspaper publisher.
Six years and a few shrewd deals later, Pulitzer was the owner of the St Louis-Dispatch. It was 1878. He was 31 and well on his way to fame and fortune. That year he married Kate Davis, from a prominent Washington family, in an Episcopal church. “Joey the Jew,” as he had been nicknamed in St. Louis, was entering the American establishment.
But Pulitzer wasn’t much interested in society life; work was his calling. Putting in crazy hours, he built up his business so successfully that in 1883 he was able to buy the New York World newspaper.
The World was struggling when Pulitzer bought it, losing money every year, but once again he turned around the fortunes of a paper. He did so by top quality journalism. Pulitzer’s World crusaded against public and private corruption, ran sensational features, commissioned undercover investigative reporting and pioneered the use of illustrations. Soon the country was taking notice of The World, which became America’s largest-selling paper with a circulation of 600,000.
Pulitzer’s success so infuriated one competitor, an editor of the New York Sun named Charles Dana, that he resorted to anti-Semitism. Dana used the pages of his paper to attack “Judas Pulitzer” and, in an attempt to get Jewish readers to stop reading The World, called him “the Jew who had denied his race and religion.”
It’s unclear how much Pulitzer was affected by haters—even when they employed one of the west’s oldest hatreds—but his physical health, which had once precluded his entering the army, was now hampering his ability to run a newsroom. His eyesight worsened, while he also suffered from severe headaches and depression.
Nevertheless, under his stewardship, the World broke many important stories including allegations of massive fraud by the US government in Panama. His papers’ popularity enabled Pulitzer to amass a massive fortune.
Most famously, his wealth enabled him to leave $2 million to Columbia University for the establishment of a school of journalism, and funds for annual prizes in journalism, literature, drama and music. The Pulitzer Prize is now one of the most prestigious awards in contemporary letters.
When Pulitzer died on his yacht in 1911, he was living a life thousands of miles from that of his youth; it more closely resembled a Lonely Island video than the financial precariousness of his earlier days. “Mr. Pulitzer’s yacht has been in Charleston Harbor for six days,” the New York Times reported in his obituary. “She was on the way to Jekyll Island, near Brunswick, Ga., where Mr. Pulitzer had a winter home.”
Not many people with winter homes in the South overcame as many obstacles as did Joseph Pulitzer. Handicapped from the outset by a lack of English, funds, friends and family, and by defective vision, he nevertheless engineered a new life in his new country. By his early 30s, he was well on his way to success, to building not just a successful newspaper, nor even fortune, but a name that lives on today.