Lord Northcliffe went bonkers. Mr. Hearst inspired "Citizen Kane." Joe Pulitzer once shot at a man in the city room. James Gordon Bennett enjoyed riding about Paris after midnight in an open carriage, stark naked. One of the old press lords spent his final days in a rubber room cushioned by ball bearings to reduce the vibrations of passing trolley cars.
I was reminded of all this when it was reported from San Francisco the Examiner and the Chronicle, which have been publishing under a joint operating agreement, were talking merger, with the merged publication being run by Hearst while the De-Young family (they own the more successful Chronicle) would get both dough and a continuing "input" on the editorial page.
Which brings us, and not for the first time, to John Sias-whose memory is still fresh, and buoyantly so, among those of us who knew him in New York.
You see, it was Mr. Sias, following his retirement, rich and full of honors from Capital Cities/ABC, who was summoned by the De-Young clan and its several bickering branches, to help settle things down and, if need be, to prepare the company to be sold.
Which is what seems to be happening and I hope the DeYoungs, and San Francisco itself, appreciate, as I do, the unique qualities Mr. Sias brings to any endeavor. I got to know him about 1970 when Cap Cities, which had bought Fairchild Publications, brought him in as president. I was then publisher of WWD and editorial director of the company. But even all those years of working for John Fairchild had not prepared me for Sias.
To begin with, he wore Captain America T-shirts under his white button-down business shirt so you could see the garish cartoon character showing through. On the Lexington Ave. subway he regularly announced the next stop with loud, conductor-like cries (Bernie Goetz's assailants, had they shared a car with John Sias, would have gotten off). Above ground John prided himself on being the swiftest backwards runner in New York and was often seen, attache case in hand, speeding backwards along Madison or Park. In a Las Vegas parking lot on a dare, he once sped across the entire lot atop the roofs of cars, feet never touching the asphalt. Last time I encountered John on Avenue of the Americas he hid behind a trash receptacle and spoke to me, quite pleasantly, from that vantage point.
Can you top this? Well, yes. Thanks to George Rush and Joanna Molloy of the Daily News in a recent column about Abe Hirschfeld. Abe, with whom I lunch, was for about 15 minutes in control of the New York Post, during which time he publicly (and famously) kissed Pete Hamill, then the editor. He also is said to believe drugs, including cocaine, should be sold through prescription. Now Abe is starting up something called Open Air P.M. as an afternoon daily. But Editor Richard Gooding and M.E. Laura Durkin quit even before the first issue on the not unreasonable grounds that Abe "ordered them to stop reading the articles they wanted to put in the paper...editors hamper the job," said Abe.
The editors were to assign stories and their length but that was it. Abe said he would regularly publish a disclaimer: "We're not perfect."
Oh, yeah, no retail ads were to be solicited. The revenue would come entirely from paid obituaries. "People could put any kind of picture of their loved one and write whatever they wanted."
At this writing Abe intends to launch his new paper on May 21.