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The Boy with No Childhood
SITTING IN HIS CRAMPED OFFICE JUST inside the gates of Temple Israel Cemetery, Fred Maier, the superintendent, heard the familiar sound of an idling Packard limousine. He immediately abandoned his paperwork to greet his illustrious visitor and emerged from the stone-and-stucco building just in time to see a small, roundish man in a glossy fur coat alight from the car's rear door. "Mr. Ochs," said Maier, referring to the owner and publisher of The New York Times in the formal manner that he preferred. "How nice to see you again."
Adolph S. Ochs's gait was unsteady, his face impassive, and his blue eyes slightly lopsided, as though he had had a stroke. Since Hitler's rise to power the previous year, Ochs had been in the grip of a deep depression that had changed him from an exuberant, energetic, even lusty figure into a despairing old man. As the son of German Jewish immigrants, Adolph feared that the Nazis' virulent brand of anti-Semitism might take root in America, toppling him from what he viewed as his fragile pedestal of success and respectability. Normally a sentimental, almost naive optimist, he was now, in the winter of 1934, a gloomy man, obsessed with his own mortality and beset by a near hysterical anxiety about which family member should follow him as steward of the most powerful newspaper in the world.
Ochs extended his hand warmly to Maier and exchanged a few pleasantries before asking for the key to his unfinished mausoleum. Since purchasing the gravesite in January 1933—the largest in the cemetery, with room for six aboveground coffins and twelve more to beburied— Adolph had been a regular visitor, taking a keen interest in the construction of his final resting place.
For decades he had planned to be buried in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the hardscrabble town where he had first triumphed as the youthful proprietor of The Chattanooga Times. Even now, after nearly forty years of living in New York City, Adolph referred to Chattanooga as "home." But when he discovered that his son-in-law's family, the Sulzbergers, were interred at Temple Israel, only fifteen minutes from Hillandale, his estate in White Plains, Adolph abandoned his Chattanooga shrine. Instead, he erected a tomb in New York so that his cherished only child, Iphigene, could more easily visit the grave, along with her husband, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, their four children, and the clamorous extended clan of New York-based Ochs siblings, in-laws, nephews, and nieces whose fortunes had long been linked to that of Adolph and The New York Times.
Adolph's mausoleum would be the final magisterial gesture of his life. He had never shied away from P. T. Barnum-like pomp and swagger, and in contemplation of death he was no different. To ensure that his resting place made the appropriate statement, he hired as its architects the New York firm that had designed the Empire State Building. The result was a stately stone sepulchre with an imposing bronze door, glass windows crisscrossed with iron bars to discourage vandals, and a foundation covered with two coats of tar to keep out moisture. Adolph had located his tomb within sight of the more modest Sulzberger graves and those of their Sephardic relatives, the Hayses and Peixottos. As a German Jew, he was all too aware of the Jewish pecking order that placed his background a firm notch below that of the Sephardim, who had been driven from the Iberian Peninsula by the Inquisition and had arrived on American shores early enough to fight in the Revolution. To lie in splendor mere feet from these Jewish aristocrats was both a fitting culmination of Adolph's ambitions and a mild rebuke to the old-line Jewish establishment that he felt had never fully embraced him.
For all his love of spectacle, Adolph Ochs was at heart a man with simple tastes, virtues, and vices. He was unschooled and, even after reaching near iconic status, was disarmingly—even shockingly— modest. "A plain man," said Maier, who had carefully observed that, unlike his more status-conscious son-in-law, Adolph always exited his limousine himself rather than ostentatiously waiting for the chauffeur to assist him.
As he had grown ever more despondent, Adolph had spoken with increasing urgency of returning to Chattanooga. Out of affection and nostalgia, he had instructed the New York architects to build his crypt from white Tennessee marble and to landscape the grounds with Tennessee flora—mountain laurel, dogwood, hemlock, pine trees, and pin oaks.
Adolph enjoyed money and fame and had worked hard to acquire both during his nearly seventy-six years, yet riches, renown, and power had never been central concerns. As the end of his life drew near, he found himself recalling his earliest ambitions, ones forged in deprivation, the humiliation of being the son of an honorable but ineffectual father, and the tenuousness of being Jewish in an overwhelmingly gentile world.
His mausoleum was almost complete. As Adolph trudged the grounds, eyeing the work approvingly, his mind turned to his epitaph. He had decided years before on the words he wanted inscribed on his sarcophagus: just two lines, a fragment of a Fitz-Greene Halleck poem he had chanced to see on the tombstone of a now forgotten poet in Brooklyn in 1903:
None knew thee but to love thee, None named thee but to praise.
Love and praise. Affection and reputation. Simple goals, unsuitable for the voracious appetites of a Hearst or a Pulitzer, but not for Adolph Ochs, who had long ago yearned for both, making them the North Star in the black sky that was his childhood.
Adolph's father, Julius, was born in 1826 in F?rth, Bavaria, to Lazarus Ochsenhorn, a prosperous diamond merchant and talmudic scholar. He attended college in Cologne, displaying a talent for scholarship, especially in music and languages.
When Lazarus died in 1840, Julius's oldest brother became the head of the family, as was the custom, and promptly ordered Julius to abandon his studies and apprentice himself to a bookbinder. Finding the life of a tradesman dull, and the laws restricting work and marriage for Jews oppressive, Julius emigrated to America in 1845, joining several older siblings in Louisville, Kentucky. With his command of English, he had hoped to reenter college, but his family again dissuaded him; using the shortened name of Ochs, he compliantly followed the path of so many of the German Jewish immigrants who fled to America about the time of the revolutions of 1848: he became an itinerant peddler.
Before the Civil War Julius wandered widely throughout the South, taking a variety of jobs: a teacher in a small Kentucky girls' school, a watch merchant in Cincinnati, and a clerk in his brother's Louisville dry goods store. Because of his religious training and fluency in Hebrew, he was often called upon to conduct services for the tiny Jewish congregations in the communities where he lived. Soon he assumed the position of lay rabbi.
In 1855 Julius married Bertha Levy, the plain-faced daughter of a merchant and tailor from Landau, Bavaria. Bertha was as determined and inflexible as Julius was dreamy and accommodating. As a fifteen-year-old student at Heidelberg Seminary during the revolutionary movement of 1848, she had defiantly dipped her handkerchief in the blood of an executed comrade to show her sympathy for the cause. To escape arrest, she fled to Natchez, Mississippi, to live with an uncle. Her parents soon followed, and by 1854 the family had settled in Nashville, Tennessee. It was there that Julius, then working for a cousin, became engaged to Bertha on the evening of Yom Kippur.
Bertha's youthful liberalism proved to be deceptive. In Natchez she had embraced a contemptuous antebellum view of blacks, and for the rest of her life was dogmatically conservative, even reactionary. Julius, on the other hand, recoiled at the sight of slave auctions in Mississippi and Louisiana, where he worked briefly during the early 1850s. Declaring slavery a "villainous relic of barbarism," he became as determined to abolish the South's "peculiar institution" as Bertha was to preserve it.
It was into this fractious household that Adolph Simon Ochs was born on March 12, 1858, on the eve of the Civil War. Although the Ochses by then were living north of the Mason-Dixon line—Julius had moved to Cincinnati soon after his marriage—Bertha remained a Confederate to the last, even insisting that she be buried with the Stars and Bars. Adolph grew up hearing "mother [give] father a lot of trouble" about the war and saw neighbors lose husbands and sons on both sides. Those experiences contributed to a distrust of rigid ideology and an affinity for compromise that would later shape his newspaper career.
The critical event of Adolph's childhood was the death of his older brother, the Ochses' firstborn, Louis, who succumbed to scarlet fever in 1859 at the age of two. "The blow almost prostrated me," Julius wrote years later, "for my very soul was wrapped up with that child." Bertha's response was to pour her furious energy and ambition into Adolph, and he reacted by trying to be both the son she had lost and the provider his father could never be. Even as a very young boy, he was the source of income and manly strength for his parents and for the five siblings who eventually joined him in the Ochs household: Nannie, George, Milton, Ada, and Mattie. "All I have accomplished in life I owe to her," Adolph later said of his mother. She "is my inspiration, my comfort and the creator of all that gives me self-respect."
The bond between mother and son was fortified by Julius's frequent financial reversals and his many absences during the Civil War. After the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861, Julius organized a company of Ohio volunteers, taking the title of captain. He was as much a misfit at soldiering as he was at business, and served only six months. He had hoped to join the regular military service, but the vocally Confederate Bertha discouraged the idea. Instead, Julius peddled necessities to Tennessee Unionists, crisscrossing the countryside in rude covered wagons.
It didn't help Julius's business—or his peace of mind—that his wife freely trumpeted her Southern sympathies. In the fall of 1861, soon after the arrival of the couple's third son, Bertha was arrested for smuggling quinine to rebel forces across the Ohio River. The drugs were hidden in the bottom of a baby carriage that held the newborn, whom Julius had patriotically named George Washington Ochs. Only her marriage to a Union loyalist saved Bertha from incarceration.
In 1864 Julius moved his family to Knoxville, then under Federal control, and briefly served as an officer in a regiment organized to protect the city. After Appomattox he capitalized on the region's pent-up appetite for merchandise by buying dry goods and quickly reselling them at a handsome profit. Intoxicated by the artificial boom, Julius borrowed wildly, acquiring a house in Knoxville and an eighty-one-acre estate in the country, which he grandly dubbed Ochsenburg. For a brief moment the Ochses were prosperous, reveling in the luxury of carriages, horses, and servants.
Their Arcadia was short-lived. In 1867, a year of economic panic in the South, creditors began knocking on Julius's door. Hopelessly overextended, he declared personal bankruptcy and sold his home, farm, and business to pay his debts. The family moved into an unpainted rented house east of town. At the suggestion of some kindly friends who realized he could never succeed as a merchant, Julius became a justice of the peace and a member of the county court, later adding notary public to his list of fee-producing titles. Nevertheless, the Ochses were soon forced to take in boarders to make ends meet.
In the late 1860s and early 1870s, Knoxville was an up-and-coming, class-conscious city of 8,700 still bitterly divided by the war. Families had buried rebels and Unionists alike, and the town teemed with hate-filled partisans on both sides. Anti-Jewish feeling, which crested during the war, continued to thrive in the overheated atmosphere of the city. Although fifteen thousand Jews had fought for the Union, almost as many had served the Southern cause, and rumors persisted that Jewish bankers had secretly financed the Confederacy. As the oldest son of a nearly impoverished Jew with a distinct German accent, Adolph, with his black curls and "round Jewish face," learned to value compromise, work harder than anyone else, and seek harmony whenever possible. At an early age he was convinced—as much by pragmatic necessity as by principle—that "there was much to be said on both sides of most questions."
To boost the family's finances, Adolph got a job when he was eleven as a carrier boy for the Knoxville Chronicle. He arrived at the Chronicle office every morning at 5:00 a.m. to fold the fifty papers on his route. He then walked four miles delivering them, went home for a brief breakfast, and by 7:00 a.m. was seated in his desk at school. For his labor, Adolph earned twenty-five cents a day. He was soon joined at the paper by his younger brothers, George and Milton. In a show of solidarity, Julius arose with his sons and accompanied them to the Chronicle every morning in the predawn darkness.
Adolph made brief detours into the grocery business and drugstore trade, but it was newspapers that gave him the opportunity to cultivate the approving older men who would prove critical to his success. Over the next six years he worked for both the Knoxville Chronicle and the Knoxville Tribune, advancing rapidly from office boy to printer's devil to apprentice to journeyman printer. When he was fourteen, Adolph left school to devote himself full-time to supporting his family. For the rest of his life, "Muley" Ochs, as he was nicknamed (a lame joke on his last name, which was pronounced "ox" and actually meant that in German), had an awestruck reverence for people with formal education. As a young man he wrote letters riddled with bumpkinish mistakes such as "it ain't" and "it don't." Although he later learned to write and speak properly, in distinguished groups he would often listen in respectful silence rather than risk making a grammatical error. But Adolph had qualities that would prove to be just as important as education: bound-less energy, an ingratiating personality, and a mature self-confidence, nurtured by Bertha, that struck contemporaries as almost comical. "I laughed immoderately at your letter," a Louisville cousin told fifteen-year- old Adolph. "It contained such high style."
In August 1875 President Andrew Johnson died, and Adolph proposed to the Louisville Courier-Journal that he cover the funeral in nearby Greeneville, Tennessee. The resulting article was so heavily edited that Adolph could "hardly recognize it as my work." Nevertheless, the experience whetted his appetite for the wider world, and two months later he left Knoxville for Louisville, where he hoped to amass enough cash to press on to his ultimate destination: California.
On Adolph's last night in Knoxville, his fellow Chronicle compositors threw a farewell banquet of steamed oysters and beer. Their parting gift was a book of poetry by Thomas Hood, a former engraver, in which they inscribed their names. Adolph, though just seventeen, had impressed them all with his diligence and good humor. In the dedication at the front of the book, the men grandly predicted that he would eventually be counted "among the nation's honored sons."
Adolph knew how to put such sentiments to practical use. In preparation for his departure, he had bought a bound leather autograph book in which he had carefully collected the job references and testimonials he hoped would help catapult him to fortune and glory. Captain William Rule, the Chronicle's editor, had made a lengthy entry, as had Henry Collins, the head of the composing room, who declared his enterprising apprentice "a necessity, hard to part with."
But it was Adolph's own inscription that would prove to be the most telling. On the first page, in his plump, almost feminine hand, he had copied from memory—and thus slightly incorrectly—a famous quotation from Othello:
Who steals my purse steals trash; Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands; But he who filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.
|June 26, 1996||xiii|
|Part 1||The Paterfamilias|
|1.||The Boy with No Childhood||5|
|3.||A Jay Comes to Town||31|
|4.||"A Stroke of Genius"||41|
|5.||The Times' Mystique||59|
|6.||Sidestepping a Scandal||69|
|7.||"My Ownest Daughter and Onliest Son"||78|
|8.||A Non-Jewish Jew||92|
|9.||War, Worry, and a Wedding||107|
|10.||The Great Man||126|
|11.||A Good Name||145|
|Part 2||The Stewards|
|12.||The Man Who Would Not Be King||165|
|13.||Married to The New York Times||186|
|16.||Fantasy and Reality||235|
|17.||Freedom and Disillusionment||251|
|19.||The Sorcerer's Apprentices||282|
|20.||An Owl and an Omen||301|
|22.||A Separate World||331|
|24.||A Quiet Leader||354|
|Part 3||The Inheritor|
|25.||The Divine Right of Kings||373|
|26.||The Center Will Not Hold||394|
|27.||A Parallel Existence||415|
|28.||Searching for Lost Fathers||428|
|29.||The Age of Discontent||438|
|30.||The Phoenix Rises||449|
|31.||Fits and Starts||461|
|32.||Betting the Enterprise||480|
|33.||The Summer of the Gypsy Moths||494|
|34.||The Four-Part Miracle||505|
|35.||Getting Rid of Troublesome Priests||520|
|36.||A President and a Family Counselor||535|
|37.||A Coup de Foudre and a Career||549|
|38.||Everyone Makes His Move||563|
|39.||All for One, One for All||576|
|40.||A Thousand Years||590|
|41.||A Time of Testing||604|
|42.||The Sword in the Stone||625|
|Part 4||The Next Generation|
|43.||Welcome to the Revolution||645|
|44.||A Smile, a Shoeshine, and a President||656|
|45.||Whispers and a Megaphone||665|
|46.||Management in a Bucket||675|
|47.||The New "Good Son"||687|
|51.||Death of a Salesman||740|
|53.||Live Long and Prosper||768|
Posted January 1, 2001
Posted March 23, 2000
Fascinating story of a family and newspaper. Interesting how some members grew into their jobs. Interesting also how the paper succeeds despite the efforts of family members. I knew nothing about the family before reading this book. Recommend in highly.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.