The McClure’s Schism
Was there ever a group like it? Was there ever so much fun in work? Or ever so much anguish when the thing exploded? Somebody should go to work analyzing the reasons for the explosions of our fine idealisticundertakings. (1)
—Ida Tarbell reminiscing about McClure’s.
S.S. McClure was a man whose vision became a magazine. His magazine, in turn, reflected the visions of American society. Like any inspired creation, however, McClure’s was subject to the mercurial emotions of its founder, who unwittingly undermined the magazine’s progressive crusades when he affronted the high moral standards of his colleagues. Two factors stood at the center of the conflict inciting the migration of McClure’s best journalistic talent to The American Magazine: McClure’s “shameful” affair with poet Florence Wilkinson was viewed as an immoral indiscretion which endangered McClure’s upstanding reputation. Matters were further complicated when McClure’s subsequent feelings of guilt over his infidelity aggravated his already unstable temperament, resulting in a condition of nervous exhaustion. His desire to assuage feelings of guilt, combined with this exhaustion, drove him to seek an unrealistic goal: expansion of his publishing enterprise into a business empire designed to alleviate many “social ills” of the day. By initiating this expansion, McClure believed he could regain the esteem of his friends and loved ones. Heedless of the need to consult his business partners, McClure reorganized “his” company with a new charter outlining plans for the establishment of a McClure’s Universal Journal and subsidiary enterprises, including a McClure’s Bank, life insurance company, correspondence school, and a settlement “in which people could have cheap homes on their own terms.” (2) These “harebrained” proposals, coupled with the ideological tension already existing over S.S. McClure’s apparent disregard for the Seventh Commandment, offended the staff’s progressive ideals and endangered their economic security. Fearing their editor’s actions were undermining their attempts to reform a lawless, immoral society, they left the magazine in the spring of 1906. The McClure’s schism is especially significant if the events leading to its occurrence are clearly understood, for in order to comprehend the “explosions” one must first examine the making of the bomb.
In December, 1903, eleven months after the famous January issue sold out at the newsstands, S.S. McClure returned to America following an unsuccessful attempt to study lawlessness in Europe. (3) He scoured London, Paris, Geneva and Berlin in hopes of gathering background material for a McClure’s article on crime and its effects on society, but lamented that his efforts had been “most discouraging.” (4) John Phillips was bothered; he found it odd McClure’s trip bore no fruit. But as the year approached its end, Phillips began to wonder if McClure, instead of researching, had visited a young writer currently traveling in Europe. (5) McClure’s amorous tendencies were well-known to Phillips, and there was reason for suspicion. Earlier in the year, before she sailed abroad, Florence Wilkinson had been seen with McClure in a New York restaurant. Phillips knew that Wilkinson’s good looks made her horrid verse seem palatable to McClure, who had published “A Boy’s Point of View” in the January, 1903 edition of his magazine:
Sometimes the road to Sunday school
Drags out so hot and dreary,
But that same road to go trout fishing,
It springs along so cheery.
Phillips wondered why McClure accepted such a wretched rhyme for publication. Hattie McClure wondered why her husband chose to read selections of Wilkinson’s verse to his entire family during the holiday season. (7) While they questioned themselves they dared not ask McClure. There was nothing to prove the editor was philandering with a suspicious character, but Mrs. McClure, Tarbell and Phillips certainly wondered. For months their suspicions were idle, until Witter Bynner unwittingly provided the shameful link between editor and poet in the form of a box of flowers. (8)
Bynner, McClure’s poetry editor, had good taste in verse. He had accepted for publication the work of many quality poets, including William Butler Yeats and A.E. Housman. In May, 1904, McClure ordered Bynner to purchase more of Wilkinson’s verse. He penned a brief acceptance note and handed it to Bynner, instructing him to send it along with flowers. (9) Suspicions were heightened when the new poetry was examined. “The House to His First Mistress” caused many on the staff to believe Wilkinson was writing verse in fond remembrance of McClure: (10)
I took you in my lonely arms,
You were the soul of me;
There was no speech between us twain,
There needed not be;
Your watchful nights were mine, were mine,
And mine you minstrelsy.
Your seal upon my forehead is
Forever still to be. (11)
Ida Tarbell, in her office, received word of the flowers and suspicious poetry. She instantly set the wheels of moral judgment in motion: when Bynner returned, she and Phillips harangued him about his “treacherous behavior toward Mrs. McClure.” (12) Even McClure himself was not spared a scathing lecture on the gravity of his actions.
Why were Phillips and Tarbell so concerned? Certainly, they cared for Mrs. McClure’s well-being, but at the same time, they feared the magazine would suffer greatly in the face of scandal. McClure’s, as “the most articulate of the middle-class monthlies,” had a readership imbued with progressive fervor. (13) The magazine voiced the sentiments of a readership bent upon making society conform to its predominantly Protestant, middle-class conception of morality. The McClure’s reader had little tolerance for marital infidelity, and S.S. McClure, as editor-in-chief, could ruin the magazine’s reputation if he were deemed morally reprehensible.
Yet McClure’s alleged affair, if proven and expose, would morally offend more than the magazine’s readership; the staff itself would be ideologically shaken. At this point in their careers, Phillips, Tarbell, Steffens, Baker and the others espoused the strict personal ethics inherent in their progressive outlook. Their “effectiveness depended on a high moral standard of honesty and integrity.” (14) A love affair would imply the reforms they sought were unrealistic because even McClure, a prominent progressive, could not maintain an unblemished reputation.
The chronology of “L’Affaire,” as Tarbell later dubbed it, is sketchy at its origins. Peter Lyon, in his McClure biography entitled Success Story: The Life and Times of S.S. McClure, provides the essential details of these philanderings, but letters from the Ida M. Tarbell Collection add a tone of moral despair Lyon’s book does not achieve. By reading through the voluminous correspondence in the Tarbell papers, one discovers that McClure’s associates considered his actions those of an unstable man. As details of the affair materialized, Tarbell and other staff members marveled at the seemingly-insane imprudence of their editor-in-chief. Their paranoia increased as they realized what was at stake: if McClure’s extramarital activities were discovered by a fierce competitor or someone wanting to slow the muckraking movement, the magazine’s reputation would crumble, and with it, sales figures and the value of McClure’s stock. Tarbell and Phillips owned sixteen per cent of S.S. McClure Company. Phillips’ 146 shares were currently worth $146,000 and Tarbell’s 15 shares, $15,000. They also owned stock in the McClure’s Book Company, collectively valued at $16,000. Together, Phillips and Tarbell had $177,000 at stake. (15) The rest of the staff had jobs and reputations that could be soiled easily; since they believed McClure was toying with their livelihoods, they rallied behind Phillips’ and Tarbell’s leadership.
At first, no damning evidence emerged to confirm McClure and Wilkinson’s relationship extended beyond the boundaries of flirtation. the staff also took comfort in the knowledge that Mrs. McClure, “sad and reproachful” at her husband’s suspected disloyalty, was again accompanying him to Europe in 1904. (16)
On May 28, when the McClure’s were safely across the Atlantic, Tarbell hoped to tidy the mess S.S. had created. She wrote Florence Wilkinson to express how she and Phillips had “refused” to judge the situation:
My Dear Miss Wilkinson
I trust you will not consider this note an intrusion. I am only writing it because I feel that you are unhappy and that an element in that unhappiness is your feeling that Mr. Phillips and I are judging you harshly. I want to ask you to put that idea entirely out of your mind. Neither Mr. Phillips nor I have the… inclination to judge the hearts of other men and women. Both of us deplored from the first the intimacy between you and Mr. McClure because we believed that in the nature of things nothing but pain and moral disintegration could come from it–but we have not judged….
Ida M. Tarbell (17)
While Tarbell penned her moralistic note to Wilkinson, S.S. McClure decided to inform his wife of some far more scandalous writings. He asked her to “write Miss W[ilkinson] in order to enclose a letter from him.” Mrs. McClure promptly refused–until her husband told her his note would request the return of love letters he had written Wilkinson. “I was horrified to know that she had his letters,” Mrs. McClure wrote Tarbell, “[h]ow terrible are all the possibilities implied in that circumstance!” While in Paris on May 27, McClure wrote his message to Wilkinson. He “asked for all his letters, saying…that he was now happier with [Mrs. McClure] than he had been for years.” Mrs. McClure mailed it, hoping she was not doing a “wrong and weak thing.” Relations with her husband were still strained, and she had to be “very indulgent and careful to keep any real advantage at all….” (18)
When Tarbell received Hattie McClure’s letter describing the above occurrence, her worst fear became reality–if the love letters fell into the wrong hands, blackmail or scandal would result. Sam McClure’s imprudence was dangerous, and in her view, insane. The magazine they lovingly had built up was in no position to deal with scandal; it was at the pinnacle of its social, political, and economic influence. Their readership was huge, the largest of its day; the muckraking articles moralistically had swayed public opinion and fueled progressive desires for reform. McClure’s even had the largest advertising clientele of any periodical–and yet the magazine faced possible ruin at the hands of “an uncivilized, immoral, untutored natural man with enough canniness to keep himself out of jails and asylums.” (19) The love letters had to be retrieved and John Phillips had the unhappy chore of discussing the matter with Wilkinson. (20) He traveled to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where Wilkinson lived, and instructed her to stop writing McClure and return all his letters to him. She agreed. (21)
Clearly, John Phillips resented the entire situation. Acting as romantic referees, he and Tarbell tried to bring the affair to a discreet conclusion. On June 21, Florence Wilkinson sent Phillips a message to let him know she still cared for McClure, although the affair was “officially” over. She told him the love letters had been sent to Divonne, France, where McClure was currently undergoing a rest cure. (22) In her note, Wilkinson expressed her concern for McClure’s mental health:
…Perhaps you would advise that I should not answer at all, but I think his health is suffering unnecessarily [sic] under the strain of absolute silence. I think, too, he is in an agony of doubt as to my feelings toward him. I wish he could know that I love him as well as ever–though I never am to see him. A letter which under convoy of a letter from his wife and which I opened was heart-rending. Surely it can do us no harm for him to be comforted–and the love by itself is not wrong….” (23)
Phillips dashed off a note to Tarbell asking for advice; he was shocked that Wilkinson’s passion had not cooled. “So as you surmised it’s not off yet and the lady is still playing her romantic part….” (24) he wrote Tarbell, “what to think of it all I don’t know! Is this an epidemic of lunacy? or moon blight? My small nephew used the word ‘bughouse’ this morning. It expresses my feelings.” (25)
Phillips and Tarbell were angry and confused; Hattie McClure and Florence Wilkinson were feeling slighted. In the center of this storm of emotion, however, stood McClure himself, busily trying to save his damaged personal life. Wilkinson was right: he was beginning to bend under the emotional strain. He, too, saw that those whom he needed most were threatening to disown him. He tried to scribble his was back into their esteem. To Tarbell he wrote: “I have so much to do right for. I couldn’t bear to lose you…I would allow no deed to separate me from you…not to speak of John and the others.” (26) First McClure had to regain his health by resting his frazzled nerves. “I am now at the bottom,” he lamented. “I can go no further nor feel any sadder.” (27) By this time, McClure’s mental fatigue began to affect him physically:
I am sorry to say that I have not yet begun to get well. I have lost steadily in weight and vigor and am now only a few pounds heavier than I was years ago….I am about to take the desperate but sure cure–three weeks in bed and milk. This the doctor says is my only hope physically….” (28)
Was Sam McClure mentally unstable in the sense that he had little ability to control his emotions? And, if so, what effect did the affair have on his condition? McClure was indeed unstable; he had long been taking “rest cures” in various parts of Europe, and had continually suffered under the strain of a self-imposed, demanding schedule. (30)Later in life he reflected:
From the time I started the syndicate in 1884 until 1896, I lived under the most crushing financial anxieties and I was always under the necessity of getting good material, I was always pressed for enough time, and always cut off you might say from money or credit. So I never had time to look up, or look around, I was always trying to do more than I could do. When I got through, and the pressure was gone, my health and in a certain sense my judgment were terriblyimpaired. (31)
Tarbell, Phillips, and most of the staff dismissed McClure’s romantic indiscretions as the actions of an unstable man. They believed their editor was involved in an affair because he was already “ill,” and therefore unable to clearly foresee the possible consequences of his actions. (32) However, they did not realize that their disdain over McClure’s infidelity only increased their editor’s feelings of guilt, thereby exacerbating his instability.
As McClure wrote his miserable notes from Europe, Tarbell sought to stop the affair at all costs. “My Dear Mr. Phillips,” she wrote,
The Lord help us! I’m too small for this! There is nothing for us I should say, but to keep a ‘stern and unrelenting’ front Evidently Mrs McC is not to be counted on for that. Letters under her convoy! He can persuade her to anything and if in the end we see a menage a trois, I shall not be greatly surprised….we seem to be the only ones to use the knife and somebody must do it….our inexperience in dealing with lunations makes extra attention necessary! (33)
“Extra attention” was precisely what Tarbell and Phillips gave the whole affair. Hattie McClure’s letter of July 2, 1904 must have comforted them, for it confirmed the only physical evidence of the improprieties now rested in McClure’s hands. The love letters arrived in Europe on June 27, and Mrs. McClure was relieved to report “…the suspense and anxiety are all over now, and Sam has nothing to do but recover….” (34)
However, Mary Bisland, in charge of McClure’s London office, had her doubts. Upon meeting the editor and his wife at London’s Bedford Hotel, she listened to Mrs. McClure recount the “base and squalid details” of the affair. Bisland felt her editor was acting irrationally, and wondered if he could “suffer such a moral sickness at his age and then recover….” Bisland labeled McClure a “hopeless sort of degenerate….He is both wretched and restless away from Miss Wilkinson, he has not the very vaguest idea of giving her up.” Yet Bisland took solace in the belief that if her editor did “misbehave again,” he would face a “pretty stern judge” by the name of Hattie McClure. Like Tarbell, Bisland feared the worst; “this affair,” she lamented, “may yet bring disgrace upon our firm.” (35)
Paranoia was running its course on both sides of the Atlantic, but some of the fears were justified. McClure did “misbehave again,” and his wife was anything but the stern judge Bisland thought she would be. On July 25, Mrs. McClure received a letter from Florence Wilkinson, who had apparently discovered another lover in McClure’s life. (36) In her jealousy, she informed Mrs. McClure of Edith Wherry, an American writer currently in Europe, whom the editor had known intimately. In search of advice, Mrs. McClure wrote to Phillips on July 30, 1904:
This week Sam voluntarily made me some very solemn promises. He spoke more definitely than ever before. It was on the occasion of my learning much about his course of action during the summer, that he had not been loyal as I supposed him. But I know that he was sincere, and I accepted his solemn word offered to me. I find myself tempted to fling back at him his promises, but I have seen how disastrous that would be, and I tenderly accept all his offers….” (37)
In another note to Tarbell, Mrs. McClure explained why she was being so receptive to her husband’s pleas for forgiveness when she wrote that “Dr. Roland [McClure’s physician]…thinks him quite ill in the mind.” (38)
Once again McClure wrote to assure Tarbell and Phillips his philanderings were over. “You have done nobly and Miss Tarbell,” he wrote to Phillips, “[b]ut now the matter is finished and it is absolutely best that nothing further be done in word or action….” (39) As July reached its end, McClure urged his wife to return to America while he remained to pursue studies at the University of Geneva. Mrs. McClure was not certain how to react, and she pathetically wrote Phillips for advice. Throughout these months in 1904, she consistently looked to him and Tarbell for guidance which, of course, only served to draw the staff closer to its editor’s personal problems. Professionalism was mixing with personal conflict, and it soon became difficult to distinguish between business affairs and love affairs. In her letter to Phillips dated July 30, Hattie McClure expressed her concern for her husband’s well-being. It is likely she still harbored doubts about leaving him alone, fearing he would pursue romantic interests, but she was also concerned for his mental health. “He is worn to death with care and struggle,” she wrote. “It will be a long time before he is able to return to normal work I fear….He must do something. He has long lived on excitement.” (40)
This note only added to the distress of the McClure’s staff. Their editor-in-chief was apparently going to remain abroad for an extended period, unable to fulfill what duties he did not already delegate to others. McClure, however, was still in full legal control. His stock in the company was worth $600,000, and he had no intention of relinquishing any of it. (41)
In early September, Hattie McClure arrived home. To everyone’s surprise, her husband followed shortly thereafter, “finding his loneliness intolerable.” (42) Together they summoned Tarbell to the office for a conference. “Mrs. McC. is radiant and full of confidence,” Tarbell later wrote Phillips. “He [S.S. McClure] has persuaded her he never saw Miss Wherry but three times in Geneva and that all the suspicion about her is of Miss W[ilkinson]’s creation, a work of jealousy and spite.” Tarbell viewed McClure’s return with suspicion–she saw it as an attempt to “put Mrs. McC. and the rest of us off the scent,” or as a poorly-disguised effort to visit Florence Wilkinson. If McClure was indeed paying such a visit, Tarbell would not be duped; in her eyes, McClure was “still the same canny, scheming, unstable soul….He is not changed.” (43)
Peter Lyon, at this point in his McClure biography, contends that Tarbell and Bisland were two old maids with a grudge. He implies they were jealous of Wilkinson’s and Wherry’s ability to gain McClure’s affection. While Tarbell and Bisland were concerned, their correspondence provides no evidence of romantic jealousy. These women had to support themselves, and wished to protect their economic independence; they did not swoon secretly over their employer. the magazine’s reputation was crucial to their livelihoods, and they had good reason for concern. Tarbell and the other staff members repeatedly had watched their suspicions concerning McClure’s indiscretions turn into embarrassing realities. Every time another “squalid” detail surfaced, they had to scramble to suppress it. By September, 1904, they were thoroughly disillusioned by McClure’s amorous tendencies and were convinced he could not control himself. His infidelities were not only economically perilous–they were morally untenable. The progressive standards of the McClure’s staff were affronted by the actions of an editor whose genius initiated the muckraking movement. This situation implied McClure’s moral ideals were unattainable.
Tensions ran high as McClure’s mental condition slowly worsened, his instability heightened by the guilt he felt in the face of the staff’s disdain. The editor’s physical condition also deteriorated; he had lost much weight and was behaving erratically. (44) Peter Lyon calls these actions the work of a “lovesick swain,” (45) but this term is acceptable only if it is a euphemism for a man whose “childish behavior was due to an inordinate emotional strain” (46) exacerbated by feelings of guilt.
Nine months passed before the second serious threat of scandal further alienated the McClure’s staff from its editor-in-chief. Tarbell had written a letter to Phillips in June, 1905, noting she had “a feeling that the whole affair [was] going to take on tragic proportions….” (47) It nearly did. In mid-summer 1905, McClure, searching for a possible story, decided to investigate unfair insurance practices in the Midwest. Two weeks after his departure for Chicago, Hattie McClure once again sought Tarbell’s advice. (48)She had just received a manuscript from Edith Wherry, disdainfully titled “The Shame of S.S. McClure, Illustrated by Letters and Original Documents,” (49) and a recommendation that McClure “publish it in the magazine with other important revelations.” (50)
Tarbell’s papers provide only evidence of her response to this situation. “The Shame of S.S. McClure” indicated her fears of blackmail or scandalous exposure were justified. Tarbell retained a copy of the letter Edith Wherry sent to McClure, which quotes Wherry’s explanation of why she submitted such a manuscript for publication. Ridden with her own feelings of guilt, Wherry declared:
I have decided to live henceforth in truth and honor….But to carry out my intention it is necessary that your wife know the truth and that the wall…behind which we both have hid[den] should be swept away. Especially…[should] you wife know that after your ‘conversion’ you returned to me with the same order as before….” (51)
Tarbell quickly advised Hattie McClure to send an urgent telegram to her husband in Chicago, requesting his immediate return, but McClure was already en route to New York, and arrived the next day. (52) Upon meeting his wife, McClure insisted his philanderings were over. “The Shame of S.S. McClure” was “somehow quietly suppressed,” (53) and an ever-wary Tarbell, in a letter to Albert Boyden, admitted the flames of passion were, with luck, extinguished. (54)
The aftermath of “L’Affaire” was quite significant in the McClure’s breakup. Everyone on the staff, including McClure himself, was affected by the “amorous intrigues” which had stained the past year. No one seemed to trust McClure. He had recklessly endangered the magazine’s reputation, thereby placing his subordinates in economic peril. He had committed an offense that affronted the moral sense of a progressive staff which had paraded justice and morality in its muckraking exposes. Worse yet, McClure’s subordinates now considered him mentally unstable, a hypocrite discrediting the reforms they so diligently sought to accomplish. McClure’s illness was, by this time, legendary among his employees, and his long absences had accustomed the staff to publishing a quality product without him. John Phillips’ authority had increased even further during “L’Affaire.” McClure was “…nominally editor-in-chief [and]…in theory could command as he chose, but in fact to get something done required a nod from Phillips.” (55) A strained system of command suffers from divided loyalties, and McClure’s was no exception. Tarbell was loyal only to Phillips. John Siddall, in turn, followed Tarbell’s command, (56) as did Baker, who was beginning to resent McClure’s “devouring egotism, [which was]…feeding remorselessly upon the gifts and talents of everyone he met, to serve his own ambition.” (57) Steffens was angry at McClure for rejecting his recent writings on life insurance scandals, (58) but he thoroughly respected Tarbell. He later reminisced that “she furnished a lot of the wisdom that ran McClure’s….You can just see Miss Tarbell going into [the] office every day…and fixing this, arranging that…she really was editor of that office….” (59) Albert Boyden was loyal only to Phillips and Tarbell, and often joked with the latter concerning “L’Affaire.” Boyden felt McClure was essentially a “coward,” and told Tarbell he kept envisioning her scolding McClure as he pursued “one…of his beautiful ladies.” (60)There is no evidence McClure’s subordinates harbored any feelings of disdain for one another, and in the face of their editor’s instability they formed a united body determined to protect its interests.
Though the staff was tense, and allegiance to the editor-in-chief was precarious, McClure was oblivious to these divided loyalties. He knew, however, his reputation had been soiled, and it hurt him deeply. S.S. McClure loved his magazine and the people who had made it a great periodical; aware of their disdain, he felt tremendously guilty for his role in “L’Affaire” and sought to regain their esteem. His letters to Tarbell reflect this sense of remorse. “My dear friend,” he wrote,
I have many times a very heavy heart both for my sins and for the change in you toward me….I have always cared for you in a special manner…and it is a heavy, heavy, load on my heart to realize how I caused you to change….I thought… I could stand the years of waiting until I earned your confidence and I knew that my place with you and Mr. Phillips would never be the same but I find it too hard. What a pearl of great price to throw away in losing you! (61)
McClure was an unstable man in search of redemption. Because he felt guilty, he wanted to atone for his indiscretions in a big way. Thus, the editor restlessly set about planning his moral comeback: he would “erase” his immorality by creating a business empire which would be the ultimate manifestation of the “incurable optimism” of his progressive age. Unable to realize that his seemingly beneficent scheme was, in reality, progressivism gone awry, McClure never anticipated the reactions of his staff, who saw in his visionary scheming further proof of his instability and immorality.
When McClure wrote Tarbell during the height of the frenzy surrounding the Wilkinson affair, she never fully realized what lay ahead. “I just feel our coming years,” he wrote. “I have ideas and plans so clear and sound that I know our next ten years will put us far ahead….We have the greatest and most splendid achievements in front of us than any people have.” (62)
Tarbell did not initially understand what her employer was planning. Only when McClure submitted a prospectus did she and the rest of the staff panic. They believed their editor was once again “crazily” trusting his instincts. He wished to found a companion magazine called McClure’s Universal Journal, which would form the heart of a business empire. Five enterprises were to complement the proposed magazine: a People’s University would provide for a curriculum via mail and would print the appropriate textbooks. A Universal Library would publish uncopyrighted material for mass consumption. A People’s Life Insurance Company would “revive the old ideals of honest, fair, economical life insurance.” (63) A People’s Bank would serve the masses, and finally, a McClure’s settlement “in which people could have cheap homes on their own terms,” (64) would be established.
The staff was not pleased with this grandiose scheme. In their view, it was solid proof McClure was unstable. McClure, of course, never anticipated this reaction. Though the staff objected to his earlier attempts to expand the company, (65) McClure believed it would be different when he presented his new plan. He hoped they would approve, and view him once again as their competent and adored leader; (66) then, perhaps, his guilt would diminish and their scorn would not show in their eyes.
The staff, once again led by Phillips and Tarbell, justified its disdain for McClure’s scheme. Their opposition was two-fold: they believed McClure’s plans were financially risky and morally untenable. They were gradually losing their ability to “temper his wilder impulses,” (67) and feared if McClure’s actions remained unbridled, their magazine would fall into ruin. Ida Tarbell, in All in the Day’s Work, stated how McClure’s founding in 1893 was “an undertaking which only the…hopelessly optimistic would ever have dared.” (68) The success of that enterprise enabled McClure to feel “…entirely free to trust his own instincts,” (69) and such confidence was now financially dangerous when combined with a need to seek moral redemption.
The prospectus for the new journal was the product of a man who enthusiastically pursued an unrealistic goal. McClure’s Universal Journal was to compare in quality with magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, the Nation, and Success, (70) but it would be streamlined and would appeal to a larger audience. The journal would be only 64 pages in length; 40 devoted to editorials and other commentary, and 24 to advertising, which would cover publication costs. The text would be printed in small type, allowing its content to equal the amount in The Century’s 160 pages. By using cheap paper and pen and ink illustrations, the manufacturing costs would be a mere three cents per copy, half the cost of McClure’s, and annual subscriptions would be 50 cents. Expenses would be trimmed even further by utilizing the McClure’s staff, presses, and accumulated news copy. (71)
As McClure predicted the proposed journal’s sales figures, his inability to be realistic was evident. McClure’s current circulation was 400,000, but McClure’s Universal Journal, in its creator’s estimate, would reach about 1,000,000. the net income from this gigantic circulation would be $524,000 annually, but since McClure was convinced he was creating an ideal periodical, he believed circulation could run as high as 3,000,000, thereby netting his company $1,950,000 annually. (72) These “realistic” figures would require five per cent of America’s households to purchase the proposed magazine. (73)
McClure was willing to risk his fortune on the new journal, for it was to be the cornerstone of his empire. He planned to finance the enterprise by creating a company with $12,750,000 in stock: $12,000,000 common and $750,000 preferred. For every 100 preferred shares purchased, 400 common would go to the buyer as a bonus. Not a share of common stock was to enter the market. Instead, it would be given in lieu of cash payments for authors’ contributions. Yet McClure and the staff would own only common stock, since he intended it to yield eight per cent in dividends in five years. (74)
furious. If anything could prove [McClure’s]… inability to found and carry out a new business it is this. The vital points he does not touch. The use of the name McClure [on the new magazine] is all wrong–out of the question, as I see it. This system of securing the consent of everybody by means of gifts of sweets [shares of stock in the new company] is humbug …I am not fit to write him. Mr. P[hillips] > as usual is an angel and has written him a beautiful letter which ought to show him what an inferior creature [he] is but which probably he will consider as someway a consent to his scheme…. (76)
There were other problems which had the staff simply aghast. McClure’s had lost $8,000 in 1904 due to skyrocketing manufacturing costs, and the magazine was in no position to use its credit to finance a bloated twin. (77) McClure had further endangered the company’s financial position by already hiring Howard Pyle, a well-known illustrator, as the art editor for the new journal. His annual salary was $18,000. (78) to complicate matters the editor-in-chief’s personal expenditures continued to swell beyond the boundaries of his budget, and the deficit was being picked up by McClure’s. From February, 1903, to July, 1904, McClure’s overdrafts totaled $30,000. (79)
While imminent financial disaster endangered the staff’s livelihood, the potential for moral disaster also existed, both the result of the maneuverings of an “insane” man. Tarbell voiced the staff’s collective concerns in her autobiography when she concluded the “Mr. McClure was a sick man.” She blamed his illness on “…the intense pressure he had put on himself in founding his enterprises…,” (80) and hinted at his need to alleviate his feelings of guilt by noting
…his chief interest was not in what his enterprises were accomplishing, but in adding something bigger than they were or could be. Only by doing this could he prove to himself and to his colleagues that he was a stronger and more productive man than ever. (81)
McClure’s desire to construct an empire made him blind to the concerns of his staff, who viewed his scheme as hypocritical. Their chief editor’s intent to build an empire, if successful, would be “…as alike as two peas to certain organizations the magazine had been battering.” (82) Lincoln Steffens echoed the staff’s sentiments in a letter to his father, explaining that McClure’s scheme “was not only fool, it was not quite right, as we saw it….” (83) The staff’s fears were justified; their employer’s scheme would allow for the establishment of six business entities under the same management, and would strongly resemble the trusts McClure’s had criticized in several lengthy exposes.
Another reason McClure’s plan seemed hypocritical lay in the new journal’s questionable financing. McClure told Tarbell he had already raised $255,000 for the venture,(84) and as the identity of the investors became known to the staff, they feared their editor was succumbing to the financial inducements of big business. (85) McClure enthusiastically declared the proposed journal would be
after the absolute truth…inimical to no class, and especially…not inimical to corporations, [also being]…eager to do them absolute justice….This idea properly worked up would be a good thing; I know from what large corporation men are thinking and feeling. (86)
The staff’s paranoia was fueled by Tarbell’s investigative findings set for in a current editorial project for McClure’s; she was preparing an in-depth study of corporate efforts to manipulate public opinion by exercising control over several newspapers. Proof of such activity was plentiful. Charles Evans Hughes, counsel to a congressional committee investigating life insurance firms, had recently proven the Mutual Life Insurance Company had bribed several reputable newspapers to print its “propaganda.” Standard Oil Company was also caught bribing Kansas newspaper publishers to print stories sympathetic to its business practices, and Ray Stannard Baker was currently exposing similar manipulative practices in the railroad industry. (87) This further reaffirmed the staff’s fears, especially when two of McClure’s legal and financial advisors were Edgar Bancroft, a railroad lawyer, and Robert Mather, who “was president of one railroad and a director of thirty others.” (88) Steffens summarized the staff’s concerns when he denounced McClure for taking “counsel from financiers who have been exploiting (which means robbing) [with the] railroads,” for
it looked as if he were willing to do the very things the rest of us had been ‘exposing.’ Now, having built up McClure’s, given it purpose and character, and increased its circulation so that it was a power as well as a dividend-payer, [the staff] did not propose to stand by and see it exploited and used, even by itsowner. (89)
As McClure forged ahead with his plans, Tarbell hastily wrote her brother William, an attorney for Pure Oil Company, seeking his legal advice. He told her if McClure should use the “…name, credit, good-will or any other of [the magazine’s] many valuable assets, or [if she could] show his scheme will injure the same…,” (90) she possibly could convince the courts of her endangered minority rights. He then recalled jokingly how Tarbell’s editor
…has allowed ‘McClure’s Magazine’ to publish almost numberless sermons on business ‘fairness.’ His new proposition, it seems to me, would make another excellent scoop for you to let him go ahead with it and then write it up…. (91)
William Tarbell was not the only person outside the staff circle to know of McClure’s plans. Around New York, “in the bars and clubs frequented by journalists, the story grew of how McClure, megalomaniacal, was planning a vast publishing Trust….” (92) the public reaction only confirmed staff fears that McClure’s would be labeled an organ of journalistic hypocrisy.
In the midst of these rumors S.S. McClure finally took legal action to establish the McClure’s Journal Company, and a schism began which resulted in the staff’s exodus to form The American Magazine. McClure later described march 21, 1906, as a day in which “a malignant wave of hysteria” (93) swept over the staff, causing the breakup to occur. Ida Tarbell kept a brief account of the schism in her diary: on March 21, McClure returned from yet another European excursion, hoping to sooth Phillips’ anger over his decision to hire Howard Pyle as the new journal’s illustrator. When Phillips realized his partner intended to pursue his plans for McClure’s Universal Journal, he promptly quit. Distressed, McClure sought to gain Tarbell’s support for his scheme. She “refused to argue,” and told him she had no intention of supporting his efforts. She also suggested a conference of all concerned parties should be called before she took action. Realizing his two closest “supporters” were deserting him, McClure “…seem[ed] to acknowledge [his] crazyness…,” (94) but there was no turning back. As Steffens, Boyden and Siddall paced outside McClure’s office, Phillips and Tarbell entered, confronted their editor, and explained their grievances: how McClure had spent too much time abroad, how important it was to reapportion editorial control, how McClure had lost the ability to properly manage the magazine by himself. (95) Remembering their editor’s unstable mind, they sensed McClure’s desperation when he attempted to prevent Phillips’ defection by offering him three years paid vacation. Phillips refused and continued to insist he was leaving. McClure then agreed to purchase Phillips’ stock, and asked Tarbell if she intended to remain. She replied she could not stay without Phillips “or someone like him….” (96) McClure’s panic goaded him to offer to buy every article Tarbell wrote for the next three years, if she promised to remain. (97)
Tarbell, like Phillips, promptly refused his “pathetic” offer. When McClure inquired whether the rest of the staff was leaving, Tarbell “said Boyden was the only one who told me so directly.” (98) The staff, however, supportive of its two leaders, rallied behind Phillips’ and Tarbell’s battle flag. Even Baker, preoccupied with his series entitled “The Railroads on Trial,” joined Phillips, Tarbell, Steffens and others in battling an editor who had “become so utterly unbalanced…that he is almost past working with.“(99) As the day wore on, McClure finally realized his colleagues were deserting him. The day proved exhausting for his frazzled nerves, and he panicked further when he became convinced the value of his stock in the S.S. McClure Company would plummet in the face of desertion. Tarbell was in Phillips’ office when McClure marched in and announced he could not purchase his partner’s stock, for “the staff [was] leaving and it [wasn’t] worth $1000” per share. (100)
Phillips and Tarbell believed McClure’s instability now deluded him into breaking his promise. To bring the editor to his senses, Phillips said McClure must, if he had any moral decency, “buy him out.” It was, after all, “the only fair and manly thing to do.” (101) After Phillips mad his “very good and sensible speech,” McClure changed strategies. Tarbell recounted how “S.S., after silence, said [the] thing for you people to do is buy me out.” Phillips agreed: “I’ll buy your stock,” he said, and “S.S. sprang up as if shot and stretched out his hand to Mr. P[hillips]” to shake on the agreement. McClure then “flew from [the] room without a word.” (102)
In his biography, Peter Lyon portrays the agreement in a tone sympathetic to McClure’s plight. The author claims Phillips and Tarbell “…were trying to euchre him out of control of his own company.” (103) The term “euchre” implies they were trying to cheat McClure, and is deceptive. It is crucial to remember Phillips and Tarbell were dealing with someone who had just attempted to renege on an “honorable” agreement, and they felt justified in seeking to protect their interest by gaining control of the company. This is not to say, however, that Tarbell and Phillips were immune to the painful emotions of the situation. Both had known McClure for many years, and suffered under the tension of the schism currently underway, but their primary interests lay in the financial and moral considerations of the situation. They acted in what they considered an honorable manner.
Shortly after McClure agreed to sell his stock, Tarbell went to his office. The editor was “putting on his coat, his eyes red from weeping.” She gave McClure her hand, and “he said brokenly, It’s all right. I’m at peace for the first time in days. My wife is praying for me….” At this point in Tarbell’s account, she again indicated McClure’s instability, for “he talked a good deal, half to himself and half to me.” She felt “awful” about the experience and could not reply because she was so upset. McClure, despite emotional strain, could elicit tremendous feelings of guilt from Tarbell. She recounted how he “referred to his love for me– said it was all which had saved him in affaire Wilkinson.” Apparently, McClure had no idea how much “L’Affaire” had served to alienate Tarbell and the rest of the staff. Though Tarbell did not believe McClure was sincere, she thought he felt he was so; her diary entries indicate she had her doubts about McClure’s ability to fully understand his own thoughts and actions. He spoke in “broken talk for a half hour,” and she “ached dreadfully” at seeing him in this state. She begged him to go home: “I only talk once–to tell him it has ceased to be a question of S.S. and J.S.P. To save his manhood he must get out of this situation.” (104)
During the following week McClure and Phillips drew up plans to facilitate a staff takeover of McClure’s. Tarbell, Steffens, and Boyden were each willing to contribute $50,000 to the buy out, intending to maintain group control of the magazine’s stock. by doing so, the staff hoped not only to preserve their livelihoods, but to continue the progressive crusades their unstable editor had undermined. Boyden, confident a staff takeover would succeed, wrote Baker: “I feel better than in months. It’s a relief to know that the magazine is to be preserved–that’s bigger and more important than any of us.” (105) McClure, however, had difficulty committing himself to any agreement. He wrote his attorney, Robert Mather, and lamented that his “…continual wavering was caused by [his] utter inability to face the separation.” (106) On April 14, McClure finally halted his vacillation and chose to remain. He wrote Tarbell and told her: “I cannot leave the magazine. I simply cannot. I would soon lose my mind with unavailing regret…I am sorry, sorry.” (107) He then formed the McClure Publishing Company to replace the S.S. McClure Company, issuing $1,000,000 in preferred for the new new concern. The issuance of preferred stock was a last-ditch effort to pay for new publishing facilities on Long Island which were threatening the financial well-being of the company. The stock would be sold to the new firm. (108)
Coincidentally, McClure finally chose to remain in control of his company on the same day President Roosevelt delivered his famous “man-with-a-muck-rake” speech in Washington, D.C. Speaking at the placing of the cornerstone of the House of Representatives building, Roosevelt denounced the reform journalists. “In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress,” the President declared,
you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look now way but downward, with the muck-rake in his hands; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake himself the filth of the floor. (109)
This “muck-raker,” Roosevelt continued, symbolized those magazine journalists who ignored the positive aspects of their times while fixing their eyes on the “vile and debasing.” Because these writers raked only the muck, they were declared “potent forces for evil” in America. (110)
The President’s speech received a favorable response among progressives, which indicated that many, like Roosevelt, were tiring of righteous journalistic crusades. Newspapers, eager to take advantage of this public reaction, were quick to imply a connection between the McClure’s breakup and Roosevelt’s denunciation. (111) McClure, said The New York Times, “resented somewhat emphatically the suggestion that the President’s recent speech about muck-raking and muck-rakers had in any way affected his views of what a magazine ought to be or had had any influence on the incidents that have led to the disagreements in the office of McClure’s.” (112)
Though the muck-rake speech was not a significant factor initiating the breakup, it did summarize Roosevelt’s viewpoint, and reflected the beliefs of many in the nation that progressive reform journalism should be in decline. Though the President distinguished between responsible and sensational exposures, his denunciation was vague enough to indict all reform journalists. Roosevelt, in short, made it “difficult to understand precisely who was the object of his attack; and the point has never been satisfactorily cleaned up.” (113)
The McClure’s “muck-rakers,” in the face of public approval of the President’s speech, felt betrayed. Roosevelt assured Lincoln Steffens his attack was aimed at reformer David Graham Phillips, whose “Treason of the Senate” series, published in the Cosmopolitan, “unfairly” lambasted Senator Chauncy Depew. Steffens remained unconvinced, claiming: “Well, Mr. President, you have put an end to all these journalistic investigations that have made you.’” (114) Baker, equally affronted, “could never again give [Roosevelt]…full confidence nor follow his leadership.” (115)
The muck-rake speech is also significant because many on the staff perceived Roosevelt’s denunciation as the climax of a presidential battle against the McClure’s exposes. This perceived attack was made all the more galling because McClure, in his weakened mental state, appeared to be slowly yielding to Roosevelt’s exhortations. The McClure’s journalists were well aware of Roosevelt’s earlier letter to their editor, written in October, 1905, which requested that Steffens “put more sky in his landscape.“(116)
On April 9, 1906, five days before Roosevelt’s muck-rake speech, McClure seemed to be taking the President’s advice. In a letter to his stockholders, the editor stated his belief that “to go on now with the heavy exposure articles would not convert those who disagree with us, and those who agree with us don’t need conversion.” (117)
Though the staff’s concern over McClure’s apparent “softpedaling” was of secondary importance in the McClure’s breakup, (118) it served to increase the tension between the staff and its editor, who was perceived as bowing to the interests of the presidency. In late April the staff, exasperated, mad final preparations to leave the magazine to its unstable editor-in-chief. On April 27, 1906, Tarbell submitted her formal resignation, requesting six months’ salary as severance pay. McClure replied three days later:
I have absolutely decided to buy you and Mr. Phillips out and to give you a six months’ vacation on full salary….I shall be under debts in this office equal to the net earnings of the last nine years when you leave….I shall agree to pay you for your stock on the most favorable terms that I can possibly hope to carryout…. (119)
The terms of the agreement McClure mad with his former associates were influenced by the staff’s intention to purchase American Illustrated Magazine. Ellery Sedgwick, its editor, negotiated a $360,000 purchase price, and upon sale, shifted to a temporary position with McClure’s. Phillips, Tarbell, Steffens, Baker, and Boyden, followed shortly thereafter by William Allen White, incorporated under the name “Phillips Publishing Company” and changed their periodical’s name to The American Magazine. (120)
McClure’s was never the same after the insurgent staff departed to continue their journalistic crusade elsewhere. to satisfy the terms of the purchase agreement negotiated by Phillips, McClure was forced to place his stock under the control of a board of trustees to whom he was held accountable. The cost of the new Long Island publishing facility, originally estimated at $105,000, increased three-fold, while McClure’s Book Company, a subsidiary of the magazine, went heavily into debt. With the arrival of a depression in 1907, McClure’s advertising revenues plummeted as manufacturers tightened their belts. From 1906 onward, the magazine never again declared stock dividends. $800,000 in debt, McClure was continuously at the mercy of a string of creditors, to whom the periodical was finally surrendered in the autumn of 1911. Under the management of financiers unsympathetic to muckraking, the magazine’s journalistic crusades were squelched. (121) In reality, however, McClure’s was the victim of idealistic “explosions” begun more than five years earlier, when the high moral standards of a staff bent upon reforming society were shattered by the man who had created the medium for their expression.
CHAPTER III END NOTES:
20 Here, the directives get muddled: Peter Lyon writes that “…the unhappy McClure had written letters, and it fell to Phillips to recover them.” (Lyon, Success Story, p. 260). This is confusing, for although Phillips must have gone to New York to retrieve McClure’s letters, Hattie McClure wrote to Ida Tarbell on June 24, 1904 that her husband was “wild at the idea” of letting “Mr. Phillips know what he wanted, and [of having] him manage it.” Phillips must have gone on his own initiative.
26 S.S. McClure to Ida Tarbell, June 22, , IMT Collection, McClure, S.S. (Personal) file, Allegheny College Library, Meadville, Pennsylvania. Hereafter cited as S.S. McClure to I. Tarbell, June 22, .
29 Harriet McClure to Ida Tarbell, June 1, 1904, IMT Collection, McClure, Harriet H. (Mrs. S.S.) file, Allegheny College Library, Meadville, Pennsylvania. Hereafter cited as H. McClure to I. Tarbell, June 1, 1904.
30 Mott, American Magazines, p. 599. It is possible many of McClure’s contemporaries, and perhaps McClure himself, would have believed his nervous exhaustion to be neurasthenia, a nervous disorder characterized by an almost unlimited gamut of symptoms, ranging from depression to megalomania. Neurasthenia was a phenomenon well-known in this era, and Dr. Charles Musgrove, in his book entitled Nervous Breakdowns and How to Avoid Them, lamented that such breakdowns “attack those who can least be spared. it is not the clodhopper…the careless or the incompetent, who suffer from them. On the contrary, we meet with them among…professional men of the highest acumen and experience.” (p.3). Thus, it should be noted McClure suffered from some neurasthenic “symptoms,” and was a member of the professional class so often “victimized” by this phenomenon.
34 Harriet McClure to Ida Tarbell, July 2, 1904, IMT Collection, McClure, Harriet H. (Mrs. S.S.) file, Allegheny College Library, Meadville, Pennsylvania. Hereafter cited as S.S. McClure to Phillips, July 26, .
36 S.S. McClure to John Phillips, July 26, , IMT Collection, McClure, S.S. (Personal) file, Allegheny College Library, Meadville, Pennsylvania. Hereafter cited as S.S. McClure to Phillips, July 26, .
37 Harriet McClure to John Phillips, July 30, 1904, IMT Collection, McClure, Harriet H. (Mrs. S.S.) file, Allegheny College Library, Meadville, Pennsylvania. Hereafter cited as H. McClure to Phillips, July 30, 1904.
49 Harold S. Wilson scores two errors on this account. He states in McClure’s Magazine and the Muckrakers that Florence Wilkinson sent this document. Not so. He also incorrectly implies on page 170 that “The Shame of S.S. McClure…” was received in “the summer of 1904.” In reality, it arrived a year later. The letters in the IMT Collection do not coincide with Wilson’s claim, as they do when compared with Peter Lyon’s study.
53 The words “somehow quietly suppressed” are Peter Lyon’s. He, apparently, was not certain how things were quieted. However, in a document from the IMT Collection marked “L’Affaire,” Tarbell penned the phrase “…$500-$1000 note–good businesswoman! Second thousand since May to my knowledge 1000 returned at C.” Could this be a reference to hush money? We may never know, for Tarbell did not elaborate; but it is useful to note it here–it was on the same sheet of paper describing Wherry’s manuscript.
71 “Proposition For Founding of a Magazine,” November 27, 1905, IMT Collection, McClure, S.S. (Business) file, Allegheny College Library, Meadville, Pennsylvania. Hereafter cited as “Proposition,” November 27, 1905.
84 S.S. McClure to Ida Tarbell, November 27, 1905, IMT Collection, McClure, S.S. (Business) file, Allegheny College Library, Meadville, Pennsylvania. Hereafter cited as S.S. McClure to I. Tarbell, November 27, 1905.
90 W.W. Tarbell to Ida Tarbell, January 16, 1906, IMT Collection, McClure’s Magazine file, Allegheny College Library, Meadville, Pennsylvania. Hereafter cited as W. Tarbell to I. Tarbell, January 16, 1906.
108 S.S. McClure to Stockholders of S.S. McClure Company, April 9, 1906, IMT Collection, McClure, S.S. (Business) file, Allegheny College Library, Meadville, Pennsylvania. Hereafter cited as S.S. McClure to Stockholders, April 9, 1906.