10/11/10 - pulitzer and death

In today's excerpt - Joseph Pulitzer, a penniless Hungarian immigrant, came to America alone at seventeen and became one of America's wealthiest citizens through the newspaper empire he founded. Through it all, he was driven and haunted by death:

"Despite having secured a place in the upper echelons of Pest [the city in Hungary across the Danube from Buda] Jewish society, the succession of deaths continued to haunt the Pulitzer [family]. Before leaving [the Hungarian village of] Mako, they had lost two of their children. In Pest, five more died. Because they were living in a prosperous urban setting where infant death had become rarer, the loss of these children was harder to bear than before. The deaths in Pest included their eldest son, who succumbed to tuberculosis, ending their plans for him to take over the family business. Death's grip on the family did not end here. On July 16, 1858, [Joseph's father] Fulop died. Only forty-seven years old and at the peak of his business success, he also had contracted tuberculosis.

"Four years older than Albert, [his only surviving brother,] Joseph understood more fully the extent of the calamity. He had been nine when his older brother died, ten when his younger brothers and sister died, eleven when his father died, and thirteen at the death of his last sister. Albert, in contrast, was not yet nine when the last sibling died. Under the best of circumstances, Joseph would have felt guilty for having survived. But in his case, he responded in other ways as well. The deaths led to an obsession with his health that would remain with him until the end of his life. Every ailment, no matter how small, was accompanied by an underlying fear that he was dying. Further, he developed a phobia of funerals. Even when his closest friends died, Joseph would refuse to attend their burials, and, pointedly, he would not attend the funeral of either his mother or his only surviving brother.

"As an additional cruelty, his father's death created a financial nightmare. In his will, Fulop instructed that his estate be divided among his surviving children, with his wife as ward of the shares. But Fulop's prolonged illness had depleted his savings. By the time the executor sent ten florins to the Jewish hospital and to a poorhouse, about the price of an eimer (pail) of wine, there was almost nothing left.

" 'Thus was my mother,' said Albert, 'left to provide for her boys and one daughter, alone and unfriended.' Since she had no business experience, it was only a matter of time before the enterprise went bankrupt. Within six months their property was seized by authorities for failure to pay taxes. The family limped along. Elize did her best to earn an income and to keep paying for the education of her children. 'What efforts she put forth to give us a thorough education,' said Albert. 'How she deprived herself of all that she held most dear to her comfort and well being! '

"Financial relief appeared in the form of a marriage proposal. Max Frey, a merchant from the southeastern Hungarian town of Detta, won Elize's consent but not that of Joseph or Albert. ... In Joseph's case Frey's entrance into the family, or what little was left of the family, increased his sense of loss and solitariness. Years later, writing an intimate, confessional letter, he conveyed the toll from the deaths and the remarriage. He described himself as 'a poor orphan who never even enjoyed as much of a luxury as a father.' "


James McGrath Morris


Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power




Copyright 2010 by James McGrath Morris


15-17 Tags: Death, Business, Family
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