The Lady Upstairs: Dorothy Schiff and the New York Post

The Lady Upstairs: Dorothy Schiff and the New York Post

by Marilyn Nissenson

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The Lady Upstairs is the dramatic story of Dorothy Schiff—liberal activist, society stalwart, and the most dynamic female newspaper publisher of her day. From 1939 until 1976 she owned and guided the New York Post, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in the United States. Dolly, as she was called, made the Post one of the most dedicated supporters of New Deal liberalism in the country, while simultaneously maintaining its distinct personality as a chatty, parochial, New York tabloid.

Unfazed by political or personal controversy, Schiff backed editorial writers like James Wechsler and Max Lerner and reporters like Murray Kempton and Pete Hamill. Under her guidance the Post broke the story of Richard Nixon's slush fund. It helped bring down such icons of the day as Joseph McCarthy, Walter Winchell, and Robert Moses. It supported the civil rights movement and opposed the Vietnam War. Although Dolly seldom appeared in the newsroom, she approved and commented on every major story and every minor column in the paper, until eventually selling it to Rupert Murdoch.

Dolly's private life could have been a staple of the Post's society gossip columns. Endlessly flirtatious, she married four times and had extramarital romances with, among others, Franklin Roosevelt and Max Beaverbrook. She was a friend of national politicians such as Adlai Stevenson, the Kennedys, Lyndon Johnson, and Nelson Rockefeller. Born into a staunchly Republican German-Jewish banking family, she used her inheritance to further causes of the political left. She used her charm and her social connections in the service of her paper, which was the center of her life.

The Lady Upstairs is the portrait of a unique life and a crucial era in American history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312313111
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/25/2008
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Marilyn Nissenson, a veteran journalist, moved to New York after college. She remembers reading The New York Times for news coverage and Dolly Schiff's Post for everything else.

Read an Excerpt

The Lady Upstairs

Dorothy Schiff and the New York Post
By Nissenson, Marilyn

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2007 Nissenson, Marilyn
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312313104

  Chapter One “The Background” At the beginning of the twentieth century, New York City had established itself as the center of American society and culture. Its community leaders reflected the varied constituencies that gave the city its vitality and provided rich material for novelists like Henry James and Edith Wharton. The hegemony of the so-called knickerbocracy—the Dutch and English merchant and landowning families who traced their genealogies back to colonial days—was being challenged by nouveau riche industrialists and speculators, and by a close-knit circle of German-Jewish banking families whose wealth matched that of the new tycoons but whose manners more often mimicked those of the old landed elite. As one chronicler of this transition wrote, “These German-Jewish families were more than a collective American success story . . . they were also the closest thing to Aristocracy—Aristocracy in the best sense—that the city, and perhaps the country, had seen.”Dorothy Schiff was born in 1903 into the very apex of this aristocracy. Her parents were the prominent socialites Mortimer and Adele Neustadt Schiff, and her grandfather was the renowned banker and philanthropist Jacob Henry Schiff. The nameSchiff was a benefit and a burden in Dorothy’s early life. After the third of her four marriages, she resumed using the name, and she strove for the rest of her life to add her achievements to those which had already contributed to the family reputation and to solidify her standing in the family pantheon.Dorothy’s Schiff ancestors had lived for several hundred years in Frankfurt, Germany, where their prosperity and prestige were surpassed only by that of the Rothschilds. Although one of the family’s vanities was that its lineage could be traced back to King David, the first Schiff to have an influence on Dorothy’s life was Jacob, born in Frankfurt in 1847, the second son of Moses Schiff, a successful stockbroker. Jacob’s forebears included prominent rabbis as well as moneylenders; he was sent to a school that combined traditional Jewish education with secular studies. Although Jacob remained respectful of Jewish learning all his life, he was not a scholar. At fourteen he went to work in a banking house owned by a brother-in-law and began dreaming almost immediately of wider horizons.Despite his father’s misgivings, Jacob left for New York when he was eighteen, with $500 in his pocket and his passage paid for by his older brother. He found work at several German-Jewish brokerages and briefly ran his own firm before he returned to Germany in 1873. The following year, Abraham Kuhn, who had known Jacob in New York, urged him to try again in the States. Kuhn and his brother-in-law Solomon Loeb had been successful merchants and bankers in the Midwest before moving to New York to enjoy their retirement in the big city. But unwilling to miss out on America’s post–Civil War economic boom, they started a new stock brokerage house in 1867. Schiff returned to New York and joined Kuhn, Loeb & Co. in January 1875. In May of that year he solidified his connection to the founders by marrying Loeb’s daughter, Therese, whom he had met before traveling back to Germany. Kuhn retired soon after Schiff’s arrival, and Solomon Loeb’s sons had no interest in commerce. When Loeb retired in 1885, thirty-eight-year-old Jacob became the head of the firm. Schiff was an aggressive and imaginative businessman. He understood the opportunities presented by the westward expansion and the industrialization of the United States. He arranged the primary financing for the major transcontinental railroads and backed the Guggenheim family in their mining ventures.* Schiff sat on the boards of several of the railroads he helped to create. He served as a director of such major financial institutions as the Western Union Telegraph Co., the National City Bank of New York, and the Equitable Life Assurance Society. By the late 1890s, he was understood to be the second most powerful man on Wall Street after J. P. Morgan. Schiff was always deferential to Morgan, who barely concealed his dislike of his rival. By the standards of the day, Morgan was not unduly anti-Semitic, but he is said to have repeatedly referred to Schiff as “that foreigner.” The two men worked together frequently because they needed each other’s contacts in the international financial markets. Schiff’s connections to the Rothschilds and the Warburgs as well as his friendship with Ernest Cassel, a native of Cologne who had become the leading merchant banker in London, helped him make Kuhn, Loeb a major force in the sale of American securities abroad and the underwriting of European investments in the United States.* Schiff’s influence extended to international politics: he led the American-British consortium that loaned the Japanese government money to finance Japan’s successful war effort against Russia in 1904–1905. His active hostility to the tsar’s government because of the persecution of Russian Jews made him particularly eager to help one of its adversaries. During the peace negotiations at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1905, Schiff emphasized to Count Serge Witte, the chief Russian negotiator, that he would not underwrite loans to help Russian economic recovery unless laws protecting the Jews were enacted. Widespread pogroms the following year reinforced his conviction that the Russians did not deserve his support. Schiff never vacillated in his opposition to the Romanov regime. He refused to allow Kuhn, Loeb to underwrite loans to the Allies during World War I, although several of the firm’s principals including Otto Kahn and Schiff’s son, Morti, participated privately. Schiff senior would not give money to the tsar’s government even when it was England’s ally. He relented after the October Revolution, bought Allied bonds, and made large loans to Kerensky’s government. In the last decades of his life, Jacob Schiff was a public figure. He was the subject of admiring coverage in the financial press and in the popular papers of the day, which brought news of America’s emerging aristocracy to a generally worshipful public. Jacob lived lavishly, educated his children at the best schools, and traveled in style to Europe or to vacation homes in New Jersey and Maine. But Schiff was not a flamboyant subject for the sensationalist press; he kept no mistresses, he owned no racehorses, he sailed no yachts. Although his manner of living was baronial, his behavior was circumspect, and he received praise as much for his decorum as for his financial skills. The Schiffs had two children, Frieda and Mortimer, born in the first years of their marriage, and Jacob was extremely involved in their lives. He was quite protective of Frieda: she was never sent out without a chaperone, and, even if she had been interested in attending college, Jacob would not have permitted it. At the age of eighteen, during a summer vacation in Switzerland, Frieda met and fell in love with young Felix Warburg of the Hamburg banking family. Jacob was not prepared for the prospect of his daughter having an independent life. He returned to New York with a compliant Frieda in tow. When Felix asked for permission to write to Frieda, Jacob insisted that Felix write to him, he would convey the message to Frieda, and she would respond to Felix’s mother. Finally, the young people got Ernest Cassel to intervene. Cassel reminded his friend that Felix was an appropriate match, and Schiff relented. But even after Frieda and Felix married in March 1895, Jacob had trouble giving up control over his daughter’s life. He sent a family maid along to keep an eye on the newlyweds during their honeymoon. When they returned, he had furnished and staffed the house they were to live in.By all accounts, Frieda tolerated her father’s meddlesome impulses. But Jacob’s intrusion into his son’s life had more troublesome results. Mortimer Schiff was born on June 5, 1877, fifteen months after his sister. Schiff’s high expectations for his only son were probably impossible to live up to, although Morti gave it a good try. Frieda remembered that there was tension between father and son almost from the start: “As a youngster, my brother was always being punished for various misdemeanors. Though my father adored him, they seemed to clash all the time, and Morti was often sent from the table, denied dessert for a week, or otherwise made to do penance.”Morti had a temper, “and his outbursts were often the cause of his clashes with our father,” Frieda wrote. “But Morti had a sweet disposition and was the kindest boy, and man, in the world. I think if he had been brought up according to modern methods, which seek to find the reasons for children’s behavior and to prevent conflicts, his whole life would have been a happier one. He was born with all the desired attributes—good looks, good health, varied talents, exquisite taste.”Morti was an excellent student at Dr. Sachs’s Collegiate Institute, which was the favored preparatory school for sons of the New York German-Jewish aristocracy. The same unruliness that he revealed at home sometimes led to his being marked down in deportment. Frieda recalled, “Whenever Morti’s little grey report book showed a lapse in this respect, they had a seance in the bathroom. After the spanking, my father would say: ‘My son doesn’t have to lead in his studies, but that my son shouldn’t know how to behave, that’s unpardonable.’ I well recall my brother standing at the foot of the stairs, saying: ‘I can’t sit down. I can’t sit down.’ ” Jacob Schiff was said to be a penny-pinching manager at Kuhn, Loeb: employees and family members joked about his propensity to save string and to turn out the lights each time he left the office. He wanted his children to be frugal. When Frieda was nine and Morti was eight, they spent much of the year in Europe. They each received an allowance of fifty pfennigs a week. After they returned to New York, their father figured that the American equivalent was twelve and a half cents, so one week they were given twelve cents and the next week thirteen. They were expected to set aside 10 percent for their favorite charity. Increases were allotted grudgingly. By the time Frieda was eighteen and Morti was a senior in high school, they each received a dollar. When Morti graduated top of his class from Dr. Sachs’s at age sixteen, he wanted very much to go to Harvard, but his father announced that it was too big and the rich students there would encourage Morti to be extravagant. Jacob decided that his son would attend Amherst; Morti had no choice but to comply. He was not happy at Amherst and dropped out after two years. He took a job for several months on a road gang of the Great Northern Railroad in Duluth, after which he was sent to Hamburg and London to learn the banking business. When reports came back to Jacob that Morti was doing well, he made light of them, saying that his son’s mentors were just trying to ingratiate themselves with him.In London, Ernest Cassel took Morti under his wing. The young man became something of a dandy. He once showed up at a reception in London wearing a dove gray suit and a yellow hat. Jacob was also there. In front of the other guests, he berated his son for looking foolish and sent him home to change. Cassel later told Frieda, “I rather encouraged [Morti’s] spending money, because I believe a man must learn how to spend gracefully but not showily. Your father, you know, didn’t usually hold with many of my ideas.” After almost two years in Europe, Morti came home. He moved in with his parents and began working at Kuhn, Loeb, where he was made a partner in December 1899.* Morti was one of the most eligible bachelors in New York, and although there’s no reason to think that he was particularly eager to give up the showgirls and young married women with whom he chose to spend time, he was a dutiful son. He soon became engaged to Adele Neustadt, the daughter of close friends of his parents. The two families were very pleased; subsequent generations assume it was essentially an arranged match. Adele appears to have been somewhat reluctant, and Morti’s attitude was enigmatic. Nonetheless, they were married on April 30, 1900. Jacob’s wife, Therese, had wanted to move from their home at 932 Fifth Avenue. While Adele and Morti were on their extended honeymoon, the elder Schiff’s built a house just up the street at 965 Fifth. They gave 932 to Morti and Adele as a wedding present. Saying thank you, Morti could not resist adding, “It’s wonderful to be the master of the house where you had so many spankings.” Copyright © 2007 by Marilyn Nissenson. All rights reserved.


Excerpted from The Lady Upstairs by Nissenson, Marilyn Copyright © 2007 by Nissenson, Marilyn. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction     ix
The Apprenticeship
"The Background"     3
Society Girl     22
Acquiring the Post     49
Media Adventures     67
Ted's Tenure     81
Taking Control
Transition Time     105
Finding Her Way     111
The Fabulous Fifties     138
Charges and Countercharges     151
"I Got Married!"     166
The Liberal Agenda
Party Politics     181
Protecting the Little Guy     193
Civil Rights and Wrongs     206
Bringing Down the Titans     216
Ethnic Journalism     227
Sunny Days
Alone Again     241
Changing the Guard     253
"The Only Survivor"     272
Planning for the Future     289
Clouds on the Horizon
The Rise of the New Left     305
Blacks vs. Jews     323
The Candy Store     338
The Young Turks     350
The Worst of Times     369
The Man from Oz     389
Thereafter     414
Notes     443
Bibliography     479
Acknowledgments     485
Index     489

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