About Dorothy Schiff
Dorothy Schiff, owner of The New York Post for 37 years, died early yesterday in her apartment on the East Side of Manhattan. She was 86 years old.
The Post's vice president for editorial and administration, Peter Faris, said she had died of cancer. Members of the Post staff said Mrs. Schiff had learned in May that she had cancer and had decided against being treated for it.
Mrs. Schiff, the granddaughter of a wealthy investment banker, used her family money to obtain the controlling stock of The Post in 1939. She sold it in 1976 to Rupert Murdoch, who sold it in 1988 to Peter S. Kalikow.
Under her stewardship, the newspaper alternately made and lost money, and Mrs. Schiff constantly fretted that it would drive her into pauperdom. But she always managed to keep the newspaper afloat, seeing it outlast its competitors to become the only afternoon daily in New York City. She said in 1987 that she decided to sell the paper to Rupert Murdoch, the Australian entrepreneur, after The Post incurred heavy losses in the mid-1970's.
Weak Competitor in '39
Mrs. Schiff bought a controlling interest in The Post in 1939 from J. David Stern at the urging of her second husband, George Backer. She had little business experience, and she later learned that she had assumed obligations for millions of dollars in severance pay if the paper closed.
Mrs. Schiff played only a peripheral role in the management of The Post in the first 10 years of her ownership. When she took active control, her new editor, James A. Wechsler, said the odds of its surviving were 1,000 to 1. Few would have challenged him. The Post was a weak third in the field of New York City afternoon dailies, behind The Journal-American and The World-Telegram, and it had been losing money for 20 years.
But the Post survived and prospered, becoming a liberal power in journalism while its powerful competitors collapsed, one by one. Even her critics agreed that most of the credit had to go to Mrs. Schiff. But they also said her success was partly attributable to personality traits for which they criticized her and to which she freely confessed: a fondness for gossip and scandal, a fear of becoming poor and a craving for power or, as she called it, influence.
'Men, Money & Magic'
Mrs. Schiff resumed her maiden name after her third divorce but decided that Mrs. was more appropriate than Miss for a grandmother. She described her private life in her diaries and other papers and in interviews. The book, Men, Money & Magic: The Story of Dorothy Schiff, by Jeffrey Potter, was published by Coward, McCann & Geoghegan in 1976.
Much of the book is devoted to her relationships with her husbands and male friends, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who persuaded her to build a home near his in Hyde Park, N.Y. Her biography suggested that their relationship had included sex and that it had been approved by Mr. Backer.
Mrs. Schiff came to regret what she called that awful book. In a statement volunteered for this obituary, she said, I want to make it very clear that President Roosevelt never made a suggestion that I become his girlfriend, and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was just as good a friend as Mr. Roosevelt.
Born on Fifth Avenue
Mrs. Schiff was born on March 11, 1903, in the Fifth Avenue apartment of her parents, Mortimer L. and Adele Neustadt Schiff. The apartment was a wedding gift from her grandfather, Jacob H. Schiff, a stern banker and the head of Kuhn, Loeb & Company.
As a girl, Dorothy - known to many as Dolly - was often treated coldly by her parents, each of whom had separate romantic and social interests. There was no joy in my growing up, she recalled. None, absolutely none.
Later she would explain her refusal to grant bonuses or congratulations to Post staff members for good work by saying, They weren't given to me as a child, and any words I did receive were not ones of praise.
She was, by her account, a bookish and sullen girl, associating solely with other young socialites at the Brearley School, Class of '20, on the Upper East Side. After her freshman year at Bryn Mawr College, where, she said, I flunked every single course, which is pretty hard to do, she set her heart on Richard B. W. Hall, a handsome socialite, though lacking in great wealth. Her parents opposed the match and, in classic fashion, sent her to Europe. But they finally yielded, in 1923.
'Rich at Last!'
Two children, Mortimer and Adele, were born in the first two years, but the marriage quickly turned cold.
After Mrs. Schiff's parents died in 1931, she said, she told her husband: My God, I'm rich at last! . . . And now I'm going to leave you.
Mrs. Schiff said Mr. Hall had resented her Jewish origins as a social handicap. Shedding him, she abandoned a formal conversion to the Episcopal Church and gradually reverted to an old family concern for the fate of European Jewry.
She married Mr. Backer in 1932, because, Mrs. Schiff said, In those days, I thought it was important to be married, and since the substantial older ones had enough sense not to marry me, there wasn't much choice.
Glamour and Politics
Until then, she had been, by her account, a socialite and a nominal Republican, interested chiefly in the glamour of the international set. He was a writer and a liberal Democrat, and he introduced her to the Algonquin Round Table and New Deal politics.
She joined the Roosevelt campaign in 1936 in a minor role and became active in welfare work. Three years later she gained control of The Post, with the understanding that I would pay the debts and the deficits, she said in 1987.
Mr. Backer became the nominal publisher and editor, and his wife was vice president and treasurer. She lost nearly $2 million the first two years as costs rose and circulation fell, to 190,000 from 250,000. Mrs. Schiff became terrified that the paper would bankrupt her.
She decided it needed a popular approach - a tabloid form, more comics and columns, and plenty of glamour, scandal and human-interest articles. The features editor, Ted Thackrey, agreed. Mr. Backer did not.
Marrying the Editor
Mrs. Schiff took over as publisher in 1942, separated from Mr. Backer and named Mr. Thackrey editor.
The publisher married the editor the next year, and while she was involved in buying radio and television stations, which were eventually sold, The Post under Mr. Thackrey was building circulation and cutting its losses.
The couple diverged on politics, and they publicized their disagreements in a series of columns during the 1948 Presidential campaign, he supporting the Progressive Party candidate, Henry A. Wallace, and she the Republican, Thomas E. Dewey. Both disliked Harry S. Truman, who won. The Thackreys were divorced the next year.
The Golden Age
To many readers and former Post staff writers, the era of James Wechsler's editorship, 1948 to 1961, was the newspaper's golden age. Talented reporters and columnists were hired, and although many features were about sex and celebrities, the paper also took on targets previously immune to critical coverage, like J. Edgar Hoover, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and Robert Moses.
From 1950 on, The Post was a money maker almost without interruption. But Mrs. Schiff never lost her sense of financial insecurity. She kept a tight rein on costs, gradually eliminating foreign and out-of-town coverage and permitting many skilled employees to leave for jobs that paid better.
She also kept a close watch on policy, conferring daily with department chiefs. Her decision in 1961 to name Paul Sann editor, making Mr. Wechsler the editorial page chief and a columnist, was generally perceived as favoring human interest over crusading.
As a publisher, she joined the strike-lockout that closed the daily newspapers in New York for 114 days beginning in December 1962. One month before the labor stoppage ended, she resumed publication because, she said, she had been snubbed in the negotiations by her male fellow publishers and because she feared that the continued stoppage might cause the death of weaker papers like The Post.
In fact, by 1966 The Daily Mirror had folded, and the morning New York Herald Tribune had merged with the big evening papers into The World Journal Tribune, familiarly dubbed The Widget.
I was petrified, Mrs. Schiff recalled. Here we had Jock Whitney, William Randolph Hearst Jr. and Jack Howard teaming up in the evening field.
But an executive of the former Herald Tribune, Walter N. Thayer, reassured her, saying, It's an impossible three-headed thing. He was right. The paper closed a little more than a year later.
Mrs. Schiff then had the evening field to herself. She moved The Post from West Street to The Journal-American plant on South Street. She installed automated equipment and a spacious sixth-floor oval office for herself.
The Sale to Murdoch
In December 1976, Mrs. Schiff startled the public and her staff by announcing the sale of The Post to Mr. Murdoch for $31 million. She did not give a reason, but it was widely assumed that she was pessimistic about the future of afternoon papers in the city.
The reason has been widely misconstrued, she said later in an interview. It was not sold for 'estate purposes.' Evening papers in urban areas have not survived. The Post had a deficit in 1975 and was a heavy loser in 1976, and I could no longer meet the deficits.
In an interview last year, Mrs. Schiff said of her long ownership of the Post, It was a terrible headache. She said that she was then, in 1988, spending her time on needlepoint and other less stressful activities.
Mrs. Schiff married Rudolf Sonneborn, a Baltimore industrialist, in 1953. They separated in 1965 and were later divorced.
Surviving are the children of the first marriage, Mortimer W. Hall of Millbrook, N.Y., and Adele Hall Sweet, of Manhattan; a daughter from the second marriage, Sarah-Ann Kramarsky, also of Manhattan; 15 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
- New York Times, August 31, 1989
Dorothy Schiff's Timeline
March 11, 1903
New York, NY, USA
October 17, 1923
Northwood the country estate, Oyster Bay, Nassau, New York
October 21, 1932
August 30, 1989
New York, NY, USA