The Meanest Editor of Them All
The Rose Man of Sing Sing: A True Tale of Life, Murder, and Redemption in the Age of Yellow Journalism
By James McGrath Morris
Fordham University Press
440 pages; $30
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
Granted, there's plenty of competition for the coveted title of "meanest editor ever," but Charles E. Chapin has to be the leading contender.
As a city editor he fired more than 100 people, including one reporter within 15 minutes of taking his first editing job and another who was the son of his boss, Joseph Pulitzer. Operating "in true Simon Legree fashion," according to various sources quoted here, the "notoriously harsh," "acrid martinet" took "glee...in sending packing" those who couldn't handle his "despotism."
When Chapin murdered his wife, Nellie, and then pleaded insanity, a prosecutor labeled him "mentally deranged," and reporters lined up before a "lunacy commission" to supply particulars.
Two days after Chapin's 1930 death in Sing Sing prison, his own newspaper, the New York Evening World, mocked his "picture of himself as a superdevoted husband mercifully killing his wife to save her from poverty."
Given all this material, then, it is remarkable that James McGrath Morris has produced an evenhanded, even somewhat affectionate, biography of one of journalism's most colorful and complex characters.
Morris takes his title from the final phase of the Chapin legend. After a plea bargain to second-degree murder, Chapin entered Sing Sing in 1919. He spent more than a year as editor of the prison newspaper, wrote his memoirs and eventually was appointed "prison horticulturist" by a warden who befriended him.
Chapin then devoted himself to developing and tending to rose gardens and greenhouses of such "immense scope and beauty" that House & Garden magazine featured them and pastors sermonized on their redemptive qualities. As the nation's most famous inmate, the ex-editor came to be seen by many as "the redeemed, the sower of beauty."
This almost gentle denouement, however, contrasted starkly with Chapin's rise and fall as "the most accomplished, notorious, and feared city editor of them all," a Runyonesque leading figure in journalism's yellowest age.
Chapin seemed cast for newspapers. As a teenage newspaper delivery boy in Atchison, Kansas, he mastered Morse code and typesetting, wormed his way into print, and moved quickly to a short-lived career as job printer and magazine publisher. Ill health, which plagued him his whole life, led to some footloose travels and even a brief career as an actor, before Chapin settled into daily journalism in Chicago and St. Louis.
He was one of those reporters great stories seem to find, and Morris' book brims with good yarns. Assigned to interview a philandering husband, Chapin was present when the betrayed wife shot him dead. A local police chief gave Chapin a pistol to carry after an angry judge challenged him to a duel over other controversial stories.
When Pulitzer summoned him to the Evening World's city desk in 1898, Chapin took a command position in the mythic brawl with Hearst's Evening Journal. He pioneered using the telephone for newsgathering, stationing reporters throughout the city and requiring them to phone in hot info as soon as possible. In the office, star teams of rewrite men, "the heart of Chapin's news machine," crafted sensationalistic stories.
On learning that a writer was aboard a rescue ship returning from the Titanic, Chapin himself boarded another boat and raced other journalists out to meet him, standing on the open deck as the reporter flung his bundled copy into the air and eventually into Chapin's outstretched arms. "A full twenty minutes before any other reporter...even had a chance to talk to a survivor, Chapin's Evening World had [the] story in print."
He drove himself and his staff as "an almost inspired tyrant," one reporter said, comparing Chapin in a single sentence to Caligula, Don Juan, Barnum and Machiavelli.
Chapin also lusted for power and money, and it was debt that ruined him. He squandered money on bad investments, over-borrowed and lost everything. Distraught, he slipped into the bedroom where his beloved Nellie slept and shot her in the head. Forevermore, he would insist that he killed her out of mercy, "to keep her from starvation and want," and that he had intended but failed to take his own life.
Like many journalists, only much more so, Chapin fared better with stories than people. "The Rose Man" is good history and a fast-paced read. What it does not do, however, is successfully reconcile Chapin's conflicts into a coherent answer to the question: What makes a great editor/artist, and what tips one over the line into madness?
One especially fascinating part of Morris' book turns out to be the 54 pages of notes. Unlike most authors, Morris offers a running commentary on his research process. He tells of great detective work in piecing together obscure biographical detail, and of puzzling and frustrating failures. He never, for example, could determine what the initial E. stood for in Chapin's middle name. He never pinned down the "tubercular throat" condition that bedeviled Chapin most of his life.
In the end, the biggest puzzle of all--why was this man possibly the best and the worst editor of all time--also goes unsolved. And I liked it that way. Maybe there isn't a neat formula or a pat explanation for what makes or breaks an editor. As long as the mystery remains, we must stay open to all possibilities. ###