The Colonel, The Life and Legend of Robert R. McCormick, Indomitable Editor of the Chicago Tribune. By Richard Norton Smith. (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997. Pp. xxiv, 580. $55.00 cloth)
In these times of Bill Gates, the billionaire with the bad haircut, it is difficult for most of us to relate to the image of the diamond-studded millionaire so pervasive in American popular culture in the first part of the twentieth century. Did such gilded men truly exist outside of the popular media, the ones who rode about in limousines, wore tuxedos and spats, built ostentatious mansions, gave champagne parties, and who met with presidents as equals while also being somehow above the law? Of course they did; Daddy Warbucks (of the Little Orphan Annie comic strip) and Lamont Cranston (from the radio show The Shadow) indeed had their real life parallels in such men as William Randolph Hearst and Howard Hughes. Another of this breed, though less well known today, was Robert R. McCormick, master of the Chicago Tribune for nearly forty years. The "Colonel," as he styled himself, was a major player in the life of his city and nation for decades. Seen both as a fool and as a great man, he was, as such men often are, an enigma. Seeking to reveal the true person behind the publicity and myths, as well as to measure the impact of his life upon his times, Richard Norton Smith has composed a definitive biography.
McCormick was born into a family of wealth and accomplishment. His maternal grandfather was Joseph Medill, founder of the Chicago Tribune and staunch Republican, and his great uncle was Cyrus McCormick, farm machinery magnate and determined Democrat. Despite such illustrious ancestry, however, young Rob McCormick's early life was neither propitious nor happy. He always suffered in comparison to his more attractive older brother, Medill McCormick (future United States Senator and suicide), especially in the eyes of his domineering mother, Katherine Von Etten Medill McCormick, who for years virtually wrote him off because of his scandalous first marriage in 1912 to Amy Adams, an "older woman" and friend's wife. Such was the low degree of esteem in which he was held that, unlike his brother, he was repeatedly denied a significant voice in the family newspaper.
Nonetheless, he began showing some promise on his own when in 1904, with the endorsement of Chicago's North Side Republican Boss (and future mayor) Fred Busse, he managed to get himself elected as alderman from the twenty-first ward. This was followed by a term as president of the Sanitary District, where he revealed considerable leadership skills in bringing to his office an unprecedented level of efficiency. Finally in 1908, in face of a managerial crisis at the Tribune, primarily founded in brother Medill's inability to deal with the pressure of running things, Robert became treasurer of the company and then in 1910, acting president. He and first cousin Robert Patterson remained thereafter effectively in control of the Tribune Company. Patterson would soon direct his primary attention to the company's east coast outlet, the New York Daily News, leaving McCormick to oversee the Chicago newspaper.
Even with these triumphs, according to Norton, McCormick only truly came into himself during World War I, where, taking advantage of his family's connections with General John J. Pershing and others, he first traveled in luxury as an observer to Russia before eventually obtaining a Colonelcy of artillery in the celebrated First Division. His service was honorable, and it was the source of the title "Colonel" that he would affect ever afterwards (to his lasting chagrin, the war ended too soon for him to arrange a generalship). It was also the origin of a notorious military pedantry that he would impose on the Tribune's editorial page on every possible occasion.
With the end of the war, the era of McCormick in Chicago truly began. …