When America’s Most Famous Monthly Took on Its Most Famous Tycoon
Journalist Ida Tarbell Went Up Against Rockefeller Himself
In the summer of 1901, Ida Tarbell stood on the breezy steamer deck and watched the Atlantic swell. She was 42. Part of her was surprised to be going to Europe, an extravagant trip just to pitch a magazine story. But S.S. McClure was there, shut in a Swiss clinic, and this story could not wait. By the turn of the century, she wasn’t quite famous enough to be stopped on the street, but she was the most senior writer at a heavyweight magazine that had risen from obscurity largely on her shoulders.
McClure’s now had close to 400,000 subscribers, making it one of the most-read magazines in the country. Journalists looked to her technique and persistence as a model; as she told a colleague, “I proceed on the theory that there is nothing about which everything has been done and said.” It helped that she had become McClure’s confidante, worthy of inventing the position of staff writer—the realizer of his visions. He did not have the sustained focus to research any subject in such depth himself, but they had evolved into a neatly effective symbiotic unit.
Behind Miss Tarbell was New York Harbor and her office at McClure’s; ahead lay a bumpy train connection to Lausanne, where S. S. and Hattie had promised to meet her. Her present mission was to pitch a series on John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. It seemed uncertain that this could be the germ of her next great undertaking: Miss Tarbell was used to writing about conquerors and heroes, not the misdeeds of businessmen. She liked writing about the dead, conjuring bold lines of character from archives and interviews. But McClure’s needed a big investigative story on corporate trusts, and fast. The trusts were already a subject of outrage in the press, yet McClure’s was behind the curve.
They needed a subject that already had a direct and personal impact on households across America. At first Phillips proposed a series on steel or sugar. Then Baker wrote from California that oil had been discovered there, and there ought to be a story in it. In January 1901, news filtered in that an unprecedented “gusher” well had been tapped in Spindletop, Texas. The more the McClure’s staff discussed an oil story, the more it made sense: Standard Oil was the largest and oldest trust of them all, run by an enigmatic tycoon, John D. Rockefeller. By the turn of the century, he controlled more than 80 percent of oil production and sales in America.
For Miss Tarbell, the topic evoked unwelcome emotions. Her memory of her father’s bankruptcy when she was 15 was still fresh. Franklin Tarbell regularly talked of Rockefeller and his company as the “Cleveland ogre” and “the great Anaconda.” Newspaper cartoons commonly used snakes or octopi to represent the big trusts, sometimes wearing top hats and always extending tentacles farther than any man could reach. Miss Tarbell tried to write what bankruptcy had truly felt like, before the newspaper cartoons had come about: “a big hand reached out from nobody knew where, to steal their conquest and throttle their future,” she began. “[A] blow between the eyes,” she called it.
She had been 15 when it happened, and the shame still rankled. It had even inspired her only attempt at writing a novel—she wanted to parse the crisis, to “catch it, fix it,” and portray the human catastrophe in a way outsiders could understand. She’d been too critical of her own fiction to show it to anyone, but McClure’s offered another channel to tell the story. At Phillips’s request, in spring 1901 Miss Tarbell wrote an outline for a series of articles, though the process made her balk. What if, after all, the history of the petroleum industry was uninteresting to readers who hadn’t grown up within it?Miss Tarbell had made a certain kind of McClure’s story famous: the deeply researched, “documented narrative” that told a story “so people would read it.”
The other risk was that her research would reveal John D. Rockefeller as a natural and highly organized entrepreneur who had earned every bit of his immense harvest of wealth and power. In late April she wrote to Baker, “I shy a little at the subject. I do not see how it could be made a McClure article.” The staff awaited McClure’s judgment. Months passed; they hadn’t reckoned on the “McClure method.” He wanted to mull it over, and he boarded a steamship bound for a European rest cure without giving an answer.
Around McClure’s, journalism and art were grappling with the question of how to live in an age of dehumanizing industry. Booth Tarkington, who was to become a Pulitzer-winning novelist, was discovered by Viola Roseboro in the McClure’s slush barrel. In his fiction, he described a “deteriorating social order caused by urbanization and industrialization” and contrasted it critically with the Indiana of his youth. In his version of events, “Not quite so long ago as a generation, there was no panting giant here, no heaving, grimy city; there was but a pleasant big town of neighborly people. No one was very rich; few were very poor; the air was clean, and there was time to live.”
Powerful corporations had risen up thanks to the untrammeled free play of market forces, but there was widespread discontent and puzzlement about the consequences. Corporate stakeholders profited wildly, while small-scale oil refiners, ice manufacturers, beef packagers, and others were shut out of the competition. Social Darwinism did not seem to be working for the common good.
In Frank Norris’s novel The Octopus, published in 1901, a frontiersman confronts this issue when his land is about to be seized by the railroad company: “Forces, conditions, laws of supply and demand—were these then the enemies, after all?” By the end of the novel, Norris’s narrator concluded that “Nature was, then, a gigantic engine, a vast Cyclopean power, huge, terrible, a leviathan with a heart of steel.” Miss Tarbell knew Frank Norris from the office; McClure’s had published his stories since 1898. She kept his conclusion in mind as she contemplated writing about another vast Cyclopean power.
Miss Tarbell had made a certain kind of McClure’s story famous: the deeply researched, “documented narrative” that told a story “so people would read it.” Her colleagues knew that if anyone could turn a big-business profile into a page-turner, it was she. And also, though it went unspoken, they may have liked the idea of seeing the unflappable Ida Tarbell confront her childhood demons.
The reason she had to seek out her editor-in-chief a continent away, however, was that he was wrestling demons of his own.
The popularity of the magazine after its launch in 1893 shocked the competition, and McClure reveled in it. Those early days were some of his best. The farsighted, high-quality science coverage he commissioned had even forged an unexpected truce with Professor Hurd, who in early 1896 sent a sincere note of appreciation for a recent McClure’s profile of prodigious natural scientist Louis Agassiz. But even that feat seemed diminished as McClure confronted a worrisome development: the readily rebounding energy of his college days was turning traitorous and unreliable.
As the 19th century ebbed, McClure seemed to lose something with it. Doctors prescribed rest, which went against his nature. He traced the beginnings of his frailty to the days of building the syndicate, even before the magazine. “From 1890 on,” he wrote, “I was overcome more and more often by periods of complete nervous exhaustion, when I had to get out of my office and out of New York City, when I felt for my business the repulsion that a seasick man feels toward the food he most enjoys in health.” Hattie, whose own health was delicate, was nevertheless poised to respond to his needs; she was loving, good-humored, and took comfort in her Christian faith, but it must have been arduous work.
Just as the June 1896 issue of McClure’s marked the magazine’s third anniversary, its editor-in-chief found himself inexplicably depressed. Travel was the most reliable panacea. In railcars he could envision the future; on steamer decks he could see his past in perspective; and in hotel bathtubs his rising spirits burst out of his frame and into loud, atonal song. As Phillips and Miss Tarbell ensured steady magazine production, he took a whirlwind trip on horseback through the Middle East and briefly moved his family to the French resort town of Beuzeval.
It was an extravagant year, but McClure was seeking resurrection rather than luxury. He was on a quest to banish the funks that overtook him at least once a year, for weeks at a time. Miss Tarbell and her colleagues grew used to long spells without their Chief. When he returned, McClure was simultaneously unbearable and galvanizing. First, flush with energy, he would impose new ideas on the office, assigning new stories, swiping edits from Phillips’s desk and scribbling his own sweeping changes, hotly debating new fiction with Miss Roseboro, and booking steamer tickets to London to scout new talent.
“Everyone about him caught fire,” noted a later staffer, “and he would inflame the intelligence of his staff into molten excitement. The mood would be too hot to last but would bring results.” Arranging his exit was one of the few tasks every staff member was glad to take on. A rising journalist who spent time at McClure’s, Mark Sullivan, remarked, “it is no wonder McClure’s associates and editors took on toward him a protective manner of coldness, and were only warm to him on the occasions—they were, happily for his staff, frequent—when he came to the office at nine in the morning to announce that he was sailing for Europe at 12.
Facilitation of the hurried getting of tickets and other preparations for departure was about the only function in which McClure’s associates served him with unqualified cheerfulness.” One of McClure’s quixotic requirements for his voyages was a cache of fresh milk that would last as his only sustenance while aboard, a necessity that sent staffers scrambling—in the age of glass bottles and no mechanical refrigeration, it meant McClure never traveled light.
His agitation was not driven by any particular pressing threat, as the magazine now dominated former titans of the media world. It was mainly fueled by his desperation to reinvigorate himself. In the process, he further revealed his knack for discovering men whose names and legacies would eventually outshine his own; he also rushed into contracts that could have foundered his already precarious financial stability.
In the spring of 1897, McClure poached a Scribner’s business manager, Frank Nelson Doubleday, to help direct a new books department, Doubleday & McClure. Walter Hines Page, an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, also joined the venture, which was embarking on an encyclopedia project that would never come to fruition. Doubleday had a dangerous personality type, at least when drawn into proximity with McClure’s. He was, Curtis Brady noted, “attractive and agreeable . . . whenever he wanted to turn it on.” His close friend Kipling gave him the nickname “Effendi” (Ottoman “Lord” or “Master”), a play on his initials, but the kingly honorific suited him.
McClure’s faith in the much-trumpeted new man vanished from the office as quickly as it had appeared. And Doubleday himself was never entirely comfortable in partnership with McClure, as he said of the Chief, “He was erratic to the last degree, and to be his partner was something like sitting on the top of a volcano with a very hot interior.” Privately, Doubleday wondered about the wisdom of McClure’s “very warm heart,” which hustled him into supporting writers who were of little to no benefit to the magazine.
Doubleday’s natural grasp at authority chafed McClure, who decided to separate from him and Page by September 1899. Effendi agreed to leave when McClure asked, cleverly negotiating to keep the rights to the Doubleday & McClure Co. catalog, which laid the foundation of his considerable success and the publishing house that still bears his name.
Miss Tarbell, meanwhile, was aggrieved; she had welcomed Doubleday’s rationality. The news that McClure had separated from him reached her when she was away, recuperating from Lincoln-induced exhaustion at a sanitarium outside the city. Her note after receiving the news let the Chief know she was daunted by the newly slimmed-down staff and what the pressures might do to him. She wrote him, “I do not like to see Mr Doubleday and Mr. Page go. They are strong men in their way and would relieve you and Mr Phillips of much heavy care.”
That same year, McClure made a bid to expand the magazine into a media company with a roster of venerable properties. In 1899, Harper & Brothers was the largest publisher in America, encompassing a books department as well as four magazines—Harper’s Monthly, Harper’s Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, and Harper’s Round Table. When the company teetered toward bankruptcy, major shareholder J. P. Morgan offered to sell the whole company to McClure. McClure agreed enthusiastically, as one witness described him, “like the intoxicated rabbit went for the bull-dog.”
The staff at McClure’s was decidedly against the merger, as a Harper takeover would decisively change the scope and character of the company. Bringing out a single monthly magazine was complex and chaotic enough. McClure dismissed any objections, but the merger fell through in any case. The staff allowed themselves to feel relief: perhaps now, McClure momentarily sobered, they could get on with their work.
From the book Citizen Reporters by Stephanie Gorton. Copyright © 2020 by Stephanie Gorton. Published on February 18, 2020 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.