New York in History and Anecdote
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The Truth as You See It

In 1900, when newspapers were still the only mass media, over thirty daily papers of general and specialized circulation were published in Manhattan alone. But by the Twenties, a combination of massive capital investment and increasing difficulties in getting through traffic jams to deliver the newspapers to customers made launching a new daily something only an established publisher might try.

For example, the Daily News, first published on June 26, 1919, was founded by Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, an heir to the family that published the Chicago Tribune. Within five years its large photographs, wild headlines, and popular columnists had given the Daily News a circulation of 750,000, making it the most widely read daily in the United States. In 1924, William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal and the New York American, declared war on Patterson by starting his own tabloid, the Daily Mirror.

But these papers, however sensational, still published something that could be recognized as news. Nothing had prepared journalism for Bernarr Macfadden’s New York Graphic.

Macfadden proved that material success can be won by the hard-working, ambitious, and utterly humorless. He was an ignoramus with the courage of his convictions, believing that whatever interested him would interest everybody else, and for an amazingly long time, he was largely right.

He was a graphomaniac health nut: during his long career, he published some 150 books on diet and fitness. He was also fixated on sex, although to call his focus on the human body an obsession is to lend glamor to a grimly Celtic fanaticism.

Bernard Adolphus McFadden was born near Mill Spring, Missouri on August 16, 1868. No one knows when or why he changed his name: one memoirist wrote, “…there was a legend around the Macfadden magazines…that the name was a misprint of Bernard, but that upon seeing it misspelled by a printer he had decided to keep it.”

He arrived in New York in 1894 after a brief stint as a professional wrestler with Sandow, the Strong Man. Four years later, already a vegetarian and non-drinker, Macfadden launched his first magazine, Physical Culture, from the Flatiron Building. At first he wrote most of the magazine himself, including its serialized novels. He also posed for the magazine in various stages of undress as an exemplar of Healthy American Manhood. He lectured, denounced alcohol and tobacco, and advocated fasting, natural healing, and exercise.

In 1912, his five-volume Encyclopedia of Physical Culture argued that all major illnesses, including polio, cancer, and Bright’s disease, could be cured by simple diets, water therapy, and modest exercises. One diet called for grapes—nothing but grapes—which Macfadden insisted would eradicate any cancer in the system.

His four marriages produced eight children, six of whom were daughters—Berwyn, Braunda, Beverly, Brynece, Byrne, and Beulah. They were a handsome family, and he loved publishing photographs of his children as representative of ideal American youth, often wearing costumes that Graphic reporter Lester Cohen later described as looking “like…a number of silk handkerchiefs, hanging here or there.”

Then he made his fortune. True Story began publication in 1918. It was the first modern true-confessions magazine. It warned young women against “random flirtations and promiscuous sex.”

One of his writers once asked an editor, “Can a heroine of True Story have sexual intercourse?”

“Yes,” the editor replied, “if she doesn’t enjoy it.”

Perhaps the greatest argument for Macfadden’s sanity is that, when the magazine’s sales dipped in 1920, he did a complete turnabout, publishing stories that placed a heavy emphasis on women who sought sexual gratification outside the bounds of marriage (although Macfadden still drew a conventional moral lesson from his characters’ unhappy lives).

At a time when most magazines still used illustrators, Macfadden used posed photographs of actors or models to illustrate his stories. He always admitted the photographs were posed, usually in microscopic type on the contents page. The mere use of photographs blurred the line between fiction and fact: many of his readers believed the stories were true.

True Story became enormously popular. It spawned legions of imitators. Then he started True Detective Stories and other gritty pulp magazines. He made $30 million within five years. This was not enough: he had to publish a New York City daily. Thus, on April 15, 1924, the New York Graphic hit the streets for the first time.

Of course, Macfadden’s paper would publish Nothing but the Truth: it said so on the masthead. He knew what the public wanted: after all, he’d succeeded with True Story and his other magazines. And it would be a crusading newspaper, fighting for health and physical fitness and against medical ignorance, fighting against the use of pharmaceuticals and against what he called “Prurient Prudery,” to advance “a new human race, free of inhibitions and free of the contamination of smallpox vaccine.” Within days, the joke was that the Graphic was for fornication, against vaccination.

Macfadden, then in his late fifties, was slender, beaky, and about five feet, six inches tall. He looked vaguely exotic: many thought he had Native American blood. He spoke with a bizarre accent: one listener compared it to a combination of Old Scotch and Choctaw.

Macfadden had assembled some interesting professional talent. Money can do that. His managing editor, Emile Gauvreau, had been editor of the Hartford Courant at twenty-six; his memoirs, My Last Million Readers, is a fine, racy impression of Twenties tabloid journalism. Macfadden’s greatest catch was an unknown, Walter Winchell. It was Winchell’s first job on a daily newspaper. He was the nightclub editor, sports columnist, and dramatic critic. Within months, his gossip column made him famous; within two years, it landed him a job with Hearst. Better than Macfadden, perhaps, he knew what “they” wanted.

Between his own genius, the keyhole journalism of Walter Winchell, and contests (the Graphic appears to have been the first American daily to offer cash prizes in crossword puzzle competitions), Gauvreau built circulation from 30,000 to 300,000 within two years. Headlines like “Nude Models and Students in Mad Revel at Paris Ball” and “Boys Spill Beans on Nude Coeds in Reservoir Swim” helped a lot.

So did the Composograph, “a depiction, posed in the Art Department, of a sensational real-life scene that…could not be photographed.” To Macfadden, it was simply the logical extension of the sort of thing that his magazines  had done for years. His competitors found it fraudulent and unethical.

The tabloid photographers would do almost anything for a great shot. Thus, on January 12, 1928, Tom Howard, a Chicago Tribune photographer on assignment to the Daily News, concealed a miniature camera in his pants to illegally smuggle it into Sing Sing so that he could snap murderess Ruth Snyder, bound and hooded in Old Sparky, just as the executioner flipped the switch.

They were nearly two years behind the Graphic, which had used a Composograph to cover the execution of cop-killing post office bandit Gerald Chapman, whose polished manner had won him the tabloid nicknames “Gentleman Gerald” and “The Count of Gramercy Park.”  Gus Schoenbaechler, a Graphic staff, posed as Chapman; his editor hung him from a steam pipe for the shot; Schoenbaechler nearly strangled himself when he accidentally kicked away the chair; and the picture made the Graphic’s front page on Tuesday, April 6, 1926.

More importantly for the Graphic’s prurient readership, as long as the darkroom held out, the Graphic could simply fake front page photographs showing celebrities in intimate situations, as in the misadventures of Daddy Browning and his child-bride, Peaches.

Edward West Browning (1875-1934) rose from office boy to real estate multimillionaire by the age of forty. He first appeared in the tabloids when his wife left him for the family dentist in 1924. He complained, “How can any sensible woman fall in love with a dentist, particularly with the dentist who has done her own work?” Mrs. Browning’s response was to allege Browning’s weakness for little girls.

The divorce settlement left Browning with custody of his adopted daughter Dorothy. Within a year of the divorce, Browning, claiming she needed a sister, advertised in the Herald Tribune for a “pretty, refined girl, about fourteen years old…” He allegedly interviewed 12,000 applicants over two weeks, bouncing the girls on his knee as he caressed and pinched them. Unfortunately, the successful candidate was soon exposed as a twenty-one-year-old impostor.

A year later, Browning met Frances Heenan at a sorority dance. The fifty-one-year-old was entranced by the fifteen year-old blonde. He said, “You look like peaches and cream to me! I’m going to call you Peaches.” The tabloids had already named him “Daddy.”

At five feet, seven inches and 145 pounds, Peaches was a healthy girl. Damon Runyon wrote, “She is…one of those large, patient blondes…her legs are what the boys call piano legs. They say she is fifteen, but she is developed enough to pass anywhere for twenty.”

They were married on April 11, 1926; on October 2, 1926, less than six months later, she marched out of their hotel lugging $30,000 worth of jewels, furs, gowns, and gifts while screaming, “Money isn’t everything!”

Daddy and Peaches each held numerous press conferences, at which they washed, as one writer commented, not only their dirty linen but their scanties and socks as well. Before their five-day divorce trial, Peaches confusingly claimed that: that he had forced her to perform unnatural acts, that she had had nightly relations with him “except when ill,” and that she had never slept with Browning at all.

At trial, Peaches testified that Browning had forced her to look at pornography and eat breakfast with him in the nude. He loved to hide behind doors and screens and then jump out naked to surprise her, shouting “Woof! Woof!”

Macfadden found this material irresistible.  A flood of Composographs followed, such as one showing Daddy (discreetly in his pajamas) advancing on a cowering, towel-draped Peaches, saying “Woof! Woof! Don’t be a goof!” in an overhead comic-strip balloon while Daddy’s pet African honking gander, “perched on the marital bed,” comments “Honk! Honk! It’s the bonk!”

Peaches was awarded $350 a week in temporary alimony, cut off when the divorce was finalized.

The death of film star Rudolph Valentino, the Great Lover of the silent screen, made the Composograph almost  infamous. Near the height of his fame, Valentino was only 31 when he died suddenly of peritonitis on August 23, 1926. There was an orgy of frenzied mourning, encouraged by the studios and the tabloids, with hysterical mobs shattering windows to get into Frank E. Campbell’s funeral home on Madison Avenue where Valentino’s body lay in state.

Macfadden sent two photographers to Campbell’s before the body’s arrival. Presumably after a distribution of appropriate gratuities, one photographer posed in Valentino’s empty casket. The other snapped away. While developing the photograph, the darkroom boys superimposed the actor’s head on the photographer’s body. Thus the Graphic had a picture of Valentino in the box before Campbell’s had finished embalming him. The boys also created a picture of Valentino on the operating table (Graphic staffer Lester Cohen later wrote that he recognized two fellow reporters among the “surgeons” and “nurses” in the photograph) and yet another, based on a medium’s vision, showing Valentino standing with Enrico Caruso in heaven as scores of dead souls ascend the stairway to the Pearly Gates.

Macfadden responded to one critic of this sort of thing by snapping, “What’s the harm in telling the public the truth as you see it? I ask you, sir!”

Macfadden never tired of pushing his nuttier ideas into the paper against Gauvreau’s better instincts. In 1928, Gauvreau, worn out by fighting with his boss, left the Graphic for peace and tranquillity as managing editor of Hearst’s Daily Mirror, and the paper lost momentum with his departure. Macfadden, now convinced he should be President of the United States, further dissipated his energies by building a chain of newspapers and magazines to further his ambitions. Nearly all lost money.

On July 7, 1932, Macfadden folded the Graphic. In eight years, he had reportedly lost between seven and eleven million dollars. He never actually ran for President: in 1940, he ran for U.S. Senator from Florida in the Democratic primary, one of those old-fashioned races with sixteen candidates, and managed to poll a little over ten percent of the vote. A year later, the bankers took over Macfadden Publications and he was out.

In 1955, Macfadden was diagnosed with jaundice. Refusing all medical help, he trusted to fasting. He died on October 12, 1955—probably of his own prescription.

New York Press, January 11, 2000