Remembering the New York Graphic

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:50

    In 1900, when newspapers were still the only mass media, at least 30 daily papers of general and specialized circulation were published in Manhattan alone. By the 20s, a combination of massive capital investment and increasing difficulties in distributing the papers 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 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 more than 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 by starting his own tabloid, the Daily Mirror.

    But these papers 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 glamour to a grimly Celtic fanaticism.

    Bernard Adolphus McFadden was born near Mill Spring, MO, on Aug. 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 nondrinker, Macfadden launched his first magazine, Physical Culture, from the Flatiron Bldg. At first, he wrote most of the magazine himself, including its serialized novels. He also posed for the magazine in various stages of undress, no doubt 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 diseases, 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 females, including 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 (looked) like...a number of silk handkerchiefs, hanging here or there."

    Then he made his fortune. True Story began publication around the time of WWI. It was the first modern true-confessions magazine. At first, 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, shall we say, 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. It blurred the line between fiction and fact. The mere use of photographs led many of his readers to believe the stories were true. Macfadden always admitted the photographs were posed: usually in microscopic type on the contents page.

    True Story became enormously popular. It spawned legions of imitators. Then he started True Detective 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 Sept. 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 magazine. 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 50s, was slender, beaky and about 5 feet, 6 inches tall. He looked vaguely exotic; many thought he had Native American blood. He spoke with a bizarre accent, which one listener compared 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 26; his memoirs, My Last Million Readers, is a fine, racy impression of American tabloid journalism in the 20s. 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 (not drama) 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, contests (the Graphic appears to have been the first American daily to offer cash prizes in crossword puzzle contests) and a wonderful invention called the Composograph, 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" probably helped, too.

    If the Graphic is remembered at all, it is because of the Composograph: "a depiction, posed in the Art Department, of a sensational real-life scene that...could not be photographed," was how Lester Cohen described it.

    Thus, the Daily News had its reporter covering the execution of Ruth Snyder (of the Snyder-Gray case) illegally smuggle on his ankle a miniature camera to snap Snyder, bound and hooded in Old Sparky, just as the executioner flipped the switch.

    But the Graphic had already used a phony photo of an execution of Gerald Chapman, the cultivated post office bandit. The staff concocted it in the photo lab for the front page of Tuesday, April 6, 1926 (Gus Schoenbaechler, a Graphic staffer, posed as Chapman; his editor hung him from a steam pipe for the shot and Schoenbaechler nearly strangled himself by accidentally kicking away the chair).

    As long as the darkroom could hold out, the Graphic could simply fake front-page photographs showing celebrities in intimate situations, as in the adventures 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 40. 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, shall we say, young 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 21-year-old impostor.

    A year later, Browning met Frances Heenan at a sorority dance. The 51-year-old was entranced by the 15-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 5 feet, 7 inches and 145 pounds, Peaches was a healthy girl. Damon Runyon wrote, "She 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 Oct. 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, as one writer commented, they not only washed their dirty linen but their scanties and socks as well. Before their five-day divorce trial, Peaches confusingly claimed that: she had never slept with Browning; that he made her perform unnatural sex acts; and that she had nightly relations with him, "except when ill."

    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!" He had also brought home an African honking gander that relieved itself all over their apartment.

    This irresistible material led to a flood of Composographs, such as that showing Daddy (discreetly in his pajamas), speaking like a comic strip character in a balloon over his head, "Woof! Woof! Don't be a goof!" as he advances on a cowering, towel-draped Peaches, while the 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 Composograph became infamous with the death of Rudolph Valentino. The Great Lover died suddenly on Aug. 23, 1926. There was an orgy of frenzied mourning, and hysterical mobs shattered windows at Frank E. Campbell's funeral home on Madison Ave. where his 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 boys in the darkroom superimposed the actor's head on the photographer's body. 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 (one Graphic staffer later wrote that he recognized two fellow reporters among the "surgeons" and "nurses" in the photograph) and yet another showing Valentino standing with Enrico Caruso in heaven as scores of dead souls ascend the stairway to the Pearly Gates, as envisioned by a medium.

    Macfadden responded to one critic by saying, "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. In 1928, Gauvreau, weary of the struggle, 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, built a chain of newspapers and magazines to further his ambitions. All but one lost money.

    On July 7, 1932, Macfadden folded the Graphic after losing between seven and 11 million dollars since 1924. He never actually ran for president, but in 1940 he ran for U.S. senator from Florida in the Democratic primary, one of those old-fashioned races with 16 candidates, and managed to poll a little over 10 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 Oct. 12, 1955, after three days without food.