The Last Emperor: William S. Paley

William S. Paley became president of the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1928, when he was twenty- six, and he ran the company until 1983, when he re¬tired and assumed the title of “founder chairman.” Already a wealthy man when he and his family bought Columbia (the Paleys were cigar manufacturers), he was deeply attached to the style of living that enormous amounts of money make possible, and he cultivated a taste in fine art, fine furniture, fine clothing, and fine food. He married two striking and intelligent women—Dorothy Hart Hearst, whom he divorced in 1947, and Barbara Cushing Mor¬timer, called Babe, whom he married soon after his divorce and who died in 1978—in a time when it was expected of striking and intelli¬gent women of a certain class that they would devote themselves to the comfort and adornment of their husbands’ lives. He was, on social occasions and on most business occasions, a charming man who disliked unpleasantness and preferred to let others act as the agents of his disapproval, and as radio and then television grew to become the most influential and lucrative communications media in the history of the world, he had a personality equipped to extract a full measure of satisfaction from the power and prestige his posi¬tion afforded him—something that was not lost on those who knew him. “He looks,” Truman Capote once remarked, “like a man who has just swallowed an entire human being.”
Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of Paley, In All His Glory, came out in 1990, the year of Paley’s death. The book epitomizes the re¬action most people have to a life like Paley’s: it is written for two audiences—one that would like a peek at the glamour of Paley’s world, and another that would like to confirm its intuition that someone other people find so glamorous must actually be a person of rather limited accomplishment. For the first audience, the home furnishings, vacations, distinguished golfing partners, and romantic liaisons in Paley’s life are carefully catalogued. One appendix lists the bequests, mostly of expensive jewelry, in Babe Paley’s will; an¬other gives the dollar value of Paley’s holdings in CBS stock for each year of his life, beginning in 1928. (It increased.) For the audience that wants to see what the legend looks like with the varnish re¬moved, there are stories of coldness to friends and to children, of bad business decisions and of credit stolen from others for good ones, and of personal mythmaking on an imperial scale. First we are asked to admire the cake, and then we get to eat it. This is a com¬mon enough form of celebrity biography, and satisfying in its mildly opportunistic way. It’s nice to know how people who strike it rich spend their money, and it’s also nice to feel that if we struck it rich ourselves we’d deserve it a little more and spend the money a little less selfishly. When we read of Babe Paley’s being driven by her chauffeur to Kennedy Airport so that she can pick up the freshly shot game bird she has had flown in from Europe for her husband’s dinner, our disappointment at being financially incapable of this sort of thing is exactly balanced by our satisfaction in feeling morally incapable of it as well.
Smith’s chapters on Paley’s personal life contain many stories like the story of the imported fowl, but the story of the fowl is about as exciting as most of them get. For Paley aspired merely to live well, and in what he understood to be the best possible taste; and although this aspiration led him, given his means, to excesses, it precluded any genuine folly. He was, with a few significant phil¬anthropic exceptions, much too prudent to waste his money on anything but himself. His single traditional vice, apparently, was philandering, which is neither the most unusual vice for a very rich man to have nor the most interesting.
Smith’s treatment of Paley’s career as a broadcaster is somewhat less breathless than her treatment of his career as a devotee of the high life. Her pages on the business side of Paley’s life are con¬cerned mostly with debunking his reputation as a broadcasting genius. She does concede, as most commentators do, that Paley un¬derstood better and sooner than anyone else in broadcasting the im¬portance of programming. (It seems odd that people in broadcasting ever doubted that the choice and quality of programs were impor¬tant, but they did.) And she believes that he had a genuine instinct for guessing what most Americans wanted to hear and see. But she also points out that Paley went into radio not because he had a pre¬cocious sense of its potential, as he later claimed, but simply in order to get some executive training before returning to the cigar business; that he saw no money in television when it appeared, and discouraged efforts to move his company into it; and that during the years—from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s—when CBS as¬sembled its television network and overtook NBC to become the dominant force in the industry, he was generally distracted by the enjoyment of his private life, and by a brief stint in public service, and it was really Frank Stanton, the president of the company (by then Paley had become chairman), who engineered CBS’s triumph.
This part of the cake has been sliced by others, as well—in Robert Metz’s CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye (1975) and in David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be (1979), a work whose sec¬tions on CBS so irritated Paley when he read a version of them in the Atlantic Monthly in 1975 that he (and a large staff) composed his own memoir, As It Happened, and arranged to have it published a few weeks before Halberstam’s book appeared. What distinguishes Smith’s book from those earlier efforts is all the stargazing attention it pays to Paley’s personal life. But the stargazing makes a point of its own. For the way Paley lived—the homes, the art collection, even the wives—had as much to do with the success of CBS, and of net-work television generally, as his business decisions did. There was nothing foreordained about the dominance of network television; it was achieved in defiance of the normal mechanisms of the market and the normal tinkering instincts of politicians. Network television was an empire protected by an image, and it was Paley’s real genius to understand why it was that every enhancement of his private life was also an investment in the continuing prosperity of the company he ran and the medium he helped to establish.

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