Courtesy of Charles E. Scripps
Family portrait, circa 1915. Front row: E. Virginia Scripps, Ellen Browning Scripps, E.W. Scripps, sons Robert and John, Nackie Scripps (Mrs. E.W. Scripps), Mrs. James Scripps, E.W.’s mother, Judith Osborne. Back row: Fred Scripps, Mrs. Willam Scripps, William Scripps, James E. Scripps.
Sixty-six years ago, Edward Wyllis Scripps, the premier newspaper baron of nineteenth-century America, sat aboard his yacht the Ohio, which lay in the still waters off Jacksonville, Florida. On that day in 1922, he took pen in hand and deprived all but one of his children of the legacy of his vast media empire. By then his relationship |with his wife and family had so deteriorated that he was forced to desert Rancho Miramar, the sprawling 2100-acre ranch he had blasted out of the dusty scrub country north of San Diego. “He said it made him nervous to stay at Miramar, even though it was his home,” his seventy-year-old grandson Bob, himself a farmer in West Texas, says, recalling family lore from a period only dimly remembered now. “He wasn’t getting along with Nackie, his wife. He felt more comfortable at sea."
Even from his grave, E.W. could be assured there would be no meddling with his visionary business plan.
E.W. died four years later, in 1926, ravaged by strokes and alcoholism, estranged from his wife and much of his family, an eccentric old recluse aboard the same yacht Ohio in the harbor of Monrovia, Liberia, on the coast of West Africa. But his empire would live on — indeed, thrive and grow beyond his fondest hopes and wildest expectations — nurtured and protected by the meticulously crafted trust agreement he had signed that day off the Jacksonville coast. Although his family was irreparably fractured, the trust guaranteed that the "concern," as he called it, would remain whole. Even from his grave, E.W. could be assured there would be no meddling with his visionary business plan, no squabbling over his assets, no undignified dismantling of what his genius and stubbonness had built.
Today Scripps Howard, as it is now called, is America’s seventeenth-largest media company, owning at least $3 billion worth of newspapers, television stations, cable TV systems, and a newspaper-features syndicate that licenses those icons of popular American culture, Garfield the cat and Snoopy the dog. There have been changes over the years, of course. The great United Press Association newswire, founded by E.W. when his competitors threatened to lock him out of new markets by denying his newspapers access to their Associated Press, was practically given away in 1982 after it had suffered severe financial losses. Most of the once-proud evening papers, upon which Scripps built his reputation as a champion of the working classes, have long ago been shuttered, victims of television news programming. Through it all, though, the sole owner of the dynasty has been the E.W. Scripps Trust, a legal bulldog standing guard over the empire built by a Midwest farm boy.
Ellen Browning Scripps. E.W. was especially close to his half-sister Ellen, seventeen years older than he, who taught him to read
Yet that will soon change as the end of the trust approaches. At the time his lawyers drew up the document, federal antitrust law allowed trusts to extend only through two successive generations. The deaths of four of his remaining grandchildren — probably within the next ten or fifteen years — will bring about the end of the trust; and E.W.’s vehicle of destiny soon will dissolve, raining an estimated $1.2 billion in riches upon twenty-eight great-grandchildren, all direct descendants of one favored son. They must soon decide what to do with the windfall.
E.W. Scripps. The industrial Midwest was growing mightily, inexorably swelling the ranks of workers who faithfully purchased his papers each evening
San Diego Historical Society
THE EXPERIENCE OF OTHER newspaper families does not bode well for a graceful transfer of power. In Louisville, Kentucky, the famous Courier-Journal, long owned by the Bingham family, was sold to the Gannett Corporation after a bitter family split. In Detroit the News was sold, again to Gannett, when cousins of another branch of the Scripps family were unable to agree upon a plan of operation. In both cases, the heirs walked away with financial fortunes: the Binghams pocketed $750 million, and the Detroit Scrippses received $800 million.
Yet in both cases, such monstrous sums did little to soothe the pain of forever losing the family legacy and the very real power to shape public opinion and mold national events that are the perquisites of owning a major daily newspaper in America. The recriminations and bitter strife that marked these transitions sundered each family and held the members up to searing public scrutiny.
Will Scripps Howard and its small circle of select owners meet the same fate? Part of the answer lies in the past, deep in the collective psyche of the family, many of whose members admit they have never been entirely comfortable with either their legacy or the memory of E.W., a self-proclaimed “damned old crank.”
“For a family that deals in communications, we are not particularly good communicators among ourselves," admits Nackey Scripps Loeb, a granddaughter of E.W. and the fiery publisher of the Manchester, New Hampshire Union-Leader, a paper she inherited from her second husband. "We have all gone our separate ways."
Rancho Miramar before it was sold in 1968. Nackey Scripps Loeb, the New Hampshire publisher and a granddaughter of E.W., grew up at Miramar and lived in one wing of the house with her family. "My two older brothers enjoyed collecting snakes."
E.W. Scripps came from strong family stock. He was born in June of 1854 on a farm near Rushville, Illinois, the thirteenth child of James M. Scripps, a failed English bookbinder whose father, a wealthy London publisher, had dispatched him to America to redeem himself. James had been twice married and widowed when he met and married E.W.’s mother, Julia Osborn of Williamstown, Massachusetts. By all accounts, growing up on the farm was not easy for E.W. He was a weak child, a syndrome that perhaps foreshadowed his fear — bordering on paranoia — of catching cold, a fear that led him west and to San Diego after he had earned his fortune. One of the youngest in a family of children by three mothers, he was especially close to his half-sister Ellen, seventeen years older than he, who taught him to read and attempted to instill culture in the gangly farm boy.
But newspapers and the Scripps family seemed destined for each other. E.W.’s half-brother James, twenty years his senior, had already become editor and part-owner (along with some other half-brothers and cousins) of the Detroit Journal. A cousin, John Locke Scripps, had earlier founded the Chicago Tribune and had been its editor. A great uncle ran the hometown Rushville weekly. Certain that he didn’t want to remain on the farm and looking to such role models, eighteen-year-old E.W. left Rushville and headed for Detroit, where half-brother James hired him as an office boy. From that job. he quickly advanced to chief bill collector, with big brother’s promise of a reporting job to come. But just a year later, in 1873, the Journal burned to the ground.
E.W., his wife Nackie, and the Rancho Miramar foreman, 1906. “Nackie blamed both Jim’s and John’s death on E.W.”
IT WAS A FATEFUL TIME FOR the newspaper business. The industrial revolution was about to sweep America and would rapidly create an entirely new class of urban factory worker. Modestly paid and literate, they would constitute a vast market for newspapers generically described at first as the "Penny Press," after the papers’ street prices, and later “Yellow Journals,” based on a muckraking, anti-establishment style perfected by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Each big city had ten to twenty newspapers, battling it out for a segment of the market.
James Scripps wasted no time. With $20,000 in insurance money from the fire at the Journal, he founded the Detroit News even before the year was out. By then not only E.W., but half-sister Ellen, who was the only one of the Scripps children to graduate from collage and who had begun her career as a schoolteacher, had joined the paper. All three Scripps children lived at James's house, writing stories and keeping books in the evening.
The future of Scripps Howard will soon be in the hands of the twenty-eight heirs of Robert Scripps.
Although the News quickly became a bona fide hit with both readers and advertisers — who appreciated the cheap rates during what had turned into deep financial depression — more capital was needed. The siblings persuaded half-brother George, a Civil War veteran, to sell his farm and invest the proceeds in the newspaper, and within a few years, the News was posting an annual profit of $50,000. Competing editors in town called it a “gutter sheet,” and E.W., who was by now city editor, went out of his way to stir up trouble for the bosses who ran city hall. His underpaid staff consisted of, in the words of one biographer, “an ex-printer, hobo, Confederate captain, blockade runner and bankrupt country editor.”
Suddenly though, in 1877, twenty-five-year-old E.W. and his older brother George set sail for England on a six-month sabbatical. One biographer claims that George was forced into a hasty departure by some “misadventure with a girl" who “did not know how to ‘take care of herself.’ ” E.W. himself, according to this biographer, conducted a series of affairs. “Celibacy E.W. found impossible. He tried many times to ‘reform.’ He swam, rowed and walked. But a few days or weeks was about all he could stand. The physical strain was too much, and he found it hard to keep his mind properly on his work. At these times he felt degraded.”
During the brothers’ European voyage. E.W. hatched the idea of running his own “penny paper” in Cleveland and persuaded brothers George and James to back it, just as they had the Detroit operation. Two days after they returned to the States, the half-brothers were prowling the low-rent districts of Cleveland, looking for a cheap place to start their venture. They found a “four-room shack on an alley,” where their editorial office was “about as big as a trunk closet.”
The first edition of the Cleveland Penny Press in 1878 was four pages long, with most of the copy written by E.W. In less than fourteen months, however, it was in the black and was causing so much commotion that its young publisher had to carry a pistol for protection. As one observer said. “Little space was wasted on editorializing. If editorializing was needed, it could be done in the news column space." His sister Ellen, still working on the Detroit News, contributed feature material, and E.W. continued the tradition he had begun at the News. He attacked the city’s richest and most influential citizens and. as a consequence, was sued for libel frequently. Somehow, though, he always managed to win or at least to settle favorably.
After the fabulous success in Cleveland, he looked next to St. Louis, where in 1880 to 1881, he gambled on a head-on battle with legendary publisher Joseph Pulitzer and lost badly. One biographer blamed his failure on womanizing. “Casually and carnally, he had no difficulties with his girls. What he lacked in charm he made up in boldness and desire. There were girls in St. Louis who were ‘nice’ (by the rating of the world) and yet ‘not nice’ by practice. He met and enjoyed a number of such. He took to wine in place of whisky. He bought pretty horses for pretty girls and incidentally he gave a little thought to editing the [St. Louis] Chronicle.” Scripps himself had a shorter explanation: “Pulitzer, who ran the St. Louis Dispatch, beat me at my own game.”
Although his ambitious plans for a newspaper empire had taken a beating. E.W. had already made a small fortune with the Cleveland paper, and he was only twenty-seven. Another trip to Europe seemed in order, this time with half-sister Ellen. They departed in December of 1881 on a trip that would last until August of 1883. While abroad, they studied French, German, Italian, and Spanish; they wandered through Algiers, Tunis, Egypt, Rome, Berlin. Dresden, and Palestine; and they sent back plenty of copy to their newspapers.
On their return twenty months later, they found the Cleveland paper being run so well, it was throwing off an extraordinary profit of fifty-five percent of gross proceeds. E.W. renewed his plans for expansion. His half-brother James had started a paper in Cincinnati, the Post, but it had fared poorly. E.W. obtained control of the Post and immediately resumed fire on his favorite targets, corrupt municipal officials.
He uncovered a ring of grafters who rigged juries, controlled the police, and bribed judges. He exposed kickbacks by local druggists to the city physician for prescriptions written through them. Libel suits poured in against him, but the Post's circulation soared. The bosses were eventually driven from office, and rioters burned down city hall.
THROUGH IT ALL, THE industrial Midwest was growing mightily, inexorably swelling the ranks of workers who faithfully purchased his papers each evening when their shifts had ended. And by now. E.W. knew his was a successful formula for papers. He had also begun to experiment with an operating strategy that was destined to expand his newspaper realm beyond any yet seen and that would give him unprecedented editorial independence. All of his growth had been financed by cash generated by the papers themselves, as well as investment money put up by his siblings. He shunned bank loans, explaining he had seen the influence bankers had wielded over the content of papers that owed them money. Stock in his newspapers was always closely held, and he himself always held at least a fifty-one-percent controlling interest.
Yet if he was to expand further, he needed highly motivated executives he could trust to carry out his mandate. When he took over the Cincinnati Post, E.W. was confronted by a young advertising salesman who drew the then-phenomenal salary of twenty-five dollars a week. Milton McRae, who was twenty-six years old, soon became business manager and then chief executive of the nation's first newspaper chain. Although E.W. retained control, he allowed McRae to share top billing, and as it grew, the chain became known as the Scripps McRae League.
In 1885, as McRae set out to add yet more newspapers to the chain, E.W. married Nackie Holtsinger, the young and beautiful daughter of a Presbyterian minister. A year later, their first child, James E. (named after his Detroit uncle), was born in their large, remodeled farmhouse on the outskirts of Cincinnati. The couple had five more children, all of whom (but one who died at the age of nine) would live at least to young adulthood. The family was off to a promising start, with no foreboding of the rancor that would eventually enfold it.
E.W. Scripps first set eyes on San Diego from the deck of a steamship in November of 1890, according to a report in the next day’s San Diego Union. It was a “busted boom town" of 17,000 inhabitants, barely hanging on after a decade of overheated real-estate speculation had collapsed into depression. Scripps saw San Diego as a haven for personal, not financial benefit, for as his business grew, his reclusive tendencies surfaced. He rented a horse and buggy and set out over narrow, dusty trails, north on the mesa, toward what would become his Rancho Miramar.
He quickly paid $5000 cash for 400 acres and told an unbelieving real-estate agent that he wanted to buy even more of the desolate scrub country. The first visit to San Diego lasted just four days, but a year later, he and the rest of his family boarded a special car hired from the Santa Fe railway and headed west from Ohio. "E.W. Scripps and Miss E.B. Scripps of the ‘Scripps League' of newspapers and party arrived yesterday afternoon from Cincinnati in their special car, ‘Idlewild,’ having been joined at Linda Vista station by F.T. Scripps,’’ the Union reported. "The brothers Scripps went out to ‘Rancho Miramar,’ Linda Vista, last evening to make further arrangements for the winter occupancy of their new residence in the foothills.”
Rancho Miramar eventually grew to 2100 acres and was managed by E.W.’s brothers Fred and Will, who needed the jobs. It was originally only a winter home for E.W., whose legal residence continued to be in Ohio; but already that first winter, the publisher laid out his visions for the ranch, including vast citrus groves, forests of Australian eucalyptus trees and Torrey pines, and what ultimately would become one of the world’s most elaborate collections of exotic cacti. A seven-year drought and the failure of a local irrigation system spelled the premature end of citrus cultivation, but his brothers carried through with the rest, while E.W. tended to his growing newspapers from the Ohio headquarters, the duties for which included annual tours of the papers that covered 10,000 miles by private rail car.
IN SUBSEQUENT YEARS. HIS stays at Rancho Miramar grew longer, until the estate became his primary residence and office. Like his newspaper chain, Miramar grew in increments, until it sprawled around a rectangular courtyard. Biographer Gilson Gardner, a Scripps reporter who eventually became E.W.’s personal secretary, called the house "a thing of dignity and chaste beauty,” although it never matched the spectacle of William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon.
He described it as "one story, with corridors around the court except at the open end. A fountain in the center. Brick, painted white. A roof on which one may sit or walk. And rooms, rooms, rooms in suites with their baths and privacy, their great windows looking out on cactus gardens and the bougainvillea vines, the graceful eucalyptus, the dark pines swaying high and the smooth roads up which glide the autos." Forty or more newspaper executives were sometimes put up in special quarters for meetings at Miramar. A direct phone line to the East, the only one in the county at the time, allowed convenient communications with the main offices in Cincinnati.
There were also coyotes and rattlesnakes. Nackey Scripps Loeb, the New Hampshire publisher and a granddaughter of E.W., grew up at Miramar and lived in one wing of the house with her family. "My two older brothers enjoyed collecting snakes. They had a chest full of them. The house was built on a concrete slab, which had a system of conduits running underneath, serviced through small man-hole covers. One day the snakes got loose and slipped into the conduits. After the ranch hands were called and after some effort they managed to kill all the snakes, my mother said. ‘Never again.’ And that was the end of my brothers’ snake collection."
The ranch became the ultimate expression of E.W.’s individualism — and his ego. While he lived there, his children and grandchildren were raised according to an entrepreneurial philosophy of life the publisher had begun to develop and was writing down in a book of what he called "disquisitions.” The farm boy from downstate Illinois was, above all, suspicious of formal education. "E.W. didn’t believe in schools,” recalls Edythe Henderson Scripps, a granddaughter of Milton McRae (the young business manager who later headed the chain), who married and then divorced John P. Scripps, a grandson of E.W. "He let them (his children and grandchildren] run wild out there [at Miramar)."
N THE LATE 1890s, E.W. announced to the world that he was “retiring” to the ranch, although in reality his schedule became even busier. Not long after he arrived at Miramar, he loaned $3000 to two aspiring reporters to purchase the San Diego Sun. That venture lost money until E.W. found yet another fifteen-dollar-a-week reporter, who nursed it to success. (The Sun was finally sold in the late Thirties and folded into the San Diego Tribune.) In addition to overseeing his local and national publishing interests, E.W. became a deputy road commissioner of San Diego County and, along with John D. Spreckels and others, helped finance the first local network of highways, which included roads connecting his ranch to Escondido, Del Mar, and La Jolla, as well as to downtown San Diego, about seventeen miles to the south. In 1901 he and half-sister Ellen bought a one-quarter interest in La Jolla Park in downtown La Jolla, a “left-over subdivision from the boom-bust of 1887, consisting of some 500 lots, for $3200,” according to biographer Gardner. They later sold the property and made a killing, which, according to Gardner, “shocked and pained” the publisher.
“Were [his children] to grow up and learn that father had made money speculating in city lots? Heaven Forbid!”
The 10,000-acre Fanita Ranch in what is now Santee also beckoned. Local businessmen prevailed on E.W. to buy it out of foreclosure for $35,000 and give the city an option to purchase it for a planned reservoir. The scheme ran afoul of John D. Spreckels, who himself owned a private water system that he wanted to sell to the city. Spreckels also owned San Diego’s two biggest newspapers, the Union and Tribune, and used them to accuse Scripps of attempting to profiteer from his purchase of Fanita. The tactic was successful, and San Diego voters declined to support a bond issue to buy the ranch. E.W. was left with a rambling spread, where he put a son-in-law in charge, planted alfalfa, and raised cattle and horses. In the 1950s, his heirs sold it for $5 million, and it became a subdivision called Carlton Oaks.
With 1918 came continued signs that E.W.’s immense local holdings and influence grated upon the long-time residents. In a lawsuit filed by the father of a man who allegedly died at Fanita after falling off an alfalfa wagon was included this charge: “E.W. Scripps, in his immense land holdings ... retains the old baronial splendor and isolation of the feudal barons. He owns papers that presume and declare that they are the champions of the common people [and as a result] Scripps has acquired wealth beyond what was once considered the dreams of avarice.” The outcome of the case was not recorded, but distrust of Scripps and his immense wealth and power had already become widespread.
Resentment was also a natural reaction to a man whose newspapers were then regarded as radical. “I’m just a conservative old millionaire,” he once protested to a biographer. “You can’t be rich and be a radical.” But until well after his death, the papers continued to embrace the same anti-establishment philosophy that had made them popular among the burgeoning working classes of the Midwest. E.W.’s political leanings are exemplified in a 1911 meeting he called at Rancho Miramar. Editor Lincoln Steffens, the supreme muckraker of his time and a Socialist, along with Clarence Darrow, the defense attorney who had represented teacher John Scopes against the State of Tennessee in the famed “Monkey Trial,” took the train down from Los Angeles.
“The Scripps ranch, Miramar, is back up in the foothills,” Steffens later wrote in his autobiography. “A good place to rest, except that E.W. Scripps did not care himself for a rest. A singular man. Big, bulky, but not fat, his hulking body, in big boots and rough clothes, carried a large gray head with a wide gray face which did not always express, like Darrow’s, the constant activity of the man's brain. He was a hard student, whether he was working on newspaper make-up or on some inquiry in biology. That mind was not to be satisfied.” The reason for the meeting at Rancho Miramar was the trial of the McNamara brothers, two labor radicals who had been accused of the October 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times headquarters. Twenty people had died in the attack against Major General Harrison Gray Otis, the Times' publisher, who had long battled labor unions and used his paper as a sword to keep them out of the city. Six months later, in April of 1911. John McNamara, secretary of the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers, and his brother James were arrested in Detroit and charged with the crime. Labor and socialist leaders across the nation claimed the brothers were being framed for the sake of a show trial against organized labor. Otis himself called it a confrontation between “followers of the Red flag and the forces of law and order” Attorney Darrow jumped to the defense, and Steffens, who was hired by the New York Globe to write commentary. soon became enmeshed in the negotiations for a plea bargain.
At Miramar E.W. Scripps hastened to tell his guests Darrow and Steffens that, unlike Times publisher Otis, he was rooting for the labor efforts. “I come off here on these wide acres of high miles to get away from — my sort; to get away from the rich. So I don’t think like a rich man. I think more like a left labor galoot, like those dynamiters. They talk about the owner of newspapers holding back his editors. It’s the other way with me. I get me boys, bright boys, from the classes that read my papers; I give them the editorship and the management, with a part interest in the property, and. say, in a year or so, as soon as the profits begin to come in, they become conservative and I have to boot them back into their class...”
Scripps defended the use of force by labor, according to Steffens, and pulled out a “a sheaf of typewritten stuff," one of his disquisitions. “ ‘We, the employers, have and use every other weapon, he argued ... We have the bar and the bench, the Legislature, the governor, the police, and the militia. Labor has nothing but violence and mob force.’ Smiling, he read .his philosophy of Force and then chucked it back in the drawer as Darrow sighed. It was no use to him; he could not defend dynamite; he had to defend two prisoners accused of murder...” It was a classic performance by old E.W., but in the end, Steffens failed in his plea-bargaining efforts; the McNamaras were sentenced to life terms at San Quentin; and E.W.’s disquisition on the use of violence by labor remained unpublished for half a century after his death, as were most of his less orthodox writings.
HIS MOST SUCCESSFUL challenge to big business, typically, yielded him enormous profits. His fellow newspaper owners had established the Associated Press as a wire-service monopoly and used it to limit the numbers of newspapers that could operate in a given city. Inspired by one of his employees, the editor-in-chief of the Cincinnati Post, E.W. purchased his own wire service and gradually built it into United Press. Roy Howard, a young hustler in the mold of Milton McRae, was designated to run the fledgling enterprise.
“I saw myself as the savior of the freedom of the press," Scripps later said. “I still think it was a good job; but I have a feeling as I grow older that it will take more than my individual efforts to keep that freedom.” Today UPI is on the verge of being closed, just six years after it was virtually given away by the Scripps Howard conglomerate because of its financial losses.
By 1914 war threatened; the breakup of his family was also near. The first fracture came in the growing enmity between E.W. and McRae; John Scripps, the oldest of E.W.’s five children, had married McRae’s daughter, but both of them had died young — he at age twenty-six from complications of rheumatic fever, she during the worldwide flu epidemic — leaving a five-year-old son. The two grandfathers fought over custodianship; E.W. wanted the child to live at Miramar; McRae, according to biographer Gardner, disagreed violently. At one point, according to a family member, E.W. conspired to pirate his grandson away on a yacht.
“E.W. wanted John very badly. He would do anything to get him back,” says Edythe Henderson Scripps (a granddaughter of McRae). When McRae finally won custody. Scripps angrily stripped him of his role in the Scripps McRae League, replacing him with the young, ambitious chief of United Press, Roy Howard. From then on. the business was called Scripps Howard, and McRae was forced to retire to a house on Laurel Street in San Diego. Under McRae's tutelage, his grandson John built his own independent newspaper chain. John P. Scripps Newspapers, headquartered at Fifth Avenue and C Street, downtown. It merged last year with Scripps Howard.
The death of his oldest child, John, left E.W. with two remaining sons, Jim and Robert. They both had grown up in the rough-and-tumble life of Miramar, had learned the business of running a ranch, and eventually became life-long rivals. Jim, the elder, was outspoken and decisive. Robert was introverted, disliked business, and at one point had published several poems. A 1917 letter by Jim, written after E.W. had relieved him as ranch manager and installed Robert in his place, sheds light on the brothers’ relationship.
One time my brother Bob got promoted to be ranch manager I went about the place and suggested to all the men that they were entitled to a raise and to ask Bob for a raise on the first morning he got the job; and one by one they struck him for a raise the first thing. Well, poor Bob came to me and asked me what I meant by doing such things I told him that he had the authority, that he was a ranch manager now. and it was entirely up to him whether he give the fellows a raise or not — that I had merely been offering suggestions and was as desirous of making the job as interesting for him as I could ... You see. Bob didn't have any chance at all; he simply had a choice of making a failure (he first rattle out of the box) or turning down these fellows who wanted raises and getting the tightwad reputation that I had.
In 1908 E.W. put Jim in charge of the newspaper business and this time “officially retired” to Miramar. But when war broke out in 1917, E.W. left California, headed for Washington, and again resumed direct control of the chain. By 1920 father and son were quarreling violently over both the editorial and business direction of the papers. E.W. removed Jim as editor in chief and replaced him with Robert. Jim in turn retaliated by pulling six of the newspapers — in which he held majority control — out of the chain, a fateful move E.W. never forgave.
"Scripps’ family knew him more as a boss than as a father,” biographer Gardner observed. “Honor thy father was regarded by him as the first commandment, and honor with him meant obey.” In 1921 Jim died at the age of thirty-five, without having reconciled with his father, without having even spoken to him. The son’s widow sued E.W. for a greater share of Scripps Howard, and E.W.’s wife Nackie sided with her daughter-in-law against her husband. The crack grew wider.
Many years later. Josephine Scripps. one of Jim’s daughters, remembered E.W. “Grandpa was a difficult person, sort of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — he liked to see how people would react when he did things. He had three strokes over the course of ten or fifteen years, and every one of them changed him, changed his personality.” Jim's death cast a dark shadow across the family. “Nackie blamed both Jim’s and John’s death on E.W ,” says grandson Bob, one of Robert’s sons. “And that was when he took to his yacht.”
THERE WAS THE DRINKING as well. E.W. had always been a fabled drinker and heavy cigar smoker. “I think one reason for my having consumed so much whiskey as I have at times," he once wrote, “has been that the whisky seemed to be an antidote for the tobacco poison — not a complete antidote, but some relief ... I have been told that I never could have smoked as much as I have had I not used alcohol freely at the same time.” Near the end of his life, the newspaper magnate cut back on his heavy drinking, but his alcoholism was to be passed on to succeeding generations, an unhappy and unwelcome legacy. Today his granddaughter Margaret, a recovered alcoholic, has established a halfway house in Florida to help fellow victims of the disease, and other family members say they still struggle against their addictions.
Robert Scripps was also one of the victims. The one-time poet and last remaining son was, above all, loyal to his father, and his father had rewarded him in turn with lifetime control of the newspapers. Four years before he died, his split with his wife almost complete, E.W. engineered a trust, handing Robert and his heirs all rights to the Scripps Howard chain. John and Jim were dead. Their children, E.W. declared, were “adequately cared for” by other trusts he had established; they had indeed begun newspaper chains of their own. Daughter Nackey, who had eloped with Tom Meanley, one of E.W.’s secretaries, a circumstance that enraged the publisher, was also well taken care of, he proclaimed. She and her husband lived for years on their own ranch at Miramar, and their heirs ultimately sold the property in 1985 for more than $11 million. Another daughter. Dolla, was mentally impaired and was the beneficiary of a separate trust.
Thus, upon E.W.’s death in 1926. son Robert assumed the mantle of trustee of the E.W. Scripps Trust, a position fraught with the danger of disappointment. He was tall, diffident, and determined to carry forward his father’s often eccentric visions, but Robert was already a heavy drinker.
Roy Howard, the United Press executive whom E.W. had selected to run the business side of the concern, had proved a brilliant choice. Before he died, E.W. had written:
When I abdicated control of the Scripps newspapers I did so with the express understanding that my successors might and should disregard every rule and precedent I had previously established, providing only that they should conform to three general principles:
- They should do no business except at a profit.
- They should violate none of the Ten Commandments
- They should ever serve the interest of the poor and working classes.
Howard had no problem with the first two principles, and the third was always open to interpretation. During the last presidential campaign before his death. E.W. backed progressive candidate Robert La Follete against Calvin Coolidge. In 1928, however, two years after his death, Robert Scripps and Roy Howard picked Republican candidate Herbert Hoover over Democrat Al Smith, drawing howls from those who had come to think of E.W. Scripps as one of their own. Four years later, when Roosevelt challenged Hoover in the midst of the Great Depression, Scripps backed Roosevelt. It was the last time the chain was ever to support a Democrat for the presidency.
In 1938 Robert Scripps died, at the age of only forty-three, aboard his yacht off the coast of Cabo San Lucas in Baja. Cause of death was determined to be a hemorrhage in the throat, a complication of liver problems due to alcoholism. He left five young children. For the next twelve years, Roy Howard would run Scripps Howard as trustee. After him, three of Robert's sons, Charles, Bob. and Ted, succeeded as co-trustees. First among equals is Charles, now seventy, who is chairman of the board of the parent organization, E.W. Scripps Company. Bob. who grew up at Miramar, now runs a farm in Texas. Ted, once an editor with the chain, died last year aboard a plane to Australia.
In 1968 the three trustees voted to sell what remained of Miramar to a developer for $4.2 million. “It made sense, it’s all we could do,” says Charles today. “The taxes were high, and our mother had moved to La Jolla. We had a fiduciary duty.” But the decision to sell the family homestead raised the ire of their sister, Nackey Loeb, who threatened to sue her brothers. “I was very opposed to it,” she says in a stern voice. “Mother was still living there. I wanted to keep her among familiar surroundings. I didn't know about the plans [to sell] until they were well under way. Besides, I thought it was rather stupid to get rid of it at those prices, especially since it was potentially the next step in the development of San Diego.”
Nackey’s wishes went unheeded, and the ranch was sold. The new owner promised to keep the house as a museum, but in 1972, the house was vandalized and looted of all its antiques and fixtures. Bulldozers took over in 1973, grinding to dust the last personal memento of E.W. Scripps and his fabled Miramar. Today a Vons supermarket occupies the location, and it’s impossible to guess what Edward Wyllis Scripps would make of the big orange Garfield dolls with the suction cup feet — big money-makers for Scripps Howard — on the rear windows of so many cars in the parking lot.
The future of Scripps Howard will soon be in the hands of the twenty-eight heirs of Robert Scripps. One of them is Bill Scripps, a son of Ted, grandson of Bob, great grandson of E.W. At age twenty-seven, he is single and last fall was looking for a job in journalism “anywhere in the San Diego area." He’s gone to college on and off and has worked as a bartender. A registered Republican, he’s voted for Ronald Reagan twice. About a year ago, he says, he began receiving a corporate newsletter from Scripps Howard, describing company activities. "They should have started that a long time ago,” he observes. "The problem was, they didn’t make the family aware of what they were doing until recently. Some great-grandchildren are almost forty." Like the rest of the heirs under the trust. Bill Scripps, who lives in Solana Beach, is optimistic that the Scripps dynasty will continue beyond the demise of the trust. “I’d like to get involved, to see it stay around. It’s history, a very successful empire. I want to see it continue. But it’s still kind of scary thinking about what might happen when we get hold of it.”