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The San Diego Union-Tribune's David Copley and his mother Helen

A son by any other name

Helen and David Copley. “When he came back, I asked him, ‘What makes you think it’s your son?’ He had never seen him before. And John, who used to be overweight — he was very big — says, ‘He looks just like me.’ ” - Image by Christopher Canole
Helen and David Copley. “When he came back, I asked him, ‘What makes you think it’s your son?’ He had never seen him before. And John, who used to be overweight — he was very big — says, ‘He looks just like me.’ ”

For Margaret Helen Kinney Hunt, the two-lane highway from Cedar Rapids to the town of Anamosa, snaking its way through the verdant hill country of east Iowa, was both an end and a beginning. The route today is probably little different than it was in the fall of 1951 when she set out on the 18-mile journey. After leaving the city, it passes through sleepy farm towns named Hiawatha, Marion, and Springville, where dogs run along the streets, barking at travelers in the afternoon humidity and remarkably large hogs wallow in their troughs by the roadside.

Helen Copley. In an odd twist of fate, Helen married her boss, Jim Copley, and David Hunt became David Copley, who would grow up to be president of the Copley newspaper chain.

The highway enters Anamosa from the south and turns sharply east at the courthouse, which sits solemnly at the top of a long, grass-covered slope. Looming just behind are the antique stone walls of the Men’s Reformatory of Iowa, a state prison as quaint as the Tower of London. A discrete sign at the curb in front of the warden’s residence advises that cars should be locked when parked. Across the street is a quiet neighborhood of Victorian houses, each with a well-tended lawn and a white picket fence.

Helen Copley's home in Cedar Rapids. She met John Hunt at the Borden dairy company, where she was a stenographer and he a clerk.

Inside the courthouse, two gray-haired women sit side-by-side at their desks under a big ceiling fan and politely inquire how they may be of assistance. Upon request, one of them consults a dusty index and goes to the basement to retrieve a slim folder, sliding it gingerly across the old marble countertop. “In the District Court of Iowa, “In and For Jones County,” it reads.

Colonel Ira Copley purchased 24 newspapers, mostly small-town dailies in Illinois and California, including the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune from the estate of John Spreckels.

“Margaret Hunt vs. John Hunt.” The day was October 13, 1951; a marriage was being quietly dissolved. Only 20 days earlier, the Hunts had been hastily wed in Marengo, the seat of Iowa County, 30 miles on the opposite side of Cedar Rapids. On the day of their wedding, both signed a prenuptial settlement agreement, which seemed to anticipate an early divorce. It was a marriage of necessity. She was pregnant, and the child needed a name.

Michael, Jean, James, and Janice Copley, 1960

“Plaintiff is present in person and by her counsel. Defendant not present nor anyone for him,” says the court log. Margaret Hunt of Cedar Rapids was almost 29 when she stood alone before the judge in the dingy Anamosa courtroom. She had met John Hunt earlier that year at the Borden dairy company in Cedar Rapids, where she was a stenographer and he a clerk. It had been a fleeting, unadorned encounter, as was their decree of divorce: “It is ordered that plaintiff be and she is hereby awarded full care, custody, and control of the unborn child of the plaintiff and defendant.”

"Trust Lust," William Copley, 1990. Jim bought out his brother Bill for about $12 million. William and Jim never spoke again. Notes Bill today, “That’s how the cookie crumbles.”

The final document is entitled Stipulation of Settlement: “Margaret Hunt does hereby waive and release any interest that she might or could have in any portion of the estate of John Hunt... in return, John Hunt will pay to the plaintiff, Margaret Hunt $1000.” After the dissolution, Margaret, who went by her middle name, Helen, moved from Cedar Rapids to San Diego with her widowed mother. More than two decades later, when she was rich and powerful beyond dreams, Helen was asked about the father of her child. “I never talk about him,” she replied. “I don’t know where he is, and I don’t want to know.”

Helen Copley, Richard Nixon, James Copley, Pat Nixon. Helen and Jim hosted the candidate and his vice presidential nominee, Spiro Agnew.

After their arrival in San Diego, Helen and her mother bought a small house on 54th Street, near University Avenue, and Helen went to work as a secretary for the Union-Tribune Publishing Company. Her son, David Hunt, was born at Mercy Hospital on January 31, 1952. Many years later, in an odd twist of fate, Helen married her boss, Jim Copley, and David Hunt became David Copley, who would grow up to be president of the Copley newspaper chain, heir-apparent to a troubled dynasty.

Five hundred miles west of Anamosa, in a booth at a Denny’s restaurant just outside Omaha, Nebraska, Lee Hunt nervously chews a piece of ice. She is the third and present wife of John Hunt, who is undergoing a series of tests in a nearby hospital. He turned 65 this spring and has fallen ill, too sick to be interviewed, says Lee. “He’s always had this drinking problem. Even after he got diabetes about eight years ago, he wouldn’t give it up,” she says. “Then his heart problems started about three years ago. They say he has a spot on his liver, and he’s lost about 50 pounds in the last six months.” She wears a worried expression. “The only reason he finally quit drinking was that beer made him sick and he couldn’t hold it down anymore.”

Lee says David doesn’t know about John Hunt’s illness because, although they’ve met at least once, father and son never communicate. “Apparently David could care less,” observes Lee. “It’s strange in a way. You’d think that David would want to know about his father’s health problems, to know what he might be in for if he doesn’t take care of himself.” (Lee was prophetic. Two weeks after the interview, David Copley suffered a heart attack and entered Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.)

Fiercely protective of her husband, Lee seems mildly contemptuous when she speaks of David, whom she says she has never met. Shown a newspaper photo of David, now approaching 40, her expression softens. “He looks a lot like John, you know, when he had all the weight. He looks more like John than John’s other son, the one who was killed on the motorcycle. His name was John too. It happened two years ago, out in Tucson. I don’t know whether it was caused by alcohol or not. I know it happened early Sunday morning. I just assumed — I mean he did like his beer, you know. He had three little children, it was terrible. John has never mentioned it since. That’s how he copes.”

Lee and her husband began their relationship in the mid-’70s and, after a few ups and downs, finally married in 1980. Despite his battle with alcohol, Lee is proud of John. “He is a good man.” Near the end of World War II, he enlisted as a Marine. In the early 1950s, he joined the Air Force and became a pilot who flew support missions in Korea and, in the ’60s, Vietnam. After his dalliance with Helen, he married Eleanor, his second wife, and settled down to have four children. The couple was divorced in the early ’60s, says Lee.

When John retired from the Air Force in 1972, at the age of 45, he wound up in Southern California and abruptly decided to become a lawyer. “He got tired of doing nothing, so he went to law school at Western State University in Fullerton.” The couple, she remembers, wanted to “get out of the California rat race,” so they packed their modest belongings into the family car and returned to Independence, Iowa, John’s home town, about 40 miles up Interstate 380, due north of Cedar Rapids. The stately Independence courthouse became the center of John’s modest legal practice. He bought a little house in Winthrop, a farm town about seven miles away, and made it his office.

In the mid- ’70s, about the time John was starting up his law practice, his son David was graduating from tiny Menlo College in Atherton. He was soon employed by his mother’s giant newspaper company, said to be worth as much as $750 million. For a time, David was listed as publisher of the Borrego Sun, a small biweekly the company owned in conjunction with its interest in a desert resort. Later David became vice president of the Copley Press and was named president three years ago. David’s hasty rise up the employment ladder was ostensibly to prepare him to take over from his mother someday. But the publishing heir was more inspired by other diversions.

He liked good liquor, fast cars, designer clothes, ostentatious houses, electronic gadgets, gourmet food, fine art, and the international social circuit. But David could also be a source of embarrassment to the conservative Republican executives who actually ran the newspapers in their president’s stead. On one occasion, they killed a proposed Union story about a noted San Diego transvestite and political activist after the subject of the story threatened to write about David in a gay newspaper.

But the Copley papers were not so hesitant about reporting David’s life as a lover of luxury. A writer for the Tribune once described his bachelor pad in La Jolla. The rooms, she wrote, were “aglow with hot pinks, purples and greens.... Indirect and neon lighting, and sunlight from a skylight reflect off mirrors, brass, glass and stainless steel.” David, she noted, had a well-appointed bar, along with a VCR and more than 300 tapes in a lavishly decorated pool house he called “Carmen Veranda,” where he went to “leave everything else behind.” A “curving sofa,” the writer added, “opens into a bed for guests.” The article, describing each amenity in excruciating detail, went on for two pages.

David’s flamboyant, three-story townhouse on the ocean in Mission Beach was christened “Casa de Bananas,” according to a plaque next to the front door. The Tribune also disclosed that David had made use of a number of “family heirlooms” gleaned from his adoptive father Jim Copley’s estate in Aurora, Illinois. “We weeded through pieces in storage to see what might work best and what holes needed filling,” confided David’s interior designer.

A hand-lettered sign on the front door of John Hunt’s office in Winthrop, Iowa, lists his office hours. But it seems the old country lawyer hasn’t been there for a long time. The front yard is overgrown with weeds, and the rusting hulk of an old car he was planning to fix up for his wife Lee blocks the gravel driveway. The pungent smell of manure from the surrounding fields wafts by on a moist wind.

His old drinking buddies at one of the town’s two bars at the bottom of the hill say they haven’t seen him for a while. “He’s a good old boy, John Hunt is,” says a wizened farm hand, hoisting a mug of dark beer. “He used to come in here, sure he did. Here’s to John Hunt. He did my taxes.”

For Lee, the beer and the bars are the only thing she would change about her husband. “He has led a very upstanding life. It’s just that he never could stop drinking, no matter what. Even after his car wreck, which, thankfully, didn’t hurt anyone, everybody in that small town knew about it. You’d think he’d quit. I’ve been trying and trying for a long time now to get him to stop.” Told that John’s birth son David Copley has a reputation for throwing drinking parties and has been arrested twice for drunk driving, she shakes her head slowly. “I guess it may be true what they say, that it’s all in the genes.”

That reminds her of something else, she confides. “John isn’t the first one to make the first step to get in touch with his children. That’s just the way he is.” After David, his son by Helen, he fathered another son (now dead) and three daughters by Eleanor, his second wife. “The oldest teaches nursing, the middle one is a doctor, and the youngest works for an insurance company in Des Moines. They don’t know about David. Never heard of him. Don’t even know he exists,” she says matter-of-factly. “I don’t know why John never told them. It happened before they were bom, before he was married to Eleanor. That thing with Helen was just a brief affair. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. They only saw each other once or twice,” she says.

“He was already going with Eleanor when it happened, and he just had to go ahead and get married to Helen. That was the way things were in those days. He never, ever heard from her again. And then, 30 years later, that private detective called up out of the blue, asking about the divorce from Helen, about whether it was valid or not, or something like that. I guess there was a lot of money at stake, you know, for those other two Copley children. That’s how John finally got to meet David. He didn’t even know his name before then.”

"In December 1905, I bought my first newspaper and used that pretty vigorously to write ‘ex’ in front of the name of a United States senator who lived in my precinct,” Colonel Ira Clifton Copley once boasted. He had served with the Illinois National Guard, which put down the bloody Pullman Palace Car Company strike of 1894, and adopted the title of colonel for life. Copley made his fortune turning a small, financially troubled, family-owned gas works in Aurora, Illinois, into one of the biggest gas and electric utilities in the Midwest.

In 1910, with the resounding endorsement of the first newspaper he owned, the Aurora Beacon, he was elected to Congress as a Republican. He remained there until 1924, when he lost his seat in a landslide, which a biographer later said was caused by “wets” — voters who wanted to repeal Prohibition. Col. Ira Copley drank only in moderation and behind closed doors.

Two years after his defeat, bored with his life in tiny Aurora, he sold off his giant utility holding company and embarked on a newspaper-buying spree. In 1928 alone, he purchased 24 of them, mostly small-town dailies in Illinois and California. He personally negotiated the purchase of the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune from the estate of John Spreckels. Later he bought the San Diego Sun from the E.W. Scripps Company and merged it with the Tribune. In the teeth of the Great Depression, he successfully battled to hold on to most of his media empire, selling off or folding only the most marginal papers. Someday, he said, he wanted his sons to take over the chain.

In 1920, Ira Copley had adopted a four-year-old named Jimmie from an orphanage in New York City. Not long after, he adopted another young orphan, of different parents, named Billy. Ira had seen all three of his natural children die of childhood diseases 20 years earlier. Now, starting a new family at age 56, he was determined that his two adoptive sons, both in poor health from their days in dank New York orphanages, would grow up to be strong enough to continue his fledgling newspaper dynasty.

Under Ira’s tutelage, the boys were raised to be men’s men. They learned to ride horses, Western style. They were taught to sail, and they were tutored in the classics. Both were dispatched to Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts and then on to Yale, the Colonel’s own alma mater. When the war came, Bill fought in the rugged North Africa campaign. Jim held a Navy desk job in Washington, D.C. The boys turned out to be different in other ways as well. Bill wanted to run off to Paris after the war and become an artist. Jim had already worked in the circulation departments of various Copley papers in California and was determined to run his father’s business.

Near the end of the war, Ira took Jim aside to make a surprising disclosure. Jim had a blood brother named John Satterlee who was trying to track him down. Satterlee, chief inspector for an adding machine company in upstate New York, had contacted the orphanage where he had been left after their parents died. Their father, John Lodwell, a dancer on the vaudeville circuit, had been stricken by a heart attack in 1917, and shortly afterwards their mother Flora was taken by the flu epidemic of 1918. The orphanage had passed Satterlee’s letters along to Ira Copley, who finally decided to tell Jim about them. “It will not be a weakness on your part to look him up,” the Colonel advised his son. “You may have a chance to help him sometime.”

The two brothers finally met at 5 o’clock in the morning in June of 1945, on the concourse of Washington’s cavernous railroad station. “It was quite a morning,” remembers Satterlee’s widow Frances. “I know that my husband was so nervous, he about chewed his nails off. We came through the gates, and we put the bags down, and I finally spotted Jim in his Navy uniform, so thin and slender. And I said, ‘John, I believe that is your brother there.’”

During the reunion, says Frances, “Jim says, ‘John, I want you to tell me all you can remember about our real parents,’ because John was older, and so he tried to recall everything he could for Jim. And I just stood there crying. It was a very happy reunion.” Frances also remembers young Jim Copley making a solemn promise that morning. “’John, I want to help you,’ he says. ‘I’m in a position where I can help you, and I’m going to do all I can for you.’”

John Satterlee ultimately went to work for the Copley newspapers, moving to Springfield, Illinois, where he became director of the company’s newspaper education program, distributing copies of newspapers to be used in local school classrooms. Following 30 years of faithful service, he retired in 1979 and died last July at the age of 77, 17 years after the death of his younger brother Jim. “When Jim died, on October 6, 1973, John just couldn’t get over it,” says Frances. “It was a hard blow.”

Her husband, she recalls, became even more troubled when Jim Copley’s will was read. “Jim always said to my husband, ‘John, don’t worry about anything. If anything happens to me, you’ll be taken care of.’ But Jim left him only $50,000, that’s all. Towards the end, I guess, Jim was just too sick to know what was going on, that’s all I could think of. I don’t know what to make of it, to tell you the truth. A lot of people felt the same way. They said, whoever made the will, it wasn’t done like it should have been done, you know? Jim and John were blood brothers. They truly loved each other.”

By the fall of 1955, Jim Copley had begun to consolidate his hold over the Copley Press and was busy expanding its reach and using it to cultivate political influence, particularly with the country’s young vice president, Richard Nixon. Colonel Ira had died at age 83 in 1947. He left each of his adoptive sons, Jim and William, a 4/9 share of his total estate, including the newspapers, with the remaining ninth going to his widow Chloe, who had been Ira’s last wife.

At the time, William Copley was in Paris and already becoming famous in the art world by producing a series of trendy painting that one critic described as “most often cartoonish tableaux of naked ladies and bowler-hatted men cavorting in bordellos, saloons, and Paris cafes. [The paintings] radiate a cheerful exuberance in the presentation of themes more commonly spiced with the odor of decadence and excess.” One exhibit of his work in New York was entitled “Tomb of the Unknown Whore.” Noted a critic, “For him, the whore is not a devalued object, but a symbol of unbridled sexuality and freedom.” One of Copley’s most famous works is his own version of the American flag. The painting was described by a critic for the New York Times: “The stripes designate walls, a bosomy female behind a barred window substitutes for the stars, and, waiting for her are convicts in striped suits lined up in order of height.”

Still painting today, at age 72, in his Connecticut studio, William has been married and divorced five times and remembers his philosophy of life being changed forever by his Army duty. “When I came out of the war, I was no longer a Republican. The war opened my eyes to things I didn’t know about, like people being killed. Actually, I’m not really a Democrat. I’m what they call a bleeding-heart liberal.”

Before William left for Paris in the late 1940s, he ran a successful California gallery featuring avant-garde artists like the now legendary Man Ray, who was a personal friend. But his new colleagues in the West Coast art scene made fun of the right-wing political content of the Copley newspapers. “My friends would hand me a copy of the San Diego Union and ask me to eat it!”

Later, during his Paris sojourn, the artist contributed occasional op-ed pieces to the San Diego papers, describing his Bohemian life on the continent. But straight-laced Jim was not impressed with William’s dispatches, and he was particularly galled by conjecture among outsiders that his wayward brother might somehow seize editorial control of the papers and alter their conservative, pro-Nixon, Republican slant. Democratic congressman-to-be Lionel Van Deerlin, who during the 1950s was a columnist for a local magazine, predicted that William, who “long ago shook the San Diego Republican dust from his heels to live in Paris,” would eventually wreak havoc with the staid newspapers.

William, however, was interested in art, not newspapers, and he wanted cash. From his Paris studio, he dispatched his lawyers to a Chicago courtroom, where they filed suit to liquidate the Copley empire. After several years of quiet negotiations, the brothers announced that they had settled. Jim paid William about $12 million for his share of the company and bought out the heirs of Ira’s widow as well. It was 1957, and the deal, which valued the newspapers at about $26 million, finally gave Jim Copley the sole control and ownership he had sought for so many years. William and Jim never spoke again. Notes Bill today, “That’s how the cookie crumbles.”

Jim Copley’s biography was published in 1964. “It’s one of those vanity books,” observes brother Bill. “He had to justify himself.” Written by a sycophantic Copley executive, its 347 minutiae-filled pages chronicle everything from Copley’s childhood illnesses to the recipe of his favorite cocktail (a personal concoction called “Happy Daze”), but they shed little light on certain sensitive aspects of the publisher’s private life. Helen Hunt, who became his secretary during his final, tumultuous dispute with his brother, is only mentioned in passing: “The youngish man with hair that turned prematurely gray, a decade or so ago, touches a buzzer and calls to Helen Hunt. Tall, self-possessed, efficient, she brings in a particular book.”

Thirteen years after she first went to work as a stenographer at the San Diego Union-Tribune, Helen was married to James Copley in August of 1965. She was Catholic, and although he wasn’t, Jim made sure their vows were sanctioned by the Church. Until the wedding, the affair between Helen and her boss had remained a closely held company secret; Jim’s divorce from his first wife, Jean, an heir to the Ridder newspaper fortune, had become final that same month. Shortly after the wedding, the publisher adopted Helen’s 13-year-old son David, an overweight and introverted boy, who had never met his real father and who now found himself abruptly faced with the prospect of having to share his mother’s time and attention with her new husband.

Helen and David moved in with Jim at Foxhill, the publisher’s 12-acre La Jolla estate, and embarked on their new life. David was soon packed off to prep school in the East. By all accounts, the former stenographer from Iowa made a fine wife and showed well on the La Jolla social circuit. But Helen was not merely a social ornament. In the years before going to work for Borden in Cedar Rapids, she had traveled east to attend Hunter College in Manhattan. The experience of the big city hadn’t agreed with her, and she beat a hasty retreat to Iowa, but she retained a shrewd grasp of numbers.

After marrying Jim, she took a growing interest in the financial affairs of the publishing company, and, as her husband poured out the details of the day’s business to her over evening cocktails, she learned about each newspaper’s bottom line. For her it was to prove a valuable education. She and a small circle of intimates knew that Jim Copley was slowly dying of cancer.

In the meantime, the party continued. Many times each year, hundreds of guests would show up at Foxhill for specially catered dinners in the garden. In August 1968, after Richard Nixon’s nomination to the presidency, he flew to San Diego, his “lucky city,” where a joyous Helen and Jim hosted the candidate and his vice presidential nominee, Spiro Agnew. “It was,” said Herb Klein, then a Nixon staffer, between stints as a Copley editor, “probably the only small dinner party [Nixon and Agnew] ever attended jointly.” Nixon’s slim November victory was a glorious reward for all the years of editorials and stories in the Copley papers touting the California Republican. Jim Copley had reached a pinnacle of political influence far higher than that ever attained by his father. And Helen Copley, the former dairy company steno from Cedar Rapids, suddenly found herself on a first-name basis with the president of the United States.

In 1974, the final year of Watergate, a lawyer from San Diego slipped into the offices of the Journal-Register, the Copley-owned newspaper in Springfield, Illinois, on an important mission. Jim Copley had finally succumbed to a combination of brain and lung cancer a year earlier at the age of 57. He had left control of his publishing empire and the bulk of his fortune to his widow Helen, to whom he had been married eight years. Now trouble was brewing, and the lawyer needed to have a word with John Satterlee, Jim’s blood brother. “They called and said they wanted John to go see them immediately,” remembers Satterlee’s widow Frances. “They were very insistent, so we went down to the paper right away.”

Helen’s lawyer explained that a bothersome suit had been filed in San Diego. Michael and Janice Copley, the two adoptive children from Jim’s first marriage, were charging that Helen had looted the trust fund their father had set up for them and had otherwise schemed to consolidate her vise-like grip on the Copley Press by fraud. In a 1978 newspaper interview, Michael painted an ugly picture of Helen’s behavior toward him prior to his father’s death, claiming that she plotted to keep him from getting in to see the publisher as he lay dying at La Jolla’s Scripps Clinic. The son also alleged that almost from the beginning of her marriage to Jim in 1965, Helen had taken advantage of the publisher’s illness to cut him off from Michael and his sister.

“The lawyers wanted John to side with Helen, which he did,” recalls Frances Satterlee. “He had no choice. He was getting close to retirement from the Copley company, and our daughter is the head librarian for the Copley paper here. He thought maybe if he sided with Michael and Janice, the company could get rid of my husband and our daughter.” As she left the meeting with the lawyer, Mrs. Satterlee remembered Jim Copley’s long-ago promise to her husband. “If anything happened, he said my husband would stand to inherit half the company. It was in the first will he made out. I don’t really understand what changed his mind.” For their part, Janice and Michael never talked to the Satterlees again, says Mrs. Satterlee. Nor, for that matter, did Helen Copley.

A decade or so later, not long before John Satterlee died, he and Frances came out to San Diego from Springfield for a final visit. Frances, ever cheerful and friendly, decided to ring up Helen just to say hello. “Her secretary said she was out of the state, traveling somewhere,” recalls Mrs. Satterlee. “She said I could leave a message and Helen would get back to me just as soon as she could, but we never heard from her after that. Last year I heard Helen wasn’t feeling good, and that’s why she couldn’t come back to Springfield for my husband’s funeral.”

In January 1977, an unusual bill began a swift course through the Iowa legislature. It was intended to correct an odd quirk of state law that made it illegal to obtain an Iowa divorce in any county other than the one in which both parties had lived. “As I recall, this thing just sailed right through,” recalls Walter Conlon, an Iowa attorney who was then a freshman legislator and sponsor of the measure. “It’s possible that somebody was trying to lobby this thing through and told somebody in a position of power to get it taken care of. I may have been given a fast track on this thing without even knowing it had been fast-tracked. When you’re a freshman and you’ve been handed a sure thing, you don’t ask questions. But I swear to you, I never heard of Helen Copley.”

Whether by coincidence or not, the bill’s passage helped sustain a major victory for the publisher from San Diego. As their case against Helen dragged on, lawyers for Michael and Janice were desperate to seize any advantage. They had discovered that Helen’s divorce from John Hunt at the Anamosa courthouse had occurred in a county in which neither was a resident, and thus, under the old statute, it was illegal. Despite Conlon’s new law, the two children filed a brief with a California court seeking to invalidate the Hunt divorce. If Helen had never really divorced John Hunt in accordance with Iowa law at the time, the attorneys reasoned, then her marriage to Jim Copley was also void, and so the trust powers that gave her total control over the Copley newspapers would also be illegal.

In the end, though, the ploy failed. The best efforts of the attorneys for Michael and Janice could not convince the California court to accept their argument, especially after passage of the Conlon law. The children’s plans to contest Helen’s divorce from John Hunt died quietly.

Later, Michael and Janice Copley won a temporary courtroom victory, expelling Helen from her stewardship of their trust and forcing her to give back most of the Copley company stock that she had taken to pay off inheritance taxes and other debts. But an appeals court later overturned that verdict, restoring Helen’s powers as trustee even as it upheld the ruling requiring her to disgorge the misappropriated stock. When the tortuous legal battle finally drew to a close in 1982, Michael and Janice had to settle for lifetime annual cash payments from their trust fund. They would never be poor. But based on information in the public record, neither they nor their progeny would ever gain ownership or influence in the mighty Copley newspaper chain. Helen Copley had prevailed. At last she was alone at the top.

David Copley finally met John Hunt, his birth father, in the late ’70s. The reunion, as most of the other events in the painfully disjointed saga of the Copley lineage, was almost inadvertent, according to John’s wife Lee. A private investigator contacted John, wanting to know the details of his unusual marriage and divorce so many years before. It seemed there was a lot of money at stake, Lee remembers John saying, and some other children were challenging some kind of will. As a result, John sought out Helen and was told it was suddenly very important that he fly to La Jolla, where Helen lived, to talk to her.

“He went over to her house and met David,” Lee says in flat tone of voice. “When he came back, I asked him, ‘What makes you think it’s your son?’ He had never seen him before. And John, who used to be overweight — he was very big — says, ‘He looks just like me.’ ” It was probably the first and only time he’s ever seen David, according to Lee. “I don’t think he had any idea that Helen had married the man she worked for. I think that it was a surprise to him that she did so well. He had to brag about it a little.”

Helen Copley has not been active in public for many months now, giving rise to the usual round of speculation and rumors. (Attempts were made to contact Helen and David for this story; but despite assurances they would call back, by deadline neither had.) But whatever the explanation for Helen Copley’s recent low profile, the newspapers are suffering. Like many American dailies, circulation is flat and revenue is threatened. Readers, especially those under 40, have lost their loyalty and are not subscribing regularly. Morale lags following a bitter labor dispute, and many workers worry about losing their jobs. Copley executives have hired a former Harvard business school professor to tell them how to stem the decline. One idea is to turn the evening Tribune into a tarted-up morning tabloid with screaming headlines. Many inside and outside the paper are laughing at the idea.

In her prime as publisher, Helen backed Pete Wilson to the hilt and helped him become the only California mayor ever to step directly into the United States Senate. She dated now-disgraced financier Dick Silberman when he was aide to Governor Jerry Brown. She shared the credit for the demise of Roger Hedgecock and the election of Mayor Maureen O’Connor, his arch foe. She boasted that her son David, now 39, would burst from his shell and one day run the newspapers. Now her public voice has grown strangely silent. The only thing certain, it appears, is that she will face the future alone.

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Helen and David Copley. “When he came back, I asked him, ‘What makes you think it’s your son?’ He had never seen him before. And John, who used to be overweight — he was very big — says, ‘He looks just like me.’ ” - Image by Christopher Canole
Helen and David Copley. “When he came back, I asked him, ‘What makes you think it’s your son?’ He had never seen him before. And John, who used to be overweight — he was very big — says, ‘He looks just like me.’ ”

For Margaret Helen Kinney Hunt, the two-lane highway from Cedar Rapids to the town of Anamosa, snaking its way through the verdant hill country of east Iowa, was both an end and a beginning. The route today is probably little different than it was in the fall of 1951 when she set out on the 18-mile journey. After leaving the city, it passes through sleepy farm towns named Hiawatha, Marion, and Springville, where dogs run along the streets, barking at travelers in the afternoon humidity and remarkably large hogs wallow in their troughs by the roadside.

Helen Copley. In an odd twist of fate, Helen married her boss, Jim Copley, and David Hunt became David Copley, who would grow up to be president of the Copley newspaper chain.

The highway enters Anamosa from the south and turns sharply east at the courthouse, which sits solemnly at the top of a long, grass-covered slope. Looming just behind are the antique stone walls of the Men’s Reformatory of Iowa, a state prison as quaint as the Tower of London. A discrete sign at the curb in front of the warden’s residence advises that cars should be locked when parked. Across the street is a quiet neighborhood of Victorian houses, each with a well-tended lawn and a white picket fence.

Helen Copley's home in Cedar Rapids. She met John Hunt at the Borden dairy company, where she was a stenographer and he a clerk.

Inside the courthouse, two gray-haired women sit side-by-side at their desks under a big ceiling fan and politely inquire how they may be of assistance. Upon request, one of them consults a dusty index and goes to the basement to retrieve a slim folder, sliding it gingerly across the old marble countertop. “In the District Court of Iowa, “In and For Jones County,” it reads.

Colonel Ira Copley purchased 24 newspapers, mostly small-town dailies in Illinois and California, including the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune from the estate of John Spreckels.

“Margaret Hunt vs. John Hunt.” The day was October 13, 1951; a marriage was being quietly dissolved. Only 20 days earlier, the Hunts had been hastily wed in Marengo, the seat of Iowa County, 30 miles on the opposite side of Cedar Rapids. On the day of their wedding, both signed a prenuptial settlement agreement, which seemed to anticipate an early divorce. It was a marriage of necessity. She was pregnant, and the child needed a name.

Michael, Jean, James, and Janice Copley, 1960

“Plaintiff is present in person and by her counsel. Defendant not present nor anyone for him,” says the court log. Margaret Hunt of Cedar Rapids was almost 29 when she stood alone before the judge in the dingy Anamosa courtroom. She had met John Hunt earlier that year at the Borden dairy company in Cedar Rapids, where she was a stenographer and he a clerk. It had been a fleeting, unadorned encounter, as was their decree of divorce: “It is ordered that plaintiff be and she is hereby awarded full care, custody, and control of the unborn child of the plaintiff and defendant.”

"Trust Lust," William Copley, 1990. Jim bought out his brother Bill for about $12 million. William and Jim never spoke again. Notes Bill today, “That’s how the cookie crumbles.”

The final document is entitled Stipulation of Settlement: “Margaret Hunt does hereby waive and release any interest that she might or could have in any portion of the estate of John Hunt... in return, John Hunt will pay to the plaintiff, Margaret Hunt $1000.” After the dissolution, Margaret, who went by her middle name, Helen, moved from Cedar Rapids to San Diego with her widowed mother. More than two decades later, when she was rich and powerful beyond dreams, Helen was asked about the father of her child. “I never talk about him,” she replied. “I don’t know where he is, and I don’t want to know.”

Helen Copley, Richard Nixon, James Copley, Pat Nixon. Helen and Jim hosted the candidate and his vice presidential nominee, Spiro Agnew.

After their arrival in San Diego, Helen and her mother bought a small house on 54th Street, near University Avenue, and Helen went to work as a secretary for the Union-Tribune Publishing Company. Her son, David Hunt, was born at Mercy Hospital on January 31, 1952. Many years later, in an odd twist of fate, Helen married her boss, Jim Copley, and David Hunt became David Copley, who would grow up to be president of the Copley newspaper chain, heir-apparent to a troubled dynasty.

Five hundred miles west of Anamosa, in a booth at a Denny’s restaurant just outside Omaha, Nebraska, Lee Hunt nervously chews a piece of ice. She is the third and present wife of John Hunt, who is undergoing a series of tests in a nearby hospital. He turned 65 this spring and has fallen ill, too sick to be interviewed, says Lee. “He’s always had this drinking problem. Even after he got diabetes about eight years ago, he wouldn’t give it up,” she says. “Then his heart problems started about three years ago. They say he has a spot on his liver, and he’s lost about 50 pounds in the last six months.” She wears a worried expression. “The only reason he finally quit drinking was that beer made him sick and he couldn’t hold it down anymore.”

Lee says David doesn’t know about John Hunt’s illness because, although they’ve met at least once, father and son never communicate. “Apparently David could care less,” observes Lee. “It’s strange in a way. You’d think that David would want to know about his father’s health problems, to know what he might be in for if he doesn’t take care of himself.” (Lee was prophetic. Two weeks after the interview, David Copley suffered a heart attack and entered Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.)

Fiercely protective of her husband, Lee seems mildly contemptuous when she speaks of David, whom she says she has never met. Shown a newspaper photo of David, now approaching 40, her expression softens. “He looks a lot like John, you know, when he had all the weight. He looks more like John than John’s other son, the one who was killed on the motorcycle. His name was John too. It happened two years ago, out in Tucson. I don’t know whether it was caused by alcohol or not. I know it happened early Sunday morning. I just assumed — I mean he did like his beer, you know. He had three little children, it was terrible. John has never mentioned it since. That’s how he copes.”

Lee and her husband began their relationship in the mid-’70s and, after a few ups and downs, finally married in 1980. Despite his battle with alcohol, Lee is proud of John. “He is a good man.” Near the end of World War II, he enlisted as a Marine. In the early 1950s, he joined the Air Force and became a pilot who flew support missions in Korea and, in the ’60s, Vietnam. After his dalliance with Helen, he married Eleanor, his second wife, and settled down to have four children. The couple was divorced in the early ’60s, says Lee.

When John retired from the Air Force in 1972, at the age of 45, he wound up in Southern California and abruptly decided to become a lawyer. “He got tired of doing nothing, so he went to law school at Western State University in Fullerton.” The couple, she remembers, wanted to “get out of the California rat race,” so they packed their modest belongings into the family car and returned to Independence, Iowa, John’s home town, about 40 miles up Interstate 380, due north of Cedar Rapids. The stately Independence courthouse became the center of John’s modest legal practice. He bought a little house in Winthrop, a farm town about seven miles away, and made it his office.

In the mid- ’70s, about the time John was starting up his law practice, his son David was graduating from tiny Menlo College in Atherton. He was soon employed by his mother’s giant newspaper company, said to be worth as much as $750 million. For a time, David was listed as publisher of the Borrego Sun, a small biweekly the company owned in conjunction with its interest in a desert resort. Later David became vice president of the Copley Press and was named president three years ago. David’s hasty rise up the employment ladder was ostensibly to prepare him to take over from his mother someday. But the publishing heir was more inspired by other diversions.

He liked good liquor, fast cars, designer clothes, ostentatious houses, electronic gadgets, gourmet food, fine art, and the international social circuit. But David could also be a source of embarrassment to the conservative Republican executives who actually ran the newspapers in their president’s stead. On one occasion, they killed a proposed Union story about a noted San Diego transvestite and political activist after the subject of the story threatened to write about David in a gay newspaper.

But the Copley papers were not so hesitant about reporting David’s life as a lover of luxury. A writer for the Tribune once described his bachelor pad in La Jolla. The rooms, she wrote, were “aglow with hot pinks, purples and greens.... Indirect and neon lighting, and sunlight from a skylight reflect off mirrors, brass, glass and stainless steel.” David, she noted, had a well-appointed bar, along with a VCR and more than 300 tapes in a lavishly decorated pool house he called “Carmen Veranda,” where he went to “leave everything else behind.” A “curving sofa,” the writer added, “opens into a bed for guests.” The article, describing each amenity in excruciating detail, went on for two pages.

David’s flamboyant, three-story townhouse on the ocean in Mission Beach was christened “Casa de Bananas,” according to a plaque next to the front door. The Tribune also disclosed that David had made use of a number of “family heirlooms” gleaned from his adoptive father Jim Copley’s estate in Aurora, Illinois. “We weeded through pieces in storage to see what might work best and what holes needed filling,” confided David’s interior designer.

A hand-lettered sign on the front door of John Hunt’s office in Winthrop, Iowa, lists his office hours. But it seems the old country lawyer hasn’t been there for a long time. The front yard is overgrown with weeds, and the rusting hulk of an old car he was planning to fix up for his wife Lee blocks the gravel driveway. The pungent smell of manure from the surrounding fields wafts by on a moist wind.

His old drinking buddies at one of the town’s two bars at the bottom of the hill say they haven’t seen him for a while. “He’s a good old boy, John Hunt is,” says a wizened farm hand, hoisting a mug of dark beer. “He used to come in here, sure he did. Here’s to John Hunt. He did my taxes.”

For Lee, the beer and the bars are the only thing she would change about her husband. “He has led a very upstanding life. It’s just that he never could stop drinking, no matter what. Even after his car wreck, which, thankfully, didn’t hurt anyone, everybody in that small town knew about it. You’d think he’d quit. I’ve been trying and trying for a long time now to get him to stop.” Told that John’s birth son David Copley has a reputation for throwing drinking parties and has been arrested twice for drunk driving, she shakes her head slowly. “I guess it may be true what they say, that it’s all in the genes.”

That reminds her of something else, she confides. “John isn’t the first one to make the first step to get in touch with his children. That’s just the way he is.” After David, his son by Helen, he fathered another son (now dead) and three daughters by Eleanor, his second wife. “The oldest teaches nursing, the middle one is a doctor, and the youngest works for an insurance company in Des Moines. They don’t know about David. Never heard of him. Don’t even know he exists,” she says matter-of-factly. “I don’t know why John never told them. It happened before they were bom, before he was married to Eleanor. That thing with Helen was just a brief affair. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. They only saw each other once or twice,” she says.

“He was already going with Eleanor when it happened, and he just had to go ahead and get married to Helen. That was the way things were in those days. He never, ever heard from her again. And then, 30 years later, that private detective called up out of the blue, asking about the divorce from Helen, about whether it was valid or not, or something like that. I guess there was a lot of money at stake, you know, for those other two Copley children. That’s how John finally got to meet David. He didn’t even know his name before then.”

"In December 1905, I bought my first newspaper and used that pretty vigorously to write ‘ex’ in front of the name of a United States senator who lived in my precinct,” Colonel Ira Clifton Copley once boasted. He had served with the Illinois National Guard, which put down the bloody Pullman Palace Car Company strike of 1894, and adopted the title of colonel for life. Copley made his fortune turning a small, financially troubled, family-owned gas works in Aurora, Illinois, into one of the biggest gas and electric utilities in the Midwest.

In 1910, with the resounding endorsement of the first newspaper he owned, the Aurora Beacon, he was elected to Congress as a Republican. He remained there until 1924, when he lost his seat in a landslide, which a biographer later said was caused by “wets” — voters who wanted to repeal Prohibition. Col. Ira Copley drank only in moderation and behind closed doors.

Two years after his defeat, bored with his life in tiny Aurora, he sold off his giant utility holding company and embarked on a newspaper-buying spree. In 1928 alone, he purchased 24 of them, mostly small-town dailies in Illinois and California. He personally negotiated the purchase of the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune from the estate of John Spreckels. Later he bought the San Diego Sun from the E.W. Scripps Company and merged it with the Tribune. In the teeth of the Great Depression, he successfully battled to hold on to most of his media empire, selling off or folding only the most marginal papers. Someday, he said, he wanted his sons to take over the chain.

In 1920, Ira Copley had adopted a four-year-old named Jimmie from an orphanage in New York City. Not long after, he adopted another young orphan, of different parents, named Billy. Ira had seen all three of his natural children die of childhood diseases 20 years earlier. Now, starting a new family at age 56, he was determined that his two adoptive sons, both in poor health from their days in dank New York orphanages, would grow up to be strong enough to continue his fledgling newspaper dynasty.

Under Ira’s tutelage, the boys were raised to be men’s men. They learned to ride horses, Western style. They were taught to sail, and they were tutored in the classics. Both were dispatched to Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts and then on to Yale, the Colonel’s own alma mater. When the war came, Bill fought in the rugged North Africa campaign. Jim held a Navy desk job in Washington, D.C. The boys turned out to be different in other ways as well. Bill wanted to run off to Paris after the war and become an artist. Jim had already worked in the circulation departments of various Copley papers in California and was determined to run his father’s business.

Near the end of the war, Ira took Jim aside to make a surprising disclosure. Jim had a blood brother named John Satterlee who was trying to track him down. Satterlee, chief inspector for an adding machine company in upstate New York, had contacted the orphanage where he had been left after their parents died. Their father, John Lodwell, a dancer on the vaudeville circuit, had been stricken by a heart attack in 1917, and shortly afterwards their mother Flora was taken by the flu epidemic of 1918. The orphanage had passed Satterlee’s letters along to Ira Copley, who finally decided to tell Jim about them. “It will not be a weakness on your part to look him up,” the Colonel advised his son. “You may have a chance to help him sometime.”

The two brothers finally met at 5 o’clock in the morning in June of 1945, on the concourse of Washington’s cavernous railroad station. “It was quite a morning,” remembers Satterlee’s widow Frances. “I know that my husband was so nervous, he about chewed his nails off. We came through the gates, and we put the bags down, and I finally spotted Jim in his Navy uniform, so thin and slender. And I said, ‘John, I believe that is your brother there.’”

During the reunion, says Frances, “Jim says, ‘John, I want you to tell me all you can remember about our real parents,’ because John was older, and so he tried to recall everything he could for Jim. And I just stood there crying. It was a very happy reunion.” Frances also remembers young Jim Copley making a solemn promise that morning. “’John, I want to help you,’ he says. ‘I’m in a position where I can help you, and I’m going to do all I can for you.’”

John Satterlee ultimately went to work for the Copley newspapers, moving to Springfield, Illinois, where he became director of the company’s newspaper education program, distributing copies of newspapers to be used in local school classrooms. Following 30 years of faithful service, he retired in 1979 and died last July at the age of 77, 17 years after the death of his younger brother Jim. “When Jim died, on October 6, 1973, John just couldn’t get over it,” says Frances. “It was a hard blow.”

Her husband, she recalls, became even more troubled when Jim Copley’s will was read. “Jim always said to my husband, ‘John, don’t worry about anything. If anything happens to me, you’ll be taken care of.’ But Jim left him only $50,000, that’s all. Towards the end, I guess, Jim was just too sick to know what was going on, that’s all I could think of. I don’t know what to make of it, to tell you the truth. A lot of people felt the same way. They said, whoever made the will, it wasn’t done like it should have been done, you know? Jim and John were blood brothers. They truly loved each other.”

By the fall of 1955, Jim Copley had begun to consolidate his hold over the Copley Press and was busy expanding its reach and using it to cultivate political influence, particularly with the country’s young vice president, Richard Nixon. Colonel Ira had died at age 83 in 1947. He left each of his adoptive sons, Jim and William, a 4/9 share of his total estate, including the newspapers, with the remaining ninth going to his widow Chloe, who had been Ira’s last wife.

At the time, William Copley was in Paris and already becoming famous in the art world by producing a series of trendy painting that one critic described as “most often cartoonish tableaux of naked ladies and bowler-hatted men cavorting in bordellos, saloons, and Paris cafes. [The paintings] radiate a cheerful exuberance in the presentation of themes more commonly spiced with the odor of decadence and excess.” One exhibit of his work in New York was entitled “Tomb of the Unknown Whore.” Noted a critic, “For him, the whore is not a devalued object, but a symbol of unbridled sexuality and freedom.” One of Copley’s most famous works is his own version of the American flag. The painting was described by a critic for the New York Times: “The stripes designate walls, a bosomy female behind a barred window substitutes for the stars, and, waiting for her are convicts in striped suits lined up in order of height.”

Still painting today, at age 72, in his Connecticut studio, William has been married and divorced five times and remembers his philosophy of life being changed forever by his Army duty. “When I came out of the war, I was no longer a Republican. The war opened my eyes to things I didn’t know about, like people being killed. Actually, I’m not really a Democrat. I’m what they call a bleeding-heart liberal.”

Before William left for Paris in the late 1940s, he ran a successful California gallery featuring avant-garde artists like the now legendary Man Ray, who was a personal friend. But his new colleagues in the West Coast art scene made fun of the right-wing political content of the Copley newspapers. “My friends would hand me a copy of the San Diego Union and ask me to eat it!”

Later, during his Paris sojourn, the artist contributed occasional op-ed pieces to the San Diego papers, describing his Bohemian life on the continent. But straight-laced Jim was not impressed with William’s dispatches, and he was particularly galled by conjecture among outsiders that his wayward brother might somehow seize editorial control of the papers and alter their conservative, pro-Nixon, Republican slant. Democratic congressman-to-be Lionel Van Deerlin, who during the 1950s was a columnist for a local magazine, predicted that William, who “long ago shook the San Diego Republican dust from his heels to live in Paris,” would eventually wreak havoc with the staid newspapers.

William, however, was interested in art, not newspapers, and he wanted cash. From his Paris studio, he dispatched his lawyers to a Chicago courtroom, where they filed suit to liquidate the Copley empire. After several years of quiet negotiations, the brothers announced that they had settled. Jim paid William about $12 million for his share of the company and bought out the heirs of Ira’s widow as well. It was 1957, and the deal, which valued the newspapers at about $26 million, finally gave Jim Copley the sole control and ownership he had sought for so many years. William and Jim never spoke again. Notes Bill today, “That’s how the cookie crumbles.”

Jim Copley’s biography was published in 1964. “It’s one of those vanity books,” observes brother Bill. “He had to justify himself.” Written by a sycophantic Copley executive, its 347 minutiae-filled pages chronicle everything from Copley’s childhood illnesses to the recipe of his favorite cocktail (a personal concoction called “Happy Daze”), but they shed little light on certain sensitive aspects of the publisher’s private life. Helen Hunt, who became his secretary during his final, tumultuous dispute with his brother, is only mentioned in passing: “The youngish man with hair that turned prematurely gray, a decade or so ago, touches a buzzer and calls to Helen Hunt. Tall, self-possessed, efficient, she brings in a particular book.”

Thirteen years after she first went to work as a stenographer at the San Diego Union-Tribune, Helen was married to James Copley in August of 1965. She was Catholic, and although he wasn’t, Jim made sure their vows were sanctioned by the Church. Until the wedding, the affair between Helen and her boss had remained a closely held company secret; Jim’s divorce from his first wife, Jean, an heir to the Ridder newspaper fortune, had become final that same month. Shortly after the wedding, the publisher adopted Helen’s 13-year-old son David, an overweight and introverted boy, who had never met his real father and who now found himself abruptly faced with the prospect of having to share his mother’s time and attention with her new husband.

Helen and David moved in with Jim at Foxhill, the publisher’s 12-acre La Jolla estate, and embarked on their new life. David was soon packed off to prep school in the East. By all accounts, the former stenographer from Iowa made a fine wife and showed well on the La Jolla social circuit. But Helen was not merely a social ornament. In the years before going to work for Borden in Cedar Rapids, she had traveled east to attend Hunter College in Manhattan. The experience of the big city hadn’t agreed with her, and she beat a hasty retreat to Iowa, but she retained a shrewd grasp of numbers.

After marrying Jim, she took a growing interest in the financial affairs of the publishing company, and, as her husband poured out the details of the day’s business to her over evening cocktails, she learned about each newspaper’s bottom line. For her it was to prove a valuable education. She and a small circle of intimates knew that Jim Copley was slowly dying of cancer.

In the meantime, the party continued. Many times each year, hundreds of guests would show up at Foxhill for specially catered dinners in the garden. In August 1968, after Richard Nixon’s nomination to the presidency, he flew to San Diego, his “lucky city,” where a joyous Helen and Jim hosted the candidate and his vice presidential nominee, Spiro Agnew. “It was,” said Herb Klein, then a Nixon staffer, between stints as a Copley editor, “probably the only small dinner party [Nixon and Agnew] ever attended jointly.” Nixon’s slim November victory was a glorious reward for all the years of editorials and stories in the Copley papers touting the California Republican. Jim Copley had reached a pinnacle of political influence far higher than that ever attained by his father. And Helen Copley, the former dairy company steno from Cedar Rapids, suddenly found herself on a first-name basis with the president of the United States.

In 1974, the final year of Watergate, a lawyer from San Diego slipped into the offices of the Journal-Register, the Copley-owned newspaper in Springfield, Illinois, on an important mission. Jim Copley had finally succumbed to a combination of brain and lung cancer a year earlier at the age of 57. He had left control of his publishing empire and the bulk of his fortune to his widow Helen, to whom he had been married eight years. Now trouble was brewing, and the lawyer needed to have a word with John Satterlee, Jim’s blood brother. “They called and said they wanted John to go see them immediately,” remembers Satterlee’s widow Frances. “They were very insistent, so we went down to the paper right away.”

Helen’s lawyer explained that a bothersome suit had been filed in San Diego. Michael and Janice Copley, the two adoptive children from Jim’s first marriage, were charging that Helen had looted the trust fund their father had set up for them and had otherwise schemed to consolidate her vise-like grip on the Copley Press by fraud. In a 1978 newspaper interview, Michael painted an ugly picture of Helen’s behavior toward him prior to his father’s death, claiming that she plotted to keep him from getting in to see the publisher as he lay dying at La Jolla’s Scripps Clinic. The son also alleged that almost from the beginning of her marriage to Jim in 1965, Helen had taken advantage of the publisher’s illness to cut him off from Michael and his sister.

“The lawyers wanted John to side with Helen, which he did,” recalls Frances Satterlee. “He had no choice. He was getting close to retirement from the Copley company, and our daughter is the head librarian for the Copley paper here. He thought maybe if he sided with Michael and Janice, the company could get rid of my husband and our daughter.” As she left the meeting with the lawyer, Mrs. Satterlee remembered Jim Copley’s long-ago promise to her husband. “If anything happened, he said my husband would stand to inherit half the company. It was in the first will he made out. I don’t really understand what changed his mind.” For their part, Janice and Michael never talked to the Satterlees again, says Mrs. Satterlee. Nor, for that matter, did Helen Copley.

A decade or so later, not long before John Satterlee died, he and Frances came out to San Diego from Springfield for a final visit. Frances, ever cheerful and friendly, decided to ring up Helen just to say hello. “Her secretary said she was out of the state, traveling somewhere,” recalls Mrs. Satterlee. “She said I could leave a message and Helen would get back to me just as soon as she could, but we never heard from her after that. Last year I heard Helen wasn’t feeling good, and that’s why she couldn’t come back to Springfield for my husband’s funeral.”

In January 1977, an unusual bill began a swift course through the Iowa legislature. It was intended to correct an odd quirk of state law that made it illegal to obtain an Iowa divorce in any county other than the one in which both parties had lived. “As I recall, this thing just sailed right through,” recalls Walter Conlon, an Iowa attorney who was then a freshman legislator and sponsor of the measure. “It’s possible that somebody was trying to lobby this thing through and told somebody in a position of power to get it taken care of. I may have been given a fast track on this thing without even knowing it had been fast-tracked. When you’re a freshman and you’ve been handed a sure thing, you don’t ask questions. But I swear to you, I never heard of Helen Copley.”

Whether by coincidence or not, the bill’s passage helped sustain a major victory for the publisher from San Diego. As their case against Helen dragged on, lawyers for Michael and Janice were desperate to seize any advantage. They had discovered that Helen’s divorce from John Hunt at the Anamosa courthouse had occurred in a county in which neither was a resident, and thus, under the old statute, it was illegal. Despite Conlon’s new law, the two children filed a brief with a California court seeking to invalidate the Hunt divorce. If Helen had never really divorced John Hunt in accordance with Iowa law at the time, the attorneys reasoned, then her marriage to Jim Copley was also void, and so the trust powers that gave her total control over the Copley newspapers would also be illegal.

In the end, though, the ploy failed. The best efforts of the attorneys for Michael and Janice could not convince the California court to accept their argument, especially after passage of the Conlon law. The children’s plans to contest Helen’s divorce from John Hunt died quietly.

Later, Michael and Janice Copley won a temporary courtroom victory, expelling Helen from her stewardship of their trust and forcing her to give back most of the Copley company stock that she had taken to pay off inheritance taxes and other debts. But an appeals court later overturned that verdict, restoring Helen’s powers as trustee even as it upheld the ruling requiring her to disgorge the misappropriated stock. When the tortuous legal battle finally drew to a close in 1982, Michael and Janice had to settle for lifetime annual cash payments from their trust fund. They would never be poor. But based on information in the public record, neither they nor their progeny would ever gain ownership or influence in the mighty Copley newspaper chain. Helen Copley had prevailed. At last she was alone at the top.

David Copley finally met John Hunt, his birth father, in the late ’70s. The reunion, as most of the other events in the painfully disjointed saga of the Copley lineage, was almost inadvertent, according to John’s wife Lee. A private investigator contacted John, wanting to know the details of his unusual marriage and divorce so many years before. It seemed there was a lot of money at stake, Lee remembers John saying, and some other children were challenging some kind of will. As a result, John sought out Helen and was told it was suddenly very important that he fly to La Jolla, where Helen lived, to talk to her.

“He went over to her house and met David,” Lee says in flat tone of voice. “When he came back, I asked him, ‘What makes you think it’s your son?’ He had never seen him before. And John, who used to be overweight — he was very big — says, ‘He looks just like me.’ ” It was probably the first and only time he’s ever seen David, according to Lee. “I don’t think he had any idea that Helen had married the man she worked for. I think that it was a surprise to him that she did so well. He had to brag about it a little.”

Helen Copley has not been active in public for many months now, giving rise to the usual round of speculation and rumors. (Attempts were made to contact Helen and David for this story; but despite assurances they would call back, by deadline neither had.) But whatever the explanation for Helen Copley’s recent low profile, the newspapers are suffering. Like many American dailies, circulation is flat and revenue is threatened. Readers, especially those under 40, have lost their loyalty and are not subscribing regularly. Morale lags following a bitter labor dispute, and many workers worry about losing their jobs. Copley executives have hired a former Harvard business school professor to tell them how to stem the decline. One idea is to turn the evening Tribune into a tarted-up morning tabloid with screaming headlines. Many inside and outside the paper are laughing at the idea.

In her prime as publisher, Helen backed Pete Wilson to the hilt and helped him become the only California mayor ever to step directly into the United States Senate. She dated now-disgraced financier Dick Silberman when he was aide to Governor Jerry Brown. She shared the credit for the demise of Roger Hedgecock and the election of Mayor Maureen O’Connor, his arch foe. She boasted that her son David, now 39, would burst from his shell and one day run the newspapers. Now her public voice has grown strangely silent. The only thing certain, it appears, is that she will face the future alone.

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