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Annenberg, Moses Louisfree

(11 February 1878–20 July 1942)
  • John Cooney

Annenberg, Moses Louis (11 February 1878–20 July 1942), publisher and race wire operator, called by contemporaries "Moe", publisher and race wire operator, called by contemporaries “Moe,” was born in Kalwichen, East Prussia, the son of Tobias Annenberg, a storekeeper, and Sarah Greenberg, who were Orthodox Jews. In 1882 Tobias Annenberg moved to the United States, opening a store in “the Patch,” a tough neighborhood and breeding ground for criminals in Chicago. He saved enough money to send for his wife and children in 1885.

Moe Annenberg had little formal education, picking up much of his knowledge from the streets in a city notorious for its brothels and gambling dens. In 1899 Annenberg was working as a bartender when he married twenty-year-old Sadie Cecelia Friedman, the daughter of a retail shoe salesman; they would have seven children, one of whom, Walter Hubert Annenberg, would become a powerful newspaper publisher, friend of Richard Nixon, and ambassador to the Court of St. James. The turning point in Annenberg’s life came when he followed his brother Max into the brutal newspaper circulation business. William Randolph Hearst’s Evening American was pushing its way into the city, and other newspapers fought back. At the heart of the battles were unscrupulous men who were not afraid to use their fists, set fire to rivals’ papers, or dump them in the river. The deal newspapers made with circulation men was simple: “Sell ’em or eat ’em.” By the time a truce was declared years later, at least twenty-seven newsdealers had been killed.

Moses advanced in the business, as did his brother Max, who later became head of circulation for the New York Daily News. He also looked for other opportunities. In 1907 he pawned $700 worth of his wife’s jewelry and borrowed another $1,500 to establish a news agency in Milwaukee. The agency was successful, and he invested in liquor stores, dry cleaners, and bowling alleys and built the largest parking lot in Milwaukee.

In 1917 Annenberg became publisher of the Wisconsin News, which was owned by Hearst columnist Arthur Brisbane. Brisbane brought Annenberg together with Hearst, who placed Annenberg in charge of his half-dozen magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar, and the circulation of his nineteen newspapers. Hearst also made him publisher of the New York Daily Mirror, which Annenberg accepted with relish because it put him into competition with his brother Max at the Daily News. (The brothers, who were constantly trying to show up one another, had become enemies. On Max’s fiftieth birthday, Moe sent him a funeral wreath.)

While looking out for Hearst’s interests, Annenberg still looked for his own opportunities. In 1922 he bought the Racing Form for $400,000 from Frank Bruenell, a former sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, who had started the paper in 1894. Under Annenberg, the Form became not one but seven papers, coming out in New York, Chicago, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Toronto. The paper grew by Annenberg’s relying on old tactics. Rivals were terrorized; the tires of their delivery trucks were slashed, and their plants were sabotaged and firebombed.

The Form also led Annenberg into a related business that made him even more vulnerable to the law than he had been in the past. This was the General News Bureau, a Chicago operation that used telephone lines to relay horse-racing information primarily to bookies. The “race wire,” as it was known, was the brainstorm of John Payne, a former telegraph operator. Payne placed a man at a racetrack who used a mirror to flash results to a telegrapher in a nearby building. The telegrapher relayed the information instantaneously to bookies. Payne was pushed out of the business by a Chicago hoodlum. Annenberg bought the majority interest in the company. His partners were Chicago gamblers and gangsters. They set about bribing police and politicians to keep the business going. Through threats, intimidation, and the smashing of rivals, the race wire went not just nationwide but spread across Canada, Mexico, and Cuba. In the underworld, Annenberg and his wire became known as “the Trust.”

Annenberg continued buying newspapers, including the Miami Tribune (1934) and the Philadelphia Inquirer (1936). The way he chose to run the Inquirer was as unwise as it was effective. Annenberg made himself a Republican kingmaker, using the newspaper to promote his candidates, demolish rivals, and attack the New Deal in Washington. He had his men elected to local and state offices, including governor, but he made enemies of prominent Democrats, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The federal government first tried to retaliate through the race wire. Since customers were bookies, the government asked AT&T to cut off service. AT&T refused. After all, the wire was its fifth largest customer. Then the government began building an income tax evasion case against Annenberg. In 1939 the U.S. attorney general presented his findings to a grand jury. Annenberg tried to negotiate his way out of the charges but failed; he even severed ties with the race wire, but that had no effect either. In April 1940 he went on trial; the presiding judge was James H. Wilkerson, who had sentenced Al Capone to prison in a similar income tax trial. Annenberg was given a four-year sentence and fined $9.5 million in penalties and interest. He had achieved the distinction of becoming the biggest tax cheat convicted in the United States.

Annenberg served his time at the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He had suffered migraines during the trial, and in prison his health deteriorated. He was paroled on 11 June 1942. Testing at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, revealed he had a brain tumor. He was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital in Rochester, where he died.

Bibliography

For additional information on Annenberg in the context of newspaper publishing, see Edwin Emery, The Press and America (1954); Emile Gauvreau, My Last Million Readers (1941); Paul G. Jeans, Tropical Disturbance: The Story of the Making of the Miami Tribune (1937); Thomas M. Nickel, Click: Innovation or Imitation (1976); Harold L. Ickes, America’s House of Lords (1939); George Seldes, Lords of the Press (1938); Nixon Smiley, Knights of the Fourth Estate (1974); and J. David Stern, Memoirs of a Maverick Publisher (1962). For information on Annenberg in the context of organized crime, see Wayne Andrews, Battle for Chicago (1946); Gordon L. Hosteter and Thomas Quinn Beesley, It’s a Racket (1929); Elmer L. Irey, The Tax Dodgers (1948); Hank Messick, Secret File (1969); George Murray, The Madhouse on Madison Street (1965); and Virgil W. Peterson, Barbarians in Our Midst (1952). Annenberg is featured in Oliner Carlson, Brisbane: A Candid Biography (1937); John Cooney, The Annenbergs: The Salvaging of a Tainted Dynasty (1982); and the unpublished diaries of Henry Morgenthau, Jr., books 94, 149, 154, 165, 169, 170, 177, 181, and 189, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N.Y.