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date: 21 September 2019

Swope, Herbert Bayardfree

(05 January 1882–20 June 1958)
  • Andrew T. Crosland

Swope, Herbert Bayard (05 January 1882–20 June 1958), journalist and public relations consultant, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the son of Isaac Swope, a watchcase manufacturer, and Ida Cohn. He graduated from Central High School in St. Louis in 1898 and briefly attended lectures at the University of Berlin the following year. His father’s death in 1899 made it necessary for Swope to work.

Attracted to journalism, Swope became a political reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1899. After a brief stint with the Chicago Inter-Ocean in 1901, he was hired by the New York Herald. He remained there until 1907—except to tour as press agent with a theater company in 1903 and to recover from tuberculosis in 1905. Unemployed for the next two years, Swope found work as a reporter for the Pulitzer-owned New York World in 1909.

In 1911 Swope covered his first major news story, the Rosenthal-Rose-Becker scandal. Charles Becker, a corrupt police lieutenant, first befriended and then harassed a criminal, Herman Rosenthal. When Rosenthal threatened to reciprocate by making revelations about police corruption, Becker hired Jack Rose to arrange his enemy’s murder. Within hours of Rosenthal’s death, the World printed Swope’s account of the killing and Rosenthal’s accusations. Swope followed this coup by obtaining and printing the first copy of Rose’s confession. This story was central in establishing Swope’s reputation as a self-assured, enterprising reporter. He also was recognized for reporting a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company that resulted in more than 150 deaths in 1911 and for his account of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. That same year he married Margaret Honeyman Powell; they had two children.

Swopes’s reputation grew, and he was appointed city editor of the World in 1915. Distracted from managing local news by the war in Europe, Swope was designated special staff observer by the World and assigned to Germany. He summarized his impressions in a series of fourteen nationally syndicated installments, which was reprinted as Inside the German Empire shortly before the United States entered World War I in 1917. That same year, Swope’s efforts were rewarded with the first Pulitzer Prize for reporting.

Because of his journalistic work and his partisan efforts to promote Woodrow Wilson’s reelection, Swope had access to the highest circles of national political power. In 1918 he left his daily duties at the World to accept a position as assistant to Bernard Baruch on the War Industries Board, which controlled the national economy. The two men formed a bond of mutual support that lasted until Swope’s death.

At the war’s end Swope was part of a team from the World sent to Europe to cover the Peace Conference. He was elected head of the U.S. Press Delegation to the Peace Conference and used his considerable political influence to improve press access to information. The reporter obtained an advance copy of the League of Nations covenant, which the World was the first to print.

In 1920 Swope became executive editor of the World, and the paper reflected the flamboyance of its chief as it engaged in crusades and investigations. Swope’s most influential change was his creation of the “Op. Ed.” page. As he explained it, “Nothing is more interesting than opinion when opinion is interesting, so I devised a method of cleaning off the page opposite the editorial, which became the most important in America” (quoted in Lewis, p. 83). Contributors included Heywood Broun, Franklin P. Adams, Laurence Stallings, Alexander Woollcott, George Kaufman, Marc Connelly, E. B. White, Edna Ferber, Ring Lardner, John O’Hara, and Dorothy Parker.

Using the World to launch an intense campaign, Swope brought the 1924 Democratic party convention to New York City. He also was awarded an honorary degree by Hobart College that year, and in 1926 he received another from Colgate University. Despite these personal successes, Swope grew dissatisfied with Herbert Pulitzer’s expanding role in the management of the World. At the end of 1928 Swope resigned from the newspaper and did not work as a journalist again.

A multimillionaire from his stock trading, Swope lost heavily in the market crash of 1929 but avoided financial ruin and maintained his extravagant style of living. In 1929 he joined the board of directors of Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO), the movie company. He made a serious but unsuccessful attempt to acquire the World when the Pulitzers sold it in 1931. From 1931 to 1937 Swope held his only elected office, that of trustee for the village of Sands Point, New York.

For the rest of his life Swope was known primarily as a social celebrity, though he had significant political appointments and was an important public relations consultant. He was named to the New York Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the New York Executive Council for the National Recovery Act, and the New York Park Commission. Franklin Roosevelt sent Swope to help troubleshoot at the International Monetary and Economic Conference in London in 1933. Swope was made chairman of the New York Racing Commission in 1934 and in 1942 was part-time civilian consultant to the secretary of war. Baruch appointed Swope his assistant on the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission in 1946; Swope may have originated the term “cold war” in a speech he wrote for Baruch that year. In 1947 General Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded him the Medal for Merit.

As a public relations consultant, Swope worked for Schenley Industries, Alcoa, Standard Oil, 20th Century–Fox, RCA, NBC, CBS, the Roosevelt and Yonkers raceways, and for textile magnate Israel Rogosin. He donated his talents to such organizations as Overseas News Agency, Freedom House, and the Turf Committee of America. Swope died in New York City.

Extroverted, gregarious, self-assured, egocentric, generous, and chronically late, Swope was the prototype of the brash reporter. Stamping his personality on the World, he was a forceful and innovative editor. Swope knew many important people and used his extensive connections as a public relations man. David Sarnoff—Swope’s employer as head of RCA and NBC—said, “Swope had enough initiative and enough brass so that if you wanted to meet God, he’d arrange it somehow” (quoted in Kahn, p. 26).

Bibliography

A collection of Swope’s papers is at Boston University. Documents relating to him also can be found at the Library of Congress; the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y.; the University of Pennsylvania; and Columbia, Princeton, and Yale Universities. Biographies of Swope include E. J. Kahn, Jr., The World of Swope (1965), and Alfred Allan Lewis, Man of the World, Herbert Bayard Swope: A Charmed Life of Pulitzer Prizes, Poker, and Politics (1972); both contain bibliographies. Erika J. Fischer and Heinz D. Fischer, American Reporter at the International Political Stage: Herbert Bayard Swope and His Pulitzer Prize–Winning Articles from Germany in 1916 (1982), examines his life and writings as they relate to Germany. An obituary is in the New York Times, 21 June 1958.