The Arthurian Legends: A Tale Of The Times


The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times

By Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones

Little, Brown 870pp $29.95

The front page of The New York Times proclaims that it offers "All the news that's fit to print." But the Sulzberger family, who control The Times, have been guarded about their own affairs. That, and its position as the world's most influential newspaper, has spawned a mini-industry of Times books. They include memoirs by Turner Catledge (1971) and John Corry (1993); works by former staffer Gay Talese (1969) and outsider Edwin Diamond (1993); and a commissioned history by Meyer Berger (1951).

But The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times should stand as the definitive story of The Times for years to come. Susan E. Tifft, a former associate editor at Time, and former Times reporter Alex S. Jones have produced a remarkable chronicle--a sprawling panorama spanning five generations. It encompasses countless power struggles, broken marriages, embarrassing infidelities, and other assorted dirty laundry. It also tells a story of power and endurance. At 870 pages, seven years in the making, The Trust is both exhaustive and, at times, exhausting.

Tifft and her husband Jones approached Arthur Ochs "Punch" Sulzberger, then chairman and CEO of The New York Times Co., in 1992. At first, he declined but eventually relented and let it be known that he would cooperate. Virtually all family members and Times Co. employees followed his example.

Most of the authors of other Times books had liberal access to Times people and other family materials. But Tifft and Jones's entree certainly surpassed that of earlier books on the subject. The pair secured voluminous letters, memorandums, boardroom minutes, and other private materials. They conducted some 550 interviews. "We got an unobstructed view," Jones says. As with the Talese and Diamond books, the Sulzberger family was not given an advance review of the manuscript.

For what seems close to an authorized project, The Trust often portrays the players in embarrassing and revealing circumstances. On one day in 1996, Lance Primis, president of The Times Co., was preparing to meet with Punch, expecting to be named CEO. "It's all coming together," he told a colleague. But he had drastically misjudged his situation. At the meeting, Punch fired Primis. "It's like being at your own wake, awake," he said later. The book relates longtime Executive Editor Abe Rosenthal's "crazy period," as it was called internally. Punch was pushing Abe to retire, but Abe resisted, sometimes "burst[ing] into tears for no apparent reason." Said Punch: "He didn't have a nervous breakdown, but he was close to it. He would get so distraught that he couldn't operate well. It was a hell of a problem."

Although Punch eventually emerged as a strong and effective executive, early on he was derided by the family and others, often described as "hapless" and, says the book, in "hopelessly over his head." He was also capable of vindictiveness. As this book reveals, after I wrote a 1972 story about The Times in New York magazine that Punch regarded as "a real hatchet job," I was blacklisted from writing for the paper.

In some ways, The Trust reads like a lurid potboiler. Sample: "Arthur's vision of his daughter as unattractive and Iphigene's distaste for sex blinded them to the sincere and crackling electric passion Ruth [Sulzberger] and Ben [Hale Golden] shared."

The authors, though, clearly intend The Trust to be much more than an assemblage of spicy anecdotes. They are aiming for History, in the league of Ron Chernow's Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and Jean Strouse's Morgan: American Financier. The family story is certainly worthy of that weight. The Sulzbergers are more than a family--they're a monarchy. The official family tree, appropriately, includes five Arthurs. The book accurately terms the family "arguably the most powerful blood-related dynasty in twentieth-century America."

It started with Julius Ochs, born in 1826 in Bavaria. In 1896, one of his sons, Adolph, bought the then struggling paper, The New York Times. Adolph's only daughter Iphigene, who reigned as family matriarch and "moral authority" until her death in 1990 at the age of 98, married Arthur Hays Sulzberger in 1917. He then joined The Times, eventually becoming publisher and chairman. The Sulzbergers have dominated the family ever since. As Arthur Hays Sulzberger's only son, Punch took control. Punch's only son Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., 48, became publisher in 1992 and chairman in 1997.

The Times Co. is one of the most unusual major business establishments in the country, a murky potpourri of family loyalties, messianic missions, divine rights, shareholder responsibilities, and business traditions, roughly in that order. That mix, though, has produced an abiding passion for high-quality newspaper journalism at a time when the newspaper industry is cutting budgets, dumbing down news, and all but obliterating the wall between editorial and advertising. Among the big metropolitan dailies, few besides The Times and The Washington Post, also family-owned, have steadfastly resisted the trend.

One reason: a trust set up by the family when Adolf died in 1935. It controlled Times Co. stock until Iphigene died. But in 1986, the Sulzberger family unanimously signed an extraordinary pact enabling the family to control The Times for another century or so. In doing so, the family could forfeit potential capital gains of billions of dollars.

But there is a dark side to The Times. Until very recently, the company was rife with nepotism. Numerous family members, many only marginally qualified, were given senior positions. An astonishing number of family members have suffered learning disabilities, nervous breakdowns, depression, and other ills. "[Depression] is in the family," Iphigene once said. Yet by some alchemy, the family achieved, say the authors, "a position of influence they could never have achieved as individuals."

The Trust's authors masterfully weave the myriad plots, subplots, and digressions into a coherent narrative. And they display an acute observation of personality and motivation.

But the book lacks some of the gripping narrative sweep achieved by Talese's epic The Kingdom and the Power. This is unfortunate because the The Trust doesn't generate much suspense. The authors' last book, The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty, teemed with drama as it described a family that destroyed itself. But the Sulzbergers, for their faults, have hung together. Once they took power, the Arthurian successions, to a degree, had a sense of inevitability.

To deal with the problem, Tifft and Jones structure much of the book as an extensive set of horse races. Endless pages are spent handicapping countless candidates for various positions in an apparent effort to pump up the action.

Today, The Times is flourishing, along with most of the major newspapers. But its story now holds plenty of suspense. The authors' depiction of Arthur Jr.'s capabilities seems somewhat mixed. Earlier, one associate said Arthur Jr. needed to "go back in the oven and bake a little longer." But he could well grow, as his father did. What's more, Arthur Jr. and the newspaper face vexing problems: The Internet could undermine all news organizations. Advertising pressures will intensify. And control and family harmony may not suffice to preserve the "trust." The book quotes one editor: "Deep in Arthur's soul, he believes that if he blows this, he will burn in hell."

A lot is at stake. At the end of The Trust, Tifft and Jones aptly quote Talese's abiding 30-year-old hope: "Where can people [go] who have values and a sense of right and wrong, of standards. . . I think today, the Sulzberger family and The New York Times [are] our only hope."

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