The Manhattan publisher stood aboard his 268-foot (81.7-meter) yacht, letting the salt air of the Mediterranean wash over him as he once again lost his temper, ranting almost uncontrollably about the state of “fake news” back at home in America.
“We are a democracy,” he lectured his secretary, who dutifully listened as he yet again spun himself into a lather, “and there is only one way to get a democracy on its feet ... that is by keeping the public informed about what is going on. There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy. Get these things out in the open, describe them, attack them, ridicule them in the press, and sooner or later public opinion will sweep them away.”
He was on a roll, lambasting every media entity that, he said, was doing the public the injustice of being “so habitually, so criminally stuffed with fake news.”
This was Joseph Pulitzer in 1902, railing against the competitors to his New York World newspaper at a time before the Lincoln Memorial existed, before the Titanic had set sail, and when great steam ships ruled the waterways. He was aboard Liberty, which he’d commissioned from designer G.L. Watson, to be built at Ramage & Ferguson in Scotland. He’d placed the order after spending six months cruising aboard a 45-crew steam yacht that, for the first time in years, had helped him to feel somewhat calm.
By the time he stepped aboard Liberty, Pulitzer had gone blind, possibly as part of a condition diagnosed as neurasthenia—what today might be called exhaustion and irritability with a healthy dose of emotional outbursts. He was, as the end of his life neared, known to fire newspaper reporters whose voices grated on his ears. A falling utensil could jar his nerves so violently that he would grimace in pain.
Seeking a reprieve from his own senses, Pulitzer had tried building larger and increasingly elaborate houses, on East 73rd Street in Manhattan, in Bar Harbor, Maine, and on Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia, where the wealthiest and most elite of the Gilded Age titans vacationed. Each Pulitzer residence had a separate wing, his personal suite, called a “Tower of Silence.”
None of it was ever enough, and only at sea could he rest. Pulitzer joined the likes of J.P. Morgan, who always named his yachts Corsair, and became a man who conducted business from a steam yacht.
It took him a couple of tries to get the boat right. Prior to commissioning Liberty, he’d tried to go a more traditional route, buying a schooner to sail on the Hudson River. But after a cruise in 97-degree heat and one sleepless night aboard, he sold her at a steep loss on his $100,000 investment.
Aboard Liberty, on the other hand, he enjoyed what may have been the happiest years of his life. With a crew of 45 to 65, and with holds for enough coal to complete two transatlantic crossings, Liberty cruised from the Riviera to New York, Maine and Georgia. Sometimes with no specific destination, Liberty cruised. The captain would alter course to head into the wind and ease the yacht’s roll; weather interfered with Pulitzer’s walks around the decks, which had gently sloping ramps instead of stairs, to help accommodate his loss of vision.
Occasionally, he cruised with his wife and his family, but his anxieties and infirmities made him difficult company. Their staterooms were located well abaft his “Tower of Silence,” where a team of personal assistants entertained him, read to him and conversed on his chosen topics. The revolving army of assistants had to be well read, well mannered, and tall enough for the 6-foot-2 Pulitzer to hear them without stooping. One secretary might play the violin; another would describe the scenery along whatever coast Liberty cruised. Yet another would send a packet of telegrams to correct whatever errors Pulitzer felt The World’s editors had made back in New York.
All other distractions were kept to the minimum that the technology of the day allowed. Double doors, double portholes and heavy curtains muffled the noise of the two triple expansion steam engines. Two propellers of different sizes reduced vibration, and signs were posted to remind the crew to be silent, and to avoid the upper deck, while Pulitzer was sleeping. Oddly, he did not mind the unsubtle noise of the anchor chain, or even the ship’s foghorn—he knew those noises were necessary to the smooth functioning of the vessel that gave him so much peace.
And when he was not seeking solace aboard Liberty, he would leave The World’s 13-story building to take an afternoon spin on her electric launch. Up in Maine, he often invited one or two of his sons, or his assistants, to join him for a four-hour tour of Frenchman Bay, while Liberty lay off Schooner Head.
He took the name of his steam ship from no less than the Statue of Liberty, whose placement his newspaper had championed after the French donated the sculpture without a base. Pulitzer pledged to publish the name of every man who gave even a penny toward the stone pedestal upon which “Lady Liberty” would stand; within a few months, the effort had raised more than the goal of $100,000, and the 89-foot granite pedestal still welcomes mariners entering the harbor today.
The steam yacht Liberty also survived Pulitzer: He died on board, in bed, while waiting out a hurricane in the Carolinas. Liberty was sold and renamed Glencairn, and then served as a hospital ship for the British Navy during World War I. She was dismantled in 1937.
Pulitzer’s early biographer, Don Seitz, perhaps put it best when describing the man as he was at the time in his life when he took to the sea, as so many others do, to find some kind of a peace with his passions: “He believed in liberty, equality and opportunity. Fraternity was not in his code. He lived most of his days apart from other men, having a feeling that this was the fate of the true journalist … to devote his interest to his paper and have none other.”
WATCH Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People on PBS award-winning series 'American Masters' || Watch it online: bit.ly/pulitzeryacht
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue.