University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Louis Wiley Collection

Volume IX · Autumn 1953 · Number 1
The Louis Wiley Collection

Most manuscript or rare-book collections presented to a library are illustrative of individual great events, a period of history, or a type of publishing. By the particular method of their selection, the Louis Wiley papers are unusual in being descriptive of a personality. This collection, presented to the Rush Rhees Library of the University of Rochester by the family of the late Louis Wiley, consists of letters, clippings, certificates of honors, photographs--but mostly letters.

From the age of seventeen until his death at the age of sixty-five, Louis Wiley, business manager of The New York Times, must have received a mountain of letters. They included the personal, the practical, and the trivial; the warmth of close friendship and the distant politeness of formal gratitude. It seems he kept all of them. In 1946, eleven years after his death, his sister, Carrie Wiley, received the following from E. S. Friendly, of The New York Sun:

"I have never known anyone who was as meticulous about keeping files up to date as L. W. I can imagine going through them all these years you have had a mighty interesting time. It always seemed to me that he communicated with almost everybody of importance in the world, and now I see, after 11 years, you still have many more months to go."

Apparently, many of the letters which would have some sentimental significance for their writers were returned to them. The New York Times no doubt retained letters of news interest and possible historical importance. What remains is a portrait in words of a provocative and engaging personality, Louis Wiley, business manager "ambassador" of The New York Times.

Born in Hornell, Steuben County, New York, May 31, 1869, Louis Wiley spent a brief part of his childhood there before his family moved to Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, and then to Fort Wayne, Indiana. That he was known even as a child for his enthusiasm, intelligence, and friendliness is vividly illustrated in a letter written in March, 1934, by his first-grade schoolteacher who had never forgotten him.

According to Mrs. L. C. Olmsted, who was living in Rochester in 1934; "I taught him all his first year in school, the years of '75 and '76 in the Park School in Hornellsville… It was his first school. He was a small lad but even then… was in embryo what he is now. I had charge of the first and second grades in general work. I wish I could paint him for you as I see him now, eager to answer every question that the second graders would answer, singing with them as hard as he could, determined to know everything and do everything they did and do it better, and second to none in his love for teacher. I was leaving the school for good in June and Sat. A. M. after the last day, he appeared at my boarding house with an immense bunch of beautiful red roses and a picture of himself. The roses graced my wedding breakfast table the next day… I never forgot the little lad… I taught many children but never one with such a zest for learning, such an eagerness to do his very best as had that little lad. I probably shall never see him, but have always loved him…"

When Wiley was seventeen his father died, the family moved to Rochester, and the famous Wiley newspaper career really began. He had known from the time he was a child of eleven or twelve that he wanted to do newspaper work. As soon as the family was settled in Rochester, he wrote to former friends and teachers, explaining his need for recommendations to enter his chosen field. One of the replies was from C. A. Leonard, Kentucky teacher and son of a clergyman. Writing September 7, 1886, he said, "Give my best regards to your mother and all the rest. All of you were always a source of great satisfaction to me and my father's family. You need never hesitate to ask so simple a favor of me--my conscience has no elasticity and needs none in writing a recommendation for Louis Wiley."

Another teacher wrote to him at this time, "I heard your grammar teacher say you were studying language with a view to editorial aspirations. Your letter to me shows decided marks of originality and felicity of expression, and I hope some good hearted newspaper about Rochester will offer you a chance."

Wiley's first newspaper job in Rochester was with the Union and Advertiser, but he soon left that and applied for work with the Post Express because he preferred its editorial policy--an unusual decision for an eighteen-year-old lad! He was a reporter for six years and business manager for two years on the Post Express. At the same time he had started and was regularly publishing a weekly paper called the Jewish Tidings.

At the age of twenty-six, Wiley decided to invade the "big city." Heretofore his great energy and talent had been supplemented by the presence of relatives in Rochester who could help him. Now he proposed to arm himself with the usual recommendations and see what they could produce in the New York newspaper world.

The recommendations brought him an interview with the business manager of The New York Sun and the interview resulted in immediate work. This was in November of 1895. He now had his start in New York, but he soon found himself discontented with The Sun. He stated his problem frankly to his superiors and they provided him with a recommendation to set forth again. This recommendation by William M. Laffan, business manager, stated, "Mr. Louis Wiley has been several months in the employ of The Sun and he leaves it because it does not afford him the scope and opportunity which he desires. During the time in question, Mr. Wiley has performed his various duties with marked ability, fidelity and energy and altogether in a way to inspire the strongest confidence in his business qualifications." Perhaps the most impressive feature of this note is the scrawled "This is so," added by the editor, Charles A. Dana.

By now Louis Wiley knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted a business manager position with a newspaper whose editorial policies and standards he could respect. And, at just this point in his career, there came an event in the newspaper world of New York City which fitted in with his plans as neatly as a plot lifted from homespun fiction.

The New York Times had been losing money so steadily that most of the newspaper men were no longer interested in whether it survived or went under. In 1896, Adolph S. Ochs, who had saved The Chattanooga Times from extinction, decided to take up the challenge of The New York Times. Ochs was a man of keen intelligence, rather reticent and conservative. He was impressed with the energy and determination of the bustling, exuberant, five-feet-one-and-a-quarter-inch dynamo who applied to him for work in the business office. He was not so sure that boundless enthusiasm was necessarily an indication of sound judgment and business sense.

However, Louis Wiley had decided immediately that he wanted to work for Ochs and he settled for a modest income and a modest position in order to join forces with the man who was reviving The New York Times. It was that instinctive recognition of quality which guided Wiley all through his career.

By 1906 Wiley was business manager of The Times and remained in that position until his death in March, 1935. It was his responsibility to supervise the advertising that appeared in the paper, but he himself was the best advertisement The New York Times ever had. He was an excellent speaker and would go any place at any time, literally "at the drop of a hat," to address a meeting. It didn't matter to him whether it was a high school journalism class, the Advertisers' Club of Davenport, Iowa, the inmates of Welfare Island Prison or a League of Nations committee meeting.

And he kept a battery of secretaries busy writing letters of congratulations, condolences, or comments on every subject imaginable, from the loss of an election to the birth of a first grandchild. As a result, his correspondence is stuffed with notes from the Astors, the Vanderbilts, the Morgans of America, the Derbys and Readings of England, thanking him for flowers, books, and other thoughtful remembrances.

These letters, with the more than a dozen honors and decorations conferred upon him by American universities and foreign countries, would testify to his ability as a salesman for his newspaper. However, there is more meaning to be found in the affectionate, even gossipy, letters he received from those people who knew him best. Among these were Rush Rhees, Thomas Lipton, Nicholas Murray Butler, Sara Delano Roosevelt.

Adolph Ochs soon recognized the value of Wiley's talents and, as the years went by, he relied on Wiley more and more to represent him and The New York Times. On the occasion of Wiley's fiftieth birthday, May 31, 1919, Ochs sent him this note, "I am very sorry I cannot be with you today … I must take this means of sending you my felicitations and my affectionate regard and wish you many more happy birthdays-and that we may enjoy them in pleasant association. May I take this occasion to also express my high appreciation of your rare and exceptional services to The New York Times--which have been one of the important factors in its growth and prosperity… Our daily association for so many years--soon a quarter of a century--has been a joy. May it continue so for many many years."

Wiley was never a crusader. He was too canny a businessman to become involved in "causes." His closest brush with anything of this sort was the rather humorous campaign which went on for years in the attempt to have a statue of Albert Gallatin, Jefferson's Secretary of the Treasury, placed on the steps of the Treasury Building in Washington. It is difficult to imagine Wiley's being very excited about this, but his help was enlisted by Perry Belmont, one of his oldest friends, and Wiley never did anything halfheartedly. From 1927 until 1934 persistent efforts were made to get influential people to contribute money and senators to introduce the project. In the fall of 1934 the prospects were good. Belmont wrote from Paris, "It was to you I first wrote from Washington in 1927, enclosing the joint-resolution of Congress for the erection of a statue of Gallatin on the steps of the Treasury where that of Hamilton already stands. I knew that no one could so well take an active and controlling part in the proposed association." Belmont's interest seemed to be prompted by a very bitter resentment that Alexander Hamilton should be considered the great financier of the country and he was willing to go to almost any lengths to disprove this by stressing the importance of Gallatin.

It was natural, when Belmont wrote from Paris in the fall of 1934 to express his regrets that he could not attend the Society of the Genesee dinner to be given for Wiley, that he should devote most of the space to comments on the Gallatin statue project. In the accompanying personal letter to Wiley, Belmont made the naive observation, "…I have endeavored to express my opinion of the great service you have rendered to the country. It did not seem necessary to refer to the effects of the depression in this connection."

Owen D. Young was asked to be on the committee for this project. His reply reflected a rather different point of view from that of Belmont. Writing in February, 1934, he said, "With a desk covered every day with appeals from people in dire distress, I cannot urge the diversion of a single dollar to a project such as this even though the sculptors, I dare say, need the work badly, too."

Although Wiley would buttonhole important people in the interests of friends, he did not commit himself to speeches on trivial subjects. But he could be forthright and unmistakable when he took up the cause of free speech and newspaper standards. The following excerpt from one of his talks is a good example of his philosophy: "A newspaper should leave its city better off at the end of every year than it was at the beginning. I do not mean crusade, but the intelligent gathering and purity of information which will enable the people to know what is going on, to form well-founded opinions upon which to act.

"A newspaper has enormous power for good or ill in its selection of the news. Praiseworthy efforts may lag and die for the want of aid that news can give them. Charlatans may flourish because of the publicity carelessly accorded them."

As can be deduced from his philosophy, this business manager Wiley had an amazing grasp of the significance of the editorial problem. He was a favorite in the newspaper world, not only because of his almost hypnotic friendliness, but also because of his very real ability in any phase of journalism. As Alva Johnston phrased it, "I have been for a long time one of the tens of thousands of Louis Wiley fans and am now more so than ever… you are the only man that I am willing to admit to be a better reporter than I am."

In addition to these abilities, Wiley had an impulsive kind of tenacity which kept him from ever giving up once he had decided to accomplish something. There are a number of instances to illustrate this in the letters. Perhaps the most interesting would be the series of letters from James W. Wadsworth, Jr. In October, 1915, Mr. Wadsworth wrote briefly but courteously, refusing to come to the Society of the Genesee dinner because his business as a senator kept him in Washington. On November 1, there is another letter from Mr. Wadsworth, written with the desperate politeness of a man who knows he is explaining something to someone who isn't listening. "You will agree," he said, "that my first duty is in the Senate… I am sure you understand my anxiety to devote my whole attention and effort to my senatorial duties and that it is this thought only which keeps me from promising to attend…"

Wadsworth's unwillingness in 1915 apparently did not perturb Louis Wiley; for we find the following letter, dated in February, 1921, from John F. O'Ryan, major general of the New York National Guard: "Mrs. O'Ryan and I enjoyed the dinner last evening very much. What a fine speech Wadsworth made."

This speech must have cemented the friendship between Wiley and Wadsworth to the extent that Wiley felt he could ask any favor of him. However, Wadsworth again could not always give a satisfactory answer. Here is a letter he wrote in December, 1923, stating: "I have your letter of December 7th. To be perfectly frank I think it will be impossible to get the President to attend the dinner of the Society of the Genesee…"

Wiley's zeal sometimes carried him beyond certain limits. It was then that the restraining hand of Ochs appears in the letters. His notes to Wiley, at these times, were patient and careful. In 1922 he expressed himself on the subject of "testimonial ads."

"It is the veriest humbug to print these ads unless they are voluntary…It is an ancient custom to give these testimonials for a free ad…Please stop them and maintain our reputation for being different." As late as 1933, Ochs was still taking quiet exception to some of Wiley's ideas.

"I am not in favor of a colored comic page," he wrote in September, 1933. "It would discredit us and would make me feel that our principles are for sale at a price. So sit down on the proposition and do so firmly."

Among these papers are two articles written by Ochs, one in response to a Dun and Bradstreet report on him and The New York Times; the other, in reaction to a profile Elmer Davis had done of him for The New Yorker. Ochs reveals himself as a man of almost terrifying integrity and as a man whose sense of humor is limited by his lifelong habit of weighing every word for its merit. The quality in him which made The New York Times perhaps the most important and respected newspaper in this country must also have made Ochs seem unapproachable at times in his patriarchal rectitude.

If it was Ochs' genius to possess quality of taste and discernment, it was Wiley's genius to be able always to recognize quality. The two of them were an oddly matched but completely unified team and their appreciation for the qualities in each other was mutually acknowledged.

During the last years of his life Wiley began to develop symptoms that he was being consumed by his own energy. In March of 1926 he was suffering from a widening of the aorta and he was forced to take a rest cure to avoid serious damage to his heart. Many of the letters at this time express concern for him. As. C. H. Sherrill worded it, "People like you seem to think you can do three times as much as the ordinary man--good men are scarce, so go easy."

He was soon back in action but apparently, in 1927, he felt the need for another rest, as indicated by a letter from Lady Astor. With her own impetuous breeziness, she sailed into Wiley for "taking the cure" at Baden-Baden in Dr. Dengler's Sanatorium. "What on earth are you doing at Dr. Dengler's?" she asked, "…What idiots you all are at home! Give the old boy my love and tell him not to give you that disgusting food which is just cheap and hypnotises your mind to feel that your body gets better!"

Wiley, of course, would return from his vacations to his usual routine of office hours, several meetings, even more than one dinner engagement in a day.

On February 4, 1935, the Society of the Genesee held its thirty-sixth annual dinner, honoring its founder, Louis Wiley. He received messages from all over this country and other countries, praising his many achievements and predicting many more years of successful activity.

Wiley entered the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center for surgical treatment March 6, submitted to an operation March 11, and was enjoying normal convalescence when he died quite suddenly of a blood clot on March 20.

His sudden death, so soon after the enthusiastic celebration of the Society of the Genesee, came as a great shock to his family and all his associates. Perhaps the one who suffered the greatest shock was Adolph S. Ochs. The newspaper photographs of the Wiley funeral show glimpses of Ochs, a dazed and stricken man. Within a month he was dead and a great era in the history of The New York Times was over with the passing of its ruler and his brisk little ambassador, Louis Wiley.