Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Television's `Tiffany' Tycoon

BILL PALEY, the CBS founder, chairman, and inspired despot who died in October at the age of 89, would not have liked this book. It shows a man who was greedy, petty, cold, and far less visionary than the popular legend would have us believe. Yet in stripping ``The Chairman'' of his image, this stunning book ironically validates Paley's greatness. For here is a considered and clear-eyed study of the man and his company - a big book in both its heft and achievement - that leaves no doubt that the CBS luster was the product of the simple, ``incredible force'' of William Paley.

Sally Bedell Smith, who covered television for the New York Times for 10 years and spent five more years working on this book, is a meticulous and indefatigable reporter - the source notes run more than 100 pages and in places are as fascinating as the narrative itself - and a skilled and passionate storyteller.

About these ads

Paley's ``peculiar genius,'' according to Smith, was ``the ability to graft his own charm and class onto the network, so that in the end they were indistinguishable.'' Paley collected art by Picasso, C'ezanne, Matisse, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec. He was a pillar of New York high society, traveling in a bejeweled and black-tie world with the likes of David O. Selznik, Averell Harriman, Truman Capote, and any number of titled European friends. American presidents sought his counsel, and the most beautiful women in the world sought his company.

His network was called the ``Tiffany Network.'' It was built around quality performers like Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, and Burns and Allen. It boasted a news division, fronted by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, that shaped and defined broadcast journalism. Its bottom line swelled exponentially with the passing years.

That was the image, carefully crafted and burnished by Paley and the public relations minions at CBS. It was also the reality - but only a part of it. The balance of the reality is that, for all his companions, he had few genuine friends. He is portrayed as a lecherous philanderer. According to Smith, at CBS he was a ruthless manager who used people and then tired of them and callously cast them aside, a man who selfishly grabbed credit for innovations that were the inspiration of others. And he did it all shamelessly.

Much of this has come forth in the spate of books on CBS - some considered worthy, others mean-spirited and petulant - published over the last decade. But Smith's assiduous research explodes myths that escaped the revisionists.

For example, legend had it that Paley's introduction to radio came when he was managing his father's cigar company while his father was on vacation in Europe. He sponsored a show on Philadelphia radio station WCAU, the story goes; and when his father returned from Europe he was upset at what he perceived as a squandering of money until he saw what wonders the radio advertising had done for cigar sales. In truth, it was Bill Paley who had been in Europe and who had thought it folly of his father to be spending money on something as faddish as radio.

Smith reveals a lifelong pattern of Paley obsessively taking the credit for everything (and the blame for nothing) that happened at CBS. Paley invented himself, says Smith. ``Like many people who invent themselves, he came to venerate the invention.'' This invented man could never acknowledge that CBS executives Ed Klauber and Paul Kesten provided ideas and execution in the early days of the company; or that Frank Stanton, the brilliant, loyal, tireless company president, played a role at least equal to Paley's own during CBS's rise to riches and reverence during the 1940s and '50s. Plenty of the credit was Paley's, of course. He did have an intuitive eye for programming; he did command the loyalty of this coterie of brilliant subalterns. But as one man who knew him during his journey to the top put it: ``If Bill Paley told the truth he would be a bigger man....''

It is not surprising that a man who has invented an imperial notion of himself would find others wanting, and eventually he found all others wanting - even the redoubtable Frank Stanton, who turned down cabinet posts in both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations because Paley had promised that he would one day step aside as chairman and the company would be Stanton's. But just as he was unable to acknowledge Stanton's role in the company (in his 1979 memoir ``As It Happened,'' Paley reduced Stanton's involvement to a few paragraphs), Paley was constitutionally incapable of surrendering control of CBS to Stanton or any of the men who followed him.

About these ads

Bill Paley and ``The Chairman'' had become one. He was unable to extract himself from the image, the invention he had created of himself as CBS. ``When I step down will I be asked to dinner?'' inquired Paley years later, when his departure from the chairman's seat was finally inevitable. ``I dread the sense that I might be seen as no longer contributing to CBS's success.''

CBS has not enjoyed much success in the years since Paley slipped from power in 1983, and it has lost all its luster. ``Perhaps,'' concludes Smith, this is what CBS had been all along, ``a machine of low-brow mass-market entertainment, now shorn of all its pretentions.''

But it was more than just pretension. Shows like ``Playhouse 90,'' ``See It Now,'' ``All in the Family,'' and ``M*A*S*H'' were a cut above television's pedestrian fare. CBS did elevate the art. ``Even if CBS had aimed high only intermittently,'' writes Smith, ``its news and entertainment programs had been the best in the business.'' And whoever else may deserve a portion of the credit for CBS's accomplishments, the ultimate credit belongs to the man who was the very embodiment of the company for more than 60 years.

In spite of his human failings and shortcomings, Paley will be well served by history. And he is well served by this book - for all the naked, embarrassing truth revealed herein. Smith has fairly presented the small human being who nonetheless lived a grand life and achieved great things; and she has delivered a grand understanding and a resonant appreciation for the paradox and the incandescence that was William S. Paley.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.