Aug 282017

William S. Paley

I was asked to write a speech for William Paley, then Chairman of the Board of CBS. The Emmy managers wanted to recognize him for his service to broadcasting. Paley had not been satisfied with the drafts his speechwriters had given him, so the job was passed to me.

I don’t remember what I wrote, but in the middle of his remarks a buried joke made the dinner audience laugh and applaud. The chairman did not expect the response and was highly pleased. So pleased that I was called in to help him write his autobiography; a task that had been in the works for several years and had passed through the pens of several other ghostwriters.

I arrived at his elegant apartment on Fifth Avenue. The elevator door opened and the first sight was a large Picasso painting of a man and his horse. The apartment itself had been done with high style by Billy Baldwin, a leading interior designer.

19th Century Empire Recamier Couch

There was one eccentricity. An Empire Recamier couch had a curved hand rest, and Mr. Baldwin had slit the silk so that the white stuffing was prominently visible. I never asked about it. Behind the couch was a lovely Gauguin from his Brittany period. It featured hooded women doing their washing by hand. Perhaps there was a workers’ connection between the ripped stuffing and laundry.

I had a connection to William Paley from outside broadcasting. Years earlier when CBS Chicago fired me, my Aunt Minnie suggested that Uncle Bert Billow get in touch with Sam Paley, William Paley’s father to see what could be done. Uncle Bert Billow was later found in a ditch, shot dead. He had been a union organizer. One of the locals he monitored was the Chicago Cigar Makers’ Union, presided over by Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor. Sam Paley was in the cigar business: La Palina Cigars.

Rolling cigars was a repetitious business. Many of the workers were Russian-Jewish immigrants, refugees from the same villages as the Paleys and the Billows. One of the conditions the union imposed on the elder Paley is that he employ a fulltime reader—a man who sat in a stool above the workers and read aloud while the workers hand glued the cigars. I never discovered the texts, except that Gompers required Marx be read.

Aunt Minnie decided against appealing to Sam Paley. By that time Bert Billow had left the labor movement to become a bailiff in the corrupt Cook County judiciary, and Sam Paley had taken his company to Philadelphia, where his son William hired a group of unorganized women to oversee the new machines that could roll cigars.

William Paley’s autobiography, As It Happened, gives no credit to the ghostwriters who shaped the book. At the time I entered, the primary ghostwriter had taken to alcohol. Paley asked me to be the ghost of the ghost. I was to tell no one of my work.

We sat at a Louis XV ormolu desk. The kneehole was just large enough for the boss, and I sat next to a leg whose metal embossing scratched my pair of expensive French leather shoes. In the middle of the table was a very large silver bowl blooming with two dozen expensive black pencils. Behind us stood John Dean, Paley’s valet, who carried his arms in perpetual parentheses.

I wrote at home, brought the revisions to Paley and he slowly copied them in pencil into his manuscript. They were now his changes. The ghost of the ghost was hidden. He was graceful with me. I was from Chicago and I knew something about his father and the cigar business. He liked a few of the early changes. We had three-course lunches together. When the work was finished he offered me a lift to my office. He had two cars: the first driven by a chauffeur who had studied at Agnelli Driver Training and had learned the basic tactic of avoiding kidnappers by driving in reverse at high speed. The second car had some sort of armed guard in it.

Paley would get out of the car at Black Rock, the corporation headquarters, and the second car would peel off. The moment the Paley was out of the car, the lead driver took off the cap of his uniform and reluctantly drove me to my office. He said nothing, and left me on the wrong side of a busy street. The servant knew more about class distinctions than the master.

It may have been because of our distant family connection, or just luncheon talk in his elegant dining room, but Paley was friendly and respectful. When he asked about my war experiences, I told him about my meeting with Henry Kissinger during the Bulge.

“I see Henry often,” he said “He wants a little too much from me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he wants to be on the board of CBS. He’s a good social friend but we don’t need him,” Paley continued. “Henry called one day and said that NBC and Sarnoff wanted him for their board, but he preferred CBS. Then he told me, ‘NBC is offering a large sum, stock options, and a car and driver.’”

Paley continued. “I told Henry ‘what a generous offer! Take it, take it. We can’t come close.’ He tried to be too sharp with me but we’re still friends.”

“Do we put this in the book?”

“No, it would embarrass Kissinger.”

The end of the affair began when I told Paley that the manuscript had an error of omission.

“You left out somebody.”


“Frank Stanton is barely in the book. You and he made many decisions together.”

He reddened. “What do you know about him?”

“I have never met him. But he was so courageous with his stand on The Selling of the Pentagon.”

“Skee, you go home and write down everything you know about him. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

I wrote that night and returned the next morning. What I knew about Frank Stanton was second hand. It turned out to be accurate. President Truman asked him to be Secretary of Commerce. Eisenhower placed him in his shadow cabinet if the Soviets wiped out Washington.  Johnson gave him the choice of Secretary of Commerce, or second Secretary of State.

What Paley didn’t say is that Stanton had a far more respectful press than he, the Chief Executive Officer of the Columbia Broadcasting System. And that’s why the President of network would not be included in As It Happened.

Paley read my notes, threw them aside and turned to me. “Stanton spent too much time in Washington and too much time with businessmen. You don’t know anything about the nasty side of Frank Stanton. He is not like us. You and I get red when we get mad. Stanton and Murrow turn white when they are angry.”

He turned red while he excoriated Stanton. Then he threw away my notes. The ghost of the ghost was being exorcised. I became past tense in his next sentence.

“I suppose you would like some compensation for the work you have done.”

“No thanks, Mr. Paley.”

“There has to be something.”

He had a small Giacometti oil on his desk. I looked at it.

“Are you crazy?” he said.

Paley and Stanton were generals, in business terms, top management. Several echelons separated me from them—about as far as I was separated from General Bolling of the 84th Division during the war. My contact with Paley was coincidental, and I met Stanton just once in my forty two years at CBS. Paley’s agents bought him Gauguins and Picassos: Stanton, by himself bought Jackson Pollacks. Paley’s billets were Louis XV and XVI; Stanton’s command post was furnished in Knoll chairs and Eames décor. Paley bought and sold television stars and shows, Stanton built the business side of the network. Together they created the Tiffany Network. Together they created CBS News, the finest broadcast news operation of their day. On the very day Stanton turned 65 Paley turned him out; forced him to resign.

In his diatribe against Stanton, Paley had told me, “Stanton spends too much time in Washington.”

There may have been many reasons to get rid of him, but certainly one was the accolade given to Stanton after he risked jail rather than give the government outtakes of the documentary, The Selling of the Pentagon, broadcast during the Vietnam War. His stand gave television journalism the same First Amendment protection as print receives.



William S. Paley,

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