Few American women held powerful positions at major news organizations in the middle years of the 20th century. Even fewer hunted tigers in Southeast Asia, piloted private airplanes around America, or appeared on the cover of Time magazine. One woman who did all of this and much more was Alicia Patterson, the subject of a charming new book by Alice Arlen and Michael J. Arlen.
The Huntress: The Adventures, Escapades, and Triumphs of Alicia Patterson is a pleasantly rambling mixture of family chronicle, biography, and cultural history. Patterson’s career straddled the worlds of publishing and politics, and her personal life was a swirl of high society and far-flung travels. She was equally comfortable lunching at the White House with JFK and hunting wild boar in India. She married a Guggenheim, founded a newspaper, and carried on a long-term affair with Illinois governor and presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson.
What she did not do, apparently, was laundry. This dismayed her traditional mother, who once told Alicia that “knowing the location of your linen closet should be more important to a woman than working at other things outside the home.” Fortunately Alicia ignored this advice, but the comment underscores just how unusual Patterson’s achievements were for a woman who lived from 1906 to 1963. Her father, Joseph Patterson, had hoped Alicia would be a boy, and he did little to disguise his disappointment over not having a son. She soon disabused him of the idea that she would be a shy and retiring daughter unable to share his rough hobbies as well as a son could.
Alicia was born into a wealthy and well-connected Chicago family with strong ties to journalism and politics. Her father was the son of the editor of The Chicago Tribune and the grandson of its founder, Joseph Medill. She loved riding horses from an early age – there was a riding academy where the John Hancock Center now stands – and she had little patience for convention and authority. She was kicked out of boarding school for reading a copy of "Anna Karenina," which was considered a scandalous and immoral book.
That was essentially the end of her formal schooling. She was soon pressured into a marriage about which she was so ambivalent that she burst into tears at the end of the wedding ceremony. She vowed that she would get divorced within a year, and despite the social costs of gossip and criticism, she did just that. Her father was then running the New York newspaper The Daily News, and Alicia began traveling the world, penning freelance pieces for the paper. She often joined her father on his own reporting and adventure travel, which included a trip to Europe to interview Mussolini in the 1930s. She also became a pilot at a time when there were no more than 100 female pilots in the country, and she hunted, fished, and traveled in remote areas across America and the world.
After dissolving another arranged marriage, Alicia met Harry Guggenheim, heir to an enormous mining fortune. The couple married, and in 1940 they launched Newsday, a daily paper on Long Island. Guggenheim is perhaps the most ambiguous figure in Patterson’s story. Though he supplied the initial capital necessary to start the paper, he insisted on retaining a 51% share of ownership and attempted to use the paper as his own political soapbox. When Patterson threatened him with divorce, his answer was chilling: if you leave me, you’ll lose Newsday.
She appeared ready to risk this at certain points. Not only did she have a long and tumultuous affair with Adlai Stevenson, proposing at one point that they run away together, she also resigned from her role as publisher and editor of Newsday in the late 1950s with a dramatic letter that declared: “I cannot be part of transforming a living newspaper put out by journalists into a balance-sheet controlled by businessmen.” She was soon coaxed back onto the job, but her words were a stirring articulation of the journalistic principle of independence from commercial meddling. Patterson’s newspaper was initially ignored by the major papers in New York City, but after a series of investigative reports in the 1950s exposed the corruption of a Long Island mobster, Newsday won a Pulitzer Prize and a stable position in the national conversation.
The Arlens are the perfect authors to tell Alicia Patterson’s story. Alice Arlen was Alicia Patterson’s niece, and this proximity supplies the narrative with a wealth of intimate details. Michael J. Arlen, a former New Yorker staff writer, has covered a broad range of topics as a critic and journalist. Their prose is amiably meandering and conversational, each page a cascade of digressions and asides that are just as engaging as the main storyline itself.
Alicia once wrote of her father, “being his companion was my only real education.” One suspects Alice had a touch of the same feeling about her aunt. This biography moves Alicia Patterson’s legend beyond the realm of family lore and establishes her as a singular and inspiring figure in 20th-century American history.