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A Jazz Age Murder Scandal, a Tabloid War, and the Birth of America’s True-Crime Obsession

As far as Payne was concerned, the Daily News was superior to its burgeoning rivals in every way, and he felt confident he could fend off their incursions. It was true that Payne didn’t need to worry about external forces threatening his standing at the News—a conflict was brewing within.

Payne’s grief over Helena was long-lasting and profound, dragging him into the depths of despair even as his professional life presented every reason for happiness. Eventually, at the urging of his friends and Helena’s mother, Payne pulled himself up and got back in the saddle. One of Payne’s closest friends, the Daily News reporter Francis Farley, inspired something of a personal renaissance, exerting a positive influence on Payne’s style and behavior. The old Phil Payne was simple, slouchy, unconcerned with fashion. The new Phil Payne wore expensive suits, prowled the chic haunts of midtown, and rubbed elbows in elite clubs like the Rotary, the Cheese, and the Inner Circle, which parodied him during its annual dinner show at the Hotel Astor, alongside fellow New York luminaries including Governor Al Smith, Mayor John Francis Hylan, U.S. Representative Ogden L. Mills, and New York World editor Herbert Bayard Swope. A gossip item in The New Yorker noted that Payne had been “bon-vivanting around town quite a bit.”

In another personal development, Payne was increasingly spotted in public with Peggy Hopkins Joyce, a flamboyant showgirl whose millionaire marriages—and subsequent separations, most recently from the Swedish count Gösta Mörner—provided endless material for tabloid reporters, including the Daily News, where Joyce was a regular on the front page. Payne made good money as a newspaper editor, but not enough to satisfy Joyce’s appetite for diamonds and furs. What Payne was able to give Joyce, which the fabulously wealthy men in her life could not, was a spotlight in the country’s largest newspaper. He showered her with what one contemporary described as “a great publicity campaign,” and Patterson wasn’t happy about it.

Patterson could be a demanding and sometimes highly critical boss, scolding Payne for a “tendency to question orders” or a “picture [that] looked awful on page one.” Patterson warned Payne to dial back the coverage of his lady friend. “I’m tired of seeing pictures of Peggy Joyce in the paper,” he snapped. The final straw came one evening in 1925, when Joyce visited Payne in the newsroom, darting around the corridors like a mischievous child. Payne gave her a tour, from the reporters hammering out stories on weathered Remingtons to the monstrous presses that churned out hundreds of thousands of papers every morning. As Joyce marveled at the powerful machines, Payne asked if she wanted to turn them on, leading her to the control panel. She extended one of her soft pale fingers, tapped the start button, and then dramatically recoiled when the presses came roaring to life. “Take me out of here!” she yelled, clutching Payne, who hit the stop key and escorted Joyce back to his office. When Patterson, still based in Chicago, heard about the incident, he was furious. Payne had crossed the line, and his editorship was now at an end.

Courtesy Photo.

The news broke in the May 9 edition of Editor & Publisher: “Philip A. Payne, managing editor of the New York Daily News for the past two and a half years, has resigned from that post, effective June 15.” The tabloid’s city editor, Frank Hause, a pallbearer at Helena’s funeral, was promoted to succeed him. Payne, who was permitted to collect his $11,986 bonus for the year, claimed he had “completed arrangements for a tabloid daily newspaper in another city,” and that he would announce these plans after returning from vacation. He left town for Maine and then packed up for a longer trip to Europe, setting sail May 27 aboard the Berengaria.

Under Payne’s leadership, the News had continued to gain circulation. It now sold far more copies than any other American newspaper—roughly eight hundred thousand on weekdays, and on Sundays close to a million, the milestone at which Patterson said he would relocate from Chicago to New York. This runaway circulation growth made Payne a valuable commodity for any zealous newspaper publisher, and one such publisher wasted no time in snapping him up. He hadn’t even returned from his European sabbatical when Hearst’s announcement went out: “Philip A. Payne, who resigned last month as managing editor of the New York Daily News, will become managing editor of the New York Mirror.”

The change—set to take effect July 1, upon Payne’s return from the Continent—was seen as a major escalation between the warring tabloids. A year after its launch, the Mirror’s circulation had climbed to nearly three hundred thousand. But what good were three hundred thousand copies when your rival sold nearly a million? Hearst wasn’t interested in second place—he ordered Payne to take on the News, and Payne was more than happy to oblige.

By the time Payne’s allegiance shifted, New York’s tabloids had become an inexorable force in the rapidly changing media landscape, which also faced disruption from radio and film. “The tabloid picture paper has attacked intrenched eight-column journalism and threatens to become a new, mongrel Fourth Estate,” suggested an article in The Nation. While proponents celebrated the tabloids’ brevity, irreverence, and “youthful crusading spirit,” as one disciple put it, the futsy old guard scorned their circulation-obsessed tendencies toward vulgarity and sensationalism. In one of the more contemptuous assessments, a New Yorker writer sneered: “With unction and spurious gravity, they disclose slave rings which are at best nebular; they prowl among the unhappy memories of victims who, by a certain twist, may be romanticized; they employ such items of the news as seem suited to their purpose as pegs upon which to hang breathless suggestions of unsuspected deviltry; they gird on their armor for ringing crusades upon matters that are trivial; they play upon the prurience of their handmade audience with any instrument that comes to hand, and upon their cupidity with stupidly opulent contests; they are unrestrained in the publication of gruesome photographs; they hold it old-fashioned to attempt the recording of the actual news; they publish editorials which are amusingly diffuse and shrewdly based upon trifling matters; they are the biggest money makers in the publishing business; and they are growing fast.”

Growing fast was Hearst’s primary mission, and Payne executed it with gusto. For starters, he doubled down on reader contests, the front line of the tabloid wars. One of his more nonsensical creations was a so-called “Big Dough Man” contest, in which hundred-dollar prizes were awarded for inane one-liners. “My friend is a big necker from Spooner, Wis.” “My friend is a big hat man from Derby, Conn.” And so on. To advertise the stunt, Payne sent a heavyset gentleman into the streets of Manhattan in an outfit dyed to resemble greenbacks. “We want people talking about our tabloid,” Payne told Editor & Publisher. “Thus we send out a fat man for thousands to see, laugh at, and talk about on Broadway. Thus we try often to lead off the paper with something we know no other newspaper will play. It may be a triviality, yes. But it will be interesting and it will not be so overplayed that the news suffers. The success of a tabloid, as well as the standard size newspaper, depends on its complete, if compact, coverage of the news. Leave out the news and circulation will drop. In building mass circulation, however, trivialities are exceedingly important, because so frequently they are more interesting than the current great events.”

Not all of Payne’s efforts were trivial. He continued to champion women journalists, such as Helen Hadakin, the paper’s first female reporter, whom Payne sent into the Holland Tunnel to chronicle its construction firsthand. He hired a young writer named Micheline Keating on the strength of her breakout novel, Fame, for which Payne had acquired the second serial rights. Like Julia Harpman before her, Keating became a dogged crime and features reporter under Payne’s tutelage, covering Jazz Age sensations like the Peaches and Daddy Browning scandal, Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, and the funeral of Hollywood heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, whose death at age thirty-one following an emergency appendectomy sparked a tabloid tour de force.

Courtesy Photo.

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