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Dorothy Schiff; Former Publisher Who Molded N.Y. Post Into Liberal Showcase

August 31, 1989|MYRNA OLIVER | Times Staff Writer

Dorothy Schiff, the heiress who bought and then masterminded the New York Post for 37 years, molding it into a showcase of liberal thinking, died of cancer Wednesday in her New York City home. She was 86.

Granddaughter of banking magnate and philanthropist Jacob Henry Schiff, she bought the Post in 1939 at the request of her second husband, George Backer, and sold it to Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch in 1976 for $31 million.

The Post, sold again to real estate developer Peter S. Kalikow last year, was begun by Alexander Hamilton in 1801.

The tabloid owes its longevity partly to "Dolly" Schiff.

Survived Strike

In 1963, the Post survived a lengthy strike that spelled the demise of all but three New York dailies--the Post, the Times and the Daily News. Miss Schiff, after a punishing 86-day shutdown, broke with her colleagues in the New York Publishers' Assn. and resumed publication.

"Often voted least likely to succeed in New York's competitive journalistic climate," Newsweek observed, "she outmaneuvered such moneyed rivals as Hearst's Journal-American, Scripps-Howard's World Telegram and Sun, and John Hay Whitney's Herald Tribune, and in the end outlasted them."

One of the world's few women to own a newspaper and New York's first woman publisher, Miss Schiff was considered a model for the character Margaret Pynchon, publisher of the fictional Los Angeles Tribune on the 1977-82 television drama "Lou Grant."

Although from a traditionally Republican family, Miss Schiff became a New Deal Democrat, working for social welfare organizations and befriending Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. At one point, she persuaded Mrs. Roosevelt to write a column for the Post.

Although she publicly denied any romance or affair with the Depression-era President, Miss Schiff stated for a 1976 authorized biography called "Men, Money and Magic" that F.D.R. "was a warm, sexy guy who was in an isolated position and was looking for a turn-on" and "probably saw me as a sex object."

She told the book's author, Jeffrey Potter, that her then-husband Backer was "proud" of her seven-year relationship with Roosevelt, which ended in 1943 when she decided his "sun-god quality wasn't working for me all of a sudden."

'Honest Unionism'

Miss Schiff described the Post's editorial policy, which created a following in New York's liberal middle class, as advocating "honest unionism, social reform and humane government programs" and speaking out for "the causes of civil rights and civil liberties."

Despite her wealthy family's charitable philanthropies, she embraced New Deal programs, commenting: "Taxes seem to me to be far less demoralizing than private charities. I am glad to be taxed because it is the least devastating way to meet social needs both for the underprivileged and over-privileged."

Her penurious policies with the newspaper were legendary, and the Post became known for producing the most with the smallest staff and the most antiquated equipment.

"I am convinced," she said, "that a newspaper must make its own way. Kept organs are just no good."

When the paper suffered financial losses shortly after she bought it, she advocated comic strips, columns, features and a tabloid format. Backer's objections led eventually to his replacement on the paper and in her life.

Miss Schiff was born March 11, 1903, in New York City to Mortimer Leo Schiff, who was a banking partner of his father in Kuhn, Loeb & Co., and Adele A. Neustadt Schiff. She attended the private Brearley School, but after one year at Bryn Mawr College was asked not to return because of her low grades.

She debuted in 1921 and two years later married the first of her four husbands, broker Richard B. W. Hall. She divorced him in 1932 and married Backer, a businessman.

In 1943, Miss Schiff divorced Backer, assumed the titles of owner and publisher of the Post, and married the career newsman whom she had promoted to the paper's executive editor, Theodore Olin Thackrey.

That marriage ended because of political differences stated strongly in print. In 1948, the couple both opposed Harry S. Truman as President, but Thackrey touted Progressive candidate Henry Wallace and Miss Schiff went with Republican Thomas E. Dewey.

"A competent and fairly liberal Republican," she wrote, "will make a better President than an incompetent and inconsistent Democrat."

From 1951 to 1958, Miss Schiff wrote a column called "Publisher's Notebook" and later "Dear Reader," but told an interviewer: "I write scared, with a dictionary beside me." She abandoned the effort as too time consuming.

Dabbled in Radio Stations

Before buying controlling interest in the Post, Miss Schiff dabbled in radio stations in the 1930s--WLIB in Brooklyn, KMTR in Los Angeles and KYA in San Francisco.

In 1953, she married her fourth husband, petroleum executive Rudolf G. Sonneborn. That marriage also ended in divorce.

Miss Schiff is survived by a son and daughter from her marriage to Hall, Mortimer W. Hall and Adele Hall Sweet, and a daughter from her marriage to Backer, Sarah-Ann Kramarsky, 15 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

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