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High-Hat, Low-Brow and Rat-Smart : IN ALL HIS GLORY; William S. Paley, the Legendary Tycoon and His Brilliant Circle By Sally Bedell Smith (Simon & Schuster: $29.95; 815 pp.)

November 11, 1990|Robert Sherrill | Sherrill is corporation correspondent for the Nation magazine. and

Apparently a kindly deity has put certain rich people on this earth to give us lesser mortals the pleasure of detesting them.

"In All His Glory" persuades me that William S. Paley is in that group.

One may easily admire him for the willpower, craftiness and luck that enabled him to dominate the Columbia Broadcasting System for more than half a century. And socially, when everything was going his way, he could be very charming.

But otherwise, phew! Paley was a notoriously unfaithful husband, a spiteful and indifferent father, an often oppressive and devious employer, a braggart, a shameless social climber, an opportunistic patriot. Among other suitable adjectives: shallow, superstitious, hypochondriacal, vengeful, insensitive.

For that appraisal I rely solely on the evidence supplied by Sally Bedell Smith. But I don't feel she has turned out a hatchet job. "In All His Glory," meticulously researched (the last 142 pages are citations and bibliography), is as sympathetic and balanced as the facts allow. Elegantly written, entertaining even when the action bogs down in the board room, free of hype, overflowing with lush details to bring high society and low business to life--it is the best biography of a tycoon I've ever read.

Son of an immigrant Russian Jew who started from scratch and became a millionaire making cigars, Bill Paley also was a successful cigar maker (first as a strike breaker) until 1928 when, at the age of 26, he bought into and became president of an infant radio network.

He made the career shift reluctantly. Although he concocted the legend that he was a risk-taker, actually he hated risks. His lack of pioneering spirit later hurt CBS the most when he held back from television, allowing NBC to take a giant lead. Although CBS had a color technology ready to go as early as 1940, its first commercial colorcast wasn't until midway through 1951.

Often, CBS' progress and profits came despite Paley, who lacked vision. He was reluctant to support research that resulted in the LP record, one of CBS's greatest technological triumphs and one of its most profitable. When the corporation had accumulated so many surplus millions that it was looking for investments, he passed up a chance to buy the gold-mine Washington Post and instead used CBS's treasury to make piddling investments in toy and guitar companies. With a worldwide news-gathering operation in place, CBS had a chance to take the lead in cable news, but Paley left that prize to Ted Turner by default.

Using the bottom line as a whip, Paley drove some of his best executives nuts. One of his programmers used to vomit after every meeting with the boss. It was underlings, not Paley, who discovered most of CBS's biggest stars, like Arthur Godfrey and Lucille Ball, but Paley took credit for virtually all of his subordinates' good ideas. Still, they respected him; he was, said one CBS exec, "rat smart."

As an honorary colonel, he went off, with a golden dog tag from Cartier and his personal valet, to fight World War II in such trenches as London's Claridge's hotel. Later he did give some service as a propagandist in occupied Germany, but mostly he spent the war boozing and bedding Pamela Churchill and Edwina Mountbatten and his secretary.

Paley was often gone, playing around with his society pals, during the crucial post-war years when CBS was struggling with the transition to TV and coping with new federal regulations. But when those who really ran the corporation got good press, Paley became dangerously jealous. Mean jealousy, Smith suggests, was one reason Paley eventually would force Frank Stanton, who was CBS president for 27 years and "whose business acumen, decency and understated humor endeared him to his colleagues," to retire at the peak of his usefulness.

The fact is, except for the programming side of broadcasting, Paley had little interest in business. He had, however, what many CBS executives told Smith was a "rapacious" interest in money. Even after he was personally worth half a billion, he wasn't satisfied.

To keep the loot coming in a flood, he was willing to put on trash entertainment and let advertisers dictate the content of his news programs. During the McCarthy witch-hunting period, CBS buckled under to right-wing advertisers and had its own blacklist. (Oddly, Smith does not mention what CBS did to John Henry Faulk in its most infamous case of blacklisting.)

Great reporters like Edward R. Murrow, William Shirer and Howard K. Smith were beaten down, gagged, or fired. Always sucking up to Washington, Paley ran reruns of "I Love Lucy" rather than cover some of the most important Vietnam hearings. And during the Watergate investigation, says Smith, CBS was remarkably timid.

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