A tribute to William S. Pauley
If William S. Paley hadn’t existed, Orson Welles might have invented him — a Citizen Kane of the electronic age whose career spanned the history of television and whose life would have made — might still make — a fine miniseries, complete with cliff-hangers, melodramatic flourishes, and a touch of scandal. When the CBS founder died on Oct. 26 at the age of 89, many commented that an era of broadcasting seemed to pass into history with him. Paley built his media empire from a small network of radio stations he purchased for $500,000 in 1928. In the decades that followed, he presided over the creation of TV news and a string of prime-time hits, from I Love Lucy to All in the Family, that gave CBS virtually unbroken ratings dominance from 1955 to 1976 and a cherished reputation as ”the Tiffany network.” Even when CBS fell to Laurence Tisch in the days of the corporate takeover, Paley, in his mid-80s, was working the boardroom, pulling strings, slipping only once, when he referred to his successor, accidentally but not without wit, as ”Larry Kitsch.”
”I do not look down on popular taste,” Paley once remarked. ”Oftentimes, popular taste is my taste.” It was a policy that allowed him to enter the media business with half a million dollars and leave with nearly half a billion.
But he didn’t do it quietly; even in his waning days, Paley regularly turned up in gossip columns and news stories. Now a biography, Sally Bedell Smith’s unsparing In All His Glory, has arrived to document his personal excesses, overweening ambition, and mercurial temperament. A few years ago, the book probably would have brought vigorous refutations from the image- sensitive tycoon. Today it serves as a dark reappraisal, keeping William Paley where, for 60 years, he was most at home: in the headlines.