Saturday, 10 April 2021

Frank A. Munsey - An annotated bibliography

Frank A. Munsey was a publisher to be reckoned with. The creator of the pulp all-fiction cheap magazine for the masses, he built his publishing business into a mighty conglomerate with businesses in groceries, real estate, banking and publishing. On his death, he left his fortune to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Wanting to learn about him, I started reading one book and hoping to review it - Forty years, forty millions, a biography of Munsey by a newspaper man. I enjoyed it but wanted to verify some of the facts for myself. Searching around, I found a number of articles on and by Munsey and here we are. Tell me of any sources i may have missed in the comments section (you don't need a Google account to comment).

Frank A. Munsey


Forty years, forty millions – The career of Frank A.Munsey / by George Britt

This has very little about the pulps that gave Frank Munsey the money to build the rest of his empire. But it is a great picture of the character and experiences of Munsey, and provides more insight into his worldview and behavior than any other source. Written by George Britt, a newspaper man who had access to Munsey’s employees, it starts with his life in Maine and his exposure to publishing and the upper crust of society there. Born into a lower-middle income family, Munsey determined to make a fortune. Publishing was a vehicle for his ideas, one that he could get into with lower capital than most businesses, or so he imagined.

Coming to New York, he found himself in a desperate struggle to stay out of bankruptcy. Munsey was “kiting” cheques between Maine and New York banks to keep the business going. Munsey’s involvement in politics led to a first round of success for the Golden Argosy, sufficient to enable him to get in debt deep enough that his debtors had to give him more money to recover their original investment. Munsey’s will and determination, his early struggles and the consequent impact on his private life can be clearly seen.

When Munsey decided to drop his magazine's price to ten cents, American News Company, then the main distributor with a near monopoly, refused to take it on. They thought they couldn’t make money on it. Munsey solved that problem, and many others.

Britt talks about Munsey’s penchant for endless tinkering and the effects on his business. He is not reluctant to talk about Munsey’s quirks and defects. No smoking for employees or visitors to his home, no fat men in his employ, dietary recommendations for everyone he met, all counterbalanced by his personal generosity. Also gets into why Munsey kept buying and consolidating newspapers and magazines, following the model of other businessmen of the day.

The picture we get of Munsey is a mixture of contradictions – a man of ruthless business instincts and very little compassion to his rank and file employees, impulsive and generous, a cold blooded revenge seeker, deferring to the rich and powerful whose approval he craved - a lonely man who held himself aloof through life and ended up dying alone.

There are also plenty of colorful anecdotes, which I enjoyed. One was about Munsey buying a house and moving an adjunct building around the grounds, trying to find the perfect place for it, and then finally blowing it up. A small scale demonstration of what he did to most of the newspapers he bought.

I read it in one sitting. If you read one book about Munsey, this is the one. The other articles are mostly supporting evidence for Britt's book. 

Getting on in journalism. Address of Frank A. Munsey, at the annual meeting of the Press Assoc. of Canada. Ottawa, March 10, 1898. / by Frank A. Munsey

Most of what Munsey has to say here is covered in Britt’s book. It is reassuring to have confirmation that Britt didn’t twist the facts, otherwise doesn’t add much to what we know about Munsey.

Lord Northcliffe / by Frank A. Munsey

Alfred Harmsworth, the British newspaper and magazine magnate later known as Lord Northcliffe, was a friend and inspiration to Munsey. Munsey’s acquisitions of newspapers and magazines and his theory of the purpose of a newspaper were inspired by Northcliffe, though Munsey did bring his own quirks into the mix. Again, Britt covers the essentials in his book.

Advertising in some of its phases. Address before the Sphinx Club at the Waldorf-Astoria, New York, October 12, 1898. / by Frank A. Munsey

Munsey’s talk touches on some aspects of how manufacturers connected directly with customers through advertising. Unsaid and unspoken is the fact that the elimination of middlemen forced retailers to deal directly with manufacturers, pitting David against Goliath.

Munsey’s other ideas include putting artwork/illustrations in advertisements to stand out from the crowd (a good idea even today) and driving down prices to broaden markets. Much of this is, yet again, covered in Britt’s book.

Militant American journalism : the fight of the New York Herald against the $5,000,000,000 bonus raid directed personally  / by Frank A. Munsey

Munsey’s crusade against the payment of a bonus to World War 1 soldiers laid out in a series of reprinted editorials. The bonus was intended to compensate servicemen for the difference they lost between pay in the military versus their civilian jobs.

Munsey, who would have paid additional taxes on his income and his friends, saw no reason for healthy soldiers to be paid for their duty of citizenship. The bonus bill ended up passing in 1924, overriding a presidential veto, though the payment was deferred till 1945.

The story of the founding of the Munsey publishing house / by Frank A. Munsey

Most of the material is covered in the Britt book, though this might be a better view of how Munsey himself saw his success story.

Starve the railroads and we starve ourselves March, 1914 / by Frank A. Munsey

Screed in favor of J.P. Morgan, Munsey’s friend.

Some newspapers and newspaper-men / Oswald Garrison Villard

A chapter on Munsey’s newspaper ownership and management. Supports Britt’s book.

The story of the Sun, New York: 1833-1928 / by Frank M. O'Brien

A chapter on Munsey’s life and career, focusing on his newspaper work and taking a clear-sighted view of the end result of his newspaper closures. Supports Britt’s book.

Famous leaders of industry. 2d series. The life stories of boys who have succeeded / by Edwin Wildman  

One chapter of inspirational hagiography retelling Munsey’s success story with the Golden Argosy. Skip it.

Out of the rut; a business life story / by John Adams Thayer

Publisher of Everybody’s and Smart Set tells story of his hiring and rapid firing by Munsey. Small section of an interesting biography. Not covered in Britt’s book, but nothing major either.

The following entries (titles and summaries) were sourced from History of journalism in the United States; a bibliography of books and annotated articles by Edwin H. Ford.

The Real Romance of Mr. Munsey's Life, World’s Work, Feb. 1926). / Anonymous

Brief comment on the passing of Frank A. Munsey. Like many similar notices, it stresses the man’s commercial genius. His versatility shown by the fact that in addition to making money out of news­papers he also was able to squeeze hand­some profits from a chain of grocery stores which he had acquired.

The Millionaire Publisher Dies, New Republic, 45:206-7 (Jan. 13, 1926).

An account of the career of Frank A. Munsey, charging him with meanness, narrowness, and ingratitude to those who earned for him a million dollars a year.

Futility, Nation, 122:25 (Jan. 15, 1926).

Obituarial comment on William Allen White's indictment of Frank A. Munsey. White's bitter epitaph on Munsey re­printed. Brief. Reasonably critical.

From Forty Dollars to Forty Million, Outlook. 142:12-13 (Jan. 6, 1926).

About Frank A. Munsey. Chiefly concerned with his activities as a destroyer of newspapers. The responsibility of the publisher to the public rested lightly upon his shoulders. Newspapers were to him a commodity from which a profit must be wrung. A critical review.

The Last of His Clan, Independent, 116:33 (Jan. 9, 1926).

About Frank A. Munsey. This brief sum­ming-up of Mr. Munsey's career is friendlier than most which appeared shortly after his death. A reasonably criti­cal commentary.


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