Born March 11, 1903, in New York, Dorothy “Dolly” Schiff was the daughter of Mortimer & Adele Schiff; theirs was a prominent family. Ms. Shiff’s grandfather, Jacob Schiff, who had come from Frankfurt in 1865, was a director of Kuhn, Loeb and Co., and was a founder of Temple Emanu-El (which your correspondent will be visiting in a couple weeks). He himself is worth a column - an industrialist, he set up Hebrew schools around NYC, and supported the Int’l Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Ms. Schiff would be married and divorced four times (she seemed to be escaping her parents), and would have a son and two daughters. The divorces would be prominent in her life and ours.
Ms. Schiff was a figure to be reckoned with, socially and politically. Before her first marriage in 1923 to a broker, Richard Brown West Hall, she converted to Episcopalian, having studied the New Testament. They divorced in 1928 and by her next wedding she had reverted to Judaism. In 1932 (the year after her parents’ passing), she married George Backer, a city councilman and a liberal Democrat. She became a New Deal Democrat, which was politically divergent from her family’s stance. She attended FDR’s 1933 Inaugural Ball and delved into organizing, including a rally to boycott German goods. She became director of the Women’s Trade Union League, was appointed to the Board of Child Welfare, and joined many organizations to help the underprivileged. Having met FDR through his daughter Anna, she became a frequent guest and eventually bought half of a 90-acre tract of land he owned in Hyde Park, and built a home.
Politics can be infectious. In 1938, Ms. Schiff ran for delegate from Nassau County to the NY State Constitutional Convention; she lost. However, she would become otherwise occupied. The New York Post, founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801, was up for sale in 1939. Ms. Schiff bought a controlling interest, made her husband publisher and president, herself a director, VP, and treasurer, and Theodore O. Thackrey feature editor, later to be promoted to executive editor. In 1942, Ms. Schiff took over the newspaper, making her the first female NY newspaper publisher, and in 1943 got a divorce and married Thackrey, who had converted the Post to a tabloid from a broadsheet. Ms. Schiff devoted the paper to liberal efforts such as unions and social assistance. Columnists included Eleanor Roosevelt, Eric Sevareid, Franklin P. Adams, Elsa Maxwell, and Drew Pearson. She also published for a few years a Paris Post. She visited the Algonquin Round Table (see our prior columns about the Round Table).
A rift between Ms. Schiff and Mr. Thackrey came when he supported Henry Wallace and she Thomas Dewey for President, and they both published about them. After the election, Ms. Schiff went to Paris for the United Nations session, and Mr. Thackrey wrote a critique of conservative policy around the world. On her arrival home, she forbade publication of his piece. He resigned in 1949, and they divorced in 1950. Her fourth marriage would be to Rudolph G. Sonneborn; they endured a lot but it ended in 1965. However, the Post remained her main emphasis. She would encourage a broad range of viewpoints and investigations, even as she herself became politically active. (She would visit JFK in the White House; President Johnson offered her an ambassadorship to Liberia, which she declined, etc.)
In the 1960s, newspapers underwent turmoil - strikes, economic trouble, mergers, etc. The Post survived as the last standing evening paper in New York City. Ms. Schiff purchased automated equipment, and moved to a larger space, but television was having a deleterious effect. By the mid-1970s the ink was red, and in December 1976, Ms. Schiff sold the Post to Rupert Murdoch, remaining a consultant until 1981.
Ms. Schiff passed away on August 30, 1989, having made her mark. She would state, “Influence, not power, is what interests me.” She also wrote, “Politics doesn’t consist in being right. It’s in making other people think you are.”