Southampton’s 20th Century Influencers: William S. Paley, Founder of CBS


William Paley and CBS are larger subjects than I imagined when I first chose to do this talk. But here goes. It was 1951 when CBS introduced its world-famous, seeing eye logo to American audiences.

That’s Paley adjusting the camera.

William S. Paley was the father of modern broadcasting. He built CBS from a small radio station into the most powerful communications network in the world. Paley - more than any other early figures of broadcasting - was fascinated by entertainment. He was also devoted to the rapidly changing technology seen in communications during the middle of the 20th century.

That’s the former CBS building called “the Black Rock” on 6th Avenue.

It was Paley who determined what the nation first heard on radio and then saw on television at home every night. As a baby boomer raised in the 1950s and 60s my family and I were glued to TV. How TV became a maker of public tastes, can be told as the story of just one broadcasting network - CBS - and of its founder and unbeatable CEO and chairman, William Paley.

Paley paired his deep attraction to the entertainment world with the most advanced technology.

Bill’s personal fortune was worth more than $500 million by the end of his life. He earned this over many decades while turning CBS into his personal golden candy store. Author Sally Bedell Smith, takes a harsh view of Paley in her 1990 biography, saying he was better at personifying his self-created legend than he was at creating excellence for himself, or his television network. She continues - Paley ignored his family, destroyed the careers of many businessmen and died friendless. That may or may not be true. He was, without a doubt a major influence on the 20th century.

Why am I talking about Bill Paley today? He came to my attention recently when his historic summer house in Southampton, called Four Fountains, made the news. New owners were successful in having its demolition approved because of major wood rot. The new owner’s thankfully agreed to respect its façade and reconstruct as much as possible.

The assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881

Let’s begin with Bill’s origins. The Paley family, in the mid 19th century, were prosperous Jews from the Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. The family became prosperous in the booming lumber business created by the rapidly developing railroad system. That changes in 1881 after the assassination of Czar Alexander II. This causes a major turning point in Jewish history. The Czar had been a liberal. His son Alexander III reverses his father’s attempts of modernization and reform to install an autocratic rule.

Depiction of Jewish Immigran