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

Updated: Sep 1, 2022


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 Immigrants

Jews were blamed for the assassination which brings about anti-Semitic rioting and scapegoating, known as PO-GROMS. These occurred through out the Empire. Over 2 million Jews leave Russia at this time with the majority coming to the United States. The impoverished Paleys immigrate to Chicago. His father Samuel takes a job as a “lector” in a cigar factory -- meaning he reads books and newspapers to workers while they roll cigars which, of course, is very tedious.

In 1896 Samuel and his brother Jacob open the Congress Cigar Company in a Jewish neighborhood in Chicago. The company is probably named after its location on Congress Street, a prominent business strip. Bill is born in 1901 in an apartment above the store with his father Sam, mother Goldie and a sister named Blanche.

La Palina cigar box

The brothers make and sell many cigar brands with the most successful being La Palina named after Samuel’s wife Goldie. La Palina is a feminized form of the name Paley. My grandfather was a serious cigar smoker who would give me his empty boxes. I am sure I had this one.

Western Military Academy in Alton, IL

Paley attends public school until his senior year of high school, when his parents enroll him in the Western Military Academy where his interest in entertainment begins.

A school brochure states that “the Academy will arrange, each year a series of musical entertainments to relieve the monotony of school life.” Paley may have participated. At the age of 12 he distinguishes himself by adding the initial S to his name, possibly to impress his father Samuel.

The old University of Chicago

After graduating from the academy in 1918, Paley attends the University of Chicago

founded by the American Baptist Society and John D. Rockefeller. He becomes friends with Rockefeller’s sons Nelson and David many years later. By the 1920s Samuel and Jacob become millionaires and move their families to Philadelphia.

College Hall - The University of Pennsylvania

Bill transfers to the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania where he graduates with a science degree. Classes are held in College Hall, the oldest building on campus.

Bill works at the Congress Cigar Company throughout his youth, sweeping floors and running errands. After graduating from Wharton, Bill immediately takes a management position in the Congress Cigar Company.

La Palina advertisement on a train car

During the next several years, Paley shows an impressive grasp of business principles and an instinct for making smart decisions. Business is great. By 1926, the cigar company has seven factories in four states, employing over 4,000 people and producing over 250 million cigars a year—that’s 700,000 cigars a day.

The Paleys experiment with promoting La Palina on the radio, a medium still in its infancy. The ads are very successful. They pay $6,500 a week to sponsor a radio show in Philadelphia called La Palina Hour and sales increase 150 percent. This convinces Bill, now director of marketing, that commercial radio has a huge potential—even bigger than cigars. At the age of 26 Bill is a millionaire. He invests one half of his fortune by purchasing the Columbia Broadcasting System, a network of 16 radio stations in NJ and NY.

An early recording room for radio

By 1929 Paley moves to New York City, and quickly signs up 49 additional radio stations. He offers them more program time with less advertising. In a master stroke, he eliminates the fee with the assurance that their commercials will be heard by more people. He also insists that affiliates have the latest RCA equipment. With the radio stations in hand, talent comes next.

Bill begins by changing program content from high-brow music to more mainstream tastes like the Paul Whiteman Band, the most popular jazz band of the 1920s. Whiteman commissions George Gershwin to write Rapsody in Blue. CBS broadcasts Duke Ellington live from The Cotton Club in Harlem. Ellington writes Mood Indigo, the first tune he writes for radio transmission. It becomes a jazz standard. Singers for The Duke include Paul Robeson and Billie Holiday.

Paul Robeson, the Paul Whiteman Band, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday

Dorothy Hart Hirshon Wearing a Schiaparelli Dress is a photograph by Horst P. Horst in 1938.

Paley’s life takes a dramatic turn about this time when he meets Dorothy Hart Hearst, a glamourous figure in New York society who is married to the alcoholic son of William Randolph Hearst. Paley is smitten and, four days after she divorces Hearst, they marry. They have two children, Jeffery and Hilary.

Bill and Dorothy

Although seven years younger, Dorothy is more worldly than Paley and runs in sophisticated society including the Algonquin Set, who include NY’s elite writers Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, Robert Benchley and Joseph Mankiewicz. Dorothy has an enormous impact on Bill with her liberal political leanings with an appetite for news. She supports FDR’s New Deal reforms during the Depression.

Louise Brooks as Lulu in Pandora's Box

But Bill is a well-known philanderer. One of his friends said “he was not a woman lover, he was a womanizer.” Paley has a one-year affair with silent screen star Louise Brooks who is known as the IT GIRL. He continues to support Louise for the rest of her life. Dorothy divorces Bill in 1947 for infidelity.

The Mills Brothers

One day in 1930 Paley turns on his office speaker to hear an audition of four young men known as "The Mills Brothers." He immediately puts them on the air. The next day, the Mills Brothers sign a three-year contract. They become the first African-Americans to have a network show on radio heard in the NY region.

Bing Crosby and comedians Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen.

Paley aggressively pursues and signs all the best talent including a young crooner named Bing Crosby and comedians Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen.

One of the most popular radio programs of the 1930s and 40s is Kate Smith Sings. Paley says he “selects her because she is not the type of woman to provoke jealousy in American housewives.”

Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and Elizabeth Taylor

Lux Radio Theatre begins in 1934 by performing live before a studio audience. The latest film scripts are read by Hollywood movie stars and stage play are read by Broadway theatre actors. Some of the movie stars performing on Luxe Radio - during its long run - include Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and Elizabeth Taylor. By 1935 CBS is the largest radio network in the United States.

Louis Armstrong

In 1937, Louis Armstrong substitutes for crooner Rudy Valleeand becomes the first African American to host a national broadcast. Paley buys Columbia Records who introduce the long playing LP in 1948 with over 40 minutes of recording time. Columbia recording stars include Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and Beyoncé.

Family adventure programs are heard, sometimes daily -- Gene Autry's Melody Ranch, Buck Rogers from the 25th Century, and the adventures of prize fighter Joe Palooka.

Edward R. Murrow

During WWII Paley serves in the Office of War Information in the Mediterranean and later becomes Chief of Radio in the Psychological Warfare Division. Paley's success in entertainment is equal to a fierce commitment to news. He meets Edward R. Murrow in London at the beginning of the war and hires him to be the voice of CBS News. Murrow escorts his boss around London, making sure that he dines with the right people.

Joe McCarthy and Edward R. Murrow

After the war, Murrow produces a TV special on Senator Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare hearings. Murrow uses excerpts from McCarthy's own speeches to criticize him and point out accusations where he contradicts himself. The broadcast contributes to a nation wide backlash against McCarthy and is a turning point in the history of television.

The Cushing Sisters, Babe on the left

Paley is newly divorced from Dorothy Hearst in 1947 and is eager to increase his profile. He finds a new love in Barbara "Babe" Cushing. The Cushing sisters, long before the Kardashians, captivate America by marrying prominent men in the Roosevelt, Vanderbilt and Astor families.

Babe photographed by Horst P. Horst

Babe’s debut in 1938 in Boston was attended by FDR’s sons. She capture the public’s fascination during the Great Depression and becomes a media star. Babe works at Vogue Magazine as a fashion editor and quickly draws the attention of fashion photographers Horst, Eisenstaedt, Avedon, Cecil Beaton and Slim Aarons. In 1940 Babe marries socially prominent sportsman Stanley Mortimer at St. Luke’s Church in East Hampton. Vogue Magazine covers the wedding. They have 2 children before divorcing in 1946.

Bill Paley marries Babe Cushing Mortimer in 1947 and have two additional children. Surprisingly I can find no photos of their wedding and only a handful of these two together during their marriage.

Babe and Bill with Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor

Paley is very wealthy, with an interest in the arts and a desire to be a part of New York’s high society. As a Jew, Babe's social connections gives him a greater chance of being accepted. Paley offers wealth, security, and worldliness. Babe devotes herself to entertaining and keeping a flawless appearance. She is famous for saying, “One can never be too rich or too thin.”

Peggy Lee

1951 was a transition year for CBS moving from radio to television. Peggy Lee hosts her own radio show in New York and, at the same time, appears on many live TV shows like the Perry Como and Ed Sullivan variety shows. This was Lee’s candlelight-and-furs era - singing straight and painstakingly slow - as if in slow motion stimulating imaginations nationwide.

William Golden

That same year CBS president, Frank Stanton declares the CBS logo isn’t stylish enough. He tells Creative Director William Golden to create something new. Golden finds his inspiration in a book of Shaker drawings that show the all seeing eye of God. He creates the famous “eye” logo, one of the world’s most famous brands. The logo morphs many times over the years. The eye changes but to this day, the perfectly balanced design remains unchanged. The all seeing logo has it’s own exhibit titled Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television at the Jewish Museum in NYC in 2015.

Inspiration and different designs of the CBS logo and the 2015 exhibit at the Jewish Museum in NYC

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

In 1948 Lucille Ball, a Hollywood star whose movie career is declining, performs with Richard Denning in “My Favorite Husband” on Lux Radio. The show is a hit. CBS develops it into "I Love Lucy” in 1951 which also becomes wildly popular. Paley’s creativity is sometime inconsistent. He objects to Desi Arnaz on the air because he is Cuban. It was Ball who insists that her real-life husband play her stage husband.

Ed Sullivan and Nat King Cole

The Ed Sullivan Show begins in 1948. He fights against racial discrimination by regularly showcasing African Americans. During the 1950s he shocks the nation when he gives Pearl Bailey a kiss on the cheek and shook Nat King Cole’s hand on the air.

James Arness of Gunsmoke

Paley asks his staff to develop an adult, hard-boiled Western series. Gunsmoke runs for 20 years often as the number one show. It was Paley’s favorite.

73 million people watched Ed Sullivan introduce the Beatles in 1964 which is 1/3 of the U.S. population. Beatlemania awakens a generation to British music and style. The Beatles continue to inspire. In 2019 the group’s music is streamed 850 million times by people under 30 years old.

The Beatles in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show
In 1964 Paley buys the New York Yankees. His son William C. Paley says while growing up, my dad never had time to play baseball with me but he owned the Yankees.
The Dick Van Dyke show is on air for 6 years and is ranked number 13 on TV Guides Greatest Shows of all time.

In 1959 James Aubrey becomes president of CBS. He steers the network to become the most popular channel on television with shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island and Petticoat Junction. By 1971 all of the rural-themed shows are popular but are cancelled. Young people are not watching them. All in the Family also airs in 1971 and breaks ground depicting racism, antisemitism, infidelity, homosexuality, breast cancer and abortion. Paley thinks it’s vulgar and wants it cancelled. Luckily it survives to become television’s most influential comedy. The Jeffersons opens in 1975 and is the longest running TV show led by African American actors. It has a mixed race cast.

All in the Family and The Jeffersons

Babe Paley

During the 70s Babe Paley is lonely and frustrated as Bill carries on a chain of affairs which takes a toll on her and her family. She is constantly under the scrutiny of society and the media, who pressures her into maintaining an unrealistic image of perfection. These external pressures, as well as a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, finally affect her health. She dies at 63 in 1978. Her one time friend Truman Capote says "Babe Paley had only one fault, she was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect.”

Four Fountains in Southampton

Bill buys Four Fountains in Southampton after selling another Long Island estate that he and Babe had shared. Bill says “the old house was filled with memories that I guess depressed me,” William S. Paley dies in 1990. He was a genius, possessed of enough energy to propel a dozen brilliant careers, generous, thoughtful and vital. Above all, he was charming.

Richard Nixon entering temple Emanu-El on 5th Avenue.

Those speaking at his funeral were David Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger and Walter Cronkite. Attendees included Oscar de la Renta, Dan Rather, Alan Alda and the cream of the entertainment and political worlds.

He leaves the bulk of his massive art collection to the Museum of Modern Art including works by Matisse, Degas, Renoir and Picasso. In the words of Frank N. Stanton, the president of CBS, "He was too complex."

The history of Bill Paley and CBS is too enormous for me to cover in this short presentation. There are several published biographies about the man, but the one I would highly recommend is titled - In All His Glory by Sally Bedell Smith, from which I have borrowed extensively.

Paley in his old age with Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse in the background

2,665 views2 comments


David Adams
David Adams
Mar 10, 2022

An excellent and most enjoyable presentation! Well done.

Tom Edmonds
Tom Edmonds
Apr 05, 2022
Replying to

Many thanks for watching. Tom Edmonds

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