Destiny, Dynasty & the Copleys (Part I of II)
AS HUMAN EXISTENCE is constructed of the narratives we weave on a daily basis, few among us appreciate the realityshaping power of the written word, or the influence of those people charged with telling our stories. It’s no accident the American Film Institute’s top movie choice of all time is Citizen Kane, the story of a newspaper publisher and the empire he constructed through print.
More than most newspapers, The San Diego Union-Tribune—for better or worse—is irrevocably tied to the community it serves. The past 50 years of post–Manifest Destiny and American turmoil have brought dramatic changes to both the city and the institution charged with chronicling its story. The aim of this particular narrative is an understanding of the chronicler: How well can a newspaper serve its readership as its sole daily publication?
Romantic poet William Blake wrote about seeing the world in a grain of sand, an idea borrowed by the New Journalists of the 1960s and ’70s as an emblem for their notion that the grandest of narratives—and the very kernels of meaning—are found in the simplest of life’s situations.
One such situation— on the surface, the epitome of banality—played out more than 30 years ago, in a burlesque house in a downtown San Diego that was still years away from gentrification and revitalization. In this scene, set in a small, dark dance room, three simple characters hold stage—two men and a woman. Unbeknownst to them, irony and destiny hang thick in the stale air.
One of the men is dying —he will be gone in a week. The other is part of his inner circle of devoted lieutenants. The woman, the daughter of a Midwestern railroad man, may or may not be aware that the hand of fate has picked her to succeed the dying man. The faithful friend and employee is Neil Morgan, a man destined to become a hallmark journalistic figure in San Diego—a town that’s fighting, in this 1973 setting, to break free of its provincial outpost and naval-depot image.
The dying man is Jim Copley, the 57-year-old head of Copley Press Inc. and self-appointed guardian of that conservative, military image. At this point in the story, his publishing dynasty has already dabbled in the power-driven, reality-shaping media of radio and television. With him is the light of his life— Helen Copley, his former secretary and current wife. They are playing out the final minutes of the last act in an eight-year, midlife love affair that—by all reports —has brought them both genuine happiness. Avid dancers, they come together in the small arena for their own last tango in paradise.
History will confirm that both of them are crafty and intelligent—as shrewd in business circles as they are cunning in the editorial world—and so there’s little doubt they’re aware of the crushing weight of the current reality. Cancer and death are waiting just offstage, and none of the many Copley millions will deter them.
Morgan recollects the scene like this: “I took [Helen and Jim] on the rounds just before he died, down to F Street, to the Hollywood Theater burlesque house. He wanted to see the place I wrote about where all the gamblers and strippers joined. I played the rinky-tink piano down there for him . . . He and Helen had a little dance; it was all very tender.
“We went back to the Press Room Saloon, across from the Union-Tribune on Second Avenue. [Jim] said, ‘I’d sure like to meet some of the staff,’ [so] I said, ‘I’ll have a few drop by.’ It was a beautiful, tender farewell. That was the kind of proprietary warmth [he had] . . . even though [he] was a chip off of his adopted father in terms of politics—rigidly Republican.”
THE TALE OF THE UNION-TRIBUNE is as much a tale of fathers and sons as it is one of power, control and political ambition. Perhaps that’s what makes the entrance of Helen Copley such an intrigue—a shrewd woman who held her own in the rampantly masculine world of publishing. A New York orphanage holds sway in another chapter of this tale—the birthing ground for a broken line of accessions to the Copley throne by adopted sons.
According to the memories of all who knew him, Jim Copley was a warm and amiable sort, the type of publisher who knew his way around the newsroom and the names of a surprising number of his frontline employees. Union-Tribune vets—the likes of Neil Morgan, Herb Klein and King Durkee (with more than 150 years of Copley Press time between them) —talk of his generous nature and an underlying zest for celebration that offset an intrinsic demand for perfection from himself and all those around him.
The perfectionist trait would come as little surprise to those who knew his father, Colonel Ira Copley —legendary newspaperman, utilities magnate and founder of the Copley Press. Despite the fact that as a rifle practice inspector in the Illinois National Guard he didn’t take a step off the train that carried him to fight in the ultra-brief Spanish-American War, the slight and bespectacled wiz with numbers insisted on the colonel designation throughout his life—a telling peek into the psyche of a figure who was the American archetype of last century’s self-made man.
The Colonel came from a modest background of farming Midwesterners who’d bought into the burgeoning utilities field; electricity was just making its entrance into American life. As a young Yale graduate, Ira returned home to salvage the ailing family business and proved astute enough with numbers to turn the company around— and then buy out the competition.
Like many successful men of his day—robber barons J. Paul Getty and J.P. Morgan among them—Ira Copley turned hard work into capital, capital into a financial empire, and that empire into a lifelong quest for power and control. His routine was as rigid as a train schedule. In his own Copley Press biography he comes across as a parsimonious sort, obsessed first with the acquisition of capital —and then by the lure of political clout.
It’s hard to believe the Colonel’s aim in buying into newspapers in his home state of Illinois was anything but a gambit to further his political ambitions—he spent six terms in the U.S. Congress. Far from a breach of public trust, the idea of consolidating publishing power for political reasons was not only heard of in the early part of the 20th century, it was de rigueur.
Hal Fuson, vice president and chief legal officer of the Copley Press, says journalism has changed drastically since Ira Copley bought his first newspaper in 1905 —the Aurora Beacon, in his home state of Illinois.
“If the Los Angeles Times didn’t emerge from [unreserved political maneuvering] until 1960, it’s not surprising that throughout their history, most newspapers were used to some extent as political tools by their owners,” Fuson says. “Certainly Hearst used his that way; Pulitzer [too]. And certainly, in his early years, one of the reasons that Ira [Copley] got in the newspaper business was because of his interest in serving in Congress. That’s just the way things were done in those days.
“My own view of this is that it’s largely driven by economics. When a newspaper was known to be a partisan journal, and there was another partisan journal across the street of a somewhat different stripe, the economics worked differently than when you find yourself sort of the only game in town, trying to build a mass audience,” says Fuson. “You can take one line or the other, and newspapers still occasionally do, but your business is best served if you remain independent and try your best to report objectively on the news of the community. That’s simply good business sense.
“Is it always done? Well, no, because that’s very difficult to do—and everybody has their own view of what bias is, or what’s right or wrong,” says Fuson. “So if you ask people in this town, ‘Are we [the Union-Tribune] in bed with the Republican Party?’ a lot of them will say yes. [But] if you ask people in this town if we’re a bunch of communists, a lot of them will say yes. Obviously, one of them is wrong—the truth’s a lot more complicated than you can couch in those terms.
NOTIONS OF RIGHT AND WRONG, as with beauty, shift accordingly with the eye of the beholder; caprice has always colored the convoluted dance of truth and perspective. One uncolored fact in this saga—the last 50 years of which have played out in a San Diego with an exploding population and wildly differing perspectives —is that at the age of 55, childless, disenchanted with politics and voted out of Congress, Colonel Copley, still married to his first wife, Edith, adopted a son.
Two-year-old James Strohn Copley had lost both his parents in the savage flu epidemic of 1918. In the decade prior, the Copleys had suffered the infant-age deaths of three of their own children. Family legend holds that the Colonel requested of a New York orphanage “the frailest, weakest child,” they had. Whatever the case with his political career, the Colonel was decidedly not ready to give up his ambitions in the publishing field—nor did his appetite for power and control seem to be dampened.
“I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but [the colonel’s odd request of the orphanage] has been written before, Neil Morgan remembers. “Whether it’s entirely true or not, it bears out the old concept that here’s a man who wants credit for doing the impossible—to take a scrawny kid and turn him into a man .. . whether he likes it or not.”
That the boy made it to manhood—and then to the pinnacle of American financial power—is a testament to his perseverance and fortitude, and surely to the Colonel’s inexorable will. Jimmie Copley was saddled through childhood and adolescence with poor health and a frail stature. According to the Copley Press biography, in 1919 Ira Copley worried his 3- year-old, 19-pound son might be a midget.
While the same biography paints a picture of a middle-aged man finding happiness through adoption, emotional father-son bonds and familial love seem conspicuously absent. The Colonel, as always, threw himself into work and travel. With Edith in tow, he toured extensively on his custom-made yacht, the Happy Days. Jim and another adopted son, William Nelson, were left in the care of the family’s domestic force—and then shipped off to East Coast boarding schools in early adolescence.
Jim moved to Massachusetts, at 14, to begin studies at the prominent Phillips Academy in Andover. From there, he followed the Colonel’s footsteps and attended Yale. Father and son saw each other on holidays and vacations. Whatever they lacked in emotion or direct contact, their relationship—an obsequious adherence to a path rigidly directed by the Colonel’s own experiences—is clearly archived in a decades-long series of letters, their chief means of communication.
“There was not much warmth or familial love from father to son,” Morgan says. “[Jim] was sort of called in at the end of his term at private school and given an audience, to hear [him] describe it to me. He was in great awe of his father and grateful to him, but there wasn’t a whole lot of tenderness—and that, I think, followed in the next generation. Unfortunately, Jim probably passed on some of that to Helen’s son. David [Copley] was a tender, wonderful, witty and bright man who never quite managed to be his own best friend.”
Jim Copley the student, despite several extended absences—the result of debilitating bouts of illness, including pneumonia—managed not only to graduate from college on time and with honors, he assumed various high-level roles on school publications at both Phillips Academy and Yale. There’s little question he enthusiastically embraced the publishing business that was to become his adoptive birthright. Lost in his shadow was the brother, Bill, a play companion adopted a year after him.
The elder son graduated from Yale in 1939 and spent the summer with Bill and a tutor in Europe. Already the signs of a coming war were apparent. A conservative and Republican, like his father, Jim had proven his mettle; the torch of a mercilessly driven ambition and insistence on perfection had been passed from father to son. It was about this time that the Colonel announced plans for his eldest son—a hands-on education in the publishing field that would pass him through every department in a gaggle of the Copley Press’ newspapers. By that time, the organization had expanded from its Illinois origins into the Los Angeles and San Diego markets, with more than a dozen newspapers. Copley bought The San Diego Union and Evening Tribune in 1928.
IN THE MIDST of Jim Copley’s practical education, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and plans changed on all sides. Colonel Copley, whatever else can be said of him, was a true patriot. His congressional record shows a bent for building up the country’s armed forces —particularly the Navy, for which he carried an undying admiration. (Admiral Chester Nimitz publicly lamented the Colonel’s death in 1947, calling it a loss felt by the entire country.)
And his boys were no typical congressman’s sons; both enlisted for service in World War II. Ironically, it was the second brother who actually served in theater.
Due to flat feet and bad vision, Jim was assigned to a naval desk position in Washington, D.C.; the Copley biography describes him as acutely disappointed to miss out on overseas action. Bill saw combat in the African campaign—letters to his father, detailing life in WWII Europe and Africa, were published anonymously in Copley newspapers. Though it’s glossed over in the Copley history—the war years were tough and lean for the entire newsprint industry —the era was a life-altering one that led to an eventual brotherhood schism, one that would threaten to sink the entire Copley dynasty.
While Bill was serving in Africa and then Europe, Jim worked tirelessly in his stateside desk job. In his mid and late 20s, the impressionable elder of the Copley boys was surrounded and engrossed by the naval machine his father had always admired; its effects were far-reaching. From the time of the Colonel’s death in 1947, Jim—who’d by then cut his teeth in every Copley publishing department—was surrounded by, and would continue to surround himself with, military officers. They became his support team and the shield any emperor uses to buffer himself from the outside world.
Bill, meanwhile, was stringing words together. His writing, particularly his sense of being an American—a writer and by extension an artist—in postwar Europe is reminiscent of Hemingway. It was a time that no doubt added to his developing bohemian strain. He came home after the war and took a seat on the board of directors of the Copley Press—which had incorporated in 1928—and continued contributing as a writer with the Union and the Tribune. His interests, however, were straying wide of the family empire. Within a few years, he’d moved to Los Angeles and refurbished an old firehouse into an art studio that became a center point for local artists. The spiritual chasm between himself and the driven, highly focused Jim was widening.
As Bill’s orbit was breaking away from the tight nucleus of the Colonel’s dynasty, Jim’s seat was set ever more firmly at its helm. By the mid-1950s, Bill had moved to Paris and was working as a painter and artist—a move diametrically opposed to the Colonel’s own path, followed so faithfully by the older brother. Jim had assumed the presidency of Copley Press on Ira’s death and was completely absorbed with the day-to-day operations of the multimilliondollar juggernaut—one he’d painstakingly saved from dissolution.
When the Colonel died, he left fourninths of his empire to each of his boys (another ninth went to the heirs of his second wife). The surviving Copleys were confronted with a list of heavy philanthropic commitments the Colonel had made, and a multimillion-dollar estate tax bill— all in the face of the fact that, apart from its capital in newspapers, the estate possessed precious little cash.
Jim Copley spent the better part of two years in the First National Bank of Chicago, attended by a train of attorneys, mulling over ways to keep the family of newspapers intact. To his credit, he managed to pull through the crisis without significantly disbanding the group—a move the Colonel would have found unthinkable. It was one of a series of crises to face the empire in the next two decades.
With Bill living in Paris and largely divorced from the Copley picture, the Copley Press, under Jim’s leadership, had branched out into television and movie production, launching industryleading initiatives in equipment overhaul, training and education. It was one of the preeminent publishing dynasties of its day. Then, in 1955, a second crisis erupted. Bill, not happy with the direction of the group, sued to have the company disbanded and its assets liquidated. Through another set of belt-tightening measures, Jim was able to buy out the remaining fiveninths of Copley stock. Bill received more than $10 million in the 1959 settlement —one that forever estranged the adopted brothers.
SAN DIEGO WAS STILL VERY MUCH a Navy town at the end of the 1950s, with a conservative Republican ethos closely matching that of Jim Copley and his newspapers—a dynasty that was just beginning a long, mutually beneficial relationship with young Richard Nixon. Moving into the 1960s, Jim’s first marriage—to Jean Boyd— had begun to deteriorate. During that time, Helen Hunt, an Iowa native who’d moved west with a son in utero and no husband, fell into a secretarial job with The San Diego Union. She eventually found herself in the head office, as one of Jim Copley’s executive secretaries in La Jolla.
The past four decades have birthed a rich line of rumor and myth regarding the Copley dynasty. One of the chief lines of innuendo says Jim Copley’s first marriage broke up as a result of his love affair with his then-secretary and future wife, Helen. That charge is dismissed out of hand by those who knew the couple.
I was there,” Neil Morgan says. “I can tell you about a dinner party at [the Copleys’ La Jolla manse] Foxhill, one of many, where I found Jim Copley alone in the kitchen. I was out looking for ice for the bar, and I’d wandered into the kitchen, and he was standing there alone, with no drink in his hand, looking absolutely miserable. I came up beside him and said, ‘What’s the matter, Jim?’ He was being overly abused that night in front of guests by his then-wife. It was the end of the marriage. He knew it that night; he said so . . . and he’d not yet met Helen.”
Whatever the case of convoluted interplay between a rocky first marriage and the burgeoning love of a media mogul and his painfully shy secretary, the facts are these: Jim Copley paid for a famously expensive divorce after a 1963 separation and then, in 1965, Helen Hunt became Helen Copley—setting the stage for her own 1973 entrance into one of the grandest Cinderella stories in American history. Auspiciously, at that time the New Journalists—Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe among them—were making ripples with a revolutionary brand of first-person reportage that was to forever alter the face of American journalism.
Though she was populist by birth and moderate by nature, Helen Copley was loyal to the legacy of her deceased husband; she sheltered the Union and the Tribune from the unconventional and controversial in the changing face of journalism. Today, a year after her death, that safe and conservative management record continues to bear heavily on the present.
As the hands-on mother of the current emperor—the adopted son of an adopted son—Helen saw the dynasty through a tumultuous period. Times were already changing when Jim Copley began his final debilitating bout with cancer. The infrastructure of traditional, conservative America—of which San Diego was a bedrock community—was beginning to show the extent of its own cancerous decay. The New Journalists, diametrically opposed to Jim Copley’s ideas of rigidly straight and objective journalism, played figurehead in a burgeoning counterculture that was altering American politics.
IN THE MIDST OF THE FEAR and loathing of the American maelstrom of the 1970s, a quiet watershed moment came out of Jim Copley’s passing. Helen leased a 727 jetliner to take his body back to the family burial grounds in Aurora; an empire- altering confrontation took place on the return trip. Robert Letts Jones had been a vice president and director of the Copley Press since 1956. He later became president and a member of the executive committee—one of the innermost of Jim Copley’s inner circle.
Neil Morgan was invited to join the entourage that took Jim Copley back to Illinois. He was sitting in the front of the plane, he says, when a flight attendant surprised him with a request from the widow Copley to join her.
“She was sitting all alone with her briefcase and all of her papers,” he recalls, “about to assume control of the newspaper, and doing her homework. [She] handed me an announcement that [Jones] had written to go over the masthead in the next day’s Union and Tribune. I read it, and she watched me, and I looked at her. It was a wonderful moment that only old friends could have seen.”
The announcement Jones had written said that “with the ever-faithful Helen at our side we will go forward.” “Helen said to me, ‘What do you think?’ ” Morgan remembers. “I said, ‘I don’t think that’s the way it’s going to be, is it?’ She laughed and said, ‘No, it’s not . . . would you rewrite this? We’ll get it back to him and make sure it’s run properly.’
“The ‘we’ carrying on was going to be her. She wasn’t going to be at anybody’s side; that was her declaration of management,” Morgan says. “And she became a very strong publisher. [Her] first several years were the best years of the Union [and] Tribune’s lives.”
Jones was soon ousted from the helm of the Copley ship. It was a decisive and emphatic move by the daughter of a Midwestern railroad signaler, her own sign to the masculine world of publishing—and the military core of the emperor’s inner circle—that Cinderella would be the sole bearer of the reins. She soon made more tough decisions —including the “retiring” of several other superfluous Copley executives, and the sale of Copley assets— in order to avoid the same potentially empire-crushing inheritance taxes that had threatened when Colonel Ira Copley died 26 years before.
While Helen’s moderately conservative political makeup didn’t stray far from Jim’s, insiders say she brought a populist, more liberal outlook to the Copley editorial endeavor. She eventually surrounded herself with her own inner circle, and brought a female presence to the largely male Union-Tribune. Legend holds that she found —and killed—a host of sacred cows in the editorial rooms of the two newspapers; insiders say she replaced them with her own. Certainly the military, the Republican Party and the San Diego Police Department all continued to fare well in print during the Helen Copley reign, insiders say.
Perhaps her most lasting accomplishment was the shaping of a successor. Just as Jim Copley had rehearsed his duties with her, to the point she was able to pick up the reins without a hiccup—and make surprisingly tough and effective business decisions—Helen groomed her son David throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. It was an intimate education in the power-driven world of publishing that complemented his earlier hands-on instruction in every department of the Copley Press —a post-college training agenda that closely mimicked his adoptive father’s. Though by most accounts he’s readily accepted his complicated role as publisher, Union-Tribune vets say David Copley was a reluctant student—a shy and artistic young man who was aware of his destiny but not always a willing participant in it.
Recalling 21-year-old David when his adoptive father died, Copley Press veterans describe him as warm and shy, with a budding propensity for the arts. One Union employee says that, as a teenager, the future director of the Copley dynasty wanted to be an interior designer. Associates talk of his love for theater—and the fact he’s currently one of the world’s foremost collectors of works by Bulgarian artist Christo. As publisher of the Union- Tribune and president of the Copley Press, far removed from the ethereal world of the arts, David is the physical manifestation of one of the greatest contemporary publishing dynasties in the country, one of the few remaining family operations in newspapers.
Former New York newspaper publishing investment banker Kevin Lavalla, who worked to readjust Copley holdings in 2000, calls the Copley corporation—which by that time operated under the regime of David—a “group of very smart people who know how to do business the right way,” and one that’s respected throughout the industry. From the outside of the aggressively secret organization, David appears to be a capable leader—or at least one with enough sense to surround himself with a competent retinue.
Apart from that, it’s not difficult to be struck by the ironies surrounding him.
For starters, like his two predecessors —Helen and Jim—he has no Copley blood. And odd parallels link him to his estranged, adoptive uncle, Colonel Copley’s bohemian son Bill. Both made for a strange, round fit in a square Copley mold. As a mysterious, power-shrouded and highly shielded leader, David has always lacked the one component that allowed artist Bill to walk away from his father’s legacy—an older brother, loyal to a fault and driven to shoulder the unimaginable weight of a rigidly Republican dynasty.
There’s no question Helen Copley led a fairy-tale life during her brief marriage to Jim Copley. Her only child was destined to play the role of Cinderella’s son—whether he liked it or not. The contemporary picture leads one to believe the 53-year-old nearbillionaire (Forbes listed Helen Copley’s worth at $840 million before her death last year) has finally, like Jim and Helen did more readily before him, accepted his fate. As the new emperor, he’s emblematic of a Union-Tribune that’s run a gauntlet as schizophrenic as his own strange, fairy-tale journey.
IN THE THIRTY-THREE YEARS since Jim Copley’s death, San Diego’s population has more than doubled—the city has morphed into the seventh largest in the country, the second largest in California. The Navy’s presence has shrunk, while the higher education and biotech sectors—luring young, affluent and often liberal minds—have mushroomed. The city, though still surrounded by a sea of Republicanism, now votes Democrat. In short, the reigns of Helen and David Copley have come at a time of unbridled growth and radical change in San Diego’s history —and the Union-Tribune, the Copley Press’s traditionally conservative, flagship enterprise, has struggled to keep pace. Indeed, Helen’s death sparked some industry observers to speculate whether David intends to sell off all or part of the empire.
As contemporary electronic media —spearheaded by the Internet—continues to radically reshape the landscape of journalism, industry insiders wonder if the Union-Tribune has fulfilled its roles as community watchdog and visionary. Several Copley vets surmise that the city’s current pension and City Hall debacles are a symptomatic fallout of the Union-Tribune failure to sniff out—or at least to report —corruption in previous decades. And as the city struggles through its various murky crises, the Union- Tribune faces its own—a decline in circulation numbers even more pronounced than the gloomy national average.
If the city and its newspaper are irrevocably tied up in a common, complex and sometimes sordid tapestry of history and intrigue, the strange and little understood times of the closely guarded David Copley might be the key to understanding their mutual history—and through it, the futures of both.