They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

Review: Alice Arlen and Michael J. Arlen, ‘The Huntress: The Adventures, Escapades, and Triumphs of Alicia Patterson, Aviatrix, Sportswoman, Journalist, Publisher’

Alicia Patterson stands beside her plane after landing in New York in 1930 / AP
September 4, 2016

The very long subtitle of this biography seems a bit like overkill; on the other hand, Alicia Patterson, whom I had never heard of before reading this book, was all of the things stated, the sort of larger-than-life figure the first half of the twentieth century seems to have specialized in.

Her niece, Alice Arlen (who died in March 2016), co-screenwriter of Silkwood and other films, and Michael J. Arlen, a former New Yorker staff writer and television critic, have written an entertaining and thoughtful biography of this perplexing yet fascinating woman. Born in 1906 to Joseph Patterson and Alice Higinbotham, both of whom hailed from wealthy Chicago families, Alicia grew up in a family both privileged and emotionally volatile.

Her story is bound up with her father, who she both adored and resented for his fickle affection. Joseph rebelled against the conservatism of his family, after several Teddy Roosevelt-like adventures, by becoming a socialist and trying to turn his father’s newspaper—he was the son of Robert Wilson Patterson, the editor of the Chicago Tribune—into a progressive one. When that didn’t work out, he went to work for the newly elected progressive mayor, who after a few talks with the leading figures of Chicago was suddenly not as progressive as he had been before, or at least not enough for Joe Patterson.

After a stint at a progressive agricultural school in Wisconsin, Patterson moved his family to rural Libertyville, Illinois, to live off the fat of the land. His desire to be a Tolstoyan farmer and his wife’s desire, making the best of it by her lights, to transform a poor farmhouse into an English village house complete with gardens, gave Alicia, to say the least, a peculiar childhood. She was the middle mischievous tomboy who rode horses more athletically than her two sisters while getting thrown out of school. Her older sister, Elinor, was the elegant debutant; her younger sister, Josephine, resembled Alicia but stayed home more often.

Alicia’s parents railroaded her into her first two marriages. During her first she suffered an ectopic pregnancy that rendered her unable to bear children. After giving her first marriage a year—the period of time she had told her mother she would give it—she divorced. By then she was set on her lifelong dual vocation of journalist and world traveler, often flying herself in the early days, because of course she learned to fly. She wrote first for her father, who, after becoming a Great War hero, had started a tabloid, The Daily News, in New York City, but he would only grudgingly allow her assignments and was discouragingly critical of her work.

After meeting and marrying Harry Guggenheim, Alicia, with Harry’s help, was able to buy a small newspaper on Long Island. This newspaper became Newsday, which she guided to a Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for an expose of a local organized crime figure. TIME featured her on its cover. Harry resented his wife’s success and the two came close to divorce over it, especially because he supported Republican causes and she Democratic. She also apparently had an on-again, off-again affair with Adlai Stevenson, although it’s not clear if Harry knew about it; he was probably no angel, either.

All this success never seems to have gone to Alicia’s head. She comes across as more admirable than the men in her life: the imperious Joe Patterson and Harry Guggenheim; the ineffectual and waffling Joe Brooks, her second husband, and Adlai Stevenson. At the crest of her rise she turned to Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, after a session at the Aspen Institute. The Arlens comment:

But perhaps her attraction to Epictetus wasn’t really so unexpected; the ancient philosopher whose teaching advised against "complaining or making a public display of suffering," who sternly described "grief and pity" as "acts of evil against the soul," was really just another in a long line of voices she had been hearing since childhood, telling her to stop whining, toughen up, and get it together. At any event the little leather-bound volume of Epictetus’s Discourses remained with her the rest of her life, well thumbed, even underlined.

This Stoicism might have contributed to her relatively early death at age 56 from internal bleeding—"Unexplained and unstoppable bleeding," the medical report read—although the cigarettes and bourbon might also have had something to do with it. It was a pleasure to get to know Alicia Patterson, if only through the pages of this book. She wasn’t perfect, but she had a kind of integrity, something sorely missing today.

Published under: Book reviews