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William S. Paley

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William S. Paley

William S. Paley
New York, 1939
Born (1901-09-28)September 28, 1901
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Died October 26, 1990(1990-10-26) (aged 89)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Cause of death Renal failure
Resting place Memorial Cemetery of Saint John's Church
Nationality American
Education Western Military Academy
Alma mater The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
Occupation Television executive
Known for President of CBS
Political party Republican
Religion Jewish
Spouse(s) Dorothy Hart Hearst (m. 1932; div. 1947)
Barbara "Babe" Cushing Mortimer (m. 1947; died 1978)
Children 4
Parent(s) Samuel Paley
Goldie Drell Paley

William S. Paley (September 28, 1901 – October 26, 1990) was the chief executive who built Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) from a small radio network into one of the foremost radio and television network operations in the United States.[1]


  • Early life 1
  • Broadcasting pioneer 2
  • Other interests 3
    • Philanthropy 3.1
  • Personal life 4
    • Marriage to Dorothy Hart Hearst 4.1
    • Marriage to Barbara Cushing Mortimer 4.2
    • Other affairs 4.3
    • Death 4.4
  • Works 5
  • Awards and honors 6
  • In popular culture 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Early life

Paley's father Samuel Paley was a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine who ran a cigar company. As the company became increasingly successful, Paley became a millionaire, and moved his family to Philadelphia in the early 1920s.[2] William Paley matriculated at Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois and later received his college degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in expectation that he would take an increasingly active role running the family cigar business.[2]

In 1927, Paley's father, brother-in-law and some business partners bought a struggling Philadelphia-based radio network of 16 station called the Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System.[3] Samuel Paley's intention was to use his acquisition as an advertising medium for promoting the family's cigar business, which included the La Palina brand. Within a year, under William's leadership, cigar sales had more than doubled, and, in 1928, the Paley family secured majority ownership of the network from their partners. Within a decade, William S. Paley had expanded the network to 114 affiliate stations.

Broadcasting pioneer

Paley quickly grasped the earnings potential of radio and recognized that good programming was the key to selling advertising time and, in turn, bringing in profits to the network and to affiliate owners. Before Paley, most businessmen viewed stations as stand-alone local outlets or, in other words, as the broadcast equivalent of local newspapers. Individual stations originally bought programming from the network and, thus, were considered the network's clients.

Paley changed broadcasting's business model not only by developing successful and lucrative broadcast programming but also by viewing the advertisers (sponsors) as the most significant element of the broadcasting equation. Paley provided network programming to affiliate stations at a nominal cost, thereby ensuring the widest possible distribution for both the programming and the advertising. The advertisers then became the network's primary clients and, because of the wider distribution brought by the growing network, Paley was able to charge more for the ad time. Affiliates were required to carry programming offered by the network for part of the broadcast day, receiving a portion of the network's fees from advertising revenue. At other times in the broadcast day, affiliates were free to offer local programming and sell advertising time locally.

Paley's recognition of how to harness the potential reach of broadcasting was the key to his growing CBS from a tiny chain of stations into what was eventually one of the world's dominant communication empires. During his prime, Paley was described as having an uncanny sense for popular taste[4] and exploiting that insight to build the CBS network. As war clouds darkened over Europe in the late 1930s, Paley recognized Americans' desire for news coverage of the coming war and built the CBS news division into a dominant force just as he had previously built the network's entertainment division.

During World War II, Paley served in the psychological warfare branch in the Office of War Information, under General Dwight Eisenhower, and held the rank of colonel. It was while based in London, England, during the war when Paley came to know and befriend Edward R. Murrow, CBS's head of European news. In 1946, Paley promoted Frank Stanton to president of CBS. CBS expanded into TV and rode the post-World War II boom to surpass NBC, which had dominated radio.

CBS has owned the Columbia Record Company and its associated CBS Laboratories since 1939. In 1948, Columbia Records introduced the 33-1/3-rpm long-playing vinyl disc to successfully compete with RCA Victor's 45-rpm vinyl disc. Also, CBS Laboratories and Peter Goldmark developed a method for color television. After lobbying by RCA President David Sarnoff and Paley in Washington, D.C., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the RCA color system as the standard, and CBS sold the patents to its system to foreign broadcasters as PAL SECAM. CBS was the last of the three broadcast networks to adopt color television, having to buy and license RCA equipment and technology. PAL or Phase Alternating Line, an analogue TV-encoding system, is today a television-broadcasting standard used in large parts of the world.

"Bill Paley erected two towers of power: one for entertainment and one for news," 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt claimed in his autobiography, Tell Me a Story. "And he decreed that there would be no bridge between them.... In short, Paley was the guy who put Frank Sinatra and Edward R. Murrow on the radio and 60 Minutes on television."

The relationship between Paley and his news staff was not always smooth. His friendship with Ed Murrow, one of the leading lights in the CBS news division (and by then a vice president of CBS), suffered during the 1950s over the hard-hitting tone of the Murrow-hosted See It Now series. The implication was that the network's sponsors were uneasy about some of the controversial topics of the series, leading Paley to worry about lost revenue to the network as well as unwelcome scrutiny during the era of McCarthyism. In 1955, Alcoa withdrew its sponsorship of See It Now, and eventually the program's weekly broadcast on Tuesdays was stopped, though it continued as a series of special segments until 1958.

In 1959, James T. Aubrey, Jr., became the president of CBS. Under Aubrey, the network became the most popular on television with shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island. However, Paley's personal favorite was Gunsmoke; in fact, he was such a fan of Gunsmoke that, upon its threatened cancellation in 1967, he demanded that it be reinstated, a dictum that led to the abrupt demise of Gilligan's Island, which had already been renewed for a fourth season.

During the 1963–1964 television season, 14 of the top 15 shows on prime-time and the top 12 shows of daytime television were on CBS. Aubrey, however, fought constantly with Fred W. Friendly of CBS News, and Paley did not like Aubrey's taste in low-brow programming. Aubrey and Paley bickered to the point that Aubrey approached Frank Stanton to propose a take-over of CBS. The takeover never materialized and, when CBS's ratings began to slip, Paley fired Aubrey in 1965.

In 1972, Paley ordered the shortening of a second installment of a two-part CBS Evening News series on the Watergate, based on a complaint by Charles Colson, an aide to President Richard M. Nixon. And later, Paley briefly ordered the suspension of instant and often negatively critical analyses by CBS news commentators, which followed the Presidential addresses.

Over the years, Paley sold portions of his family stockholding in CBS. At the time of his death, he owned less than nine percent of the outstanding stock. In 1995, five years after Paley's death, CBS was bought by Westinghouse Electric Corporation and, in 1999, by Viacom, which itself was once a subsidiary of CBS. Today, CBS is owned by the CBS Corporation, after being spun off from Viacom in 2006. National Amusements is the majority owner of the CBS Corporation and the "new" Viacom.

Other interests

In the 1940s, William Paley and Dr. Leon Levy formed Jaclyn Stable, which owned and raced a string of thoroughbred race horses. Paley formed a modern art collection with as many as 40 major works, and he enjoyed photographing Picasso in Cap d'Antibes. Like Picasso, Paley drove an exotic French Facel Vega Facel II, the fastest four-seater car in the world in the early 1960s.[5]

In 1964, CBS purchased the Forbes magazine estimated was $1.26 billion, or about $280 million in 1973 dollars.[6]

Samuel L. Paley library at Temple University, named for William S. Paley's father


Encouraged by Paley's avid interest in modern art and his outstanding collection, Paley became a trustee of the Rockefeller family's Museum of Modern Art in the 1930s and, in 1962, was tapped by then-chairman David Rockefeller to be its president. In 1968, he joined a syndicate with Rockefeller and others to buy six works by Picasso for the museum from the notable Gertrude Stein collection. He subsequently became chairman, stepping down from the museum post in 1985.[7]

The Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles and New York City was founded by Paley in 1976, when it was known as the Museum of Broadcasting. From 1991 to 2007, it was known as The Museum of Television and Radio; its new location was known as the Paley Building.

In 1974, Paley dedicated the second building at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. He also personally dedicated the Samuel L. Paley library at Temple University named in honor of his father.

Personal life

Marriage to Dorothy Hart Hearst

Paley met Dorothy Hart Hearst (1908–1998) while she was married to John Randolph Hearst, the third son of William Randolph Hearst. Paley fell in love with her, and, after her Las Vegas divorce from Hearst, she and Paley married on May 12, 1932, in Kingman, Arizona.[8]

Dorothy called on her extensive social connections acquired during her previous marriage to introduce Paley to several top members of President Franklin Roosevelt's government. She also exerted a considerable influence over Paley's political views. She later said: "I can't believe he would have voted Democrat without me."[4]

Dorothy began to become estranged from Paley during the early 1940s because of his constant womanizing. They divorced on July 24, 1947, in Reno, Nevada, and she retained custody of their two adopted children, Jeffrey Paley and Hilary Paley. In 1953, Dorothy married stockbroker Walter Hirshon; they divorced in 1961.[8]

Marriage to Barbara Cushing Mortimer

Paley married divorcée, socialite and fashion icon Barbara "Babe" Cushing Mortimer (1915–1978) on July 28, 1947. She was the daughter of renowned neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing. Paley and his second wife, in spite of their successes and social standing, were barred from being members of country clubs on Long Island because he was Jewish. As an alternative, the Paleys built a summer home, "Kiluna North," on Squam Lake in New Hampshire and spent the summers there for many years, routinely entertaining their many friends, including Lucille Ball, Grace Kelly, and David O. Selznick. The house was later donated to Dartmouth College and converted to use as a conference center. The couple had two children, William and Kate.

Other affairs

As noted, Paley was a notorious ladies' man who was adored by women his whole life. Indeed, his first marriage to Dorothy ended when a newspaper published the suicide note written to Paley by a former girlfriend. As a result of another relationship, he provided a stipend to a former lover, actress Louise Brooks, for the rest of her life. In his later years, he enjoyed keeping company with a coterie of devoted lady friends. Paley was included in a list of the ten most eligible bachelors compiled by Cosmopolitan magazine in 1985; the irony of the octogenarian Paley being on the list was an inspiration for Late Night with David Letterman's nightly Top Ten lists.[9]


Paley died of kidney failure on October 26, 1990. He was 89.[1]


  • As It Happened: A Memoir (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979)

Awards and honors

In popular culture

  • In the 1986 television movie Murrow, Paley is played by Dabney Coleman, while in the 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck, he is played by Frank Langella. In the 2006 film Infamous, Paley is played by Lee Ritchey.
  • The philandering character Sidney Dillon in Truman Capote's unfinished novel Answered Prayers is based on Paley.[10]
  • In "We Shall Overcome," an episode of the NBC series Dark Skies Paley (played by radio talk show host Art Bell) is presented as a member of the MJ-12 Committee.[11]
  • On AMC's series Mad Men, Harry Crane names Paley as the "most important" person he could ever bring into the office.[12]

See also



  1. ^ a b Gerard, Jeremy (October 27, 1990). "William S. Paley, Builder of CBS, Dies at 89.". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-25. William S. Paley, who personified the power, glamour, allure and influence of CBS Inc., the communications empire he built, died last night at his home in Manhattan. He was 89 years old. 
  2. ^ a b Bergreen, Laurence, (1980). Look Now, Pay Later: The Rise of Network Broadcasting. New York: Doubleday and Company. ISBN 978-0-451-61966-2. p. 57.
  3. ^ Bergreen, p. 58.
  4. ^ a b Bedell Smith, Sally (1990). In All His Glory. The Life of William S. Paley. Simon and Schuster.  
  5. ^ " ... they have a place at Squam Lake in New Hampshire, where Paley tears up the back roads at 80 m.p.h. in his Facel-Vega": Time, Jan. 31, 1964
  6. ^ Inflation Calculator
  7. ^ MoMA and the Stein collection - see David Rockefeller, Memoirs, New York: Random House, 2002. (pp.450-58)
  8. ^ a b Nemy, Enid (January 31, 1998). "Dorothy H. Hirshon, 89, Dies; Socialite and Philanthropist". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-26. Dorothy Hart Hirshon, a glamorous figure in New York society from the 1920s through the 40s who later became active in social, human rights and political causes, died Thursday in an automobile accident while driving near her home in Glen Cove, on Long Island. She was 89. 
  9. ^  
  10. ^ Clark, Gerald. "Bye Society", Vanity Fair (April 1988)
  11. ^ "We Shall Overcome" Dark Skies Broadcast December 14, 1996.
  12. ^ Watkins, Gwynne (2012-05-21). "Mad Men's Rich Sommer on Harry Crane's Sordid Sex Life: The Stream: GQ on TV". GQ. Retrieved 2013-04-22. 

Further reading

  • Museum of Broadcast Communication's page on William Paley
  • article about William Paley, June 1, 2004Business Week
  • Paper, Lewis J. Empire: William S. Paley and the Making of CBS (New York, St. Martin's Press, 1987)
  • Sally Bedell Smith (1948- ), In All His Glory: the Life and Times of William S. Paley and the Birth of Modern Broadcasting (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1990) 782 pages

External links

  • Papers of William S. Paley (1944, 1969), Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library
  • William S. Paley at Find a Grave
  • , December 9, 1990.In All His Glory: The Life of William Paley interview with Sally Bedell Smith on Booknotes
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