There was little in life William Paley wanted and didn't get, with the notable exception of a laudatory and readable biography. Sally Bedell Smith performed half that service with "In All His Glory," published the same year Paley died (1990); you will be hard-pressed to find as juicy a book on a hundred more engaging personalities.
Paley built a radio-television empire with CBS, "the Tiffany Network" known for its much-touted commitment to quality broadcasting. While acquiring markets and talents was Paley's contribution to CBS's glory, it was secondary by Bedell Smith's reckoning to his more material passions for lucre, women, and fame. He got most of what he wanted, but as we watch him on his deathbed, it's hard not to feel a Calvinistic twinge of regret for his limited vision.
"Bill Paley wanted every last minute from life," Bedell Smith writes.
It's about the most positive thing she has to say about Paley, who otherwise doesn't come off either as visionary or a leader. He failed to see the promise of innovations like television, color television, and the long-playing record, and had to be coaxed to letting his subordinates take up these and other ideas for building his empire. Then when they achieved success, Paley swooped in and took credit. "The convenient amnesia of the powerful," Bedell Smith calls it.
Where Paley excelled was in the art of interpersonal relations, which contributed to some major deals for CBS and very few lonely evenings for Paley himself, even if his wives couldn't say the same.
Bedell Smith writes an engaging story about Paley's years at CBS, but it is in recounting his social life where the book excels. Paley was born Jewish, and spent the rest of his life trying to pretend otherwise. Even as other Jews formed their own high-level Manhattan social circle, "Our Crowd, " Paley preferred to court the Mayflower set, a fast-dying clique of Long Island dinosaurs who imagined themselves better than the rest of mankind for the money they inherited.
One British noblewoman who ran with this set described Paley as "100 percent Jew but looking more like good news from Tartary," nicely encapsulating the jaded, facile, anti-Semitic waters Paley willingly navigated.
Readers looking for more of a history of CBS may be vaguely disappointed. Paley was seen as an "absentee landlord" by network insiders, leaning on Frank Stanton and other executives to run the shop while he globetrotted. Bedell Smith leaves the trail of the network for many long chapters at a stretch, to focus on Paley's marriages and affairs.
The problem with this shows with her loving depiction of wife number two, Babe Cushing, a glamorous clotheshorse. Bedell Smith describes Babe's look and surroundings in overrich detail, at one point itemizing the contents of her closets for half a page. Bedell Smith obviously treasures Babe more than Paley himself ever did, an imbalance that threatens to lose the reader from time to time.
But Babe is an interesting mirror to view Paley from, an empire builder in her own right who left nothing in the way of a legacy but gaudy baubles and mixed memories about what it all meant. As she lay dying of cancer, an unnamed intimate tells Bedell Smith: "She had not a glimmer of having a soul." It's a comment with more than religious meaning.
For Paley, too, the world was all there was, and immortality something only worth having if he was around to enjoy it. He built an empire, only to hang on too long and preside over its crumbling, even facilitate it when his hand-picked successor failed to show him the proper deference. Ephemerality is the nature of mass media, and in that way at least, Paley proved its perfect embodiment.