The Bank of Dad
"Say it ain't so, Joe."
Allbritton replied with three dozen yellow roses: "It ain't so. Joe."
"The difference between the Allbritton and the Noyes-Kauffmann style was pretty palpable," says former Star reporter Duncan Spencer. "It was old-school-tie boys and horses and Princeton versus the little Texan." He "crashed into town like a tiny thunderbolt."
"One thing the little cowboy did do," Spencer adds, "is he brought a new fresh spirit. He didn't come to be a loser."
But it became clear that Allbritton didn't understand the folkways of newspapers.
President Gerald Ford invited Joe and Barbara to watch the bicentennial July 4 fireworks from the Truman balcony of the White House. Soon afterward, Allbritton ordered space reserved on the front page for an editorial endorsing Ford in the primary campaign against Ronald Reagan. He supplied the editorial himself.
His editors realized this was wrong in so many ways they hardly knew where to begin. Finally editorial page editor Ed Yoder suggested to Allbritton that a front-page editorial during a primary was akin to lending half the capital of your bank to an unreliable borrower.
"Now you're talking my language," Allbritton told Yoder.
A revised editorial backing Ford ran on the editorial page.
"Joe is a maverick politically and otherwise," Yoder says. "He answers to no stereotype. There's a big streak, I think, of the small-town Mississippian in Joe."
A kind of yearning infuses many recollections of Allbritton in the Star years. When former top editor Jim Bellows interviewed McGrory for his 2002 memoir, "The Last Editor," she offered a telling sketch of the owner:
"I would watch him come into the newsroom and see all these losers in their unpressed suits, and they were all having such a good time!" McGrory said. "When you take banking and mortuaries, that is not the place where people have a very good time. But here he was at a place where all these people were working for a declining paper, not getting much money, and reveling in it. I always felt that was what Joe was looking for -- to be accepted in this absolutely weird world, where people didn't wear good suits and plainly weren't going anywhere. . . . And he could see they had something he didn't have."
Allbritton restored the Star to a slight operating profit but could not reverse gloomy trends in circulation and advertising. After failing to get a government waiver to own a TV station in the same city, he sold the paper -- but not the broadcast properties -- to Time for $20 million.
"Joe Allbritton loved the Washington Star," says Dean Singleton, one of Allbritton's former lieutenants who now runs a newspaper chain that includes the Denver Post. "For the first year after selling the Star, he was almost in grief over it."
Allbritton's money was decidedly less welcome at aristocratic Riggs than it had been at the desperate Star.
When Allbritton bid $70 million for 40 percent of the stock in 1981, some on the board of directors viewed it as a hostile takeover. Director Mandell Ourisman expressed the fear of establishment Washington: "Since he bought the Star and then turned around and sold it at a large profit, the first concern would be that the same thing would happen to Riggs."
But Allbritton did not want to defy the old-line Washington tradition represented by Riggs, at the time the region's largest bank. He wanted to be part of it. Since its founding in 1836, Riggs's place in history included financing the Mexican War and the purchase of Alaska.
Allbritton maintained the bank's cultured profile and specialty of catering to wealthy clients, and he launched what would become the signature advertising slogan: "The most important bank in the most important city in the world."
"One thing he prided himself always in was his relation with foreign embassies and foreign governments," says Calvin Cafritz, chairman of the Cafritz Foundation, who was on the Riggs board for a while. "That was business he fostered himself. He flew all around the world in the Gulfstream, meeting with heads of state. He would tell people at the [board] meetings about meeting with such and such a leader in such and such a country."
Allbritton also cultivated connections to elite circles in business, media and politics he had established as publisher of the Star. He became active in the Alfalfa Club, which holds an annual dinner for the Washington aristocracy. He is typically seated at the best table, the one closest to the president of the United States. The day after the dinner, Allbritton and his wife, Barbara, host a tented brunch including Texas chili at their home on Foxhall Road.
Guests say they have admired paintings by Monet, Mary Cassatt and others hanging in the home. A Toulouse-Lautrec used to adorn his Riggs office. ("Why do I like the impressionist period?" asks Allbritton. "It is just the best period of art that the world has seen.") He paid a reported record $5.72 million for a Matisse in 1988 and $17 million for a van Gogh in 2000.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company