"You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man."
An irreverent Hollywood producer, unable to come up with a title for his new CBS comedy show, was asked if the network really cared what the name of the program was. "Not really," he replied, but then he added, "just as long as we don't call it, "The Late Bill Paley.'"
Around CBS Inc., the communications empire he founded and has run to suit himself for more than 50 years, it is said of William S. Paley, 78, that he literally never wants to leave, that he can't imagine CBS or the world, in that order, going on without him.
But the last of the first-generation media barons -- a founder not only of an empire but, for better or worse, of the American way of broadcasting -- says one of the reasons he got around to writing "As It Happened," his autobiography, is that "finally it dawned on me that I'm not immortal, and if I was to do a book about broadcasting -- I'm one of the few people still around who were here at the beginning -- then I ought to get on with it.
"So I got serious about it about three years ago, not as something I wanted to write as my final bow-out, but just as something I had an obligation to do."
The book will be published by Doubleday on March 16, and for that reason "The Chairman," which is the only thing approaching a nickname that Paley has at CBS, is willing to sit and chat for a spell. This is all arranged quite presidentially, however -- if not papally. William S. Paley is someone on whom one does not drop in. We're talking megamillionaire here; we're talking American media monarchy. Here is a man who has buddied around with Nelson Rockefeller, Dwight Eisenhower, Randolph Churchill, David O. Selznick and Jack Benny, among others.
And so one is led first into a chamber decorated with such mementos as a bronze plaque on which is inscribed part of Paley's eulogy to Edward R.Murrow, m/urrow, the greatest name in the history of broadcast journalism. Beyond this silent room and a door that finally opens is William S. Paley's office, on the 35th floor of the monochromatic skyscraper that is his shrine -- architect Eero Saarinen's monumentally imposing "Black Rock."
It is said that the importance of an executive can be gauged by how barren the top of his desk is. William S. Paley doesn't even have a desk ; he has an ornate round table. The tastefulness of this room, with its very correct paintings and its collection of old microphones, is overwhelming. And tastefulness, even in the firing of underlings, is what Paley has tried to stand for over five decades of brilliant brinksmanship, salesmanship, statesmanship and showmanship.
The sad thing is, there are signs now that the empire has grown too big for the emperor, that the thunderbolts Zeus sends down from the mountaintop have lost their zappiness, that the day of the Gentleman Broadcaster Whom Paley Embodies is over.
Gone, you might even say, with the wind.
"Listen," says Paley, squirming in a chair and folding his hands over his stomach, "I'm only hanging around here as a shmoozer and kibitzer and advisor." He admits, though, that he cannot imagine himself ever retiring. "If by 'retiring,' you mean, doing nothing -- no. I'd rather stick at what I'm doing because it's what I've always enjoyed the most."
Paley stepped down as chief executive officer in early 1977. He remains chairman of the board and he will probably always be, in the corporate folklore of CBS, "The Chairman." Highbrow Tastes
Paley's 418-page memoir is a history of his role in broadcasting peppered with few intimate facts about his personal life and a running defense of television as a "mass medium" that cannot afford to over-indulge "highbrow tastes."
Yet the most newsmaking aspect of it is Paley's proposal that the three networks sit down together and agree to each devote two hours of prime time a week to quality programming. The other networks have all but laughed in Paley's face, and even within CBS "The Proposal" is referred to almost as if it were the nutty scheme of some daft codger. They smirk about it.
Paley says he is not giving up on the idea no matter who calls it folly. "I'm not damning broadcasting," he is not surprisingly quick to point out. "I think we've done a helluva good job. I admit that it has to be a mass medium, but I've always found a little annoyance on my part on having more or less ignored a very special segment of the audience that wants a very special kind of programming and we haven't given it to them."
And yet it is clear that the new breed of television executives, accountant-lawyers most of them, would hardly be inclined to revive such Golden Age TV classics as "Playhouse 90" and "Studio One." Paley says, "Those aren't the shows I have in mind. Those are shows that were built for the mass audience. They happened to be damn good shows and high quality shows.
"I'm not going to break down what I have in mind," he says when pressed for examples. "It shouldn't be something I talk about by way of giving illustrations. But I can think of all kinds of things I would like to see very much on the air if we didn't have to say, 'But this is not going to get a big enough audience.'"
The concept sounds improbable in a day of overnight ratings, frantic "sweep" months, relentless profit wars, and networks like CBS that program such affronts to human thought as "The Dukes of Hazzard."
Paley does not think television has failed the American people, of course. That would be like Alexander Graham Bell conceding the telephone is a darn nusiance.
"I'm not ashamed of what we've done at all. I think, conditions being what they are, we've served the American people very well. I don't know of any other system in any other country where the public seems to enjoy the medium as much as they do here. I'm proud of it."
He is asked if he can say he is proud of most of the programs now on CBS.
"I'm proud of what we've done for the audience that we're serving, yes," he says. "I think it's a well-balanced schedule. People are enjoying it. And are benefiting from it."
He points to such alleged succes d'estimes as "The Paper Chase," a weekly drama that has won high praise and low ratings. Some say it has only been kept on the air because it is a personal favorite of Paley's. And that it is a personal favorite of Paley's because the hero is an old man, a venerable professor with whom Paley identifies.
"Oh no," he says, with a crusty sort of chuckle. "I'm not in that category at all. I think he happens to be an outstanding actor, John Houseman; I think it's a high quality show, and I wasn't the only one here who thought we ought to go with it. A lot of arguments took place about it."
It has been said that some of the very CBS programs Paley points to with pride -- "60 Minutes" and "All in the Family," to name two -- would flop today because the network couldn't afford to keep them on the air until they built up audiences. Neither started as anything even approaching a smash hit.
"No," Paley declares. "I think we're just as apt today, if we see something that we have conviction about or we think represents a new trend and might eventually have a very special appeal to a mass audience, to go with it and stick with it and have patience and courage.
"You've got to do that. Sometimes you do it until you're sick and you have to give up. We did it with a show a couple of years ago called 'Beacon Hill.' Remember that? I almost cried.It was one of the best shows we ever did. And we kept it on and on and on. And each week it was lower and lower and lower. We wanted a show that would be equal to some of the things turned out by the BBC. I'd like to turn it around, and send some of our shows abroad. Although, a lot of our shows do go abroad, but mostly the popular shows.
"But when it comes to the high quality shows which are used mostly by the educational stations, the BBC have done an outstanding job. They really have. I'm quite envious when I see it. I don't see why we shouldn't do the same thing. We could. We have the talent. And the resources. I hope we have the courage." Paleyanna
William S. Paley has not just set the tone at CBS. He has also set the melody, the rhythm and the lyrics. There is a CBS style and it is Paley's style and the people who didn't whistle his happy tune were OUT -- out, you might almost say, with the wind.
"I don't give orders, to take things off or put things on," Paley says. "I never did, as a matter of fact. This has been a kind of consensus approach. I have to admit that my voice probably sounded louder than the others, that maybe I'm more persuasive or maybe my authority gave greater weight to what I had to say, but I always encouraged the fullest reaction from everybody."
James T. Aubrey, one of the true legends of broadcasting, was the fair-haired genius during the early '60s at CBS, but then his personal life began embarrassing Paley and CBS.Aubrey was not august. And soon Aubrey was OUT.
"Now there was a guy who had it right in the palm of his hand, who had it made," says Paley. "He was going to be my successor. There was no question about it. But he just blew it.
"But then, he was absolutely magnificent in defeat. He came in to see me. He said, 'You know, I deserve it all. I'm sorry. I wish to hell you'd give me another chance, but I know you won't. And I'll tell you one thing: I'll never say one bad word about CBS or you.' And he stuck to that word.
"He just got carried away and got into a bad period where he was doing a lot of silly things."
Now, Paley says, after several tries, he has at last settled on someone worthy of succeeding him: John D. Backe, the chief executive officer. Paley speaks admiringly of "this fellow Backe," and of Robert Daly, president of CBS Entertainment. The words he uses to describe Daly reflect Paley's own strict personal values: "Very strong, very decisive, low key, not the least bit flashy."
It is said that executives who do not personify such qualities are expelled from membership in the Paley club. Fred Silverman got his start in network television at CBS, but they still talk about him around there as not having been Paley stock; in other words, he wasn't mirror image of Paley.
"There's no snobbery here of any kind," Paley states flatly, contradicting innumerable stories about him and CBS. "There's nothing against the guy who doesn't go to Brooks Brothers or didn't come from the right school or doesn't come from the right side of the tracks. There's none of that here. Never has been, never will be.
"There is a certain standard of taste, I think, that we became known for, and I had a lot to do with. Frank Stanton and I had a lot to do with. Frank Stanton had a lot to do with it, too, and when those things come from the top, they permeate the organization.We just won't produce anything that doesn't have the look of quality about it. I've got a pretty good eye, you know."
CBS has a pretty good eye, too -- the unmistakable company logo designed by the brilliant art director William Golden in 1951 and now the province of CBS art director Lou Dorfsman. Everything that comes out of CBS is supposed to look CBS and does, from the letterhead to the paychecks to the mobile unit trucks that crawl around Washington and other cities. And, of course, Black Rock, which epitomizes CBS understatement and class in white, black and grey.
"Putting up this building was a great triumph," says Paley. "I feel good about it every time I walk in.
"You know, I sometimes say, 'What in the hell's going to happen 25 years from now, when someone's around who doesn't care about these things?' And they're unnecessary. I know a lot of businesses that pay no attention to details of that kind who are just as successful as we are. They probably make more money, maybe they get as much fun out of it.
"But one's personality has to be felt." Cheap Shots
Paley is worried about his book. He thinks it's "too bland," that he should have put in a few more "humorous anecdotes." It is on the austere side, though Paley does recall such moments from his life as the time he got accidentally hooked on Seconal and how he had to excuse himself to go to the bathroom during a dinner party presided over by Winston Churchill.
The book is dedicated to his fabulous wife, Babe, who died in 1978. There are few revealing details about their life together, however; Paley announces early in the book that he isn't going to tell all, that "I am not a very demonstrative person. I am not good at flattering people or even complimenting them," and that "I have had few intimates."
This cannot prevent others, of course, from trying to dissect the man and the mythology. CBS has been the subject of more books and articles than any other network, from the lacerating "Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye" by Robert Metz to the forthcoming "The Powers That Be," David Halberstam's analysis of modern day media giants which includes a large chapter on CBS. Paley, ever conscious of his image and his company's image, managed to secure galleys in advance. He was not pleased. "It goes along pretty well, and then all of a sudden he jabs the knife in and turns it and turns it," Paley says. He confesses to being "rankled."
More rankling to him still are forays into his private life. Paley is now said to be the most eligible rich bachelor in New York, and Esquire magazine even published a list of the women who were allegedly chasing him the most breathlessly.
"Oh that's ridiculous really," says Paley of rumors that have seen him romantically linked, or pursued by, Jacqueline Onassis, among others. "I don't know who started it. It was a cheap shot. These were woman I have known for years, who were friends of mine, who were friends of my wife, and there's not one of them who I have a romantic interest in. There's nothing I can do except -- you know, nothing."
He does not feel he is being chased by any of the women said to be chasing him. "Listen, if they are, they're chasing someone else and calling him Bill Paley. I know them all, all too well. You get to know someone too well and sometimes it interferes with any sort of romantic possibility. I've known Jackie for I don't know how many years; I haven't seen her even once since my wife died. Her sister I see more -- Princess Lee [Radziwell]."
Recently, Paley said, another publication linked him with the wife of a friend. "That's the cheapest thing I ever came across in my life. I was so upset I could hardly stand it. That's taking journalism and making really a nasty thing out of it.
"Oh my God -- imagine mentioning a man and a wife and saying, 'This is the girl that's going to win out!' She has a really good sense of humor, though; she called me up and said, 'Am I really Number One?' She's an old friend. There's no romance within 50 miles of us. There's nothing to that at all.
"I'm trying to reorganize my life, develop a new lifestyle. I've had a very happy life, married to quite a wonderful woman. And, it's not easy." Mister America
Paley read Horatio Alger novels as a boy, but he is not a poor kid who became rich. He is a rich kid who became richer. Asked how a man of his incredible ible wealth and social prominence can identify with the mass audience CBS tries to woo, Paley says he continues to rely on his instincts. They haven't always been infallible.He tells in his book how he fought Lucille Ball over her insistence that her new TV series, "I Love Lucy," costar her husband Desi Arnaz.
"I said, 'He's just a good Cuban bandleader, and that's all he can do,''' says Paley, smiling.
He also notes in the book that although Ed Sullivan's variety show, "The Toast of the Town," looked good when it first went on the air, "We planned to replace Sullivan" as soon as possible.
Of current programs, Paley says he is especially fond of "M*A*S*H" and "60 Minutes" and acknowledges that Mary Tyler Moore's latest attempt at a variety hour is not exactly boffo.
"She's doing a very different kind of show now -- very much against my advice," he says sternly. "Did you see her show Sunday night? It got a good rating I'm told, but this isn't her bag, I don't think."
Paley has been adamant about his company's mandatory retirement policy when people as prominent as Eric Sevaried reached the age of 65, and even longtime president and CBS' ambassador to Washington, Frank Stanton, was sent packing. Paley remains the single exception. One assumes, of course, that Walter Cronkite will also be exempt. "I don't know whether he will be or not," Paley says. "It's something I probably won't be deciding. But Walter is the best of the best and I adore him. He's Mister America. And I'd like to have him around here forever."
Again it sounds as though Paley will be around forever to see this through. You can hardly blame him for hating to leave the world he made in his own image, a conglomerate he estimates this year. It includes such prime holdings as Columbia Records and the royalties from "My Fair Lady," but it is broadcasting that has been Paley's love and life.
There are many possible ways of interpreting the growth of broadcasting -- radio and television -- in America, and many possible ways to look at the wily pioneers like Paley, who took the first chances and made the big bundles. But there is no way of encountering William S. Paley and not seeing some kind of greatness there, even if it is a greatness past its time.
And there is no way of looking at Paley in his rarefied lair, in his neat striped shirt and suspenders and dark blue suit and white hair, and noting blue suit and white hair, and noting the slightly menacing trailblazer's glint in his eyes and not thinking, there will never be such men running television again.
"I love the medium. I always will. I just feel I'm damn lucky that I stumbled into it, which is what I did."
One chapter of his book is called "Triumph."
"I'll tell you what most of it was: hard work. I never knew people who worked harder than we did. A 16-hour day was nothing! I was young then, and I could do it. There was a drive there was an aspiration to succeed.
"It never has been the same," Paley says.
"Those were my happiest days."