At a time when many newspapers are struggling to stay afloat, August marks the l00th anniversary of one of the most creative promotions ever devised to boost newspaper circulation, the Boston Post cane. Originated by Post owner Edwin Grozier in August l909, the cane continues to be awarded the oldest resident in towns throughout New England. It’s a custom Grozier arranged under the Post’s sponsorship but now administered by local selectmen.
The cane, along with many other promotions, would soon give the Post the largest press run of any daily paper in America, also making it for several decades the most popular out of state paper in Maine.
As an ironic reminder of the volatility of modern publishing, even though a tradition devoted to celebrating our most ancient citizens remains viable, the Post does not. It’s here that a man with many ties to Maine enters the picture. Meet John Fox, who owned and published the Post during its last four tumultuous years, before closing it down in l956.
Fox was a self-made multi-millionaire when he bought the Post in l952. Though a native of Boston’s Dorchester section, Fox had for several years made Phillips, Maine his second home and would eventually move there full time, owning some 5,000 acres including various mansions, farms and a small airport.
Fox first turned up in Phillips in the l940s, touching down his private plane accompanied by his Russian-born wife and an ex-German airplane pilot. Understandable local misgivings were allayed by such philanthropic gestures as donating a new cafeteria to the Phillips public schools. Building contractors engaged by Fox to restore and renovate many of his Phillips area investments were also indebted to his largesse.
Soon after Fox bought the Post he played a leading role in launching John F. Kennedy on his road to the White House. Though a conservative Republican, Fox was miffed at Massachusetts GOP potentate Henry Cabot Lodge’s role in managing Dwight Eisenhower’s upset win over conservative favorite Robert Taft for the Republican presidential nomination in the summer of l952. Fox aimed to get even with Lodge that fall by endorsing Lodge’s Democratic opponent, 35-year-old Congressman John F. Kennedy, who was then challenging Lodge’s U.S. Senate re-election bid. Fox’s daily front page editorials extolling Kennedy proved crucial in Kennedy’s own razor thin upset of Lodge that November.
Fox later parted company with Kennedy over JFK’s refusal to join Fox in leading an alumni boycott of Harvard’s fund raising activities. At the height of the McCarthy era, Fox and some other conservative Harvard alumni had urged the boycott on account of the university’s perceived refusal to take action against teachers they’d suspected of Communist leanings.
Because Kennedy thought Fox was abusing his media power – besides the Post he owned a Boston radio station – Kennedy in l956 asked his chief aide, Theodore Sorensen, to assemble a dossier on Fox, this in anticipation of a public denunciation of Fox by Kennedy. After JFK’s death, Sorensen recalled that Fox was the only person to his knowledge upon whom Kennedy had ever issued such an investigative directive.
Though the news magazine Time credited Fox with turning the Post into a “livelier” daily as “an enthusiastic cub as publisher and columnist” meeting a weekly payroll of 850 employees while attempting to confront the myriad demands of putting out a daily paper in a market whose advertising revenues were siphoned off by the new challenge of television proved too much for Fox, who was forced to close the paper in October l956.
By the early l960s Fox found more frequent refuge in Phillips, which he made his year-round home. His fortunes continued to falter, however, even though he was one of the area’s more dramatic personalities. By the early ’60s, he and his Russian wife had separated. His companion now was much younger than Fox, then in his late ’50s, a Southern belle from Alabama, like Fox himself a radiant and compelling conversationalist.
Fox failed to recover the prosperity and influence of his more active years and he filed for personal bankruptcy in Portland in l970, a short time after leaving Phillips for good. Neither the publishing nor business world was to be his again.
The final l5 years before his death were spent back in Boston, where he could be spotted putting in time as a jazz pianist in one of the city’s bars or restaurants. He could also be frequently found behind the desk in the back office of a run-down secondhand bookstore on Province Street, to which he also retreated to pursue his passion for English literature.
He would also sometimes place phone calls back to his friends in Maine. In Douglas MacArthur fashion he would vow to return to Maine and reclaim his investment prominence in the Pine Tree State. He never did. By the time Fox died in l984, just shy of his 78th birthday, the Associated Press noted that he had been “obscure and penniless” for many years.