Westbrook Pegler, the son of Arthur James Pegler, a newspaper editor, was born in Minneapolis on 2nd August, 1894. He worked on The American Magazine as a copyboy while attending the Loyola Academy. He eventually found work with the International News Service.
During the First World War Pegler became a war correspondent. According to Oliver Ramsay Pilat, the author of Pegler: Angry Man of the Press (1963), Pilat had "collisions with the high brass, when generals and admirals got between the young reporter and his copy".
After the war Pegler became a sports journalist. He was initially sympathetic to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal but became convinced that he was part of some communist conspiracy. In the 1930s he became a controversial newspaper columnist with the Chicago Daily News and The Washington Post and openly expressed his right-wing views. As Irwin Edman remarked. Pegler's main targets were the "Roosevelt family and all their works and days, all labor leaders, all intellectuals, poets, and radicals".
The New York Telegram employed Heywood Broun as their main columunist. Broun was a strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. His views were not shared by his employer, Roy W. Howard, and for the sake of "balance" decided to "offset Broun's liberal humanitarianism with the corrosive offerings of his opposite in ideology and temperament". His candidate for this post was Westbrook Pegler.
In one article published on 28th November 1936 Pegler praised the lynching of Thomas Harold Thurmond and John M. Holmes that had taken place in San Jose in 1933. A mob had broken into the local jail and lynched two men who had been charged with having kidnapped and murdered Brooke Hart, the son of Alexander Hart, the owner of the Leopold Hart and Son Department Store. Pegler wrote that: "The fine theory of all expressions of horror and indignation is that punishment is not supposed to be vengeance but a protective business, whereas the rabble, which constitutes by far the greatest element of the population, want to make the murderer suffer as the victim or his family did. And, though they would be willing to let the Law do it for them if the Law could be relied upon, they know too well what lawyers will do when they get a chance to invoke a lot of legal technicalities which were written and passed by lawyers to provide lawyers with opportunities to make money."
Heywood Broun took the opposite point of view and condemned James Rolph, the governor of California, who had argued that lynching was "a fine lesson for the whole nation" and promised to pardon any man convicted of the lynching. Broun wrote: "If it were possible to carry on a case history of every person in the mob who beat and kicked and hanged and burned two human beings I will make the prophecy that out of this heritage will come crimes and cruelties which are unnumbered... To your knees, Governor, and pray that you and your commonwealth may be washed clean of this bath of bestiality into which a whole community has plunged."
Pegler published several collections of his articles: T Ain't Right (1936), Thoughts on the State of being Hung Over (1937), The Dissenting Opinions of Mister Westbrook Pegler (1938) and Peace on Earth (1938). One of his main targets was the Jewish community. He advanced the theory that American Jews of Eastern European descent were “instinctively sympathetic to Communism, however outwardly respectable they appeared.”
Heywood Broun was taken ill in December 1939. Broun's friends were appalled by the decision of Westbrook Pegler to write critically about Broun while he was unable to defend himself. Without any basis of truth, Pegler accused Broun of supporting Soviet press censorship and compared him to Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Earl Browder, the leader of the American Communist Party: "I have seen recent superficial expressions of disappointment in Moscow, but never an outright incantation, and even if I saw one I would have to treat it the same as I treat changes of front by Stalin, Hitler and Earl Browder."
Broun developed pneumonia and was taken to the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. As Richard O'Connor has pointed out: "Had antibiotics been developed a few years earlier, Broun would easily have won his struggle against the congestion in his chest. Instead his condition steadily worsened.... His temperature soared and for the next two days he was unconscious most of the time, with Connie and his son at his bedside and his friends gathered in the corridor outside or in the waiting room." Heywood Broun died in hospital on 18th December, 1939. Pegler went to Broun's funeral and according to his biographer, Oliver Pilat, he had been "appalled by the rudeness of the reception he got from friends of Broun at the cemetery". The journalist James Kirby recalled: "Pegler saw nothing inconsistent in attending the funeral of the late Heywood Broun within a few days of his most disgraceful diatribe against the great American while Broun lay on his deathbed." Quentin Reynolds added: "I think Broun, who is dead, will live a lot longer than the little men who try to defeat ideas by hating their fellow men."
Pegler began an investigation into racketeering in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Pegler discovered that William Morris Bioff and John Rosselli, members of the Chicago Outfit, who controlled George Brown, the president of the union. In 1941 Bioff was convicted as being part of a conspiracy to extort $1,000,000 from Hollywood film producers. Later that year Pegler won the Pulitzer Prize for his investigation.
During the Second World War he became a strong critic of Eleanor Roosevelt. He wrote on The Washington Post on 12th February, 1942: "For all the gentle sweetness of my nature and my prose, I have been accused of rudeness to Mrs. Roosevelt when I only said she was impudent, presumptuous and conspiratorial, and that her withdrawal from public life at this time would be a fine public service... This lady is a meddler in many matters which are very improper business for the wife of the President of the United States, a status which is constantly invoked for her lest her activities be objectively discussed as those of an ordinary citizen."
Pegler suggested that her attacks on lynching and her support for civil rights was motivated by a sympathy for the American Communist Party. "Mrs. Roosevelt meddled in the Newspaper Guild, which was a Communist organization. Absolutely ineligible even on the pretext of her public diary, which is not her principal occupation, Mrs. Roosevelt nevertheless accepted membership to which she was not entitled and immediately became the political foe of all those American newspaper men and women who knew the character of the Guild, detested and resisted the dirty work of tireless Muscovites and bravely suffered its heartless persecutions."
His friend and fellow journalist, George Frazier, has argued: "It is sad to realise that Americans who remained unexposed to the daily press until the nineteen-forties knew him only as a columnist consumed with calumay toward certain idols and ideologies of our time. To them he is a writer who condoned lynching, lacerated the labor movement, and indulged in unpardonably personal abuse of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt."
Drew Pearson was a constant target of Pegler and accused the writer of being responsible for the death of James Forrestal. Pegler wrote: "For months, Drew Pearson... hounded Jim Forrestal with dirty aspersions and insinuations, until, at last, exhausted and his nerves unstrung, one of the finest servants that the Republic ever had died of suicide." On 23nd May, 1949, Pearson wrote in his diary that "Pegler had published a column virtually accusing me of murdering Forrestal." The following day he wrote: "Late this afternoon I clapped a libel suit of $250,000 on Pegler". The case was eventually settled out of court.
Pegler was an avid supporter of McCarthyism and gave information to Joseph McCarthy advice on left-wing writers and artists. Pegler was totally opposed to the civil rights movement and argued against the “pernicious heresy against the ancient privilege of human beings to hate.” He also argued in favour of "the praiseworthy pastime of batting the brains out of pickets” during trade union disputes.
In 1949 Dale Kramer published his book, Heywood Broun. It was reviewed by Quentin Reynolds in the New York Tribune. At the end of the review he commented on Pegler's article on Heywood Broun just before his death: ""Broun could talk of nothing but Pegler's attack on him.... It seemed incredible that he was allowing Pegler's absurd charge of dishonesty to hurt him so. But not even Connie could make him dismiss it from his mind. The doctor told him to relax; he'd be all right if he got some sleep. But he couldn't relax. He couldn't sleep."
Pegler was furious and in his syndicated column the next day he launched a savage attack on Reynolds. Pegler began his article by describing the New York Tribune as a "pro-Communist newspaper - always has been and still is." Reynolds was also a "pro-Communist". According to Richard O'Connor, Pegler said "Reynolds was a war profiteer, a social climber, and a man who bent to die his shoelace when the check was presented in a nightclub or restaurant; that he was a member of the parasitic, licentious group that surrounded Broun. He further charged that Reynolds was a nudist, that he was present at a frolic at the Sabine Farm during which a conspicuous Negro Communist seduced a susceptible young white girl. The charge that most deeply wounded Reynolds, however, was Pegler's claim that Reynolds, then unmarried, had proposed to Connie Broun on the trip to the cemetery from St. Patrick's Cathedral."
The article had run in 186 newspapers with a combined circulation of 12,000,000. Quentin Reynolds said to his wife, Virginia Peine, the actress: "Would you mind if I sued?" She replied: "I'd have divorced you if you didn't." Reynolds engaged the celebrated trial lawyer Louis Nizer and filed a $50,000 libel suit. However, Reynolds did not receive any support from the media industry. C had purchased 310 articles from Reynolds between 1933 and 1949. After the so-called libel column appeared the magazine bought no new material from him. Requests to appear on radio also came to an end. His agent, Mark Hanna, found that he was now "too controversial".
Pegler went back on the attack and described Reynolds as a "Communist traitor". Mrs. Reynolds went to see Pegler at his office on East 45th Street in New York City. She asked him: "Why don't you let up? Do you want to destroy us?" He replied that if the libel suit were dropped he promised he would never write another word about her husband. When he heard what Pegler had said, Reynolds told his wife that he had "no intention of being bludgeoned into submission".
The trial did not take place until June 1954. Pegler had to endure a long cross-examination by Louis Nizer. When the lawyer drew near to hand him a document, he shrilled unexpectedly: "Get away from me, get away!" Thereafter a court attendant was designated to hand exhibits back and forth between the men. At the end of his testimony Nizer pointed out that Pegler had contradicted himself under oath in 130 instances. Pegler replied that this was due to Nizer's "exhausting brain-washing tactics".
Pegler claimed that Heywood Broun had immoral parties at Sabine Farm. Once again he insisted that an unnamed "Negro singer seduced... a susceptible white girl". He added that the farm was "a low dirty place" and Broun was "filthy, uncombed and unpressed, with his fly open, looking like a Skid Row bum." Quentin Reynolds "imitated but did not exactly emulate" Broun's sartorial carelessness.
Famous war correspondents including John Gunther, Edward R. Murrow, Walter Kerr, Ken Downs and Lionel Shapiro took the stand to say that Reynolds had acted bravely under fire. It was pointed out that he was one of the last foreign correspondents to leave Paris before the German Army moved in. Another witness claimed that Reynolds nearly died from sun exposure after crawling through enemy lines during the Desert War. Others gave evidence of his courage while reporting the Blitz. As Oliver Pilat, the author of Pegler: Angry Man of the Press (1963) explained: "His (Reynolds) reputation was genuine enough. In the face of it, Pegler's charges of slackerism, war profiteering and cowardice fell flat."
During his testimony Pegler described Reynolds as being "so far to the left as to be almost out of the Democratic Party... I don't say he is not loyal and a good American. I say he is a dope!" Louis Nizer raised doubts about Reynolds so-called "pro-Communist" views by producing a letter from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover certifying Reynolds as the sort of "confirmed liberal" who constituted the country's best bulwark against communism.
In the witness box Pegler claimed that Quentin Reynolds had once gone "nuding along the public road with his girl friend of the moment". He admitted that he had never seen Reynolds without clothes but learned of Reynolds' nude bathing at Sabine Farm from Connie Broun. Pegler claimed that while she was rowing on the lake, Reynolds was in shallow water, while wearing no trunks. There he was "with his lavalliere dangling while she looked at the sky and the trees." When she gave evidence she denied she ever told Pegler this story. In fact, she never went rowing as she dreaded the water because she was unable to swim. Connie also denied that Reynolds proposed to her during the funeral. She pointed out that she was accompanied by Broun's son, Heywood Hale Broun and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen during the trip to the cemetery.
In his final summary, Louis Nizer pointed out that he was able to call twenty-eight character witnesses for Reynolds, whereas there had been not a single character witness for Pegler. Why? "There isn't another writer that has a worse reputation for inaccuracy, indecency, for recklessness, for malice, for hatred, for viciousness, for besmirching people's characters and destroying them."
The jury, eight men and four women, deliberated for thirteen hours. It returned a verdict of $175,001. It was later revealed that the original vote was for $475,000. However, to get an unanimous verdict, required by law, it was agreed to reduce it to $175,001. Despite a series of appeals, the verdict was not reduced. With the addition of interest and other charges, Reynolds won almost $200,000, the largest amount ever collected in an American libel case.
In 16th June, 1961, Pegler criticised Freedom Riders who had travelled to Jackson, Mississippi: "Today I went to city jail to try to learn from some of the prisoners taken in the miserable fraud called Freedom Riders just what freedom they desired that was denied them. Most of them come from Northern communities where they may associate freely across the color line, which has no existence. A white man or woman can go to a public toilet in a bus station without the slightest notice, to say nothing of opposition. So they decided, under organized incitation from offices in New York, to travel a thousand miles to deprive themselves of that freedom and invite personal assault by taunting the people of Jackson."
Pegler attacked President John F. Kennedy for the renewed attempts to achieve civil rights legislation. He argued that this would result in a Deep South backlash and in 1965 he warned that Robert F. Kennedy would be come a victim of "some white patriot of the Southern tier" who "will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies."
Pegler led the attack on Martin Luther King Jr. and after he delivered his famous I Have a Dream Speech, he wrote in a column, “It is clearly the bounden duty of all intelligent Americans to proclaim and practice bigotry.”
Westbrook Pegler died of stomach cancer on 24th June, 1969.