Joseph Medill was one of the great journalists of 19th-century America. A fervent abolitionist, confidant of Lincoln and mayor of Chicago, his last words were reportedly, “What is the news this morning?” His descendants continued that tradition, playing extraordinary roles in shaping and transforming newspapers and other media well into the 20th century. As Megan McKinney demonstrates in her compulsively readable The Magnificent Medills, their achievements were accompanied by fierce competition, disappointment and tragedy, including alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide.

Joseph Medill moved to Chicago in 1855 to be part owner of the Chicago Daily Tribune and the paper’s managing editor. Many years later, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, three of his grandchildren, Cissy Patterson, Joseph Patterson and Robert McCormick, controlled the newspapers with the largest circulations in three of the country’s most important markets: New York, Chicago and Washington. They were carrying on their grandfather’s way of personal journalism—although they were leading their readers in different directions.

Joseph Patterson became a socialist, as well as a notable novelist and playwright. At the Tribune, he was responsible for the well-received Sunday edition and the development of the modern comic strip. He went on to create a new kind of newspaper, The New York Daily News, which became the most successful newspaper in the country’s history. He was a rock of support for his sister Cissy throughout her glamorous, though often troubled, life. First widely known as an international socialite, much later she became editor and publisher of the Washington Herald, in a city where she was well connected. Colonel Robert McCormick, meanwhile, remained at the Chicago Tribune. Almost alone, he designed the structure of the Tribune Company of his time, which thrived and allowed him to promote his very conservative political views.

Despite their different paths, the three grandchildren had much in common. McKinney describes each of them as “complex and eccentric, a product of atrocious parenting. The collective childhood of the cousins had created demons that would mature with time, leaving each with an insistent—and ultimately fatal—need for alcohol.”

With its backdrop of wealth and power, The Magnificent Medills reads almost like a rich historical novel. It just happens to be true.

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