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Reynolds v. Pegler: 1954

Reynolds Sues For Libel

Plaintiff: Quentin Reynolds
Defendants: Westbrook Pegler, The Hearst Corporation, and Hearst Consolidated Publications
Plaintiff Claims: That a certain column published by the defendants on November 29, 1949 libeled the plaintiff
Chief Defense Lawyer: Charles Henry
Chief Lawyers for Plaintiff: Walter S. Beck, Paul Martinson, and Louis Nizer
Judge: Edward Weinfeld
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: May 10-July 22, 1954
Verdict: Against all defendants: Reynolds awarded $1 in compensatory damages and $175,000 in punitive damages

SIGNIFICANCE: The lopsided award of a huge amount of punitive damages in connection with an award of only nominal compensatory damages was the largest in history at the time. The decision sent a clear signal to the publishing industry that it would be held accountable for the libelous acts of its writers and reporters.

William Randolph Hearst, the publishing magnate, built an empire by publishing newspapers that had stories the public wanted to read. Hearst made sure that his papers had the best editors, writers and reporters money could buy. One of Hearst's favorite writers was Westbrook Pegler, who wrote articles for the King Features Syndicate of The Hearst Corporation, which in turn sold the articles to other Hearst papers. In particular, King Features sold Pegler articles to the New York Journal-American, a New York City newspaper owned by Hearst Consolidated Publications.

Hearst died in 1945, nearly 90 years old, but Pegler remained with the Hearst organization. Pegler's articles could be very vindictive and biting, and in 1949 Pegler was accused of using his writing ability to hurt an old friend. On November 20, 1949, a writer for the New York Herald Tribune Book Review named Quentin Reynolds wrote a review of Dale Kramer's book The Heywood Broun His Friends Recall. Heywood Broun, himself a writer, had once been a friend of Pegler but, during the 1930s, the two men had a falling-out. In 1939, Pegler wrote a scathing attack on Broun's works. According to Kramer, Broun was so upset by Pegler's attack that Broun was unable to recover from a minor illness and died.

Despite the fact that the events described in Kramer's book were over 10 years old, Pegler took offense at Reynolds' review. On November 29, 1949 Pegler's article, "On Heywood Broun and Quentin Reynolds," was published in the Journal-American. Pegler's article had little to do with any critique of Reynolds' review, and was instead a wholesale assassination of Reynolds' character. Without any substantiation, Pegler said: that Reynolds and his girlfriend made a habit of appearing nude in public; that on the way to Heywood Broun's funeral Reynolds had proposed marriage to the widow, Connie Broun; that Reynolds had been a profiteer during World War II; that while working as a war correspondent in London, Reynolds had been a coward; and so forth. Pegler also called Reynolds a degenerate who associated with communists, blacks and others Pegler regarded as undesirables.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962