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Shy Savior of U-T Pulitzer: David Copley Emerges in Staff’s Virtual Memorial

Private memorial services are planned for the late publisher, but public memories have emerged.

U-T San Diego’s Pulitzer Prize for exposing the Randy “Duke” Cunningham 2005 bribery scandal in Congress involved a team of San Diego and Washington-based journalists.

But credit is now being given to a shy man from a rich family: David Copley.

Copley, who died of a heart attack while driving Nov. 20 in La Jolla, never granted interviews, “even to his own newspapers,” as the New York Times said in a report Monday.

But former colleagues were not hesitant to share their memories of the former billionaire owner of The San Diego Union-Tribune and other newspapers.

Former business writer and columnist Dean Calbreath says former U-T editor Karin Winner revealed how much pressure the paper had gotten from the Republican establishment to kill the Cunningham story.

“ ‘What are you trying to do to us?’ angry, well-connected voices reportedly asked,” Calbreath wrote in a private newsletter circulated among current and former U-T newsroom employees. “The great part about that was that after a year of reporting the story—in which Karin told us to work as aggressively as possible—this was the first time we’d ever heard of the pressure against the story.”

Not all editors or publishers would’ve acted as that kind of buffer, Calbreath said.

“If I recall correctly, even Ben Bradlee let Woodward & Bernstein know of the pressures he was getting from the DC establishment regarding the Watergate story, so it was nice to see how supportive Karin and David had been by shielding us from that, so we could go ahead and do our jobs. And it was fun to see David let his hair down [at the Pulitzer ceremony]. He never spoke very effusively, but he laughed very boisterously as the reporters (especially Jerry Kammer) drunkenly shared their anecdotes from the field.”

Calbreath says that during his 15 years at the U-T, he saw Copley only once or twice in passing, “except when we won the Pulitzer for the Cunningham story, when he and Karin Winner spent two days in New York feting the five writers whose work was submitted.”

At first, Copley was extremely shy, “talking mainly to Karin in a very quiet voice, which sometimes made it awkward when we were all seated around a dinner table. But eventually, he loosened up.”

A private memorial is planned for Copley in the next few weeks, said an executive with the Helen K. and James S. Copley Foundation.

Kim Koch, secretary of the foundation, told Patch on Wednesday that no public services are planned. But a public memorial has emerged in the newsletter, whose writers gave permission to quote for this report.

David Copley was open to opposing political views, said one. But he was timid about expressing his own, said another. He smoked cigarettes—and was grateful during his youth that a photographer friend didn’t reveal his habit.

Jim Gogek told Patch that as an editorial writer at the Union-Tribune for 14 years, he sat in weekly meetings with Copley and his mother, Helen.

“He spoke very little, but in the times I did talk to him, I found him to be a genuinely nice guy. When I resigned to go into communications in 2004, I wrote him a letter, and he replied with a gracious, cordial letter.”

Gogek said he found it interesting that the Copleys kept him on the editorial board, “even though I was an unregenerate liberal.”

“I always spoke my mind, and election years could get very heated,” Gogek said Wednesday. “So I was on the losing end of a lot of arguments about politics, but the Copleys never seemed to mind hearing me out. Though I wrote prodigiously on nonpolitical subjects, very few—if any— publishers would suffer to keep an editorial writer who was on the opposite side of the political fence. So I have gratitude to David Copley and his mother for employing me and not firing me for all those years.”

James Goldsborough, a onetime foreign affairs columnist at the U-T, recalled Copley as being “totally miscast” in the role of newspaper owner/publisher, which “was clear to any of us who watched him over the years in the editorial board meetings. When his mother was there, he said nothing, and after her death not much more.”

He seemed afraid to express his opinions, Goldsborough wrote in the U-T newsletter, “and looked on the rest of us as though we were a circus being put on to amuse him. He seemed a nice man with decent instincts but too easy to manipulate. I don’t think he knew good advice from bad. Who talked him into firing Neil Morgan? Did he not know the role Neil played in Jim Copley’s hiring of  [future wife] Helen?”

Goldsborough wrote: “Who talked him into killing the column I wrote in 2004 on the Jewish vote and George Bush? Somebody did, or else David wouldn’t have written the letter to me suggesting we forget the whole thing. Over the years, I got notes from him with shy little objections to some of my columns, and they would be followed up with other shy little notes of regret.”

Even so, Goldsborough thought a recent U-T obituary didn’t do Copley justice.

“For a man of Copley’s importance to San Diego—as a newspaper owner, a philanthropist and, yes, a socialite—the UT obit was worse than inadequate; it was pitiful. It gave no sense of the man at all. No family has been more important to San Diego, left a more indelible mark than the Copleys, and the last of them deserved a better farewell.”

Thane McIntosh, a former U-T photographer, recalled a rebellious side of Copley.

After David graduated from prep school, his folks turned him over to my boss, Stan Griffin. David would mess around in the photo lab and often went out on assignments with photographers. One time he went with me to a society set-up at the Hotel Del. As we were standing around waiting to set up the shot two of the ladies in the group recognized David and asked him if he was training to become a photographer.

As I remember it, he was embarrassed and went out to stay in the Photo car. After the shoot, we had some time so I parked the car beside the bay on the Coronado side near the ferry landing to watch the boats go by. David cautiously brought out a pack of cigarettes and asked me not to tell his folks that he was smoking. I assured him I wouldn’t rat him out and we sat there, relaxed, enjoying the scenery and the smokes.  David was a very quiet fellow.

McIntosh recalled the first time he saw Copley—at the Copley Press office in La Jolla somewhere in the mid-1960s, when David would have been a teenager.

“I was running something to the head office as I did an assignment in the area,” McIntosh wrote. “When I drove off the street into the building complex, there was a bicycle lying on its side in the middle of the driveway. I stopped and went to remove the bike when the door of the main office burst open and this teen-age kid ran out, picked up the bike, and took off up the hill. Someone then came out of the office and told me that David knew he was supposed to lean his bike against the building and not leave it in the street; that’s why he left so fast.”

McIntosh recounted a meeting with composer and performer Burt Bacharach at the opening day of the Del Mar races.

“We were standing there waiting for a race to start when David saw the famous Burt Bacharach a few tables away,” McIntosh said. “He said Burt had been at their house for dinner the night before and was excited about a horse he had in the upcoming race. So I decided to keep my eye on Burt to see if he made any photogenic reactions. As the race progressed, Bacharach became more and more animated and when his horse won he erupted in joy. The paper ran a series of his antics. David did me a favor that day.”

In 1996, exactly 40 years after joining the papers, McIntosh was celebrated at a retirement luncheon downtown on his last day at work.

“They gave me a gift and we sat there discussing my 40 years,” he said of the Winner and Copley event. “As we were eating dessert, David lit up a cigarette. It gave me a small pleasure to point out that day so many years ago when he asked me not to tell his folks he was smoking. We chuckled over that memory and the lunch was over.”

Former U-T TV-radio columnist Bob Laurence noted what he called one of the oddities of the Copley family dynasty that ended with the death of David—that “none of the successive heirs over the decades were actually to the manor born. It was a dynasty strung together of accidental and adopted heirs.”

The founder, Ira, adopted James, who then inherited the family business. He plucked James, and another baby, William, from a New York orphanage after his own three children died as infants. Even William and Bill weren’t born brothers. They were adopted separately, had nothing else in common, and eventually James bought out Bill’s part of the business.

James one day hired a secretary, Helen. He made her his second wife and adopted her son, David. So she inherited control of the empire upon James’ death. And after her death, that adopted son became the final beneficiary of that remarkable chain of lucky coincidences.

One can only speculate as to how history might have changed if, say, one of Ira’s children had lived to adulthood. Or if William had stayed in the business, or if James hadn’t divorced his first wife.

Finally, former U-T entertainment editor Wayne Carlson recalled a time with the Copleys in 1996 after he left the paper and became editor of San Diego Home & Garden Magazine.

“I initiated a monthly series that featured local celebrities and their homes. Over the years I made several attempts for permission to publish a story on Fox Hill, Helen Copley’s La Jolla mansion. Through aides, the publisher always respectfully declined. Finally, however, she approved my request to do a story on the estate’s large and beautiful garden.”

He said he visited the La Jolla home, and a housekeeper went to wake up David, and he appeared about 10 minutes later, sleepy-eyed in his pajamas.

“He was very pleasant, if somewhat nervous, and he seemed to avoid eye contact at all cost. I had hoped that David would give me a room-to-room tour of the house, but that chore fell to Walter Nelson, who had been the family’s interior designer for three decades (later Nelson designed the interiors of the famous Copley yacht).”

Carlson continued:

Before David went back upstairs, however, he led me to his cozy library on the first floor. He proudly showed me a first edition of one of Raymond Chandler’s murder mysteries. The rest of the home’s interiors were a mix of sophisticated and playfully eccentric features. One large room showcased a collection  of priceless art. Among the items was a Picasso bronze statuette of Françoise Gilot, the onetime lover of the artist. 

David said Gilot had personally given him the piece. Artwork of another sort decorated the walls of David’s bedroom suite: Famed fashion designers’ sketches of costumes they had made for Hollywood movies. Many of them were by Edith Head, who was famously celebrated in Hollywood for “giving good design.” UCLA’s highly regarded David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design was named for David’s substantial contributions.

Tucked away in the back garden was an exquisite  Art Deco bar with piano.

The house’s layout was somewhat peculiar, in the mode of the  Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. Blame the piecemeal way it was acquired. The home initially had been a small cottage, but grew over the years as David purchased and annexed the house next door, and the next one and the next one to that.

Carlson wrote that he never denied taking great pleasure in scooping the publisher’s own newspaper from which I had been dumped two years earlier.

“But that guilty pleasure is not what I remember most fondly about my limited experiences with the Copleys,” he wrote. “Instead, it is how faithful the hired help were to the Copleys, and how faithful the Copleys were to them.”

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