Estrangement of Michael Copley from the San Diego Union-Tribune's Helen Copley

Slow fall from Foxhill

  • Foxhill

On the days when the family station wagon wasn't available, he was deposited at the first grade in Miss Balmer's School (later named La Jolla Country Day) by a chauffeur driving a Cadillac limousine. As a child, he would have preferred to walk, and he felt embarrassed by the limo, but it seemed best to accept the manner in which his life was organized for him.

Janice, James, Jean, Michael, 1957

Janice, James, Jean, Michael, 1957

He didn’t think of himself as being rich, yet his house on Country Club Drive was larger and more formal than any of his friends', and in addition to the chauffeur who also acted as a handyman, his family had a cook, a maid, and several gardeners. Intermittently, he and his sister had a governess.

They lived in a six-bedroom house in La Jolla with an informal as well as a formal dining room, a large library, and several dens, one of which was known as “the children's den.” The name of the house with its imposing grounds was Foxhill, the name of his father was James Copley, and the name of this son who will be thirty years old in December, 1978, is Michael Clifton Copley.

Janice and Michael, 1957

Janice and Michael, 1957

What was it like to grow up a Copley? For one thing, the genealogy is complex. Ira Copley, who, in Aurora, Illinois, founded what was to become one of the most powerful family-owned newspaper chains in the country, adopted James Copley, who then came to control sixteen daily and thirty-one weekly newspapers. Among these papers were the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune.

Michael and Janice

Michael and Janice

James and his wife Jean in the third year of their marriage also adopted two children, a boy and a girl of identical age but not related to each other. Though born in different cities (Michael in Los Angeles and Janice in Cleveland), they were adopted in the same year, 1949. Thus, there are no natural children in the Copley line. To be a Copley had to do with upbringing — proper behavior, emphasis on responsibility, excellent manners, and proving oneself.

Michael, Jean, James, Janice, 1960

Michael, Jean, James, Janice, 1960

“My father was a generous man, but you couldn't just ask him for things. He never said he was raising me to take over the papers. I knew I had to prove myself to him first.”

Michael, South Bay Daily Breeze, 1970

Michael, South Bay Daily Breeze, 1970

The speaker is Michael Copley, a pleasant-looking man with Paul Newman baby-blue eyes, a trim moustache, and crisp brown hair that’s fashionably styled. His body is suntanned and athletic — he plays tennis and soccer — but even when he wears ordinary rubber-soled sandals, his toenails are impeccable, his cotton cord pants seem to have been laundered an instant ago, and his tennis shirts give the impression of having just been lifted from their cellophane wrappers. When Michael dons a business suit and vest, the cut of his suit is perfect, and you can never imagine him with a three-day growth of beard or sporting any item of clothing that has the slightest smudge or crease.

Michael and James, 1971

Michael and James, 1971

In that sense, Michael is his father's true child. Should the ghost of James Copley, like Hamlet's father, suddenly appear in the blue mist of an early summer evening, he would be sure to find his son with clean nails and freshly laundered attire. Like his father, Michael is a registered Republican, but unlike his father, he regards himself as an independent. “I was independent and on my own since I was ten years old,” he says.

Michael Copley, July, 1978

Michael Copley, July, 1978

One of the most fascinating aspects of interviewing Michael Copley is that despite his best efforts, there exist crucial questions about his past which he has not thought of before, nor has he placed his childhood in adult perspective. For example, asked why his parents chose to adopt, he replied, “I don't know. I'll have to ask my mother.”

In like manner, when prodded about his childhood, memories come haltingly, as if the past were an undifferentiated mountain that he once scaled but can no longer traverse with ease.

‘‘I always thought of my father as dominant. I knew he expected a lot of me. I was always getting into trouble when I was little and he.had to punish me. Sometimes he spanked me, but I deserved it.”

Asked what kind of trouble he had been in, Michael replies, “I was a brat at school. I think I must have had fights with other kids. I was always hacking around.” (“Hacking around” is one of his favorite phrases.) “I wasn’t very scholarly.”

When pressed to give a more specific instance of his being “a brat,” he thinks for a long moment and answers, “Once, in London, I got bored and I threw tennis balls down a stairwell. My father didn't like that. It made him angry.”

What pleased James Copley as a father? James was friendly to his son, Michael, rather than intimate, and his behavior was solidified into ritual — James Copley liked to have things done his way, and with repetitive sameness that provided a structure for his family life.

On nights when the two children dined with their parents, the family without variation met beforehand in the formal library. Lined on three sides with books, it was dominated by an imposing fireplace (lit in the winter) over which hung a large painting of Ira Copley, Michael’s grandfather. Both children had to be attired very neatly and with no dirt under their fingernails — Michael would be sent from the library to change clothes or to wash his hands if he didn’t pass his father's careful inspection.

The dogs, a springer spaniel and a standard poodle, were also present in the library, and as soon as the parents finished their drinks, they would all walk down a long hall and enter the informal dining room, called the Morning Room. If the dogs had been petted, the children had to wash their hands again. The dogs were trained to sit outside the dining room during dinner.

At one end of the Morning Room a bar held all of James Copley’s fox memorabilia — mugs, dishes, statuary, paintings — a collection begun because Mrs. Copley often likened James to a fox, adroit and skillful at survival; thus the estate on Country Club Drive in La Jolla earned its name, Foxhill. At the other end of the room a fireplace was lit except in summers, and soft music was piped throughout the house, mostly lush orchestrations of lyrical popular songs, but never rock and rarely classical.

The parents sat at either end of a long table with the children between them. James Copley was fond of a Portuguese wine called Brillante and not only drank it at dinner but gave it as gifts to friends.

During dinner (standard American meals of fish, chicken, roast beef) James asked the children about their school or sports activities. He did not encourage expressions of opinions, and the children did not venture any, nor did they speak of things that would be likely to upset him.

“My father seemed like a stern man. Dinners were formal. We always enjoyed it when we could eat with the servants and be messy or when my sister and I could argue. When we ate with my parents we had to ask to be excused. My father would want to know if we had done our homework. If we had, we could watch TV. If we hadn't, we had to go to our rooms and study.

“My father was very strict about that. He had great concern about our education. I know I would disappoint him because I tried to get out of homework and I would get into fights at school. In the first grade, I got kicked out of school for slugging a kid during a fight, and I broke an antique manger. My father spoke to me very sternly when I did such things. Sometimes he gave me an old-fashioned spanking, over his knees. He didn’t use a brush, just his hands. He also got upset if I spoke back to the servants.

“When we were kids, my sister and I used to fight a lot. We were the same age, but she was bigger and used to beat me up. But I got into more trouble. I was always disappointing my parents because I played when I should have been studying. I played baseball in the house, which wasn't allowed.

“Once, I was swinging a golf club in the den. He told me not to do it. I got fresh, so he hit me on the face, hard enough to knock me down. Of course, he was right; I deserved it. But he rarely lost control. If he was angry, he would raise his voice or he would give me a stern look that I couldn’t question.’’

Sometimes, during the weekends, father and son would play baseball on the estate grounds, and for Michael’s birthday he would invite friends and they would play football, and his father would join them. When his father was relaxed, such as during visits to Aurora, Illinois, he tried to teach Michael how to box.

“You had a feeling when you could fool around with him and when you couldn’t. You knew, you just sensed when you could sit on his bed and when you couldn't. My father was busy a lot, even on the weekends, and then I would tag along with Roy Aldis. He was the chauffeur and the handyman. I followed him around a lot. My father was afraid of spoiling me. My father expected me to behave very well when he gave big parties and important people came to the house. But my sister and I had great times with Roy and his wife. They took us to the beach and out to eat dinner. Sometimes we ate at La Valencia, sometimes in a small restaurant in a motel on La Jolla Boulevard. I loved Roy very much.”

But at the age of ten. the family dinners and the vast parties, the evenings with Roy and the days at the beach came to an end. Michael was sent away to boarding school, to a school called Orme, on a ranch in Prescott, Arizona. Michael was not consulted about this decision, nor did he know why he couldn't continue living in La Jolla and attending La Jolla Country Day. At Orme, in the fifth grade, he found himself woefully homesick. But when he mildly complained, James Copley replied, “You have to be a man about it. It’s good for you.”

Not only was Michael separated from his family at a tender age, but worse, Roy Aldis, the chauffeur who had so often comforted and amused Michael, died suddenly of a heart attack. “I was only in the sixth grade and I really cried when Roy died. He was one of the three men in my life, the other two being my father and my father’s best friend. Sonny Bjorseth. I saw them all as important men, and I wanted to be important, too, but I missed Roy as a friend, as someone I could relax with.’’

However, a year later, Michael was sent home from Orme in disgrace. “I was kicked out because I had bad grades and I organized commando raids on the kitchen. We took some food. They called it ‘stealing.’ When I came home, my father shook hands with me instead of hugging me. He was upset because of what happened at school and my bad grades. After that, he didn’t hug me anymore. Maybe he thought I was getting too big for hugging, but he always wanted me to know that he expected me to do better at school.

“I wanted to be a big man like my father. I wanted to meet with heads of state the way he did. But when I came home, I wanted to stay here and surf. I couldn’t concentrate on my studies when I was away from home, but I couldn't explain this to my father.”

After Orme, in Arizona, Michael was sent even farther away from California, to Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Massachusetts.

“At Eaglebrook there were lots of kids with important parents, and the name Copley didn’t mean much to them. I went to school with Edsel Ford's son, and with Charlie Scripps from the Scripps newspapers, also Chris Harte, whose father owned newspapers in Texas. I managed to finish out the ninth grade at Eaglebrook, but I hacked around too much later at Andover. I wasn’t the type to work hard. I transferred from Andover to Sterling Academy in Vermont and graduated from Sterling.”

If boarding school thousands of miles from home had to be tolerated, at least summer and Christmas holidays remained. During the holiday season there would be as many as a hundred people for dinner. When Michael was thirteen, his father gave him a go-cart, and this was one of the highlights of his early adolescence. The go-cart, named “The Honey Bee,” could go as fast as thirty miles an hour, and Michael rarely tired of driving it around the estate. “It was so exciting having it. When I tipped over the ‘Honey Bee' and my sister was inside it, I thought they would take it away from me; I was afraid I would get into trouble. But my sister just had a few scratches.”

Summers, when the family drove out to Borrego, were Michael's favorite times. As in the movie Citizen Kane, when a picnic to the beach involved a cortege of cars, so James Copley would organize a caravan of several jeeps, of which he drove the lead jeep, a Willy's four-wheel-drive, with Michael sitting on his lap. not only steering but working the clutch. He felt very close to his father then, and proud of his father’s bravery in crossing dry creek beds or steep inclines which the other drivers feared to tackle. “Someone has to do it,” James Copley would say about his ventures in the Willy’s, and though he was only five-feet eight, to his son he appeared a giant, a born leader.

Michael also felt close to his father when they went duck hunting. Not only that, he pleased his father by eating these wild ducks at the dinner table while his sister and mother cringed and averted their gazes from the bloody birds. (His father insisted that the birds have no more than eleven minutes — exactly eleven minutes — of roasting.) When touched with the fork, they ran blood, and Michael, proud of himself and proud of his manly father, joined in this fealty of hunting and consuming their catch. On those nights, he loved his father very much and he knew his father loved him.

But abruptly, when Michael and Janice were fifteen, even his summer family life came to an end.

“My father always wrote me when I was away at school. When I was at Eaglebrook, he would dictate letters to his secretary and sign them himself. He always said he was interested in what I had told him in my letters. He told me about his trips and he always said, 'Study hard.' But he never wrote anything about himself and my mother.

“I never heard my parents fight or even argue. I thought they were formal with each other, and it was easier to get affection or support from my mother. But when I came home from school my sister Janice was very upset. She told me they were getting a divorce. I can’t remember anything my mother or father said about it. They gave some general explanation. I didn’t think too much about it. Lots of my friends had divorced parents, but my sister took it hard.

“When I was sixteen, I spent the summer in Hawaii. I went to summer school in the morning and worked on construction in the afternoon. When I came back, my mother, sister and I rented a big house on Camino de la Costa in La Jolla. On one level was the pool and on the other, the ocean. I had more freedom than at the big house. I thought I would see my father a lot, but I didn’t. My father then married Helen (Helen Hunt). She was his former secretary, and she had her own son, David. From 1966, when he married Helen, until 1970, I hardly ever saw my father. Even when he came East on business, he wouldn’t call me at school because she wouldn’t like that. She had her own son and my father adopted him about two months after the wedding. David was about thirteen at the time. My father stopped sending me big Christmas presents because Helen wouldn’t like that, either.

“I saw him maybe three or four times in those years. I'd call and my father would say, ‘Helen, is it okay if Mike comes up?' He’d check with her first.

“The visit was always formal. We would shake hands and go into the library. Helen wouldn’t visit with me, wouldn’t ask me about myself, wouldn’t act like a normal stepmother. She would leave the room as soon as I came in. My father and I would go to the library and he would ask me about school and about what I was doing. When we were alone together, he was very friendly, but I felt that Helen could hardly wait for me to get out of the house — my former home. Once, when I was about twenty, I went to see him in the office. He gave me some fatherly advice and told me, ‘It’s not proper to live with a girl. You have to marry her.’“

Still, James Copley was pleased when, after an uneven stretch at the University of Colorado, Michael went to work for a Copley-owned paper, the South Bay Daily Breeze, in Torrance, California, and even more proud when Michael was drafted into the army in March, 1971. A staunch Republican and a Vietnam hawk, James felt paternal pride in the fact that Michael was an honor graduate student from army leadership school and that during the period that he edited the base paper at Fort Ord, the newspaper won an award for being the most improved military newspaper in the United States.

But father and son meetings became more and more difficult to arrange, because from 1966 James Copley was struggling with cancer and his wife Helen closely monitored his life.

“I knew he had cancer, but I didn't think it was terminal. Helen would tell me nothing, would hardly speak to me, and my father wouldn't mention his illness when I saw him. One time he had no hair because of cobalt radiation, and his face was very puffy. But even when I was sitting with him in the library, he wouldn't refer to his condition. He never mentioned the word 'cancer.' My mother (now remarried to James Erdman of New York) told me he had a tumor in his lung, and people from the Breeze told me my father was really very sick."

While Michael was at Fort Ord he heard that his father had been admitted to Scripps Clinic. He called Helen to ask about him and expressed his wish to come down and visit, but Helen, he says, was uncooperative.

"She said, ‘You can't see your father; he's too sick.' I was very upset because I was his son and had the right to see him, so I called Dr. Keeney (Dr. Edmund Keeney, then president of Scripps Clinic) and he said, ‘Of course you can see your father.' I knew I had to have a confrontation with Helen, but not in front of my father. When I asked her why she didn't let me see him, she said, ‘I just don't know what I'm doing. I'm very upset.’

"That last week, I called and said I wanted to come down again. Helen said. ‘Don't worry. Everything is fine. You don't have to come down.' He died two days later. Henry Ford, a black janitor who had worked for my father for many years, was in the room when he died. My father wanted Henry Ford around him while he was sick; he wanted to hold Henry Ford’s hand. My father was fifty-seven when he died. I really would have liked to be with him.

"The next day (October 7, 1973), I went with Henry Ford to La Jolla Mortuary to see my father laid out. Henry and I were feeling pretty bad. But when we came back to the mortuary in the evening, they wouldn't let us in. Helen called them and said no one could go in. I told them I was his son and that I wanted to see my father again, but they wouldn't let me. They said they couldn't go against Mrs. Copley's orders.

‘‘My father was buried in Aurora, Illinois. For his funeral trip, we took his private plane, Jet Star. It was very ironic because it was the first time I was in my father's private jet. Billy Graham spoke at my father’s funeral. At the graveside. Sonny Bjorseth, his best friend, walked over, gave him a last salute, and walked away.

"I was very sad because I hadn't had a chance to prove myself to him. I felt I didn't have enough of a chance. Time had run out."

Four years later, in 1977, Michael graduated from Stanford University with a major in communication (journalism). By then, his stepmother, Helen Copley, was at the helm of the newspaper empire, and he wasn't allowed on the premises because he and his sister were in litigation with Helen over the dispersal of the money left by James Copley.

"As soon as I received a copy of the trust (in 1974), I realized that it had been unfair to me and my sister. In the nonmarital trust, Helen and her son, David, by the sale of certain stocks for alleged tax purposes, had 81.9 percent and my sister and I had 18.1 percent. We started our suit in 1974 and it's going on right now in San Diego. We want Helen removed as the trustee. We are suing her for fraud and fiduciary irresponsibility.

"When I signed the lawsuit, I knew I put my career with Copley Press on the line because Helen was not going to take well to someone suing her. After my father died, I tried to approach her; I wrote her letters. But it was the same as when Father was alive. She kept saying that I expected a top-level job, but I didn’t. That's why I was training for each department at the Breeze."

On Wednesday, June 21, 1978, Superior Court Judge William L. Todd, Jr., who has been presiding in a nonjury trial since mid-March, ruled that Helen Copley be removed as trustee of the nonmarital trust and the shares of Michael and Janice raised to 35 per cent. Ironically, Helen’s son, David, benefits from this, as he is included as one of the recipients of this new trust.

The trial, however, may continue for many more years. Helen Copley's lawyers are sure to appeal, and the court has yet to appoint a successor to the trusteeship. Then there will be debates as to whether the Copley Press is valued at one hundred million or two hundred million dollars. In the meantime, Michael will return to his job at the Menlo-Atherton Recorder, a Palo Alto independent newspaper of which Michael has been the arts editor. His sister, Janice, who has kept away from the San Diego area, worked until recently in a bookstore in Carmel, California, and now teaches Transcendental Meditation.

When Michael comes to see me for the last time before returning to Palo Alto, he is as natty as ever, and he entrusts me with a folder full of pictures. Then he gets into his 1965 red VW convertible, as carefully maintained as he.

"Some day," he says, "I'd like to run my own newspaper. When I first started, my father would ask me, ‘Do you really like newspaper work?' I really do." His blue eyes flash, and he is off.

Ironically, when I walk down my street later in the afternoon, I see a Cadillac limousine wending up Country Club Drive. The blue-tinted glass prevents me from obtaining anything more than a glimpse of Helen Copley, who, with impassive face, thinks her private thoughts.

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