Life of Jim Bishop

by Dr. Michael Spencer

Early Life: 1907-1929

     Jim Bishop was born in 1907 in Jersey City, New Jersey of Irish Catholic parents, John Michael Bishop and Jenny Josephine (Tier).

     The person who had the greatest influence in his life was his father. He even influenced him as a writer; as a boy Bishop saw his father writing police reports on the dining room table, which resulted in his literary fascination with time (p. xii). 1 Later he wrote “day” books on famous individuals.

     According to his very informative autobiography, A Bishop’s Life, Bishop was very unpromising as a boy. He did poorly at St. Patrick’s parochial school, and dropped out after the eighth grade. He did attend a secretarial school for a year afterwards in Jersey City, but later said he forgot everything he learned there (p. 47). During this period of his life he never held a job for more than three weeks, though his father kept finding another one for him.

     At this time, his father left his mother to live with another woman, who also was already married. This blighted his father’s very promising career, and after failing to be promoted to precinct captain as he had been promised, his father left the police force.

     In time, what was left of Bishop’s family life disintegrated completely, and he ended living with his maternal grandmother.

  Newspaper Career

     In 1929 Bishop’s father got him a job as a copyboy at the New York Daily News, through a former policeman who worked there. This was the beginning of his professional career, during which he worked variously as a journalist, editor and author. When he began at the News, Bishop moved to New York City, which became the field of his work for decades. At the News he met Mark Hellinger, which began a lifetime friendship important to Bishop’s career. In time Bishop would work for Hellinger as an assistant at the Daily Mirror, which helped him learn his craft. Shortly after Bishop began at the Daily News, Hellinger moved on to the New York Daily Mirror, and at the end of 1929 he finagled Bishop a job as a reporter on the same paper. Bishop had remained a copyboy during his short stay at the News.

     The New York Daily News and the New York Daily Mirror each had a circulation approaching a million. Both papers were sensational tabloids, relying on sex and crime to make sales. At the Mirror, Bishop found his niche reporting murders and writing feature articles. As a newspaper reporter, Bishop developed many of the attractive qualities of his writing style, such as succinctness and the telling detail. Some writers are ruined for other kinds of writing by compliance to the requirements of newspaper style, but it was beneficial to Bishop.

     In 1930 he married Elinor Margaret (Dunning). They had two daughters. His marriage was very troubled, and he considered separating from his wife one time, until he learned that they were going to have a second child (pp. 169-70). Bishop reports how he, his wife, and his wife’s mother, who lived with them,  went on vacation one time, to drink themselves into a stupor each day (pp. 132-4; cf. 236). Bishop himself likewise said that he had a series of adulterous affairs, apparently throughout the time of this marriage (pp. 202, 331).

Transition Period: 1943-1954

     This is a period of professional instability in his life. Bishop held a series of jobs, mainly involving editorial work.

     In 1943 Collier’s, recognizing his talent, offered him an editorial position. Collier’s was a major national weekly news magazine, and Bishop was amazed to learn of this offer. In fact, the first time Collier’s asked him to come over, he didn’t go. Collier’s published writers like Hemingway, who Bishop would edit there.

     Bishop’s employers over this period of time were very diverse. One of them for example was the book publisher Fawcett. Bishop characterized this publisher by saying it was to writing what Heinrich Himmler was to the humane society (p. 230). (Bishop published a book for Fawcett after he moved onto another job, The Girl in Poison Cottage, a potboiler that didn’t have his name on it.)

     Bishop published his first book in 1945, The Glass Crutch, the Biographical Novel of William Wynne Wister. However, none of the books he published during this period had a lasting effect on his reputation as writer or on his financial well-being. During this period, Hellinger, who had become a Hollywood film producer, offered him a job in Hollywood as a writer. But then Hellinger died right when Bishop was about to go there to work.

     During this period his wife underwent a psychological decline, losing interest in life.

     1954 was the nadir of Bishop’s life. Without enough income, he was thousands of dollars in debt.

Professional Maturity and Retirement: 1954-1987

     In 1930 Bishop had begun filling notebooks with information on Lincoln’s assassination. In grade school, one of the nuns teaching him had mentioned Lincoln, a remark which had captured his lasting interest. 2 Finally, decades later, Bishop wrote the book The Day Lincoln was Shot. In 1954 he was told over the telephone that the Book of the Month Club had chosen it for one of its offerings. The Book of the Month Club was in its heyday then, and this turn of events meant that millions of copies would be sold. The call telling him about this came at 3:00 P.M. on October 15, 1954, Bishop recounted, and he said that nothing in his work would touch him like that again (p. 264). Suddenly he became a nationally-known figure, reporters now writing about him, interested in the least details of his life.

     Among the honors he received after this book came out, Bishop was given an honorary doctor’s degree at St. Bonaventure University when he came up to a journalism conference for high school students, where he gave the address. This visit began his association with this university, and he would give the manuscripts of some of his books and other papers to the university, which preserves them in the library. In fact in A Bishop’s Confession he speaks of a visit he later made to the university to see his friends there.

     During this period of his life, Bishop separated from his wife and moved to a house on the New Jersey shore. In 1957 she died due to complications from an operation, which devastated him.

     In May 1961 Bishop married a divorced woman, Elizabeth Jane Kelly (Stone), who had two young daughters who he would help raise. This marriage seems a happy one. In the final pages of his A Bishop’s Confession he speaks of her successful effort to have her marriage annulled in the Catholic Church so that they could marry in it.

     Bishop’s autobiography, A Bishop’s Confession, provides the often fascinating account of his life. One of Bishop’s redeeming features is his honesty, which is evident in this book. However, at the time of his second marriage it is as if a door slams shut on his life, and he shows only smiling faces in this book, except when it comes to his youngest daughter, Gayle, who after a very foolish marriage stayed briefly at a sanitarium due to her psychological problems.

      Similarly, after this point of his life his autobiography becomes largely the fascinating story of his association with leading Americans. Bishop now was a nationally-known figure. Every president from Eisenhower to Johnson asked him to write about them, and he was a guest at the White House on various occasions for this purpose. He obviously liked Johnson the most. Bishop also knew such people as Jimmy Cagney, Jackie Gleason, Jimmy Hoffa, and John Wayne.

      Soon after Bishop published The Day Lincoln was Shot, Hearst asked him to write a syndicated column, covering any topic of his choosing. Bishop knew that he would succeed only on the basis of his own ability, that editors would only publish his column on its merits. This column became a regular feature in several hundred newspapers. Bishop took pleasure in the fact that newspaper trucks carried his picture on their side, along with the name of his column, “Jim Bishop, Reporter.” He continued as a columnist until his retirement in 1983.

     Bishop’s books sometimes were public events. He finished A Day in the Life of President Kennedy ten days before the president was assassinated. This book became a best-seller. He also wrote The Day Kennedy was Shot. As Bishop worked on this last book he became involved in a battle of wills with Jackie Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, who didn’t want him to do it, wishing to reserve the matter for their authorized writer, William Manchester.

     Bishop’s books varied greatly in quality as he himself remarks in his autobiography, which honestly discusses each of his books. For example, Honeymoon Diary, he said, was “an ugly, gauche, tasteless work” (p. 380). His two “day” books on Christ, The Day Christ Died and The Day Christ was Born, helped make him well known to the public. The Day Christ Died became a best-seller. He found it strange, however, when people thought him religious for writing it.

     In time, Bishop moved to Florida, partly because he believed that sunshine would be good for his arthritis. A Bishop’s Confession was his last book, He died in Florida in 1987 of a respiratory failure.

1 All such page references are to Bishop’s autobiography, A Bishop’s Confession (Boston: Little, Brown, 1981).

2 Olean Times Herald, May 8, 1958, section II, p. 19.

Dr. Michael Spencer ( )
Reference and Government Documents Librarian
telephone: 716.375.2343

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last updated: 11 December 2007 nec