Michael Wolff at Roger Ailes' Funeral: Loyalists Celebrate in an "Act of Defiance"

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On the day Ailes died, Rupert Murdoch had been advised that a condolence call to Ailes’ wife would not be well received.

One question traveling quickly through Fox News on May 19 was about who had been invited to the funeral of the network’s ousted founder Roger Ailes the next day in Palm Beach. Another was who would risk management disapproval by attending. Ailes’ wife, Beth, fiercely protective of him and, in the hours since his death on May 18 at age 77, already a determined keeper of the flame, meant to exclude anyone who wasn’t a true friend, and to test anyone who said they were.

If the liberal media saw Ailes as a disgraced and broken man — quite taking credit for his professional if not actual demise through its coverage since July of the sexual harassment allegations against him — his funeral was meant to be an act of defiance. Without apology, it was a celebration of husband, father, friend, employer, political figure, media titan, TV impresario and, hardly least of all, man of many provocations.

It was, too, an unyielding front against his enemies, whose names hung in the air with scorn and imprecations: Gretchen Carlson, the anchor he’d fired, who filed the initial claim against him for sexual harassment; Megyn Kelly, the woman whose career he had built and who, many of their colleagues believed, had sold him out for her own career advancement; Gabriel Sherman, the reporter fixated on him, who became the prime conduit of leaks from Fox News’ parent 21st Century Fox.

Most of all the villains were the Murdochs: Rupert Murdoch, who had hired Ailes in 1996, and his sons, James and Lachlan, who had assumed executive authority two years ago. Ailes had given the Murdoch family 20 years and built them a $30 billion company, and, in the opinion of family, friends and his confidants at Fox, had been sacrificed by them when it suited their purposes.

On the day Ailes died, Rupert Murdoch had been advised that a condolence call to Ailes’ wife would not be well received.

Ailes’ final days had begun on May 10 with a fall. In a new beachfront modernist house in Palm Beach that Ailes and his wife had bought in the fall and moved into in January, he had been largely wheelchair bound with a range of muscle and hip problems and closely tended to by his wife. It was a point of acute bitterness for Ailes’ family that Sherman, ever trying to pursue his moves, had recently suggested that the nearly inseparable husband and wife had been apart, implying this might have been the reason for his fall — and, in fact, that he might have committed suicide. (Sherman has long speculated that the Ailes' marriage was floundering or finished because of the harassment allegations.)

The fall caused a blood clot in his brain, and then, during efforts to remove it, another was found. Put into a medically induced coma, Ailes was attended to by his wife and by his friend Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio host, as pivotal a figure in modern conservative politics as Ailes himself, and whose show Ailes had produced in the 1990s before he founded Fox News. “Rush at Roger’s bedside,” reflected a friend at the funeral, summing up the brotherhood of the conservative movement and its two media titans.

Ailes rallied briefly early in the week, but died on the morning of the 18th. 

The funeral two days later was held at Saint Edwards Roman Catholic Church in Palm Beach — the church where Rose Kennedy attended mass every morning when she was at her winter home. Ethel Kennedy, the wife of Robert F. Kennedy, attended the Ailes' service with her son Douglas Kennedy, a long-time Fox News reporter. 

Along with Limbaugh and Kennedy were Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Bill Hemmer, Kimberly Guilfoyle and Liz Trotta. There was, too, Dennis Kucinich, the wild card Democratic presidential candidate whom Ailes had befriended, and Pat Caddell, the rogue Democratic political operative who had long bonded with Ailes as rogue Republican operative. Everyone took careful note of who in Ailes’ close circle had not attended.

The guest list provided something of a schematic of how the ouster of Ailes — and, subsequently, Fox star Bill O’Reilly and Ailes protege Bill Shine — had divided the channel, with Ailes’ core supporters holding the absolute conviction that he had been railroaded from the network he created, and having the greatest contempt for those still trying to pretend that Fox might continue on as usual.

Hannity, the network’s biggest star, who had tweeted just before Bill Shine’s ouster that if Shine went the network was truly finished, repeated throughout the day, as though stunned by the reality: “It’s really over, isn’t it?”

Following the funeral service, the 60 or so guests went to the Everglades Club for a lunch, which progressed into almost two hours of off-the-cuff memories of Ailes. Ailes had threatened him, Limbaugh said, when, in Fox’s early days, it seemed Limbaugh might go to CNN. AIles had threatened her, Ingraham said, when she seemed reluctant to leave MSNBC. He had hired Hannity after a 10-minute interview, lifting him from obscurity at a local station in Atlanta. He had covered Kucinich’s campaign when no more liberal news network would. The common thread was of a figure, quite at odds with modern management, who directed, oversaw and tended to every detail of his network, and fiercely protected it from corporate interference. 

Liz Trotta, the longtime television news journalist and Fox commentator whom Ailes recruited when she was almost 60, and whom he supported through many controversies (and who is now 80), noted that she had worked at NBC News when it was still run by the network’s founder, General Sarnoff, and how it had lost its purpose after Sarnoff retired in 1970 and the suits took over. Then she had worked at CBS News when William Paley was still in charge, noting that only misery came after Paley’s reign and with the ascendance of the CBS suits. Fox, post-Ailes, was, she pronounced, now with the suits, and God help it.

At 59, Ailes had had his only child, son Zachary, now 17. A head taller than his father but with the same husky and confiding voice, he spoke as though television-ready with forceful resolve about not letting his own memory of his father be written by those who hated him, suggesting that his father had been done in by a kind of corporate shootout at the OK Corral. He quoted Wyatt Earp’s line from the 1993 movie Tombstone about the fight not being over: “I’m coming, and hell’s coming with me,” said Zachary Ailes about defending his father’s legacy. 

“With him gone,” continued the 17-year-old to the gathering, “I don’t know how to get involved. But I’m going to want to and hope you can all help me.”

Shortly thereafter, Sherman, whose pursuit had often included Ailes’ wife and son and who was monitoring reports of the funeral, tweeted that the 17-year-old had made threats against the women who had claimed harassment.