Laffan, William Mackay (1848–1909), journalist, newspaper owner, and art connoisseur, was born 24 January 1848 at 41 Philipsburgh Avenue, Clontarf, Dublin, eldest of six children of Michael Laffan, clerk in the Custom House, and Ellen Sarah Laffan (née Fitzgibbon). William's catholic father was a publican's son from Tipperary. His protestant mother belonged to a respectable Church of Ireland family in Dublin, and on her father's death her uncle Gerald Fitzgibbon (qv), QC and future chancery judge, became her guardian till the time of her marriage. Mrs Laffan died in 1862, and all six Laffan children were brought up as catholics. William Laffan was educated at H. T. Humphrey's school in Blackrock, then at the French College (latterly Blackrock College), from which he went in 1864 to Cecilia St. medical school. He nominally studied medicine for four years, but surreptitiously studied art – the Pathological Society of Dublin employed him as an illustrator – and collected bric-a-brac. His father's discovery of how his time was being spent led to William's removal from medical school in 1868. Encouraged to seek his fortune elsewhere, he is said to have visited China on his way to the USA.
Once in America, Laffan became a reporter, and then city editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, where his ability to illustrate his articles was much appreciated. He subsequently became managing editor of the San Francisco Bulletin. In 1870 he moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he became a reporter on the Baltimore Daily Bulletin, and then part-owner of an evening edition concentrating on art, literature, and science. He gained a reputation for expertise regarding antiques and modern art, and thus attracted the attention of wealthy people who wanted advice on collecting. In 1872 he married Georgiana Radcliffe, daughter of a Baltimore judge. Shortly afterwards, when Laffan was employed as passenger agent of the Long Island Railroad, Charles Dana, editor and part owner of the New York Sun, recruited him to work on that newspaper.
The Sun's ethos was Republican, favouring business and financial interests. Employed as a general writer, Laffan soon made his name as the paper's first drama and art critic. In 1881 he was sent to London for two years as the Sun's art editor and representative of the publishers, Harper Brothers; otherwise the remainder of his life was spent working in New York for the Sun. In 1884 he became its publisher, and in 1887 he started the Evening Sun. When Charles Dana died in 1897, Laffan, with the assistance of the millionaire J. Pierpoint Morgan, became proprietor of the newspaper. Laffan had become a personal friend of Morgan, whose art adviser he had been for some years. Laffan's own collecting interests were wide-ranging. In 1887 Harpers published his monograph American wood engravers; he was from 1905 a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of which J. P. Morgan was president; and in 1907 he edited the museum's Catalogue of the Morgan collection of Chinese ceramics. He influenced Morgan to acquire, in addition to ancient Egyptian artifacts, early Italian pictures and French impressionist pictures for the museum. Laffan now owned a controlling interest in the Sun and wrote occasional leaders, although most of the executive work was carried out by Edward Page Mitchell. Laffan became a wealthy man, with homes at 335 Lexington Ave., NYC, and Lawrence, Long Island. He was a member of the New York yacht, racquet, and tennis clubs, the Rockaway Hunt, the Fine Arts Society, and the London Arts Club.
William Laffan impressed contemporaries as much by his opportunism as by his originality and persistence in helping to promote American critical journalism in the theatre and the visual arts. In manner he was witty, sarcastic, and short-tempered, stubborn and at times vindictive. He had a genuine love of the fine arts, and to this owed the swift rise to wealth and power which naturally excited professional jealousy. Towards relatives he showed benevolence, employing his brother Michael Fitzgibbon Laffan as Spanish correspondent and later as treasurer of the Sun, enabling his cousin William Bolger to train as a reporter, and employing other cousins on the Sun's production side. He thoughtfully organised the publication in America of books by his sister, May Laffan Hartley (qv), to avoid pirating, a common practice in the 1880s. He was noted for importing and employing Irish journalists. Accounts of Laffan suggest that he allowed few people to get close to him, possibly due to a desire to reinvent himself. In America he was thought to be a TCD graduate and a grandson of the lord chief justice of England. He was reported to have travelled extensively in China and the Middle East, to have learned Chinese and Arabic, and to be able to read Chaldean and Egyptian inscriptions. It suited the ambitious Irish emigrant to be credited with these talents, and also to be seen as coming from a higher social class than was in fact the case.
On 19 November 1909 William Laffan was operated on for appendicitis and died some hours afterwards without regaining consciousness. The liturgy at his funeral, which included cremation at Long Island, was conducted by a unitarian minister and comprised readings from Emerson, Walt Whitman, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The main beneficiary of his large fortune was his wife Georgiana, as their marriage had proved childless.