The beginning of Harry’s new life with Clare coincided with the creation of Life magazine, perhaps the most popular periodical in American publishing history. Together these momentous events—one personal, one professional—changed the trajectory of his career and his sense of his place in the world.
Luce’s interest in a “picture magazine” had many sources. Clare, while serving as managing editor of Vanity Fair in 1932, had written a memo to Condé Nast urging him to create a magazine for photographs that she proposed naming “Life.” Her first two social conversations with Harry, according to Clare’s later accounts, were about the challenges and prospects of such a publication. Throughout their courtship and even during the first months of their marriage, the idea for a new magazine was part of the bond between them—a shared professional interest that intensified their physical and emotional attraction to each other. Early in their relationship, again according to Clare, Harry promised to make her managing editor of his new publication.1
But while the prospect of Life helped bring them together, it failed to avert a rift in their marriage that began within weeks of their wedding. Their relationship had begun as a product of passion and ambition. The passion ebbed fairly quickly, but the ambition survived. It did not take long for their love affair to turn into something like a marriage of state—enduring, but at the same time competitive and largely unromantic.
• • •
Days after their quiet wedding, Harry and Clare left for a two-month honeymoon in Cuba, where they had borrowed a villa from a friend. For the first several weeks the trip was marred by almost constant rain, which kept the newlyweds indoors and restless. Later a cruise on a friend’s yacht was again spoiled by rough weather and Clare’s seasickness. When the skies finally cleared, they tried playing golf, until Harry discovered that Clare was much better at the game than he was. (They never played together again.) Even the ocean sparked Harry’s intensely competitive instincts when he realized that his was no match for Clare’s strong swimming. In many small ways the long honeymoon introduced each of them to aspects of the other’s personality that their whirlwind courtship had obscured. They were both intensely self-centered and exceptionally ambitious, and they saw each other in part as vehicles for their own aspirations, a belief that helped keep their marriage together for more than thirty years. But each also came to see the other in some ways as a rival, which contributed over time to an increasing coolness and distance in their relationship. Among the prices of this tense relationship, as Clare later wrote, was Harry’s recurring difficulty in maintaining a sexual relationship with her, a problem that began before their honeymoon and gradually became permanent. (Both had subsequent multiple extramarital affairs—hers frequent, his more intermittent.) Equally damaging to the marriage were their preoccupations with their own careers—relatively unusual among affluent married couples in the 1930s and a situation that Harry, at least, found daunting and intimidating.2
One thing that did keep their intimacy alive for a time was the idea of the picture magazine that absorbed them both. During their honeymoon Harry gathered issues of European picture magazines. He and Clare cut them up and arranged the photographs together to try various layouts. In this exercise as in others, Clare was at least as skilled as Harry, which probably annoyed him as much as her skill at golf and swimming did. His alleged early promises of appointing Clare managing editor of the new magazine were not repeated, but Clare continued to believe that she would be involved in the project. She was not alone in that belief. During Luce’s absence, Billings described in his diary a visit from John Martin, drunk as usual, during which Martin “indicated that Clare Luce was the real boss of the new magazine.” Others in the organization, including Billings himself, undoubtedly shared such fears. The issue came to an inevitable head when Harry and Clare were invited to dinner not long after their return to New York by Ralph Ingersoll and Daniel Longwell, recently hired as picture editor for Time, who had previously edited picture books at Doubleday.3
According to Clare’s later (and perhaps not wholly accurate) claims, Harry predicted to her that the purpose of the evening was to offer her a position on Life. But whatever her expectations, the dinner was, in fact, an organized effort—led by the aggressive Ingersoll—to “gang up on Harry” and persuade him to recommit himself to the company and to the creation of the new magazine. Accounts of the evening differ, but all versions agree that both men spoke harshly to Harry about his focus on Clare. Clare recalled that Longwell said, “Harry, you have got to make up your mind whether you are going to go on being a great editor, or whether you are going to be on a perpetual honeymoon with one hand tied behind Clare’s back.” Understandably offended, Clare lashed back, telling them, “Harry can publish a better magazine with one hand tied behind his back than you can publish with both of yours free.” According to Ingersoll she said, “Harry, has it ever occurred to you that you have surrounded yourself with incompetents?” All accounts agree that Clare stormed out alone. She claimed later that after regaining her composure she told Harry that it would be best for her to have no connection with Time Inc., that she would instead return to playwriting. Escaping on her own to the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, she started work on what would be her most successful play, The Women.4
That The Women was written so soon after this humiliating episode may have reflected in part Clare’s own sense of betrayal at the hands of men. (“I would be ashamed to have a wife who wrote so autobiographically,” the privately caustic Billings wrote after attending a performance.) The play itself—a Broadway hit and later a successful 1939 film with a luminous cast—was a purely domestic drama. Mary Haines, a loyal and loving wife, is abandoned by her husband, who divorces her in order to marry a scheming temptress. Once alone, Mary navigates through a world of gossip and intrigue while retaining her own dignity. But eventually she decides to “sharpen her claws” and win her husband back. “Haven’t you any pride?” one of her female friends asks as she prepares to return to her inconstant husband. “No, no pride,” she answers. “That’s a luxury a woman in love can’t afford.” In both the play and the film, only women are visible, revealing Clare Luce’s sense of the separateness and vulnerability of the female world.5
Clare must certainly have realized by then that her own marriage—which tied her both to her husband and his company—was also embedded in a world in which men and women inhabited largely separate and highly unequal spheres. Harry’s world, the world of Time Inc., was one in which only men served as editors, writers, and publishers, while the women occupied clearly subordinate positions as researchers and “reporters.” The two groups lived together in a culture that discouraged even such modest interactions as shared business lunches—a taboo reflected in the exclusion and humiliation of Clare at the infamous dinner with Ingersoll and Longwell. Unlike Lila, who had always kept her distance from the company, Clare, an experienced magazine writer and editor herself, was a palpable threat to the all-male culture of Time Inc.—a culture very different from that of the Condé Nast empire, in which Clare had risen to the post of managing editor of Vanity Fair, and where women were in many positions of authority. Whether or not Clare’s resentment of the Time Inc. culture shaped her play, she was almost certainly right in thinking that the evening with Ingersoll and Longwell was more about their resentment of her talent and apparent influence than it was about Harry’s inattention to the magazines. Very likely, Harry’s failure to defend her against the offensive behavior of his male colleagues became another factor in the changing character of their marriage.
Her return to playwriting did not, however, entirely end her interest in Time Inc. For years she continued—often with Harry’s encouragement and support—to propose projects for the magazines. Billings complained frequently of the pressure from Luce to publish his wife’s material, even when he believed it was “tripe … unprintable.” Although he was honest enough to admit that Clare was “a good writer,” and although he ran a number of her articles without complaint, his general view of her was contemptuous. He gleefully recorded in his diary criticism of Clare that other colleagues shared with him in office gossip: “a really shallow-minded [woman], with little native wit—but has a desperate drive which forces her on and on;” “a bitch” who exercised “an evil influence” on Luce; a woman of “intense ambition” who was making Harry miserable and causing him to have “lost all his old friends.” Billings himself complained that “Clare and her petty-politicking give me a royal pain!”6
The gradual erosion of the passion that had driven Harry and Clare together was the result of many things. Harry never fully overcame his guilt at his abandonment of Lila, and he reproached himself for having allowed passion to overcome duty. They were also a childless couple, even though both had children from their respective first marriages. Harry’s sons remained with Lila and visited their father only intermittently; Clare’s adolescent daughter, Ann, was mostly away in boarding school at Foxcroft. Harry was opposed to having more children, and Clare did not push the issue, although she later resented it. But most of all the marriage cooled because their romance was always of secondary importance to their competing thirsts for power and fame. Time Inc. was the first site of their rivalry, but only one of many. Harry agonized over the competing desires of his wife and his colleagues and often made efforts, sometimes at considerable cost to himself, to facilitate Clare’s aspirations. “I have tried and do try,” he wrote her painfully, “a) not to let my career interfere with yours or with my greater career as your husband and b) at the same time to maintain a friendly diplomatic relation between them.” A few days later he wrote again: “The only thing I want to say is that I’ll promise to be good—but it seems fitting to withhold this promise until the time when my words may once again claim your faith.” Clare, in the meantime, never ceased trying to create a public life of her own as important as her husband’s, both inside the company and without.7
A compensation for their increasingly cool relationship—part of what kept the marriage mostly amicable even if decreasingly romantic—was the glittering public life they were able to build together. Harry provided the means. Clare provided the glamour—a glamour, to be sure, much enhanced by her marriage to a powerful man, but one that the socially awkward Harry could not have acquired alone. They may have realized that their marriage was not the “great romance” that both had once hoped for, but they continued to aspire to a great life. They would be, as Harry wrote plaintively to Clare on New Year’s Day 1937 (which Clare spent away from him), “the Luces the Magnificents.”
They began their search for magnificence with their homes. Shortly after their marriage they moved into a palatial eleven-room residence in River House, a fashionable building overlooking the East River. It was the first of several opulent apartments they occupied in the city. At the same time they established their official residence in Connecticut (largely to escape higher taxes in New York), renting for a while in Stamford, then buying a larger estate in Greenwich, and finally in 1947 settling in Ridgefield. Perhaps their most ambitious acquisition was a 7,200-acre former plantation named Mepkin, near Charleston, South Carolina—not far from the Baruch estate where Clare had spent much time before her marriage to Harry. The property had been neglected for years, but the Luces poured money into landscaping while at the same time tearing down most of the existing dilapidated structures and constructing a complex of new buildings designed by the young modernist Edward Durell Stone, soon to be one of the architects of the Museum of Modern Art. A large white-brick main house overlooked a cluster of guest cottages, all furnished in austere but elegant International Style. Clare spent considerable time at Mepkin, writing and entertaining guests, usually without Harry, who came only occasionally on weekends.
Harry was slightly uncomfortable with the opulence and occasionally insisted that they should not live so ostentatiously, but he did little to stop Clare, who had more ambitious plans, from spending whatever she liked. In all their homes they displayed their many collections: Chinese art and pottery, important Impressionist and Postimpressionist paintings, photographs of themselves with statesmen and celebrities. There were lavish displays of flowers at all times. Clare loved monograms and put her initials on almost everything she could—towels, sheets, cigarette boxes, cocktail napkins, stationery. She loved the glass-and-mirrored style of the 1930s and even installed a circular glass staircase in her Greenwich home. They relied on servants for almost everything they did—ten or so in Greenwich and later even more in their even grander twenty-eight-room Ridgefield estate. They were rarely without guests, who sometimes stayed for days, and on occasions months, at a time, playing tennis, swimming in the pool, riding horses—whether Harry or Clare was there or not.
Buying and furnishing homes was only the beginning of the conspicuous luxury in which the Luces now lived. Always fashionably dressed, the oft-photographed Clare now spent much more on clothes than she had in the past, and she insisted on upgrading Harry’s own often shabby wardrobe. She collected art and antiques. She commissioned a bust of Harry by the fashionable sculptor Jo Davidson and a portrait of herself by the famous Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. (Harry disliked the bust, and Clare disliked the portrait.)8
Clare traveled widely and expensively (often without her husband); spent time in Hollywood, where she briefly flirted with becoming an actress and screenwriter; then moved on to Hawaii, which she came to love and where she learned to surf. Harry watched nervously as Clare moved nomadically around the world, worried by her growing distance from him. He responded by spending even more money in an effort to please her, including an aborted effort to buy her a house in Hawaii. “Oh darling, we have got it—the chance to ride to glory,” he wrote desperately in an effort to repair the rift that was opening between them. “I want to start all over again—first with the avowals, and then with the sweet reconnoitering through all the labyrinths of personality, and reconnecting, too, into the limits of space and time and human destiny and then, comfortably, nothing denied us, I want to start all over again with our plans.” But the passion seemed to fade quickly when they were together. He suffered from the biting sarcasm with which she often responded to his opinions. (“You have really been too cruel,” he once wrote. And “I am sorry,” he wrote after another “unhappy” conversation. “Sorry for what? Well, I don’t know exactly.”) At one point he told colleagues at Time Inc. that he might abandon the company to save his marriage. But it was a threat that he never seriously considered implementing. However much he wanted to make his marriage work, he wanted professional success even more. And beginning in the spring of 1936, despite (or perhaps partly because of) his marital difficulties, he focused his ambition squarely on the new picture magazine.9
The idea for what became Life magazine came from many sources—so many, in fact, that it would have been surprising had Luce not considered the idea. A picture magazine had been one of Brit Hadden’s many proposals in 1929 for diversifying the company—one he preferred to Luce’s plan for Fortune but never pursued. Clare had been imagining a similar project for years, and Harry’s friend John Cowles, publisher of the Des Moines Register, discussed with him his own ideas about a picture magazine (which eventually became Life’s principal rival, Look). By 1935, when plans for the new periodical began in earnest, there were already examples of successful picture magazines both in America and in Europe. Fortune itself had helped pioneer the use of serious photography as an integral part of its stories, and it had employed some of the same talented photographers who would later become important to Life. The March of Time had also increased enthusiasm within the organization for the use of visual images. (A lavishly illustrated 1936 book celebrating the newsreel—Four Hours a Year—became one of the models for the new magazine.) Many American newspapers, including the New York Times, had been experimenting since the early twentieth century with “rotogravure” sections that presented dense collections of photographs, usually in Sunday editions. Vogue, Vanity Fair, the Saturday Evening Post, the Literary Digest, and other mass-circulation magazines were making extensive use of photographs by the early 1930s. But using photographs to illustrate a periodical was not the same as making photographs the principal subject of a magazine. Luce and his colleagues had to look to Europe to find successful examples of that.10
The most direct influence on the creation of Life was probably the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung (known to most of its readers as “BIZ”). This was not because BIZ was a true picture magazine. For the most part it used photographs to illustrate text, which dominated its pages. But it was a pioneer in laying out multiple photographs—varying the size, shape, and positioning of pictures to enliven the page. And its most influential editor, Kurt Korff, spent some time consulting on Life after he fled the Nazi regime in the early 1930s. The Hungarian-born photographer Endre Friedmann, who later changed his name to Robert Capa, was also on the staff of BIZ before he, like Korff, fled the Nazis. He, too, moved to the United States, and became a staple of Life. But BIZ was only one of many European models. The Anglophiles on the Time Inc. staff, Luce among them, were also familiar with the Illustrated London News, whose format was much closer to Life’s than was the layout of the Berliner Illustrierte. In the London magazine, pictures dominated text. It was more adventurous than BIZ in its layouts, in its use of captions to turn pictures into stories, and in the wide range of subjects, some serious and some frivolous, it chose to attract readers. The most artistically interesting magazine of its time was the Parisian Vu, with striking modern typefaces, dazzling cover designs (not unlike those of Fortune), and ambitious “photo essays” that told such important stories as the return of the Saar to Germany, the Spanish civil war, and crises in Russia, along with elegant presentations of art, theater, and dance. Clare had cited Vu as the model for the photo magazine she proposed to Condé Nast in 1931, and one of the earliest efforts in the planning of Life was a largely unsuccessful attempt to lure some of the Vu photographers and editors to New York.11
The idea of picture magazines in the 1930s was not without its critics in Europe. To the socialist Left, the magazines were tools of the bourgeoisie, reinforcing a middle-class view of the world and luring the proletariat into its culture. To intellectual critics of popular culture (among them the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who wrote pessimistically in 1938 that “the fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as picture”), the photo magazines were vehicles by which “readers” became “lookers,” and “understanding” became simply “seeing.” That BIZ and other German picture magazines became tools of Nazi propaganda not long after 1932 without losing their popularity further persuaded many critics—in Europe and America—that mass-produced images were dangerously powerful manipulators of culture and society. (Such criticisms augured, and helped shape, the later emergence of a broad critique of “mass culture” in the United States—among whose leaders was the Time Inc. veteran Dwight Macdonald.) But the appetite for photographs overwhelmed the critics. To publishers, they were becoming irresistible.12
“The talk—everybody in ‘21’ and everywhere else—was saying there ought to be a picture magazine,” Luce recalled of the early 1930s. But despite broad enthusiasm for the idea, the actual creation of Life was a slow and difficult process that he almost abandoned at several points. As he had done with Fortune in 1929, Luce created an Experimental Department late in 1933 to consider “a new magazine—a weekly or fortnightly current events magazine for large circulation, heavily illustrated.” He moved Martin out of his post as managing editor of Time to direct the project. Dwight Macdonald, the restive Fortune writer, served as Martin’s “junior colleague.” A few months later, Luce asked Daniel Longwell, the only editor in the company with extensive experience with pictures, to help plan the contents and look of the magazine, as his design of Four Hours a Year had made clear. Unlike the slow, relatively quiet planning for Fortune, which Luce had undertaken over the objections of Hadden and had tried to hide from him, the preparations for what became Life were intense, frantic, and visible to everyone in the organization. Within a few months of the creation of the Experimental Department, the first dummies appeared, using the then-preferred title “Parade.” Reactions were mixed, and Luce began feeling uneasy with the project. “We were being completely fuzzed up by all this arty talk…. a lot of theoretical stuff,” he later recalled. A little more than six months into the planning, he abruptly terminated the project. “No plans have been developed by TIME INC. for any new publication of any sort,” he announced in June.13
For a time it appeared that the project might be abandoned permanently. “Even now they don’t know if they are going to publish it,” Billings wrote, worried that Martin might return to Time and displace him as managing editor. Luce himself told colleagues that he was not yet sure they were capable of producing the kind of magazine he was imagining. But in fact work on the project resumed after only a slight pause, largely because of the energy and commitment of Longwell—a passionate supporter of the magazine, who fought to keep the idea alive when many others seemed ready to give up. “A picture magazine is long overdue in this country,” he wrote Luce in September 1935. “A war, any sort of war is going to be natural promotion for a picture magazine.” Having invited Kurt Korff to consult, he found his advice rather obvious: choosing “a good title—a short one;” avoiding “brown color for printing…. Brown is not a gay color;” and saving “no money on editorial material. Get the best you can.” But his presence and example helped legitimize Longwell’s efforts, and he taught Longwell and others to look carefully at photographs, to choose pictures that were interesting and arresting, whatever the subject.
By early 1936 momentum was once again growing behind the project, driven in part by Luce’s own revived enthusiasm for the idea, which was no doubt attributable in part to Clare and their honeymoon conversations about the project. “Luce was all for the picture magazine,” Larsen observed at the time. “He’s got it in his blood bad.” The growing inevitability of the project was also evident to Ralph Ingersoll, who had opposed the idea during the first round of planning, fearing that it would compete with Fortune, but who now prudently changed course and became one of its champions. Ingersoll drew in Archibald MacLeish (who wired back that he was “too enthusiastic about the whole project to make any sense by telegraph”), solicited ideas from members of the Timestaff, and attempted (ultimately unsuccessfully) to make the project his own.* Martin (when he was sober) and Longwell also began laboring again on designing the magazine.14
In the meantime Luce and others began working on the practical underpinnings of the project: production and finance, both of which presented at least as many challenges as did the editorial planning. Everyone at Time Inc. expected a successful picture magazine to attract a much larger audience than anything they had ever created before. But publishing the mass-circulation periodical Luce envisioned required a kind of printing for which there was as yet no capacity. High-quality photography needed expensive coated paper, which at the time was available only in single sheets, impractical for a circulation that Luce and others imagined reaching and perhaps exceeding a million copies a week. Using existing photographic printing techniques on rolled paper, of whatever quality, was also impractical because photographic images needed time to dry and a rotary press would smudge them. But R. R. Donnelley, Time’s longtime printer in Chicago, was already experimenting with “heatset printing,” which combined fast-drying ink with a gas-heated printing press capable of producing rapid, clean photographic images. At the same time the Mead Corporation, which had been supplying paper to Time for years, developed a new kind of paper—“Emmeline”—which was relatively inexpensive, capable of reproducing photographs well, and adaptable to the large rolls required by high-volume printing. We “presented these to Harry,” a Donnelley executive recounted, “and explained to him what we thought were the speed possibilities…. Harry said, ‘I think this is it. I think this will let me start an entirely new type of publication.’” 15
The prospective size of the circulation was not only a production challenge but a financial one as well. By the spring of 1936 a consensus had developed within the company that circulation would start out at around 250,000 and gradually grow over the course of several years to a much larger number. The company offered prospective advertisers relatively low rates, consistent with the projected initial circulation, and promised them no cost increases for at least a year. There were tentative predictions of a modest profit of about four hundred thousand dollars in the first year. But everyone understood that their calculations were unreliable and that a circulation significantly above the guarantee would demolish their estimates. The magazine would be priced at 10 cents per issue on newsstands, and less for subscribers—well below the cost of production. Advertising would close the gap, but only barely, and only if circulation remained below 250,000; every copy sold above the guaranteed circulation would be sold at a loss. Luce was aware of the risk, and he considered suggestions for mitigating it—reducing the page count, cutting down the page size, using cheaper paper. But other colleagues opposed these changes. “Never in our history,” one of his colleagues wrote him, “have we come out of any tight spot by a choice of conservatism or economy in the usual sense of those words, but always by expenditure of more money and more effort to gain greater income at greater expense.” In the end Luce’s own preference for quality trumped his concern about profit, and he made no significant compromises, betting that moderate circulation growth would protect the company from large initial losses. In the short term, at least, it proved to be a bad bet.16
To Luce, however, finding a way to make a profit was a less important and less interesting challenge than working on the content and design of the magazine, and he threw himself into the planning process with an enthusiasm comparable to his early involvement with Fortune. To the occasional dismay of his editors, he spent hours each day in the Experimental Department offices reviewing copy, marking up dummies, and flipping through photographs. Even when he was physically absent, his colleagues felt his presence through the frequent arrival of lengthy memos outlining a new feature or department that he wanted the staff to develop. Like everyone else Luce was struggling to develop a structure for Life. “He was constantly changing—tossing things out and putting things in—trying to arrive at the right formula,” one of his colleagues noted. But there was a certain consistency in how he envisioned the project. It would be as broad as possible in its scope, attempting to embrace the totality of the world, not just prominent people and events. Its signature element would be the photographic essay, an extended examination of an event or topic driven by what Luce liked to call “beautiful pictures” with relatively minimal text. And while the magazine would take on some of the most serious issues of its time, it would not shy away from the frivolous, the fashionable, and even occasionally the salacious. If Time had been conceived as a digest of the news for busy, literate people, and Fortune had been created to serve the interests of businessmen, Life was promoted from the beginning as a magazine for everyone. It would, Luce insisted, cut across class, ethnicity, race, region, and political preference and become an irresistible magnet for men and women of all backgrounds. Unsurprisingly Life never really attained this lofty goal. “Life means more to the educated than to the illiterate,” one of the company’s early advertising executives conceded. But the aspiration to create a democratic periodical was real, and its creators genuinely wanted it to have “mass appeal.” They believed that a broad readership was capable of understanding serious material and was not interested only in what Luce called “grue, sex, nonsense, and mugs.” Those beliefs helped ensure that Life, even though it would never appeal to everyone, would eventually reach a much broader audience than all but a few magazines in American history.17
Many people, Luce among them, had attempted to write a prospectus for the new project, beginning as early as 1933. Most of these initial efforts presented detailed and often technical descriptions of what the magazine would look like and what it would examine. But in June 1936 Luce decided on a different approach—an essentially literary portrait of the magazine that would convey his own ambitions and aspirations and that would excite both potential readers and potential advertisers. To a considerable degree, the prospectus achieved this goal, especially in its opening paragraphs, which became a minor classic of journalistic writing:
To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things—machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work—his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms; things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and to take pleasure in the seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed. […]
Thus to see, and to be shown, is now the will and new expectancy of half mankind.
To see, and to show, is the mission now undertaken by a new kind of publication.
Luce consulted with many people about the prospectus, most importantly Archibald MacLeish, whose poetic sensibility Luce wanted to incorporate into the document. In late June, MacLeish had sent him a draft that included a key phrase that appeared in the final product: “things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to.” Luce adopted those lines, but little else from MacLeish’s draft. MacLeish, in turn, made some important changes in the new draft that Luce created. The version Luce sent back to MacLeish began: “To see life, to see the world, the cockeyed world; to eye-witness the great events in the human comedy of error.” MacLeish persuaded him to simplify the opening phrase and slim down the document, added a few short phrases, but did not substantially change the language. The prospectus itself had an unusually large audience: advertisers, journalists, editors, and current Time Inc. subscribers.18
Choosing a title for the magazine was itself a major undertaking. After abandoning the initial choice of “Parade” in 1934—a name rejected in part because of the difficulty of buying the title from an existing periodical—Luce and his colleagues spent almost two years trying to settle on another title. For surprisingly long they toyed with “Dime,” which was the proposed cover price (and which, of course, rhymed with Time), but eventually almost everyone acknowledged that the price would likely change at some point and that publishing both Time and “Dime” would be confusing, if not ridiculous. Another early favorite was “Show Book of the World,” which accurately described the goals of the magazine, but which many of the editors came to believe was too wordy and clumsy. There were many, many others: “Frame,” “Sight,” “Picture, “Wide World,” “Earth,” “Eye Witness,” “Look,” “See,” “Scope,” “Clicks,” “Camorama,” “Snaps,” and “Eyes of Time.” Roy Larsen made what Ingersoll at one point called “a pretty air tight case” for calling the magazine “The March of Time,” which would capitalize on the name recognition (and large advertising budget) for the company’s newsreels. Luce balked at them all.19
In retrospect it seems puzzling that the name “Life” came to the fore so late in the process. Luce himself was certainly aware of Clare’s preference for the title, which stretched back to her 1931 proposal to Nast. “Life” appeared on almost all the lists that the editors considered in 1935 and 1936, and it received support here and there from many of the participants in the process, including Luce’s family friend James Linen (who later joined the company and eventually became its president). It seems likely that the prospectus itself, and particularly its powerful opening phrase, “To see life,” played a role in the final choice. The prospectus was still using “Show Book of the World” as a title, but even before its release, Luce was confiding to friends that he wanted the name “Life”—then the title of a once-popular humor magazine that had fallen on hard times. Luce asked Larsen to inquire about buying it out so that he could use the name, and the struggling Life publishers accepted with surprising alacrity, asking only for jobs for some of their employees and the relatively modest sum of $92,000 (much less than Larsen had been prepared to offer). Within a little more than a month, the deal was complete, and by early October the company had committed itself irrevocably, and publicly, both to the name Life and to the publication of the magazine.20
The biggest challenge, of course, was finding the right look, style, and content for the magazine they envisioned. Despite all the models of photographic journalism at their disposal, the creators of Life felt they were moving in uncharted waters, determined to create something that would be entirely new. Their initial efforts were discouraging. An early dummy was pieced together at the beginning of 1936 as an experiment in “articulating a language of pictures.” It was widely viewed as a disaster: a jumbled mélange of celebrity portraits and underworld scandal with little coherence and even less sophistication. An offensive story about a police hunt for a black suspect, culminating in the suspect’s murder, was entitled “Nigger Hunt.” Several pages were devoted to a group of nudists in San Diego—a salacious appeal to an unsophisticated audience. But at the same time, it included a five-page spread on the tennis star Don Budge, which seemed to cater to the mostly affluent fans of the game. The second try—a “published” dummy, designed in May 1936 and printed in August—was more respectable in its contents, with striking photographs by Alfred Eisenstaedt and Bourke-White, color reproductions of early Christian art, and stories on Katharine Hepburn and the cosmetics titan Elizabeth Arden. But it, too, seemed to most of those who read it to be a drab and lifeless effort. Paul Hollister, the director of advertising at Macy’s and a widely admired graphic designer, was appalled. “It is inconceivable,” he wrote, “that even a dress-rehearsal just for ‘fun’ should have turned out so far short even of where you intended it should turn out as a teaser.” At Luce’s request he took the dummy home, spent a few days cutting and pasting, and sent back a version with the same content but with a design that Luce and others greatly preferred.21
The final trial run, titled “Rehearsal” and printed in September, was better. It included a multipage, vaguely Uncle Remus–like story on “cotton pickin’” that described black workers as “Pappy” and “Cap’n.” But it also included a photo array of the U.S. Open golf tournament, inundated by rain; a gallery of pictures of world events; striking and reasonably tasteful photographs by the well-known commercial photographer Paul Outerbridge of a female nude, which nevertheless caused such a barrage of criticism that real nudity rarely appeared in the actual magazine; a story on a Nuremberg rally in Germany; and the first of many Life articles on Chiang Kai-shek. Its design was clean and reasonably handsome, although not particularly lively. Some pages looked like dull filmstrips; others—including one laid out by Luce himself—chaotically random in design. There were sharp criticisms from Ingersoll (“so much worse than the first dummy”), a view likely driven in part by his feeling that Luce was ignoring his advice; and from the prominent journalist Dorothy Thompson (“I don’t think it’s good enough…. unmodern”). Longwell himself conceded that it “is no good yet,” but he believed nevertheless that it was “beginning to be a picture Book … one hell of an invention.” Luce was critical too, but like Longwell he was encouraged, and he decided the time had come for the launch. “We won’t experiment any more,” he said. “We’ll learn to do this in actual publication.”22
In mid-October 1936, only a few weeks before the publication date, Luce decided that the existing Life staff was inadequate to the task before them. Martin’s alcoholism and depression were becoming worse, making him more and more unreliable. He was increasingly abusive toward his colleagues (and especially toward Longwell, a creative if somewhat disorganized editor with limited managerial skills). A few months earlier Luce had named himself managing editor for an “unstated term of months or years,” hoping he could compensate for Martin’s weaknesses. But he quickly realized that this was not a long-term solution to the problem. In late October, after a disastrous lunch during which Martin drunkenly abused Luce in front of other editors, Luce abruptly moved Martin out of Life and back to his old job as managing editor of Time. He described Martin as “a most able editor and an equally difficult collaborator,” and he evidently hoped—overlooking the addictive and abusive behavior that lay at the heart of Martin’s problems—that once again alone at the head of Time, Martin would regain his old form. (Luce refused to do what Larsen and others recommended—fire Martin altogether. That was probably in part because Luce was sensitive about removing Brit Hadden’s cousin and one of the few remaining reminders of Hadden’s once-formidable presence, which in most respects Harry had already allowed to fade.) At the same time he moved Billings out of Time, with two days’ notice, into a position he called “collaborator-in-chief” and “alternate managing editor” of Life, all the while preserving his own claim to be the real managing editor. Billings, the ablest editor in the organization, moved smoothly and successfully into the work-in-progress that was about to become Life—although not without reservations.23
“At 5 o’clock,” Billings wrote in his diary on October 23,
Luce called me to his office, shut the door, and proceeded to tell me that a great crisis had arisen on Life—a crisis due to Martin’s behavior…. He thinks he and I could work well together, and so on. I was surprised and startled at this proposal. I know nothing of the philosophy of Life and am devoted to Time, which is clicking along well…. Yet Life is a new job with fresh excitement—and much harder work, I suppose. My answer to Luce was: I am ready to do whatever he thought best for the organization.
A few days later, as Billings began his new job, Luce gave him his first and most important order: “We’ve been fussing around for six months with theory and philosophy. From now on, to hell with theory and philosophy—you’ve got to get out a magazine.” The first issue, he said, would go to press in two weeks.24
The creation of Life’s first issue took place in the midst of so much haste and confusion that the many accounts of the effort seldom coincide. To Luce the last weeks were a time of consolidation, in which departments were organized, policies implemented, visual and literary style guidelines created. To Billings “everything was rush and confusion … and nothing was really accomplished.” To other staffers it was a period of exhilaration combined with exhaustion. To outsiders—including editors and writers from the other Time Inc. magazines accustomed to their relatively tidy editorial systems—what was happening in the Life offices looked like pure chaos. Even so, a great many important decisions were made in these weeks that would shape the character of the magazine for decades. The logo—a simple red rectangle in the upper left-hand corner of the cover with “LIFE” spelled out in austere white letters—replaced earlier experiments that involved a floating logo with a more elaborate typeface. The cover design called for a single black-and-white picture covering the entire page, interrupted only by the logo on the top left and a red band at the bottom providing the date and price—again, a much simpler layout than earlier efforts had displayed. The trim size of the magazine was expanded, to make it slightly bigger than the Saturday Evening Post, Vogue, and other large-format magazines—both to increase the space for photographs and to ensure that Life would stand out from its competitors when lined up on the newsstands. Departments were established, as they had been during the creation of Time: a roundup of national and world events (Life on the American [or World] Newsfront); a regular feature on a new Broadway play or a new film or film star (later called Spectacle of the Week and then Movie of the Week); a short-lived President’s Album, chronicling Franklin Roosevelt’s activities; sports; science; and the popular feature Life Goes to a Party. Beginning in the second issue, a long-lasting feature—Speaking of Pictures, named after a casual comment Billings had made to Luce—became the opening piece in every issue, devoted to whatever photographs the editors found especially arresting. Thanks in large part to Billings’s calm and unruffled demeanor, the frantic process of invention finally evolved into the careful assemblage of a first issue, which went to press on November 13 and appeared on the newsstands a few days before the official publication date of November 23, 1936. It was far from perfect, without the consistently crisp and often dazzling visual impact that Life would achieve in later years. But it was striking, varied, and entertaining.25
The first cover was an extraordinary Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the Fort Peck Dam in Montana—then the largest public-works project ever undertaken in the United States. Its monumental, turreted facade, wreathed in shadows, was almost abstract in its simplicity—an image that evoked both ancient and modern aesthetics. It gave the first issue a gravity that helped announce that Life would be something important. The cover was tied to the magazine’s first major “photoessay,” a portrait (with text by MacLeish) of the community of workers and speculators in the small boomtown of Fort Peck that had grown up around the construction of the dam—men and women drawn to Montana by a New Deal project, but living and working in a setting that represented the on-the-make freedom of the imagined American frontier. It was typical of what became a staple of Life—a brief but suggestive image of a place far from the urban, cosmopolitan world in which most Life readers lived. Also in the first issue was a lively if condescending portrait of Brazil and its “charming” but “incurably lazy” people; a portfolio of color images of work by the then-popular regional painter John Steuart Curry; a worshipful story (carried over from the final dummy) on the hit Broadway play Victoria Regina, starring the “Greatest Living Actress,” Helen Hayes; an equally gushing portrait of the rising movie star Robert Taylor; an Eisentaedt portrait of a San Francisco Catholic school for Chinese immigrants who, “slant-eyed and shy,” were learning “to say very instead of velly;” an account of a French hunting party (the precursor of the Life Goes to a Party feature, which debuted in the second issue); a two-page set of images (also carried over from the dummy) of black widow spiders, the first in a long line of Life nature stories; and an interview with the cuckolded former husband of Wallis Warfield Simpson in the aftermath of his divorce. But perhaps the most memorable image of the first issue was a full-page photograph at the front of the magazine. It showed a doctor, wearing a surgical mask, standing in a delivery room, and holding a newborn baby. Its caption: “Life Begins.”26
Even before the first issue appeared, it was becoming clear that Life would be an enormous popular success—a result of effective advertising, extensive press coverage, the reputation of the company, and the popular hunger for pictures that Luce had cited as a reason to create Life. “It is at once dumbfounding and deeply gratifying,” Luce wrote in a letter to potential subscribers months before publication,
to learn the response to our earlier letter inviting encouragement and support for the picture magazine we have been planning so long—
26,151 answers in one day—
72,955 within a week—
162,450 to date, with still more pouring in—
“You can count on me as a Charter Subscriber.”
There were 235,000 subscribers by the time the first issue appeared—almost the entire guaranteed circulation before any newsstand sales, for which requests were also growing fast. Shortly before publication, the circulation manager announced that because of the frenzied, anticipatory interest “every dealer is to receive the same number of copies of Life that he receives of Time.” “One dealer in New York who sells two copies of Time a week placed an order for 250 copies of Life,” Pierre Prentice, the circulation manager, wrote. “All the dealers are … mad that we were not able to supply them with more copies of Life.”27
Nothing, however, truly prepared Luce and his colleagues for the public response to Life when it finally went on sale. Some images collected by the editors at the time suggest the character of the magazine’s first weeks: a used-book shop with a sign pasted in the window—“Life Wanted, Good Prices Paid;” a classified ad in the San Francisco Examiner in December 1936—“LIFE magazine, 1st edition; 2; $3.50 each. Phone VA1. 5927. afternoons;” a drugstore in Detroit with a copy of Life in the window below a sign—“Sold Out But Read It Here; heavily marked up distribution lists from newsstands in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Keyport, New Jersey, from dealers who were saving copies of Life for regular customers (the Keyport dealer rationed copies by selling the magazine to each customer only on alternating weeks); and a cartoon in an advertising magazine showing a group of businessmen around a table, one of them sputtering, “W-w-what’s that! You say you saw an unsold copy of this week’s ‘Life’ at a newsstand on 42nd Street?” A Los Angeles dealer wired Time Inc.: “First issue of LIFE caused heaviest demand … of any publication ever known. Clean sell-out. We lost thousands of sales, and still a heavy demand.” It was not an idiosyncratic response. All two hundred thousand newsstand copies sold out the first day, some of them in the first hour. Dealers from around the country wired their distributors that they could sell five hundred more copies (Cincinnati), one thousand more (Lansing, Michigan), fifteen hundred more (Worcester, Massachusetts), five thousand more (Cleveland). “The demand for LIFE is completely without precedent in publishing history,” the overwhelmed Prentice wrote. “If we could supply the copies, the dollar volume of our newsstand sales of LIFE this month [December 1936] would be greater than the dollar volume of sales of any other magazine in the world. There was no way we could anticipate a bigger newsstand business the first month than magazines like Collier’s and Satevepost have built up in thirty years.”28
But popularity in this case did not mean success. Time Inc. paid a significant price for the overwhelming demand for Life. Part of the price was ill will—the anger of customers at the shortages. There were conspiracy theories that the scarcity was artificial to force prices up; that tying the distribution of Life to Time was a “racket” to lift Time’s circulation; that the company was favoring some newsstands unfairly over others; and more broadly, a belief that only incompetence could account for the vast shortages, which continued for many months. Prentice quickly abandoned the practice of tying Life allotments to copies of Time sold, and he deliberately underserved some of the news dealers whom critics had charged (falsely, Prentice insisted) that the company was favoring. But the more important problem of Life’s fantastic popularity was a financial one. Production of the first issue of Life, projected originally at 250, 000, grew to nearly twice that by the time of publication—demolishing the careful financial estimates that had allowed the company to project a modest profit. With subscription and newsstand prices fixed more or less indefinitely, and with advertising prices fixed for a year, every copy sold above the projected 250,000 contributed to what soon became an enormous deficit. Losses quickly rose to fifty thousand dollars a week, and Luce predicted a $3.5 million loss in 1937.29
Within the company a debate emerged over how to deal with this seemingly catastrophic triumph. Luce himself appeared for a time to prefer limiting circulation, perhaps to reduce the deficits, perhaps because he was uncomfortable with the rapidity with which his “work-in-progress” was becoming a national phenomenon. But most of his colleagues urged him to swallow the losses in what Charles Stillman, a Time Inc. financial officer, called “an atmosphere of complete and serene confidence” and to grasp “the chance of a lifetime.” Larsen backed Stillman; and Luce soon gave in and agreed to increase production as fast as possible, and to raise advertising rates as high as possible. By the end of 1937, a year after Life’s birth, circulation had reached 1.5 million—more than triple the first-year circulation of any magazine in American (and likely world) history—while the losses continued to grow.30
Increasing supply to keep up with demand required an almost Herculean effort. The production of Life was constrained by a serious shortage of paper, an inadequate number of presses, and serious fire hazards in the gas-heated presses already in use, which were running dangerously almost twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The challenge was complicated by the uncertainty, laced with incredulity, about how high the demand for Life would rise. Every increase in production was overmatched by the increase in demand. Could Life’s popularity be sustained? How far would the demand extend? In an effort to answer those questions, Life staged an experiment in Worcester, Massachusetts, where the initial supply of 475 copies had sold out rapidly on the first day. A few weeks later, Worcester received 2,000 copies, which also sold out immediately, then in subsequent weeks 3,000, 4,000, 9,000, and finally 11, 000. In every case the entire run sold out in a few hours. Extrapolating from these numbers, the circulation staff began to believe that Life might reach a circulation of up to 6 million. That prediction proved unrealistic in the magazine’s first decade; some of the demand for Life in its first months was surely a result of a short-term consumer frenzy driven by the scarcity itself. But it was clear nevertheless that the appetite for the magazine was not even close to being satisfied.31
In the end Life ran a deficit of three million dollars in 1937—driven in part by the company’s almost ten million dollars of investments in production capacity and more than five hundred new employees in New York and Chicago. Time Inc. quickly outgrew its once-lavish quarters in the Chrysler Building as soon as Life began, and the company soon moved into its own building in the new Rockefeller Center. The result of this rapid and dramatic growth in expenses was that Time Inc. as a whole—accustomed to robust profits—cleared less than two hundred thousand dollars that year. “We are poor again,” Luce wrote to his colleagues in mid-1937. “We are no longer a rich company…. So what’s to be done about it? What’s to be done about it is, obviously, to get rich again.” One way to do that was to continue to raise Life’s advertising rates for new customers, which the company had done repeatedly since the first months of publication. By the end of 1938 the rates were the highest of any magazine in the country—almost 20 percent higher than those of their closest competitor, the Saturday Evening Post.32
Many advertisers balked at the high rates, still uncertain about Life’s potency as an advertising medium. Luce was concerned that readers did not give serious enough attention to the magazine and thus to the advertisements, that they did little more than simply flip through the photographs. Larsen believed that the problem was Life’s unconventional audience—a readership that had no distinctive characteristics (income group, gender, special interests)—and that advertisers were not certain whom they were reaching. To help the company and its advertisers understand the magazine’s readership, Luce recruited a group of prominent survey researchers and statisticians, George Gallup and Elmo Roper among them, to measure the impact of Life and, most of all, to determine how many people were actually reading it. This “Continuing Study of Magazine Audiences” (CSMA)—funded by Life but technically independent—concluded in early 1938 that Life’s impact was far larger than its circulation suggested; that there were as many as fourteen readers on average for every issue published; that the total readership of Life, therefore, was not the 1.8 million people who actually bought the magazine, but more than 17 million people—the “pass-along” readers—who actually saw each issue. Although rivals disputed the CSMA findings, Life used them vigorously to persuade advertisers that the magazine was an unparalleled advertising venue. Over time the notion that Life’s readership went far beyond its formal circulation became a powerful assumption not just at Time Inc. but through much of the publishing world.33
By early 1938 Life’s circulation growth seemed to have lost momentum. “We’re having trouble selling 2,000,000 copies a week,” Billings wrote in his diary. “Hence, we have to pick material that will sell that last 100,000 copies [to get circulation up to the two million guarantee to advertisers].” Luce worried that Life might be losing its novelty, that it was already growing tired and predictable. As always when he sensed editorial weakness, he made his presence felt. “We have to get more and more remarkable pictures,” he complained. “We have got to have sound reading matter…. LIFE lacks humor.” To Billings such periods were agonizing, not just because he found Luce’s presence intimidating but also because Luce’s interventions rarely provided useful advice. “Luce came in, sat down, looked at layouts over for 30 minutes,” Billings wrote of a meeting with Luce to discuss “the form and patterns” of Life. “Then he got up and said, ‘I can’t help you—you’ll have to work it out for yourself.’” Luce’s intrusions were particularly unsettling to Longwell, whom Billings described as “a bundle of nerves and tall talk” and who, when Luce expressed his concerns, “yowled and yammered and swore and shouted—and plainly showed his frustration.”34
Early in 1938 Joseph Thorndike, the Life editor responsible for coverage of the movies, learned of a controversial documentary titled The Birth of a Baby, which included an actual childbirth. Even by the prim standards of its time, the film was deliberately unsensational. It was intended to be instructive to new mothers, and it was sponsored by the U.S. Children’s Bureau, the American Association of Obstetricians, Gynecologists, and Abdominal Surgeons, and other medical and social service organizations. Despite its impeccable credentials and the mostly good reviews it received, the film faced strong attacks and extensive local efforts to ban viewings. Thorndike proposed that Life publish images from the film as a “public service” and as a challenge to narrow-minded censorship. Luce deferred to Larsen and Billings, who together decided to proceed, and they publicized the event heavily. At the same time they tried to cushion themselves from criticism. They wrote to all subscribers shortly before publication assuring readers that the story would be “wholly and sincerely frank” and “something which the public, and all the public, ought to see.” The story as it appeared in the April 10, 1938, issue was understated to a fault, accompanied by lifelessly unimpeachable text—or, as the advertisers put it, “an altogether wholesome spirit.” The layout was “a long series of small pictures,” Billings wrote, “so as not to sensationalize the birth scenes.” The mother giving birth was so shrouded in fabric that she was virtually invisible in the photographs. The entire story was bound loosely in the middle of the magazine so offended readers could remove and discard it, or hide it from their children. Despite all these precautions the story created a modest firestorm of criticism; and even though the U.S. Post Office had approved its distribution through the mails, publicity-seeking local prosecutors in dozens of cities, including New York, tried to ban the issue from the newsstands (largely in response to pressure from Catholic organizations). Larsen decided to exploit the controversy and arranged to have himself arrested by publicly selling one of the banned issues to a detective in the Bronx. The charges were quickly dismissed, but not before generating valuable press coverage for Life. A Gallup Poll revealed that 76 percent of the public approved of the article, and the April 10 issue sold out immediately. But the more important result of the controversy was to make Life once again a center of national attention. It brought to an end the brief lull in circulation growth. Beginning within weeks of the “Birth of a Baby” issue, subscriptions and newsstand sales were rising again. Circulation passed 2 million by midyear and continued to grow. A year later it was more than 2.5 million and finally making a profit ($950,000 in the first half of 1939). “Life has definitely turned the corner,” Larsen wrote in late April 1938: “Now is the time to snowball its success trend.”35
Life’s sensational ascent in its first two years occurred despite the widely shared view among much of the editorial staff that the magazine was not yet very good. There were, of course, dazzling pictures and powerful individual stories and essays of which everyone was rightly proud. But most of the editors remained unhappy with the totality of the magazine—with what they considered its frequent blandness, its unevenness, its incoherence. “We all feel that the issues aren’t as good as they should be,” Billings confided to his diary in one of his many private expressions of dismay. “Are we slipping again?” he asked in February 1938, as circulation stagnated. “Are we getting routine?” “A lousy issue,” he wrote in April. “A bad week—and a bad issue—and home with a bad taste in my mouth about the whole mag.” Billings was not alone. The volatile Longwell erupted frequently with complaints about the mediocrity of the layouts and the poor photographic choices. Larsen intermittently looked over issues and complained about their dullness and predictability. Andrew Heiskell, then a young staff member, recalled “the feeling on many weeks that this phenomenally popular magazine was not up to our standards—and was sometimes really quite bad.”36
No one was more chronically dissatisfied with Life than Luce himself. Although he spent less time editing once Billings was in charge, he continued to drop in, usually without notice, to take a hand in the process. Luce’s arbitrary intrusiveness was driven by the same concerns that had bothered him during their work on the dummies. Like other editors he thought that the magazine was not yet right. “The text doesn’t look inviting,” he wrote in one of his frequent memos to the Life staff. The magazine “lacks humor.” The pictures, even when beautiful, “don’t always lookbeautiful.” There was not enough “personality stuff.” There was too much attention to people “Life’s readers never heard of and never will again.” But most of all Luce worried that the magazine did not have “a plan” or “a formula”—a consistent and coherent sense of what it should present. He tried at times to achieve this by fiddling with the structure of the magazine: changing departments, reordering stories, trying new kinds of layouts. More often than not these efforts simply produced disarray. “Luce is a disturbing influence,” Billings complained. “He hurts rather than helps the smooth progress of getting out an issue…. He tosses everything up in the air like a juggler—and then ducks out and leaves it to us to catch the pieces as they come down.” Equally often, Luce tried to energize Life by reshuffling the responsibilities of the editors—something else Billings and others found disruptive, even when they agreed with the principles behind the changes. Whatever Luce’s tactics, his underlying concern was always the same: that “we wonder whether there’s something wrong with the editing of the magazine.” Even years later he described the issues in the first years of Life as “dull and pedestrian.”37
Life benefited greatly from this concern about quality—and from the pressure it placed on everyone to do better. But in fact Life in its first two years was never as bad as its creators sometimes thought, and it was steadily improving. “Life,” Longwell later said, “was not a magazine until two years after its publication.” But during those first years Luce and his editors made considerable progress. They developed a writing style for the magazine, self-consciously different from “Timese,” a simple and almost self-deprecating prose that tried to avoid competing with the photographs. They also developed a tradition of respecting the integrity of their photographs. Unlike many other publications, newspapers and magazines alike, that cropped, retouched, and otherwise altered photographs at will, Life treated its photographs as finished works, and quickly abandoned the random shapes and size (circles, ovals, and others) that most periodicals used to create visual interest. The editors learned quickly that buying photographs from the Associated Press and other suppliers would not be enough to meet their needs, and so they built a staff of photographers of their own, whose work soon dominated the magazine. The Life photographers were men and women of extraordinary talent to begin with, but their association with Life—now the nation’s, and perhaps the world’s, premier publication for serious photography—greatly enhanced their stature and helped make them famous. The editors also very quickly understood that Life had to have a structure—that readers needed to feel that they were not simply flipping through a randomly assembled album of photographs. From the beginning the editors had been committed to using photographs to create “essays” on important or interesting subjects, and they refined this technique until they felt confident they were creating powerful works of visual journalism. They were less successful in producing coherent departments within the magazine. Life was never organized clearly and predictably in the way Time had always been; nor, with its almost unlimited scope, did it ever develop the sense of editorial focus that Fortune had from the start. Over time the editors made progress in creating “balance” within the magazine and learning how to “sequence” different kinds of stories, but they also came to recognize Life’s unpredictability as one of its strengths. Most of all, perhaps, Life gradually became a mostly serious magazine, committed to presenting the most important issues of its time to a public hungry not just for textual information but for images of great events. This was in one sense simply a good marketing strategy, a way of differentiating Life from such lower-quality competitors as the early Look and the Saturday Evening Post. But it also reflected Luce’s own inherent preferences—particularly his belief that any publication he created had to serve an important purpose. Life continued, of course, to publish its share of light and even frivolous amusement, but the steady movement of the magazine was away from an emphasis on superficial entertainment and toward a serious engagement with an increasingly troubled world.38
Almost everyone who had been at Time Inc. for more than a few years recognized the enormous change that Life created in both the image and the internal culture of the company, which many people, including Luce himself, felt had reached a low point in 1936. C. D. Jackson, Luce’s special assistant, wrote at the time about what he considered the precarious condition of Time Inc. There had, he claimed, been two periods in the company’s history—first, the “enfant terrible” period when “no matter what we could do no wrong.” In the early years “we could be guilty of practically anything and get away with it, because when we committed the uncommittable, there always were sufficient apologists to jump up and utter their particular version of, ‘Okay, he killed his sister, but ain’t he cute, he’s only six’—and no more rational explanation was necessary.” But by 1936, he argued, the company had long ago entered a second period, during which “the aura of success—the story—the two Yale boys and everything—was beginning to wear thin a little bit.” There was “a touch of envy” emerging around the great success of the still-young and still-brash company, and increasing annoyance at what many observers considered its cocky, arrogant, and at times sophomoric style. “We became a storm center in the public eye,” Jackson continued.
Congressmen and Senators discussed what we wrote—President Roosevelt requested that we no longer imitate his voice on the air—Communists called us Fascists and Fascists called us Communists…. And all this time our manners did not improve because in the early days we had been too busy to develop manners, and in lieu of manners we developed brusqueness…. So people began to take an unholy glee in calling us names and whispering and sneering at our journalistic and business mannerisms. I think this second stage reached its peak and its end the day Wolcott Gibbs’s story was published in The New Yorker.39
Luce, like Jackson, also came to believe that 1936 was a turning point, the beginning of a “golden age” in the company’s history. It began with Ingersoll’s effort to change the tone and style of Time magazine itself—to weed out the excesses of its language, to dampen its polemicism, to tone down its sarcasm. (He tried in vain to get rid of Laird Goldsborough as well.) But if Time Inc. was indeed entering a new era, it was doing so mostly because of Life. Luce made that point both privately and publicly as Life began its spectacular, if still unprofitable, rise. The success of the magazine, he said, “would repay us more than in dollars by restoring Time Incorporated,” by bringing to it “a good will and … popularity.” People may have respected Time and Fortune, he declared. But Life was different. “It wasn’t a love-hate relation,” he later said.
It was a very likable relation … “I like Life,” whereas Time—well, you know, “I love it” or “I’ll fight it.” … I’d done something which hit the whole big American public … whether they were archbishops or truck drivers—they all seemed to go for it. This popularity of Life—it meant a lot to me sort of personally … wide popularity. But it was also good for the corporation, I thought, in making Time Inc. a likable proposition, having taken some of the curse of hostility off it.40
Luce’s pride in the popularity of Life was on full display in a speech he made in 1937 to the American Association of Advertising Agencies—a group whose opinion of the magazine was of crucial importance to its future. “A year ago,” he said,
… we chose to create a magazine called Life…. It has been an enormous success. Evidently it is what the public wants more than it has ever wanted any product of ink and paper. Nevertheless, I confront you with a question…. Should we publish Life? And this is not a question only for my partners to decide. We have decided. We like Life…. I stand before you as a court. Your court is also the Appropriations Committee of the American Press…. I ask that you shall appropriate over the next ten critical years no less than one hundred million dollars for the publication of a magazine called Life…. You will either give it to us, or you will not. If you do, there will be Life. If you do not, there will be no Life.
Luce had few doubts as to the answer he would receive. Over the following decade advertisers invested far more in Life than one hundred million dollars, making it one of the most lucrative advertising vehicles in the United States. But to Luce the endorsement of the idea—that Life was a product that people greeted with affection—was almost as important as its financial returns.41
Making Life into the enormously popular, enormously likable magazine it became—“the most successful weekly the world has ever known,” an enthusiastic former editor once said—was a project not only of the people who created it and the advertisers who supported it but also of the millions of men and women who read it. Why did so many people “like Life”? In part, certainly, the interest was exactly what Luce and Longwell had predicted from the beginning: People wanted to see pictures. But Life was only one of many vehicles for displaying photographs. The enormity and durability of Life’s popularity was mostly a product of its concept, its look, its message. For many Americans, over many years, Life provided a vision of the nation and the world—a vision mediated by the magazine’s photographers, its writers, its editors, and to a significant degree its owner and creator.42
Life usually published more than two hundred pictures a week (supplemented by photographs and images in the magazine’s many glossy advertisements). Not every photograph was memorable, and not every layout was interesting. The magazine published more than its share of ordinary pictures of public figures and public events. Some were laid out in neat columns, numbered, to guide readers through a series of linked pictures, suggesting a preference for coherence and accessibility over design. The opening pages of the magazine routinely offered pictures of events around the nation and the world, similarly laid out in an almost mechanically symmetrical style. In later years Life became known for its slick and often dazzling presentation of photographs, but in the 1930s the magazine’s design was often prosaic. And yet the impact of Life, even in its earlier years, was far greater than the sum of its sometimes drab layouts. That was largely because of the extraordinary talent of the magazines’s photographers, and the editors’ exceptional reverence for photographs. Wilson Hicks, the magazine’s picture editor for many years, a man loathed by many of the photographers for his cold, autocratic, and sometimes abusive style, was nevertheless a tireless champion of great photography and a skilled judge of talent. Above all he was a true believer in the power and importance of photographs, which, he once said, constituted “the body of beliefs and convictions upon which the magazine was founded…. Life looked at what people thought and did in a particular way. It stood for certain things, it entered at once the world-wide battle for men’s minds.”43
One of the inspirations for Life’s early presentation of photographs—unacknowledged by the editors—was the rapid growth of documentary photography in the United States in the 1930s. Among the most famous examples of this new style were some of the products of the Farm Security Administration’s photography division—which at times rivaled Life in the quality of its photographers. Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein, and many other participants in the FSA project saw photography as a polemical vehicle for prodding social change. By documenting the social realities and injustices of their time, by using their pictures as political weapons, by publishing them in newspapers and political magazines and allowing them to be cropped and altered to emphasize their political power, they hoped to contribute to the projects of the New Deal and the larger task of pursuing social justice. They understood the power of photographs to convey an image of unassailable “truth” at the same time that they manipulated images to convey the messages they wanted to deliver. Many of the documentary photographs of the FSA, among others, were efforts to reveal difference, to portray oppression, suffering, or—in the work of Walker Evans and some others—noble endurance. Such photographs could be grim, even shocking, or they could be respectful and admiring. But they were almost always designed to reveal the “other,” outsiders excluded from what was coming in the 1930s to be called “the American Way of Life.” Perhaps the most famous example of this ethos was a photograph Margaret Bourke-White took in 1937 (not intended for Life) of a breadline populated by displaced African–American victims of a flood in Louisville, Kentucky, whom Bourke-White recruited to pose below a billboard showing a happy, well-dressed, white, middle-class family driving in a spacious automobile. It included the promotional text: “World’s Highest Standard of Living … There’s No Way Like the American Way.” Such photographs—ironic, caustic, designed to produce outrage—virtually never appeared in Life.44
Instead Life used the techniques of documentary photography for a very different purpose. It rejected the critical view of social reality that characterized FSA photography and aspired instead to be “likable,” affirming, enjoyable. “I think Life, like the United States, was not … chauvinistic,” Longwell said. “It liked people, it liked the United States…. [I]f it was against something it was against it in a forthright manner. But it was a huge and amiable magazine. It—well, we liked dogs, we liked mountains, we liked scenery, we liked history, … we liked education, we thought art was fine.” To Life, as to Luce, the United States was not a nation dominated by difference, division, and exclusion. It was a single society that, however diverse, constituted a distinctively American community of shared values and hopes. That image was visible both in the tone and the look of the magazine, and in the topics it chose to explore. In the post–World War II era Life became, among other things, the celebratory face of the great middle class and its new suburban civilization. In its first years, however, the magazine focused more often on the extremes of society—the rich and powerful on the one hand, and some of the same people of modest means that the FSA photographers recorded. It did so, however, not to suggest difference but to affirm the essential cultural unity of the American people.45
The power of Life’s affirmative, inclusive vision could be seen in the magazine’s very first issue—in its cover story about workers on the Fort Peck Dam in Montana. Its subjects were people so poor that they could not even afford the modest rents in the tidy new settlement that the government had built to accommodate them. Many workers had moved instead into a series of makeshift shantytowns, which filled up quickly, MacLeish wrote, with “barkeeps, quack doctors, hash dispensers, radio mechanics, filling station operators, and light-roving ladies”—an army of the unemployed moving to the empty plains for New Deal jobs. The men and women who lived there were, of course, more prosperous than the truly down-and-out denizens of much documentary photography. They had jobs, places to live (however crude and temporary), and at least some money to spend. But they were fragile in their security—employed on a public-works program of limited duration, living far from their homes and often separated from families that many of them were struggling to support from afar. Nevertheless the Life portrait of this rough-and-tumble community of the marginal was entirely friendly and lighthearted. “Franklin Roosevelt Has a Wild West,” the peppy title to the feature announced. The opening photograph of a shantytown was taken from the air, blurring the shabbiness and squalor that a closer look would provide. Residents were photographed in restaurants and bars, laughing, drinking, flirting. Workers were presented amid the massive technological wonders of the dam, beginning with the tiny human figures at the bottom of the monumental cover picture. “Life in Montana’s No. 1 relief project is one long jamboree slightly joggled by pay day,” MacLeish cheerfully wrote. “College boys mingle with bums in the crowd.” One, a University of Texas student working as a bouncer in a bar, “hopes to be a football coach when he graduates but he is studying history just in case.” The Life story was, to be sure, a tribute to the New Deal, but it was also a celebration of the survival of the “American dream.”46
Life’s determined amiability was visible as well in a 1937 photo essay on Muncie, Indiana—the small Midwestern city made mildly famous by the sociologists Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd in their classic 1929 work, Middletown, which compared the culture of Muncie in the 1920s with what it had been thirty years earlier. Despite the dispassionate, academic tone of their book, it was, in fact, a lament for a community they believed was being slowly transformed and debased by the corrosive impact of the modern consumer culture. Life’s interest in Muncie in the late 1930s was a result of the Lynds’ return to the city to examine the impact of the Depression on the city’s culture. Muncie, they wrote in their 1937 study, Middletown in Transition, “had been shaken for nearly six years by a catastrophe involving not only people’s values but, in the case of many, their very existence,” while its residents simultaneously struggled (often unsuccessfully) to retain their pre-Depression hopes. Life’s essay on Muncie referred to the Middletown volumes, and even timed the story’s appearance to coincide roughly with the publication of the Lynds’ new book. But the magazine’s portrait of Muncie was considerably brighter than the Lynds’. It portrayed something close to a small-town idyll—a smiling barber shaving a customer, a tidy neighborhood of middle-class homes, a leafy boulevard showing the elegant houses of the “generous” Ball family, who controlled the principal industry (Ball’s canning jars) as well as the city’s banks, newspapers, and politicians. Life’s Middletown was a place of stable nuclear families living in comfortable middle- and upper-class homes, surrounded by books, glass collections, pets, and children. Even a photograph of a family at “the bottom” presented a picturesque elderly couple stroking their dog and tending to the chickens “fer eatin’” they were raising in their shabby kitchen. Muncie “at play” was the site of foxhunting, costumed lodge members gathering for meetings, community dinners, and a women’s “conversation club” that had been active for forty years. Despite the Depression, Life wrote, “these earnest midland folk still steer their customary middle course, still cling to their old American dream.”47
The range of Life’s efforts to portray American life and culture was vast and varied, but the great majority reflected the hearty, affirmative, inclusive tone that characterized the Fort Peck and Muncie stories. In Life rich people were not very different from everyone else, just more comfortable. But also in Life poor people, minorities, and even freaks and misfits were very much like other Americans—goodhearted, sharing a common dream, and doing the best they could. This made the magazine seem at times complacent: a friend of, rather than a prod to, the existing social order. But it also helped make Life a mostly generous and tolerant publication (at least in its portrayal of Americans) that at times gently challenged class and racial prejudice.
The popular feature Life Goes to a Party, which appeared in most issues, was notable for its broad and cheerful view of how Americans entertained themselves. Many of the parties it portrayed were events for social elites—an “Oilmen’s Banquet” given by the American Petroleum Institute; a debutante ball in Philadelphia for some of the most eminent families of the city’s Main Line; a lavish costume ball in the country house of the Earl of Jersey and his American-born wife; a luncheon for a deer hunt in the “oldest and best preserved” plantation in South Carolina; a Hollywood costume party given by Basil Rathbone and Marlene Dietrich. But Life’s parties ranged widely across the social and geographical landscape and offered an inclusive and affirmative vision of Americans “at play,” a vision that tried to obscure the differences between the ways in which the wealthy and famous entertained themselves and the way more ordinary people did. Life’s parties included a high-school prom in the small town of Antigo, Wisconsin; a picnic in Los Angeles for forty thousand men and women, mostly working class, who had migrated to California from Iowa; a night at New York’s Roseland, a dance hall where single men could buy dances with female employees for ten cents; an evening at the Savoy, a dance hall for “the boys and girls of Harlem … scorned by the black elite … home of the happy feet;” even a Ku Klux Klan rally on Stone Mountain in Georgia, which presented the Klansmen nonjudgmentally as people “who sometimes behave destructively but usually are not up to much more than a primitive form of transvestitism.” Among the most unusual “social events” included in the series was a sit-down strike in a Woolworth’s in Detroit staged by female employees demanding higher wages. To Life the political and economic meaning of the event was far less interesting than the quirky fun the “girls” were having. Life portrayed them sliding down banisters, curling their hair, “feeding the store’s canaries cheerfully and efficiently,” and enjoying the sorority-like atmosphere of this “newest type of camping excursion.”48
The magazine was particularly interested in parties that themselves blurred class lines—people of modest means dressing in formal clothes, gathering in lodge halls or high-school gyms and mimicking the lavish balls of the wealthy; and similarly people of great wealth attending parties in which slumming guests dressed up as farmers or domestic servants. Life boasted of the range of the parties it portrayed: “college houseparties, quilting bees, military balls, church suppers, fashion shows, football rallies, Indian festivals … a brewers’ convention, a meeting of Negro masons … a science fiction fans’ jamboree.” But this diversity was consistent with Life’s more important mission: portraying the essential unity and the shared values of the American people. The parties Life“attended,” no matter where they were or who participated, were all “great good fun,” “great entertainment,” “plenty of fun,” “a wonderful frolic.” According to Life all Americans, no matter what their circumstances or background, knew how to have “a jolly good time.”49
Life was hardly a pioneer in promoting tolerance and diversity. It was most comfortable crossing class boundaries but less comfortable with racial and gender differences. In the 1930s Life paid virtually no attention to Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other minorities. Its relatively infrequent portrayals of African Americans were never hostile or openly racist, but the editors accepted many of the existing stereotypes of their time. Black subjects were often exotic entertainers (the musician “Lead Belly”—described in a story titled “Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel”—who had been convicted of murder twice as a young man; Harlem dancers demonstrating the newly popular “Lindy Hop” with “a native gusto and grace that no white couple can hope to duplicate”); or they were servants, visible in the backgrounds of social and official events in which affluent white people were the prime attraction.50
Life’s most ambitious portrait of African American life was a major 1938 feature: “Negroes: The U.S. Also Has a Minority Problem,” with powerful photographs by, among others, Alfred Eisenstaedt. It conveyed the real dismay with which Luce and his editors viewed racial prejudice, and at the same time revealed how different, and even foreign, the black community still appeared to them despite their claims of American universality. Racial prejudice, Life proclaimed, was the “most glaring refutation of the American fetish that all men are created free and equal.” But the material accompanying these lofty sentiments often contradicted them. Photography of burly black men working on the Mississippi River were captioned “Tote dat barge. Lift dat bale.” “Baby needs new shoes” was the label accompanying a picture of men shooting dice. “It must be remembered,” the editors noted cheerfully and condescendingly, “that the Negro is probably the most social and gregarious person in America. Nothing delights him more than a big lodge, with many a gold-braided official and many a high-sounding title.”51
Images of women, of course, were omnipresent in Life, and on occasion they represented power, achievement, and talent. But except for actresses and other artists, Life rarely portrayed women at work. The magazine’s interest in powerful women was largely restricted to royalty. Life’s first issues coincided with the death of King George V, the abdication of Edward VIII (and his marriage to Wallis Simpson), and the accession to the throne of George VI. Time and Life covered the succession and coronation intensively. (Both magazines had considerable circulation in England, and were in fact among the principal sources of news in Britain about Edward VIII’s romance—a subject the British papers were forbidden to report.) But throughout its extensive coverage, Life paid relatively little attention to the three kings who reigned during the magazine’s first two years. At first Queen Mary, the widow of George V, was the principal subject of attention and adulation as she led the nation in mourning her husband and guiding the royal family through the abdication crisis. Gradually attention shifted to Queen Elizabeth, the consort of George VI, who was on two Life covers in the first year after Edward’s abdication. (Not only did the king not appear on these covers, but he barely appeared in Life’s pictures of his own coronation. Life gave virtually all its attention to the new queen.) Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was another Life favorite.52
The most common images of women in the early years of Life, however, were connected to society, fashion, and sex. Life was very deliberately not a “girly magazine,” and its editors looked with disdain on what they considered their lower-class rivals, such as Photoplay and even Look, which relied heavily on “cheesecake” to market themselves. But Life itself rarely missed an opportunity to display mildly erotic photographs when they could be presented as part of a supposedly more serious feature. “Camisoles Are Back,” a 1938 cover announced, when the fashion industry introduced new lacy undergarments and gave Life an excuse to photograph “full-bosomed young women” wearing them. In a preview of the future Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, Life offered a special feature on women’s bathing suits to launch the 1941 “beach season” in Florida—a parade of attractive models displaying what were, for their time, provocative two-piece outfits. The Gilbert School for Undressing, whose principal clients were burlesque houses, became a pretext for what became a widely discussed story on how a woman should and should not undress. The decidedly unacademic-looking “Professor” Connie Fonzlau demonstrated the “wrong” way to undress, while another member of the “faculty” demonstrated “attractive undressing technique.” (A later feature offered similar advice for men.) A lesson in correct posture, a demonstration of how Hollywood taught actors to kiss, and frequent demonstrations of revealing new fashions all provided additional opportunities to portray women’s bodies in the service of supposed news or instruction. (Men’s bodies made occasional appearances as well, notably in a full-page photograph of the backfield of the University of Washington football team frolicking naked together in the shower.)53
Life’s portrayal of women, and the uncertain appeal of Life to women, was of some concern to the editors themselves, who diligently gathered data on their audience that showed that more men than women read Life. “I do not feel that women and womanhood are well represented in Life,”Luce complained in 1944. He later delegated the most senior woman on the research staff, Mary Fraser, to answer the question “Why are women losing interest in Life?” Perhaps, she concluded, it was “all those girls on the cover—women readers resent the constant parade of debutantes and publicity seeking starlets.” Her solution to the problem was to move away from sex and toward domesticity. “What about a piece on Diet?” she proposed. “I’d like to see a story on Kitchens, with floor plans…. The kitchen is first in importance to women.”54
This prescription for attracting women was entirely consistent with what Life was already doing. The occasional prurient images of women in Life were always far outweighed by efforts to celebrate their distinctive contributions to family and community (and only rarely to such male domains as work or government). When women in Life were not fashion models or actresses, they were most often wives, mothers, daughters, girlfriends, socialites, college girls, and consumers. Stories about prominent men almost always contained photographs and descriptions of the loyal women who supported them—Albert Einstein’s stepdaughter cuddling a kitten; the composer Jean Sibelius’s wife entertaining visiting singers from Yale; U.S. senator Arthur Vandenberg’s wife pasting newspaper clippings into a scrapbook for her husband; Henry Ford’s matronly wife (who “shares her husband’s interests in antiques”) accompanying him to a social event. In one Picture of the Week, Eleanor Roosevelt sits in a movie theater talking earnestly with the producer Samuel Goldwyn about how pleased she was that her son Jimmy “is getting along so nicely in Hollywood.” College women were usually portrayed not as students but as fresh-faced sorority girls who (as in a feature on Kansas University) “cook and clean to save expenses,” attend classes that teach them how to dress a baby, and “hope to find a husband on ‘the Hill,’” as the main campus was known.55
Little changed in the magazine’s first decade. “I’d like to see a round-up on the subject of GIRLS,” Luce proposed in the last months of World War II, “the girls who are the sisters, wives, sweethearts and potential sweethearts of our soldiers and sailors.” Perhaps the most famous picture in the history of Life—and one consistent with Life’s prevailing attitudes toward women—was the Eisentaedt photograph of VJ Day in Times Square showing a uniformed sailor embracing a passing young woman whom he did not know and passionately kissing her—as if to symbolize how returning men were preparing to seize back the women they loved, or at least wanted.56
In Life, the Depression was only occasionally visible—and usually through affirmative stories about the New Deal’s or the private sector’s ameliorative projects. Instead the magazine fixed its eyes squarely on the future. Like Fortune, it was in love with modernity, and with the idea of progress that modernity represented. Rockefeller Center—the dramatic complex of bold modern structures that arose in midtown Manhattan during, and despite, the Great Depression—was a favorite of the magazine, as reflected in Luce’s decision to move his company into one of its buildings shortly after they were completed. Like Fortune, Life also celebrated technological progress: steam turbines that delivered power more efficiently; dams and hydroelectric plants that transformed landscapes and economies; technological innovations such as Polaroid (“the new wonder”), consumer innovations that improved, or at least changed, the lives of individuals. And Life conducted as well a long love affair with the way in which middle-class American families lived and the homes they inhabited—always emphasizing progress and improvement. In 1937 Lifecelebrated the “$5,000 Dream House” that the New Deal was helping middle-class families to buy through favorable lending policies. “Four out of five middle-class Americans would like to have homes of their own,” Life noted, and then illustrated a range of suburban houses of various, but familiarly suburban, designs that were now within reach of many American families. The magazine itself in fact became a participant in the wheels of domestic progress a year later when Life commissioned “famous American architects” to design eight new homes for families earning two thousand to ten thousand dollars a year—incomes that encompassed a large part of the middle class. (The company also hired a Swedish designer to create simple, attractive furniture to complete Life’s vision of middle-class comfort.) Life helped facilitate the construction of examples of each of the home designs—one a starkly modern structure by Edward Durell Stone but most of them traditional colonials and capes. The plans and models for the “Life Houses” were distributed at modest cost to thousands of families, and within months nineteen houses based on them were under construction. “In homes throughout the U.S.,” Life reported, “youngsters and oldsters are using the models to help them project their dream house.”57
Despite the claims of Luce and his colleagues that Life was of almost universal appeal—that people from all classes, regions, religions, races, and backgrounds were drawn to the magazine—they always understood that their readership was largely middle class. If they had any doubts, their own research confirmed it. In fact, the larger the circulation became, the more dominant the middle class was within it. A survey in 1950 (one of the first serious and reliable analyses of the readership conducted by Alfred Politz Research) revealed that more than a third of Life’s readers were in the wealthiest 20 percent of the population, and that well under 10 percent were in the lowest. Readership declined on each step down the economic ladder. There was a similar correlation between education and interest in Life. Nearly 40 percent of Life’s readers had at least some college education (at a time when few Americans had ever attended college), while only 7 percent of readers came from the large population cohort that had no more than a fourth-grade education. Life’s readers were far more urban than rural, far more Northern than Southern, and considerably more young than old. (The second largest age group of Life readers consisted of ten- to nineteen-year-olds.) Politz was an independent survey researcher who conducted his “Audience” studies on commission from Time Inc., which published them internally. Further such studies later in the decade showed no significant change in the profile of the readership.58
“Life for me was like the American flag,” the photographer John Loengard wrote after many years of work on the magazine. It was, the novelist William Brinkley wrote in 1961, “one of the most important elements in The American Civilization.” Carl Mydans, in his memoir of his own career taking photographs for Life, recalled: “We had an insatiable desire to search out every facet of American life, photograph it and hold it up proudly, to a pleased and astonished readership…. America had an impact on us each week we made an impact on America.” But not everyone, not even everyone who worked on the magazine, believed that Life was in fact presenting a true picture of the world it portrayed. There was a slow but steady exodus of photographers and writers who felt stifled by Life’s amiable positiveness. (Among the founders of the important photography agency, Magnum, created in 1947, were many disillusioned refugees from Life.) “I didn’t have to spend long at Life to face the facts,” the photographer John Morris recalled of his early, alienating days at the magazine. “We were entertainers as much as journalists. Photographers worked from ‘scripts,’ and stories were ‘acts.’” Whether they liked it or not, however, few doubted that Life exercised considerable cultural authority. It aspired to create a persuasive portrait of the nation’s life as the American people experienced it; it succeeded in producing a powerful image of the middle class, an image that fit the assumptions of the magazine’s creators and that affirmed and enriched the way in which most of its readership already understood their world. Large elements of society were either missing from the pages of Life or were portrayed in ways that made them compatible with the magazine’s (and most of the readership’s) outlook. In an era blighted by Depression, prejudice, social turmoil, and the shadow of war, Life offered the comforting image of a nation united behind a shared, if contrived, vision of the “American dream.”59
*Ingersoll—and his biographer, Roy Hoopes—make a strong claim that he was the principal creative force driving Life forward. There is no evidence to support this view. Although Ingersoll certainly played a significant role in Life’s creation once the decision to publish was made, he was never wholly behind the magazine and even two years after its launch continued to complain about how it had damaged the other magazines. “It might have been sounder business for Time’s proprietors to have minded their knitting and used their wits to move Time forward to an unquestioned Number One position in the magazine world,” he said grumpily a few years later.