Explaining the facts of Life. Fiftieth anniversary of a publishing legend

The Great American Magazine: An Inside History of Life, by Loudon Wainwright. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 444 pp. $19.95. Life: The Second Decade, 1946-1955, New York: A Graphic Society Book. Little, Brown & Co. 1985. 200 pp. $29.95. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Life. A fitting tribute to the magazine is Life: The Second Decade, 1946-1955, which was published by Time, Inc., in conjunction with United Technologies Corp. and accompanies a traveling exhibit of photographs from Life's archives. The 200 prints include works by Margaret Bourke-White, Andreas Feininger, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Gordon Parks, W.Eugene Smith, and many other of the magazine's great photographers. The diverse selection shows celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, artists such as Salvador Dali, musicians such as Leonard Bernstein, politicians such as Eisenhower, daily scenes from America, and tragic scenes from around the world. It is a splendid collection that illustrates the quality and range of the photographs that appeared in the historic magazine.

Life is something of a legend in magazine history. From its first sellout issues in 1936, the glossy picture weekly was a spectacular success, and through the years its circulation soared. Like Henry R. Luce's other creations -- Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated -- Life was an original; but more than these, or any magazine of its time, it tapped the spirit of the country. Oversize, lavish, brash, informative, moral, and somewhat vulgar, Life was, as Loudon Wainwright so aptly calls it, ``the great American magazine.''

In The Great American Magazine: An Inside History of Life (the old Life, not the revived and very different one), Mr. Wainwright fleshes out the legend, tracing the magazine from its origins through its glory days in the '50s to its closing in 1972, when it succumbed to the competition of television. Wainwright was a writer and editor at Life from 1949 to 1972, and for him -- as for many of the staff -- Life was very much a life. His book, however, is not a memoir: Though not objective, it is a history, drawn from many sources beside the author's experience -- diaries, letters, memos, interviews. Indeed, the author stays in the background, yielding center stage to the magazine and the people who created it.

Wainwright begins his story in the early '30s, when the idea for a picture magazine was in the air. Already popular in Europe, the picture magazine seemed to many a sure-fire thing for America. In fact, Clare Brokaw, when she was an editor at Vanity Fair and long before she married Henry Luce, proposed just such a magazine to her publisher, Cond'e Nast.

Luce, with Time and Fortune successfully established, was just the publisher to tackle an illustrated weekly. By 1933, he was at work on the idea. While editors, designers, and writers experimented with formats, Luce himself struggled to define the new magazine's goals. At length, with help from Archibald MacLeish, he arrived at the well-known prospectus: ``To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; ... to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.''

The tone of that prospectus was upbeat, full of promise, in favor of life; and for all that Luce continued to reevaluate Life's goals through the years (driving various editors to despair), he never took the publication off its optimistic path. ``I always thought it was the business of Time to make enemies,'' he once said, ``and of Life to make friends.''

Throughout his book, Wainwright conveys the personality of Luce and the atmosphere of the familial publishing empire he created -- close, challenging, competitive -- that elicited such good work from employees. Even more, Wainwright reveals the role others played in developing Life and the field of photojournalism -- the writers, editors, photographers, designers, and above all, the fascinating succession of managing editors.

Without idolizing these Life players, Wainwright is generous in his appreciation. Especially affectionate is his depiction of Edward K. Thompson, ``the brilliant and tough operating boss of Life during its period of greatest national influence and considered by many to be its finest managing editor.'' His description of Thompson's baffling mutterings (```Look,' he would say, ` ... in politics you can't be too dwadletack or too oooom'''), which were accompanied by shrugs and grunts, is hilarious; and his perceptive portrait suggests how Thompson succeeded in endearing himself to staff and turning out a first-rate product.

This is a full history -- full of information, anecdotes, people. That Wainwright loved Life is clear; he does not conceal his bias. All the same, his account seems a balanced one. He does not gloss over the magazine's sensationalism, its excess of trivia, or the ethical problem inherent in photojournalism: that it makes much of its living off disaster and human tragedy. Though he valued Life, he doesn't over value it, nor does he overly regret its passing when it had outlived its best years. Indeed, he seems to agree with Ralph Graves, Life's last managing editor, whom he quotes: ``I have no feeling now that Life should have survived its mythology.''

It is hard to write about a legend. Wainwright's account, remarkably evenhanded and consistently interesting, succeeds in demythifying Life without diminishing it.

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