|Editorially, LIFE was gung ho for the Vietnam War. But immages like this were turning more and more Americans against it every day
On November 23, 1936 a new incarnation of a familiar name hit American newsstands and launched a new era of print journalism centered on the stark power of the still photograph. For almost 40 years LIFE, a slick, oversize magazine was a weekly visitor to millions of homes and a unique chronicle of a dramatically changing world and nation. Say what you will about publisher Henry Luce—and there is a lot of bad stuff to say—but he had a phenomenally good idea.
Life was not a new name in publishing. A magazine by that name was inaugurated in New York City, by John Ames Mitchell and Andrew Miller in 1883 modeled on the successful British humor magazine Puck and its American incarnation. Mitchell handled the business end and Miller, a successful commercial artist in his own right, handled the editorial content. From the beginning Life became known for its dazzling cover art and interior illustrations, enhanced by lithography techniques using zinc coated plates.
When Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gay ‘90’s iconic Gibson Girl, became a regular contributor—and eventually an owner—the magazine took off and became one of the most popular in the country. Other noted contributing illustrators including Palmer Cox, the creator of the Brownie and W. E. Kemble who was the original illustrator of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn but who contributed popular, but degrading Coon cartoons to the magazine. Later Life became an early home for Norman Rockwell.
This incarnation of Life became known for it furious anti-German slant as it tried to push the reluctant Wilson administration into joining the Allies in World War I. It also had a nasty anti-Semitic streak. None-the-less, it remained popular, even when post war tastes changed, by adding reviews of Broadway productions and films. When the upstart New Yorker was launched, it stole many Life features, including its short reviews, and raided the staff of many key players. By the time the Depression hit, circulation was dwindling and advertising revenue plummeting. The staff kept it going until Henry Luce made an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Luce was not really interested in buying the magazine. He just wanted to buy the name. The simple one word title worked will in the tradition of Luce’s other publications, both phenomenally successful, Time and Fortune. Luce wasted no time in firing the staff and selling the magazine’s subscription lists, features, and goodwill to the original magazine’s chief competitor Judge.
The first issue of Luce’s LIFE, now a news weekly built around photographic coverage—a newsreel on the printed page—featured a cover photograph of the Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River in Montana by the soon-to-be-famous Margaret Bourke-White. Inside was a five page spread by Alfred Eisenstaedt another shutter bug to become synonymous with the magazine. The magazine displayed its photos and accompanying text on high quality, heavy slick paper and sold for just a dime making it affordable to even Depression era readers.
The formula was an instant success. Circulation soared from an initial 380,000 copies to over a million in just four months. Such success naturally spawned imitators, the most successful being Look, a virtual clone, which came out a year later.
The editorial policy of the magazine was pure Luce—virulently conservative, an opponent of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt and viciously anti-labor. Yet what ever the editorials and texts said, the power of the pictures snapped by the world’s best photo journalists often worked against the stated objectives of the management.
Edward K. Thompson, who began as an assistant photo editor in 1936, influenced the magazine through a succession of increasingly important posts, including photo editor, managing editor and eventually editor-in-chief until his retirement in 1970. That spanned almost all of LIFE’s existence was a photo weekly. Under his leadership—and perhaps at the insistence of the publisher’s wife Clair Booth Luce—LIFE offered opportunities for women unmatched at other publications. Bourke-White, for instance, became one of seven female correspondents who covered World War II. Among the others was Mary Welsh Hemmingway, wife of novelist/correspondent Ernest Hemmingway. Women also rose in editorial leadership. Thompson gave extraordinary autonomy to fashion editor Sally Kirkland, movie editor Mary Letherbee; and modern living editor Mary Hamman.
LIFS’s coverage of World War II cemented its place in American life, giving the folks on the Home Front an often unvarnished view of what their loved ones were going through. It dispatched reporters and photographers to every theater of the war, including those like Burma, the Aleutians, and Italy that were often ignored in other media. Among those covering the war was veteran war photographer Robert Capa, whose photos of landing in the first wave of D-Day at Omaha Beach were the only pictures from that perspective to survive. Capa continued to cover conflicts around the world for LIFE until he was killed by a landmine in Vietnam in 1954. At war’s end, Eisenstaedt captured one of the most iconic images of the age—a celebrating sailor sweeping up a young nurse for a passionate kiss in Times Square on V-J Day.
In the post-war years LIFE added to its prestige by publishing serialized versions of the memoirs of President Harry S. Truman, Sir Winston Churchill, and General Douglas MacArthur. Top literary figures including John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway also contributed. Hemingway first published The Old Man and the Sea in the magazine’s pages and latter turned in a 10,000 word essay on Spanish bullfighting.
In the 1950’s LIFE chronicled the rapidly changing American landscape. Although its fierce anti-Communism was supportive of Senator Joe McCarthy, the unforgiving cameras of its journalists captured the alcoholic crusader at his most menacing. The magazine may have endorsed the return to normalcy of the post war nuclear family, but it also captured women at work and teenagers in rebellion. It showed pictures of busty starlets and hip-shaking rock and rollers, as well as grim scenes from the Civil Rights Movement. Luce might have endorsed Richard Nixon for President in 1960, but John F. Kennedy and his photogenic wife leapt off the pages.
LIFE’s coverage of the Kennedy assassination and the nation in mourning may have been its high water mark. It rushed a quickly produced hardbound commemorative book to press by December, which instantly became a treasured memento in millions of homes.
In the ‘60’s Gordon Parks and others documented the civil rights movement and eventually the emergence of the new militancy of Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Party. The magazine celebrated the triumphs of the space program including the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. It might have spurred interest in psychedelic drugs when it published a generally positive article on Magic Mushrooms, by a New York advertising executive which led Sandoz Labs to isolate and patent psilocybin to add to its portfolio that already included LSD. It also showed the dark side of heroin addiction in a series of photo-essays that inspired the film Panic in Needle Park. A new generation of war correspondents captured the bloody horror of Vietnam while others captured brewing rebellion in the streets.
But with the growing competition of television, LIFE’s fortunes were on the wane. In the late ‘60’s the magazine geared up expanded coverage of Hollywood and celebrities to lure readers. Emblematic was the coverage of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s hot romance on the set of the epic Cleopatra. The generous use of more and more color photography crowded out traditional black-and-white photos on the magazine’s interior. Both moves boosted sales, but the magazine was, depending on who was telling the story, either loosing money or becoming unattractive to advertisers interested younger readers.
Time-Life pulled the plug on the weekly in 1972. Two years later it launched People, supposedly inspired by the popular section of the same name in flagship magazine Time, but also picking up the tradition of photo-heavy celebrity coverage from the last days of LIFE.
LIFE was still a valuable name. The publisher issued occasional LIFE Special Reports such as The Spirit of Israel, Remarkable American Women and The Year in Pictures from 1972-1978. The continuing brisk news stand sales of these special editions helped bring about a rebirth of the magazine as a monthly in 1978. For the next 22 years it bumped along as a moderately successful general interest magazine. High points of this incarnation included a special 50th anniversary issue featuring reproductions of every cover of the magazine, a brief four issue return to weekly publication as LIFE Goes to War during the 1991Gulf War, and a series on the “most important people” and “most important events” of the millennium.
Deciding that the days of the general interest magazine were over, Time-Life killed the magazine again in 2000 to concentrate on a gaggle of newly acquired special interest niche magazines like Golf, Skiing, Field & Stream, and Yachting.
LIFE would have one more ignominious revival as regular periodical. From 2002-2007 it was converted into a weekly newspaper supplement to compete with well established Parade and USA Weekend. The flimsy rag was barely a ghost of its illustrious past. By the time it was unceremoniously discontinued, it had shrunk to twenty 9½ x 11½ inch pages of celebrity twaddle.
LIFE lives on, sort of, as a web page. Agreements with Google and Getty Images have made the magazine’s archives, including hundreds of thousands of unpublished photographs available on line. And the LIFE name continues to be used for “special issues.”