The Book of the Week is “That Was the Life” by Dora Jane Hamblin, published in 1977. The original Life magazine was launched in November 1936. The weekly publication let photos tell news stories, with brief captions.
Caption-writing was laborious, fraught with “cooks”– at least ten of them, spoiling the broth at a layout session. Making headlines fit was a big challenge.
Most Life photographers had unlimited expense accounts (and spared no expense on transportation, food and equipment), were arrogant, and chased after what today would be considered non-stories. They got local authorities to turn outdoor public areas into photo studios using generators, stroboscopic lights, klieg lights, electric wires, a crane, etc., transported by flatbed truck. They sometimes made tens of people wait for hours in difficult poses while preparing all that. “Writers and editors, faced with the need to make even the most banal occurrence seem important, reached always for superlatives or piquant details and, if they couldn’t find them…” would stretch the truth. They thought their jobs were the most important in the world. They had such an inflated sense of self.
Photos were published in the magazine as is, with no doctoring, through the 1950’s, however. There was even a “Chinese firewall” between the editorial and the ad departments, to prevent the appearance of favorable reportorial coverage of advertisers. Bureau chiefs would compete by sending reporters to chase an international story with wasteful redundancy.
When there were big stories to cover, Life covered them. In summer 1958, the magazine threw a budget-busting party to get a scoop on the U.S. Navy’s current underwater war toys. Sailors and the females hired to keep them company, had a grand old time enjoying rich food, alcohol and dancing. The following day, hung over staffers’ typewriters were clicking with the story. In early 1965, Life had more than thirty people fly eight hours to London to cover Winston Churchill’s funeral.
Part of the 1950’s gravy train included an independent study program for lucky employees, who were paid over years to basically write a PhD dissertation, parts of which became magazine articles. Reporters traveled, at times, to places like Marrakech, Baghdad and the Nile Valley, and withstood harsh conditions, such as camping out in a snow-bound military post heated by a wood-burning stove, where wolves were present. Other reporters tested culinary recipes or sampled restaurant food for weeks on the company’s dime.
By 1956, there were three versions of the magazine: in America and Canada, in Spanish for Latin America, and Life International. At its peak, eight million copies of the first version and almost a million of the third version were sold per week. Life‘s United States competition included Look magazine, the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. In Europe, subscribers could purchase Paris Match in France, Europeo in Italy, the Daily Express in London, and Quick, or Der Stern in Germany, instead of Life.
Life employees worked around the clock with deadline pressure for all, and frequent travel for some, so their social lives were usually spent with their colleagues; many celebrations were hosted and paid for by their workplace. Office supplies were provided for staffers’ personal use, and they got a library, post-office and medical services in-house.
Read the book to learn of other characteristics of that bygone era of magazine publishing.