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THE GREAT AMERICAN MAGAZINE: An Inside History of LIFE by Loudon Wainwright (Knopf: $19.95; 443 pp., illustrated)

November 23, 1986| Charles Champlin

In a way, Life was like an over-the-hill prizefighter who doesn't have the good sense to retire before his diminished gifts make him look foolish. Eyes swollen nearly shut, cuts leaking blood around the trainer's hasty patches, legs turning to water, he staggers around the ring under the battering of a much younger opponent. . . .Such was really the case with Life, no matter how valiantly its managers tried to doctor the wounds, to alter its stance, to pump it up with some vital new resolve. The great American magazine had outlived its own strength, was dead on its feet, and its fatal weakness was apparent in almost every issue.

The younger opponent, and the cause of death, was television. It delivered the mass audience in numbers and at a cost per thousand Life couldn't match. But, even more to the fatal point, television had seized the attention of the audience away from Life and all the other general circulation magazines, just as Life itself had seized the public fancy from Vol. l, No. 1, dated Nov. 23, 1936. It died as a weekly on Dec. 29, 1972.

For a quarter-century, Life really was the great American magazine. It had the largest circulation of any weekly, ultimately touching 8 million (with a readership at least triple that figure). A single issue commanded more ad revenue than even a good-sized daily newspaper would see in a year.

More than that, Life became, to an unprecedented degree, part of the American experience, American life, American culture. Its photographers emerged as a folklore of their own, and they appeared as characters in novels, plays and films.

The picture essays--on a country doctor, a career girl, a Sunday in Missouri--became an art-form of their own. The images of war, commencing with Robert Capa's extraordinary photograph of a Spanish soldier being shot, are fixed forever in the memory of those who have seen them. The editors were determined to popularize all the arts, to make the mysteries of modern science comprehensible, to instruct the masses on the broad sweeps of history from mammoth to Mendes-France, and to a quite remarkable degree, they succeeded.

The magazine was, along the way, a hell of a place to work, exhausting, exciting, challenging, frustrating and even demoralizing. Loudon Wainwright, who joined Life in 1949 as a trainee in the picture bureau, taking over a seat I had warmed for six months, has told the story of Life from birth to its death in 1972.

(The later, candy box Life is no part of the book, although Wainwright has been an assistant managing editor and columnist of the monthly version.)

Anyone who worked at Life can only be pleased and relieved that someone, at last, has got it right, got it all right, the dark side as well as the bright.

Life has been one of the most written-about magazines ever. A bibliography lists 30 titles, from the official corporate histories by Robert Elson and Curtis Prendergast, to William Brinkley's comic (and score-settling) novel, "The Fun House," to David Cort's angry memoir "The Sin of Henry R. Luce" and Dora Jane Hamblin's amusing and anecdotal "That Was the Life." One of several additional titles that could have been included is Ralph Ingersol's 1948 novel, "The Great Ones," whose protagonists suggest Henry and Clare Luce, thinly disguised and unflatteringly seen.

All earlier accounts of Life have been overcheerful, or malevolent or, if balanced, too detached and undetailed to catch all the human drama of the publishing of Life.

Wainwright quotes a famous late closing night utterance by Natalie Kosek of the picture bureau: "Each week we pretend we've never put out a magazine before." He quotes as well, a heartfelt note he typed to himself while trying, late one other closing Saturday night, to come up with a headline that would satisfy Joe Kastner, the unutterably demanding copy editor: "How can he be so sure what he wants and not know what it is?"

Wainwright has lived with Life for more than 25 years, and he tells it with what I can only call a hard-eyed affection and an unsparing, but also unmalicious candor. No one has made better use of the corporation's carefully maintained archives to recount, via the public and private memo-age, the beginnings of the magazine. (This is not, however, an authorized history, Wainwright points out.)

He nicely catches the tensions that existed between the photographers and everybody else. The word people, Wainwright says, "often looked down on photographers and thought of them as marginally talented, babyish, unreliable, opportunistic, self important, boring and even stupid. All these things were now and then so."

The photographers, on the other hand, "often considered the others snobbish, slow-witted, freeloading, blind, callous, treacherous, cowardly and incapable of knowing the difference between a really good picture and some hokey setup shot banged off by the clowns at the wire services. Some of the time, naturally, the photographers were right."

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