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A Nation United at the Newsstand

A collector painstakingly re-creates a piece of Americana: hundreds of magazine covers featuring Old Glory in July 1942.

November 27, 2001|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Rev. Peter Kreitler thought little of it when the first magazine with a flag on it arrived in the mail all those years ago. It was, after all, one of those novelty gifts, a Yachting magazine published in the month and year of Kreitler's birth--July 1942. The fact that there was an American flag on the cover didn't really register as unusual. The war was on. It was a patriotic time. So he tucked the magazine away in his files and forgot about it.

That would have been the end of it had not Kreitler, an Episcopal priest and environmental activist in Pacific Palisades, happened on a pile of old magazines at a Santa Monica flea market 10 years ago. He spotted an issue of Look that also bore an American flag on its cover. The publication date was July 1942. Ditto for the Life and Time magazines the vendor dug out for him. Sensing a find of some sort, Kreitler bought all three.

He found the Yachting magazine he'd filed away and put it with the others, looking for clues about this flag business. He found the beginning of an answer in Life, where a brief explanation noted that as many as 300 magazines were sporting flag covers that month as a symbol of American pride in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The publicity campaign's motto was "United We Stand." Kreitler, an inveterate collector of the arcane knew he had his work cut out for him.

Little did he know how much time and effort--not to mention money--he would have to spend to collect 300 covers from magazines of all stripes. They range from Gourmet to the Poultry Tribune to a Donald Duck comic book, each one unique in how the flag is displayed. But that single-mindedness, and several thousand dollars in cash, has paid off. This month the covers were published as a book, "United We Stand" (Chronicle Books). And the magazines will be the subject of an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution next spring.

"The flag collection from 1942 tells the story of life and patriotism in one of the blackest of times," said Kreitler, sitting in his cluttered church office. "It tells such an interesting story about life and times after our entrance into the Second World War."

And it couldn't come at a more propitious time, as the United States works its way through another dark period in its history. It is a time when the flag has become the omnipresent symbol throughout the country, the gesture of many Americans seeking to put up a united front.

But Kreitler wasn't thinking about any of this when he started collecting the covers. His interest at first was simply to find as many as he could, along with an explanation of how 300 magazines came to bear American flags in the same month. Months went by before he found a short story in Newsweek about the campaign.

The story said that a 35-year-old Hearst Corp. publicist named Paul McNamara had dreamed up the idea to "give the magazines an opportunity to show their patriotism and to make the public 'magazine-industry conscious'" to boot.

The U.S. government signed off on the project, approved by then-Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., who suggested a tie-in with the nation's war bond drive. McNamara's estimate was that 95 million covers would be seen by close to 300 million Americans. Armed with this information, Kreitler contacted the Hearst Corp. for more details. But news of the campaign wasn't even in the company's archives.

Still, Kreitler continued with his collecting, scouring flea markets and magazine warehouses, paying anywhere from a couple of dollars to more than $300 for individual issues. But the first major breakthrough came with his discovery of EBay, the online auction house, which allowed him to search the country for the magazines.

When Kreitler had collected about 80 covers, he thought he had enough to display. His search for a suitable museum led him to Marilyn Zoidis, the curator of the Star Spangled Banner Project at the Smithsonian. The $18.2-million project is restoring the flag that flew over Baltimore's Ft. McHenry and inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the national anthem. Zoidis, whose project includes the flag's restoration, an endowment for its care, a lab and educational projects, expressed enough interest for Kreitler to send about 40 cover copies to her.

"I got a one word e-mail back," said Kreitler. "All it said was, 'W-O-W.'"

"I was very impressed with these covers," said Zoidis. "They tell a story about the home front that had been lost. No one seemed to remember it."

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