Saturday, November 12, 2016

Birthday: He invented the magazine version of Twitter.


William Roy DeWitt Wallace (1889-1981)

His New York Times obit said “his first condensation was to shorten his name.” As DeWitt Wallace, a Minnesota boy who didn’t like reading long things, he changed the reading habits of Americans for decades.

His dad was president of Macalester College, and after two years there he transferred to UC Berkeley. In 1910-11 he worked for his uncle’s bank in Colorado, starting a card file to index magazine articles he had read and enjoyed. Back in St Paul, Minnesota, he worked for a farm publication, and spent four years writing sample business letters for another. He got the idea of cribbing free Department of Agriculture pamphlets, selling them to banks as a handout to customers, and moved over 100,000 copies of the 120-page “Getting More Out of Agriculture.”

Convalescing from injuries sustained in World War I, Wallace mapped out the idea for a magazine of magazines: a pocket-sized gathering of other magazines’ content- trimmed down and simplified for the reader on the go- that was interesting to Wallace, and, therefore, to the world.

He came up with a dummy edition and pitched it to various American publishers. He was willing to give them the concept. All he wanted was a job editing it. Only William Randolph Hearst thought the idea had legs, but he thought its circulation would max out at 300,000: small beer in the Hearstian universe.

Time to get on with life, Wallace decided. He was thirty, and took a job as a publicist for Westinghouse, then married Lila Acheson, a Canadian-born go-getter, in 1921. Westinghouse downsized; he lost his job; she pushed him to give The Reader’s Digest, as he called it, another try.

Dusting off the dummy edition, Wallace got subscription commitments from 1500 people at $3 each, and launched the magazine in 1922. It was 64 pages long, easy to fit into a pocket or purse, and had the table of contents on the cover. The first of its 30 articles was on lifelong self-education, by Alexander Graham Bell.

Put together by DeWitt and Lila, the early issues were rough and tumble, but the idea caught on. By 1926 they had 30,000 subscribers; a decade later, 300,000.

From the get-go, RD was profitable: Wallace did all the editing- he called it “condensing”- himself, at the New York Public Library. Bigger magazines gave him free reprint rights. Once the idea took off, though, they started demanding payments. Wallace laid on “roving editors” to generate original material, and, as the magazine passed the three-million subscriber mark in 1939, was able to start telling publishers what he’d pay them to showcase their work to his giant audience.


They got out of the city. Lila built a Georgian brick headquarters in Chappaqua, and a three-story stone mansion in Mount Kisco. Her influence on the magazine was indirect, but large. The magazine’s format was set: thirty short articles (one a day); a vocabulary improvement page; a page of anecdotes; two pages of humorous shorts, and, at the back, a condensed version of a recent book. RD took no advertising until the 1950s; when they started, they took no tobacco or liquor ads. Wallace, a reformed chain smoker, played an uncharacteristically progressive role in launching the anti smoking cause with a series of articles on the smoking’s links to cancer a full decade before the Surgeon General’s report.

Mostly, articles in RD were big on cheeriness, optimism, and self-improvement (A long-running, oft-parodied, series on the human body, “I Am Joe’s [Fill In the Blank]”, left only one organ unexamined; the 1970 “I Am Joe’s Man Gland” was as close, geographically, as they came). Reprints of all RD articles could be ordered in quantity; the Joe series was RD’s biggest hit.

Wallace looked askance at the Soviet Union, and Communism in general, from the start and hired accordingly. He was tight with President Eisenhower and adored Richard Nixon; during Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign the Wallaces not only donated big but opened RD’s pages to Nixon for a series of articles reaching its vast Middle America audience (Nixon conferred the Presidential Medal of Freedom on both Wallaces).

Oddly, the Reader's Digest Association, as the Wallace’s company was known, lavished money on employee benefits and programs (editors she liked sometimes found one of her Impressionists on their office walls). Some might have thought it socialist; Wallace called it cutting his tax bill. He was notoriously cheap, sending memos to staff on the backs of envelopes and going around HQ at night to turn out lights. He disliked society, going out rarely, and usually to the opera; Lila gave frequent, and  lavish- but small- dinner parties at home for his editors and their wives. Mrs. Wallace handled philanthropy, which was generous: they had no children, and over the decades piled up more money than they knew what to do with. They collected art, then gave it away. They endowed museums (Lila funded the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 20th Century Wing, supported its Egyptian collections, and left an endowment for fresh flowers in the great hall forever; by 1992, when RD was riding high as a publicly traded corporation, the Lila Wallace Fund reached $460 million in value, exceeding the Met’s own endowment). Much of the Wallace fortune, at Dewitt’s death, went to Macalester College.

In the 1950s RD seemed to have the Midas Touch. It launched a successful series of record albums, promoting middle of the road classical and pop music. In 1950, the Reader's Digest Condensed Books Library was launched. Four times a year, a faux-leather found tome came in the mail to subscribers, enclosing three to six condensed novels. Though often mocked as exemplars of Eisenhower-era mass culture, the condensations were surprisingly skillful, and pleased authors almost as much as the $10,000 to $100,000 rights payments. The series cranked on for forty-seven years, flooding Americans’ bookshelves; with a subscription to them and The National Geographic, you could show off a substantial personal library in no time. The books- so much a product of the era when bookstores were big city luxuries- still issue forth by the millions from the homes of dead people to the bottomless bins of Goodwill and the Salvation Army. To used book dealers, they are that most singular of books: the ones it is impossible to resell.

DeWitt Wallace died in 1981; asked by an interview for his epitaph, he joked, “The Final Condensation.” Lila carried on, as chair and sole shareholder, until 1984. At their deaths RD claimed 100 million readers, in 16 languages and 163 nations.

In the two decades since, RD has undergone its own condensation. The company continued to expand and make acquisitions; it went public and invested heavily in the Internet boom. But its sweepstakes promotions led to fine from 32 American states, early in this century, for defrauding the elderly, and all those Internet investments went down the drain with everyone else’s.

In 2004, the Reader's’ Digest corporate campus was sold to a real estate developer for $59 million; in 2007 the company went through a leveraged buyout; the inevitable cutbacks that followed reduced RD’s appearance to ten issues for several years and staff by a third, and cut the size and page count of the magazine. The company went through bankruptcy restructurings in 2009 and 2013. US circulation is down it mid-1930s levels, and more and more of the company’s income is from other publications and products it has acquired over the years than the little magazine that once could. In 2015, RD licensed the 47 years’ worth of condensed books to The Reader's Guild to market on all platforms, including ebooks, as Readers’ Digest Classics.

After the 2009 bankruptcy, the company broke its lease for its iconic 1939 headquarters and vacated 600,000 of its 690,000 square feet; the developer sued the town of Chappaqua for making the 116-acre campus worthless after its third mixed-used development plan was rejected. The suit was unusual in alleging fair housing and civil rights law violations by the town, many of whose wealthy residents objected that the mix of commercial and residential uses would bring too much traffic and too many people with too little money into the area. A settlement was finally reached in September, 2016: the headquarters will be converted into 64 apartments.

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