The publisher's life can't be condensed

August 18, 1993|By Neil A. Grauer | Neil A. Grauer,Contributing Writer

The founders of famous magazines often become well-known themselves: Henry Luce of Time and Life; Harold Ross of the New Yorker; Hugh Hefner of Playboy; Jan Wenner of Rolling Stone.

Conspicuous exceptions to that rule were the creators of perhaps the most famous -- certainly the most widely circulated -- American magazine of all time, DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace, the enigmatic husband-and-wife founders of the Reader's Digest.

Rescuing the Wallaces from their determined, self-imposed obscurity is John Heidenry, co-founder of the St. Louis Review and now a New York-based author. He has produced an exhaustively comprehensive, sometimes compelling account.

In it, he tells who the Wallaces were; how they built their extraordinary publishing empire, headquartered in Pleasantville, N.Y., just north of Manhattan; and the Byzantine machinations (as well as extramarital flings) of those who worked for them and fought to take over their secretive kingdom and its vast riches as the octogenarian owners slipped into senility. DeWitt Wallace died in 1981 at the age of 91; Lila three years later at 95.

Anticipating the wisecracks of reviewers overwhelmed by the bulk of his book, Mr. Heidenry had the wit to proclaim his work, almost defiantly, as "the uncondensed story" of a magazine built upon the premise that any article or book can be condensed by boiling it down to essential elements of "lasting interest."

The basics of the story are these: DeWitt Wallace, a drop-out from Macalester College (of which his father had been president), went to work for the Minnesota publisher of farm magazines. He somehow had the inspired notion of condensing key information from a myriad of federal periodicals for farmers into a single publication, but got fired for his insight (the first of many ironies in the Wallaces' tale).

Then, after gallant service in World War I, Wallace came up with the even better concept of condensing stories from general interest publications in order to reach a far wider audience. No major magazine publisher was interested in his brilliant idea, but VTC he was inspired to pursue it by an old college friend's younger sister, whom he married.

Although Lila Acheson Wallace's name would appear on the Reader's Digest masthead from its first issue in 1922 until her death, she did little, if any, editing. Instead, especially in the beginning, she provided a far more valuable asset: encouragement. (Her most "significant contribution" to the magazine itself, Mr. Heidenry writes, was her "quiet reworking" of its appearance in the late 1940s and early 1950s, including selection of the cover art.

In an astonishingly understated footnote, Mr. Heidenry reveals that the Wallaces, long celebrated by their colleagues as a perfect couple, went through a marriage "ceremony" in a church but appear never to have been legally married: No valid marriage license or legal document certifying their union exists.

They maintained something of an "open marriage," with Wallace carrying on many discreet extramarital affairs that his wife -- who may have had at least one lover of her own -- tolerated. All the while, they produced a rigorously right-wing magazine that extolled the virtues of home, hearth and family. "Hypocrisy . . . was a factor in the Digest's editorial mix from the very start," Mr. Heidenry observes drily.

It was an editorial mix that resembles today's supermarket tabloids to some extent, minus the lurid pictures: uplift, sexual advice and innuendo, miracle cures, reactionary politics. As a writer for Time pithily noted, the Digest "dispenses more medical advice than the A.M.A. Journal, more ribaldry than Boccaccio, more jokes than Joe Miller, more animal stories than Uncle Remus, more faith than Oral Roberts."

Wallace seemed to possess an uncanny "clairvoyance" about the interests of the average reader and future trends in American publishing, Mr. Heidenry writes. As an exploration of mass psychology and marketing, the Digest story is intriguing; as a dual portrait of its founders, particularly DeWitt Wallace, it remains frustrating -- even to Mr. Heidenry.

After 625 pages, he admits that "the central figure in this group portrait still sits in his big wing chair, half hidden in the shadows, smiling enigmatically, glimpsed but not fully fathomed. In death as in life, DeWitt Wallace has remained the most uncelebrated of prominent people, the most famous unknown man of his time."

Other rich ironies abound in this surely definitive account of the -- Wallaces, the Digest and its offshoots, still a communications behemoth. Although both Wallaces were extraordinary philanthropists, as their mental faculties faded friends and associates battled among themselves over dispensation of Digest largess, ultimately bestowing huge benefactions on causes in which neither Wallace had any interest.

And while the Wallaces had insisted that their huge, Norman-style mansion, High Winds, and 105-acre estate remain part of the Digest empire, it was sold in 1986, only two years after Lila's death, by their profit-obsessed successors as heads of the Reader's Digest Association. The new owner promptly dug up the Wallaces' beloved rose garden -- in which their ashes had been strewn -- in order to build a playground for his children.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Theirs Was the Kingdom: the Uncondensed Story of The Reader's Digest and Its Founders, DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace"

Author: John Heidenry

Publisher: Norton

Length, price: 640 pages, $29.95

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