As Magazine Ends, Here's A Look At Its Beginning -- And Its Heyday


June 30, 1996|By Carl Schoettler

A dynamic, innovative editor named Neil H. Swanson demanded something new and different when he launched The Sunday Sun Magazine on the first Sunday in 1946: He wanted his magazine to focus on the people of Baltimore and Maryland and the way they lived their lives.

Neil Swanson was a flamboyant newspaperman who arrived in formal evening clothes for his first night as The Sun's executive ,, editor. He had his current wife in tow -- "a striking brunette," according to The Sun's official history -- and she had two Great Danes on a leash.

Swanson took off his dinner jacket, rolled up his sleeves and said: "Now we're going to put out a newspaper."

He was a tyrannical martinet who terrorized his staff. But they put out a newspaper. The Sun won five Pulitzer Prizes in six years under his leadership.

The magazine he started didn't win a Pulitzer until 1985, with Alice Steinbach's touching story of a 10-year-old blind boy. In the years between, the magazine had rarely deviated from Swanson's original mandate: to capture Maryland, "a fascinating place to live, a place filled with interesting people and chock-full of untold stories."

"He thought that this was a unique idea, concentrating on Maryland stories, Baltimore stories, in a magazine," recalls Harold A. Williams, who succeeded the magazine's first editor, Philip S. Heisler, in 1954 and continued to supervise the publication -- in his role as Sunday Sun editor -- through 1981.

Swanson started the magazine on its course, but Hal Williams set the tone, the style, the accent and the color ... formed its character.

Veteran sports columnist John Steadman, a Baltimore newsman for nearly half a century, calls Williams "the greatest editor for features in the country. He knew what the Maryland public wanted to read."

'Traditional Values'

In 50 years, the Baltimore and Maryland public has changed far more than the magazine. In 1946, Baltimore was a rigorously segregated city. African-Americans rarely appeared in The Sun or its magazine except as criminals, comic figures or ancient family retainers.

The magazine depicted an idealized white Baltimore where "traditional values" reigned unchallenged, middle-class family life was celebrated, everyone knew his place in a society with clearly defined castes, oysters came from Chincoteague, melons from the Eastern Shore and crabs were always plentiful everywhere.

The cover story of that first edition on Jan. 6, 1946, was about a vice squad cop named Alexander Emerson, who had become famous for smashing into bookie joints with an 8-pound maul.

A picture on the story's opening shows Emerson as a family man at home with his wife and six children, three prim girls, three boys in neckties. Two boys sort through their matchbook collection on the floor. A lithograph of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hangs on the wall.

For a generation, Emerson led a couple hundred raids a year against assorted numbers writers and proprietors of horse-race handbooks. He rarely unholstered his pistol.

In 1996, the state runs far more gambling games than the two-bit bookmakers of the Emerson era ever dreamed of. Cops today fight drug wars with dealers who frequently outgun them with automatic weapons.

And the average family in Maryland is far more apt to be a single mother with one or two kids than a mom and pop with six.

Turn the page and the first issue had a photo spread on a Green Spring Valley debutante primping for the Bachelors Cotillon, a society dance for "the select few." That socially select few

totaled about 2,000 in 1946. Seventy debutantes "came out."

This year Baltimore's Blue Book, "The Society Visiting List," names just 18 debutantes, including a young lady from Larchmont, N.Y. The society of the select few hardly exists. The Sun hasn't covered the Bachelors Cotillon for years. And people "coming out" in Baltimore nowadays are not often debutantes.

The early Sunday magazines were printed by rotogravure on high-quality coated papers, which enabled editors to publish much sharper, clearer photographs. A. Aubrey Bodine, one of Maryland's finest photographers ever, was in the magazine from the beginning. His artful photographs came to embody the idealized vision Baltimoreans and Marylanders had of themselves.

"None was any better," says Gil Sandler, communications director of the Abell Foundation. "Week after week, there was a full-page Aubrey Bodine picture. We looked forward to seeing it because we saw ourselves in it."

Aubrey Bodine took the rather stiff portrait of the Emerson family at home. But in the next issue, the first picture in the true Bodine style appeared over an article with his byline. He'd found a Baltimore County farm that had remained virtually unchanged and in one family for more than a century. William Gartling, the 78-year-old owner, had no phone, gas or electricity. He hewed logs with an ax and tilled his field with a horse-drawn plow.

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