At 75, 'Life' Revisits Its First Cover Story

Nov 4, 2011
Originally published on May 23, 2012 10:17 am

Seventy-five years ago this month, Henry Luce, who had launched Time magazine in the 1920s, created his third great magazine: Life. Over the coming years it would come to be known as the weekly with the most and the best photographs. It would show Americans what war and peace looked like. There were photographs in Life of the Spanish Civil War and of V-J Day in Times Square that are rare cases for which the term "iconic" truly makes sense. And there were dozens of others, too.

Of course, Henry Luce's magazines had their detractors. One line went, "Life is for people who can't read; Time is for people who can't think." But in the new, commemorative coffee table book, Life 75 Years: The Very Best Of Life, the pictures, in fact, make you think. And if you're old enough, they make you remember, too.

The very first issue of Life, reprinted in its entirety in the book, told readers about the black widow spider, the actress Helen Hayes and the new actor Robert Taylor. But the cover story is full of lessons about pictures and competitive journalism.

The story, shot by one of Life's original four photographers, Margaret Bourke-White, covered the construction of the Fort Peck Dam, a Public Works Administration endeavor to build the largest earth dam in the world during the Great Depression. Luce had read a story by about the raucous frontier lifestyle in the shantytowns surrounding the construction. As Bob Sullivan, managing editor of Life Books explained, it was kind of a sensationalistic piece. "Luce was taken by it," Sullivan says. And so Bourke-White was sent out to Montana to capture the story for Life.

The people of Fort Peck were dismayed to find that of the 17 photos that ran with the story in the first issue of Life, eight were taken inside ramshackle saloons. "It just shows the power of the editors because Bourke-White was a a great photojournalist. ... She went out there and got the whole story, brought it back to New York, Luce looked at it — and he wanted half the story. ... The editors, I'm sure at Luce's instruction, only ran the sexy stuff."

And so began Life's legacy: It lived for decades as a generalist magazine for politics, culture, news and entertainment. From salivating scenes of Hollywood to gruesome sights of war, all walks of life could be found in Life. "It was an American Idol-sized hit overnight," says Sullivan.

At the end of the anniversary book, the Life editors revisit the story of Fort Peck and deliver the other half of the story: "It was about hard-bitten people during the Depression, working themselves dog-tired while trying to survive and raise their kids," the text reads.

One of the very last photos in Life's anniversary book is a contemporary photo of 96-year-old Becky Powell Sterley. She recalls what life was like at the Fort Peck Dam in 1936, when she was a 20-year-old newlywed. But she doesn't recall what it looked like in Life. "We were too poor to buy a magazine," she is quoted as saying. It's a loaded way to end a book about Life's wide reach.

The magazine ran as a weekly until 1972 and as a monthly until 2000, when it fell victim to the economy and finally folded. For decades its pages were home to some of the best photography in the industry. Books like this one provide the last hope for Life photos to remain in America's living rooms. Today, much of the photography has a new home via Life's newest lifeline, the Web.

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Seventy-five years ago, in November 1936, Henry Luce, who had started Time magazine in the 1920s and Fortune in 1930, launched a general interest weekly built around photography. For the next 36 years, LIFE magazine showed Americans what the world looked like every week: what war looked like, even what peace looked like. Alfred Eisenstaedt's "V-J Day in Times Square," the famous kiss, was a LIFE photo, so were hundreds of images that really do warrant that overused adjective, iconic.

They've been collected in an anniversary book called "75 Years: The Very Best Of LIFE." It's edited by Bob Sullivan of LIFE Books. Needless to say, it is full of great LIFE photographs, but it has something else. It comes with a reprint of the first issue of LIFE from 1936. And as Bob Sullivan tells it, it turns out that the very first cover story, a nine-page photo spread by a renowned photographer, warranted some checking 75 years later and even an apology.

BOB SULLIVAN: Yeah. It was on the Work Projects Administration project out in Fort Peck, Montana, where they were building the largest earthen dam in the world. And Henry Luce, you know, he's putting together this first issue of LIFE with his editors, and he had read a story by Ernie Pyle, who was a nationally syndicated columnist at the time. And Pyle had gone out and visited the Fort Peck project himself, and he wrote about a rooting-tooting lifestyle, a cowboy lifestyle in the shantytowns out there.

And he wrote about the saloon life and, you know, the grubby kids outside, and it was kind of a sensationalistic piece. Luce, obviously, was taken by it, and as he was inventing a magazine that would be dedicated to the visual, he said, well, boy, this is a terrific photo story, and let's see if it won't work for that first issue. So one of our first four staff photographers in LIFE had shot a lot for Luce's Fortune magazine, and she became, along with Eisenstaedt and others, the first four staff photographers. This was Margaret Bourke-White.

SIEGEL: Well, she went out. The photo spread that runs, I think, nine pages at the beginning of the magazine, tells the story of this dissolute, raucous life out on the new frontier.

SULLIVAN: It's wild, and it just shows the power of the editor because Bourke-White was a great photojournalist. She went out there, and she got the whole story, brought it back to New York. Luce looked at it, and he wanted half the story. He wanted to illustrate the Ernie Pyle half of it. This is old stuff that we've only found out in the last few months in putting this new book together. We thought it would be fun to end the new book - our part of the book - by revisiting Fort Peck.

And the original thought we had was, hey, look, it was 75 years ago. I'll bet a lot of these people are still alive or at least people that remember the scene. You know, they would have been kids at the time, but they, you know, capable of memory, and let's get back in touch with them and see how fondly they remember LIFE magazine hitting the stand back in the day, back in 1936. Well, they didn't remember it fondly at all.


SIEGEL: Their hometown was actually vilified in the pages of this new magazine.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. They liked the fame, but they sure didn't like the notoriety. So we go out, and we started talking to people. I talked to a man named Jim Rae(ph) out there who knew everyone. He's not that old himself, but he's a historian, and he put us in touch with a lot of these people. But we did come away with the impression, hey, LIFE didn't tell the whole story. These were a bunch of hardworking folks. They got to bed at 4 o'clock in the morning if they were on the middle of three shifts out on the dam.

They bowled at the bowling lanes that that they had put up there in one of the shantytowns as often as they went drinking, you know, and only a certain percentage of them did that. They had a more wholesome life as well. They were trying to make ends meet in the Depression. The next step was, of course, to go back to the archives and see if Bourke-White had covered both sides of the story.

SIEGEL: Yeah. There's the bowling alley, people who went bowling. They didn't just go to the saloon, and she had a picture of it.

SULLIVAN: Exactly. And we have pictures of the assembly line making lunch bags for the guys going up to the dam. We have the pictures of the guys going up to the dam. We have this woman who's running her own little business, her own little beauty shop in the shantytown. We fessed up. The title of the story in the book: "The Fort Peck Dam Story We Never Told."

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Sullivan, thank you very much for talking with us.

SULLIVAN: It's been my pleasure.

SIEGEL: Bob Sullivan of LIFE Books edited the book "75 Years: The Very Best Of LIFE." One more odd twist to that first LIFE magazine, Margaret Bourke-White's photo on the cover was so stunning it was later used on a postage stamp, part of a Celebrate the Century series. Unfortunately, it was mislabeled in the magazine, New Deal, Montana: Fort Peck Dam. The Army Corps of Engineers corrected that. It was actually a shot of a spillway 3 miles east of the dam.


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