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Life Lessons Learned From A Life Magazine Collection

It's still possible to learn about the present from a magazine long since dead


Anyone born after 1980 and probably a good share of people born a decade-and-a-half before that likely have no idea about Life magazine. When it was launched as a photojournalist magazine in 1936, it was considered groundbreaking. For the next 36 years, it remained a weekly magazine, sort of a Time, Newsweek, and People all rolled into one. 

The magazine's circulation peaked at 8.5m in 1969.  Costs to produce it rose and advertising revenue fell, a sign of things to come for the magazine industry as a whole. Playboy reached a peak circulation of 7.16m in 1972 and now has a circulation of just 820,000. Time magazine declined later from a 1988 peak of 4.6m to less than 3.3m in 2014.

Looks like it was a prescient move to shelve Life as a weekly way back in '72, well before the magazine would have turned into a hemorrhage for its publisher Time Inc. 

Life was yesterday's news long before I would have been at an age to appreciate it. I probably spotted the monthly editions of Life in the newsstands growing up but thought nothing of it, as did the majority of the rest of the magazine-buying public. Time Inc finally pulled the plug on the magazine for good in 2002.

I discovered Life more than two decades after it had ceased to be a weekly publication. And in the most unorthodox of places, too: in the Burmese capital of Rangoon. I was sharing a room at a cheap hotel with another American.  He took a stroll the day before our departure and returned with a few Life magazines in pristine condition, as if they had just been printed. All were dated sometime in the mid 1960's. 

These were not imports. In its heyday, Life had Asian editions. Somehow, these editions had landed in the hands of Burmese street peddlers who were asking only a couple of dollars per issue. 

I skimmed through my friend's issues and was utterly fascinated for reasons I'll get into later. I hit the streets of Rangoon on my final day to pick up every issue of Life I could get my hands on. I was traveling with only a backpack. Carrying stacks of magazines with me wasn't practical.  I decided to ship whatever I could buy back to the United States.  The catch, as I found out soon from visiting a Burmese post office, was that then police-state Burma officially forbade the "export" of periodicals. I hid four of my eight issues inside some souvenirs and mailed those out from Burma. The other four were sent from Bangladesh a couple weeks later.

All 8 issues, dating from 1963 to 1969, made it back intact, and I eventually read each of them cover to cover.  A couple of years later, I was living in Los Angeles and visiting the North Hollywood library. I noticed a visitor reading a 1960's era Life magazine.  North Hollywood Library amazingly had a vast collection of Lifemags, all original American editions in worse shape than the (probably unread) Asian editions I'd snagged in Burma.  No one but me regularly looked these Lifes over at the library, so I inquired among the staff if the issues were for sale.  Nope. I handed them a card and said if they ever decided to sell them, get in touch.

 Skip ahead another couple of years. A cousin of mine invited me to drive up to Vega$ that Friday.  I don't remember exactly why, but I turned him down. It could be that I wasn't enamored with Vega$ the first and only time I'd ever been there. On that Friday when I should have been on my way to Sin City like any normal guy my age, I received a call from North Hollywood Library. The library was about to close for over a year to renovate; they were going to junk needless stock. If I wanted those Life magazines … for free … I had to get to the library the very next day. Otherwise the magazines would be incinerated. 

I was ecstatic. I'd won the jackpot without having to drive to Vega$ to get it!   In one fell swoop, my Life magazine collection had expanded to several dozen issues. 

So there's the back story of how Life entered my life. But why the interest in it? I had come across ancient magazines in the past. When I attended a private elementary school, the library there stocked National Geographic magazines as far back as 1917. I skimmed the issues but never religiously poured through them. 

Life was different. It was accessible.  The writing style wasn't dramatically different from a modern magazine.  I can imagine reading a magazine from a hundred years ago would feel archaic.  Life was from an era before my own, but one I was sort of familiar with. You could see the seeds in these pages of the trends which sprouted and then blossomed decades later. For example, in one issue from around 1968 or 1969, the magazine profiled an affluent IT consultant, a sign of the future. The computers he worked with took up entire rooms. It was possible for me to connect this bygone era to the early days of microcomputers a decade later, a time I actually lived through. Had the article been from 1948, I don't think I would have been as intrigued. It would have been more like reading a history book. 

I confirmed this supposition beyond all doubt when I later skimmed some issues online of Life magazines from the 1930's and 1940's. They didn't entice me like the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's issues did. Had Life folded its weekly editions in 1952 instead of 1972, I would have picked up a handful of editions in Burma as quaint souvenirs. I wouldn't have built up a collection.

When I say I read these issues cover to cover, I mean it. I read every single article, every cooking recipe, every editorial, every piece of advertising copy. I had glimpsed this era from watching old 1960's TV shows and looking over old photographs of my parents. But now, reading these pages as if it were a current periodical, I really felt like I was back in that time.

The advertisements gave an insight into what was then current and fashionable. There were pretty young women in bouffant hairdos wearing chic mod clothes, men in Arrow shirts promoting liquor brands now not so prominent. Plenty of the ads were for the 'new' automobile releases.  It's surreal reading about the latest and greatest features in a Pontiac Bonneville circa 1966 when the car, by today's standards, looks like a dinosaur. Some of the auto ads highlighted "comes with air conditioning,"  a reminder that air conditioning wasn't a standard feature in cars back then.  Only 20% of cars had air conditioning systems in 1960.

There were RCA and Admiral television ads, boasting of even "larger" twenty-three inch color screens - for only $349! Convert that late 1960's money into present value, and you'd gasp.  By 1969, Sony was advertising its portable 8" black and white TV's, weighing 'only' 5 kg and costing $130. 

You'd see ads for AT & T's great rates for long distance telephone calls, just $1 for a three-minute American coast-to-coast call. That's $1 in 1966 money. Or the special promotional flight deals on Pan Am, now defunct.  A roundtrip flight to Europe from New York in 1963 was being touted as a deal for $700.

Whatever was being sold, the ad copy, to modern eyes, reads as dated and unsophisticated, a reflection of a different time and different expectations.  It must have been effective to the readers of the day.

The real value from reading old Life is the articles.   Lifecontained first class photos, many in color, combined with equally first class journalism. It is a fascinating exercise to read about the Vietnam from the vantage point of 1968. If you read the issues cover to cover, like I do, by the time you get to the article, you feel like you're another reader from 1968 taking in the author's viewpoint why the United States must stand strong in Vietnam. But, of course, 1968 is long gone. You know how events transpired. You know, from sitting in the future, just how short sighted some of that 1968 thinking is. And it makes you stop and think just how shortsighted and skewed and biased the views you read in the present media must be.    

 The feature stories about people doing unusual things are my favorite.   These above any others make me feel like a time traveler. When you examine old photographs of your parents or a relative, the typical remark is, "Look how young they appear."  That's because your reference point is how they look now. Reading Life stories about football star Joe Namath or actor Bill Cosby were much like reviewing the family album.  I already knew what these people looked like today and how their lives turned out.

It is when I 'meet' the personalities for the first time in the magazine that things are most interesting.  I feel like I'm becoming acquainted with these people in the present, just as if I picked up a recent issue of a currently popular magazine off the rack and read about someone for the first time. The difference is that I can go onto the internet immediately after I finish reading the Life article and fast forward through time to see how they aged and what became of their lives. Oftentimes, given how old these magazines are, I find out that the profiled person has since died, and I feel a sense of sadness. Actually, they could have been dead for 40+ years already, as was the case of a brilliant Irish set designer for Britain's '67 Expo pavilion in Montreal or turned out to be misogynist drunks as was the case with that same brilliant Irish set designer.   You can only feel that twinge of sadness at their passing after you discover they exist. 

Again, Life's pages give me perspective on the present. How many people lauded in the pages of the press at present will be but bygone memories in a faded magazine (or, more likely, a digital dustbin) a few years or decades later?   We get so caught up in stupid trends, allegiances, politicians, celebrities.  Open up a Life magazine from 1965 and read it with simultaneous interest and disinterest. It's a lot easier to do when 1965 is now just in people's collective imaginations. You realize in context most of it doesn't mean one helluva lot.  So why should any of this stuff that's happening around you right now mean much more? 

Everyone's heard of Robert Downey, Jr. Mr. Iron Man. How many people know about his father? I do.  Robert Downey Sr was profiled in Life. That's how I found out about his classic 1969 Madison Avenue mockery Putney Swope and was able to rent it from a video store in North Hollywood specializing in hard-to-find forgotten films, well before Downey Jr ignited his comeback. 

Most people, if they even remember the late director Paul Mazursky, know him for his 1980's films Moscow On The Hudson and Down And Out In Beverly Hills and for a small role he had on Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Because I read a 1970 profile on him in Life, I could dig up his obscure 1970 and 1973 films Alex In Wonderland and Blume In Love.  

A lot more people today have heard of singer-songwriter Laura Nyro after she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. Her songs had already been on my iPod for a decade. I first read about her in 1969 issue of Life when she was at her prime.

Could I have gathered these same lessons from any other weekly from a bygone era? I don't know. An old girlfriend had a 1966 issue of Newsweek in her parent's basement. I read it 33 years later cover to cover. The only conclusion I came to was that Newsweekwas a better magazine in 1966 than it was in 1999. Life was an interesting mix between amazing color photographs, top notch writing, then current trends, politics and heroes, and the eccentric. It is broad enough, in my not so esteemed opinion, to entice visitors from other eras. A magazine too dedicated to politics or to celebrities or to what's hip would probably cease to interest anyone 10 years after it was published. 

With magazine niches becoming ever more focused and traditional magazine and newspaper publishing disappearing, it seems unlikely tomorrow's generation will be able to look back at today's magazines and derive the same lessons I got out of Life. It's all archived on the internet today, and the past and the present show up as links on a search by side. There is no past immersion experience like reading an ancient Life cover to cover. 

Now it's just sifting through an unlimited archive. More and more and more information with less and less and less introspection. 

If you liked reading this, consider:
 How 50-Year Old Magazines Can Still Keep (Foreign) Economies Going
 The Love-Hate Spectrum
 The Complete Article Index