This month the University of Missouri Press is publishing A Love Affair with Life & Smithsonian by Edward K. Thompson, the founding editor of this magazine. The match is fitting, since the university is the home of a distinguished journalism school, and the author is a legendary figure in the history of American magazines.
What follows is hardly an objective review of Thompson's professional autobiography, since I worked under him briefly at the old weekly Life — like most young reporters, regarding him with a combination of admiration and sheer terror. Later he would hire me at Smithsonian. Bias aside, it seems appropriate to offer some comment here for readers who are interested in how this magazine was born, for young people who aspire to careers in journalism and, indeed, for anyone who would like to view some key events of the past seven decades through a perceptive and uniquely positioned lens.
Born in 1907 in St. Thomas, North Dakota (pop. 500), Thompson grew up listening to the howls of wolves outside of town and sometimes walking to school in weather that could hit 52 below zero. At the age of 13, after a trip through Yellowstone Park, he sold his first piece of professional work, a picture of a bear eating garbage, to Boy's Life for the handsome sum of $1 — and never looked back. After editing the student newspaper at the University of North Dakota, where he locked horns with the local Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan, he held a succession of newspaper jobs at a time when practitioners of that trade were more raffish, more freewheeling and maybe more fun, than in the years since.
At the weekly Foster County Independent he honed his skills by editing articles on such events as a "birthday lunch for someone's mother, a lawn party for the American Legionnaire children, a regular meeting of a women's lodge and an auction." Somehow he remained in management's good graces even after having a dustup with the county judge (when Thompson printed what the judge actually said about the state's legal red tape, the judge exploded: "You put dat in da paper?") and wrecking the boss' car by running into a cow.
At the daily Fargo Forum, Thompson's news sources were hotel clerks, cops, waitresses, night nurses and undertakers. There he learned to equivocate when the top editor would call in from a late, wet party to propose a story that he'd be appalled to see in print the morning after.
At age 21, Thompson moved on to the big time — the Pulitzer Prize-winning Milwaukee Journal. There his colleagues were news editor "Scoop" Arnold, "Stuffy" Walters (whose copy desk was a "dangerous place") and "Cap" Manly, a star reporter who sang Gilbert and Sullivan and slugged cops when he got drunk. The fiction editor (newspapers published short stories in those days) and the political cartoonist hated each other so much that they "drew each other's faces on villains and dogs." The photographers had burn scars on their arms from the flash powder they used. When the Depression hit, the pay envelope was apt to be filled with nickels, dimes and quarters collected by the Journal's newsboys. Even so, after sleeping in a nearby flophouse when he had to stay handy to the paper, Thompson was admonished by the news editor: "You work for the Milwaukee Journal . . . no matter what you pay, never again claim less than $5 a night."
Thompson recognized that the 35mm camera and candid photography were changing the face of journalism, and soon won a reputation for his picture layouts at the Journal. In 1937 he was hired by Henry Luce's new picture magazine, Life. With his instinct for the telling photograph and a common touch perhaps nurtured by his North Dakota upbringing (to say nothing of an admittedly large ego and a feeling for how to play corporate politics both competitively and honorably), he prospered there. In 1946, when someone else beat him in a contest to be Life's top editor, he told Luce: "You have the wrong man." He became the right man a few years later, and the Life that many of us remember is to a great degree the Life that Thompson made-the Life of great news photographs, of the light-hearted "Speaking of Pictures," of such series as "The World We Live In" and "The World's Great Religions," of the picture essays like W. Eugene Smith's "Country Doctor."
As managing editor he was notorious for mumbling so incomprehensibly that after layout sessions his editors would caucus to try to figure out what he had said. (It was widely believed that he mumbled on purpose-although I would later discover that he did not mind in the least being asked to repeat himself.) And his attempts to play the role of curmudgeon were usually derailed by his basic humanity.
At Life, in those days when television was not yet a force, anything was possible. Whether it was the McCarthy hearings or the Hiss trials or the launching of the first Americans into space, Life, and Thompson, were there. To cover major events like political conventions, Thompson deployed photographers by the dozen to shoot pictures by the thousands. To beat the competition, he sent reporters waving hundred-dollar bills to buy photographs from the survivors of an airplane crash in the Pacific. What he liked best was tearing up an issue at the last minute and starting again from scratch. A colleague wrote: "Thompson would brighten perceptibly when there was any prospect of a late-breaking story turning a long day's work into a longer night's."
It was customary for Life to publish the memoirs of important figures, and it fell to Thompson to do the requisite celebrity hand-holding. He recounts his experiences briskly but with relish. The Duke of Windsor seemed to believe that he had composed his ghost-written memoirs himself, although when he wrote captions for the illustrations in the article, he "performed almost competently." Winston Churchill, who could take justifiable pride in his prose, responded amiably to being edited, although his table manners when eating caviar left something to be desired.