No athlete, Thompson found himself puffing along with Harry Truman on one of his brisk morning walks and was told that if he kept up the regimen he'd live to be 100. (He's working on it-Thompson is 88 today.)
Thompson worked closely with Douglas MacArthur on his memoirs, and writes: "If you have genuine MacArthur prose, you find that purple becomes the color of choice." Yet Thompson seems to have had a real affection for the general, who by then was frail and trembling with palsy. When they parted for the last time, MacArthur walked him to the door and said: "I've looked that old devil, Death, in the eye a hundred times. But this time I think he's got me."
In 1952 Life published The Old Man and the Sea, thus beginning a not entirely comfortable relationship with Ernest Hemingway. When Alfred Eisenstaedt went to Cuba to photograph him, Hemingway wanted to pose in swimming trunks. "My body," he said. "Women love my body." On a subsequent assignment to write a 4,000-word piece on bullfighting, Hemingway turned in monstrous expense accounts — his custom was to walk into a bar and buy drinks for the house. When he finally delivered his manuscript, it came in at a staggering 108,746 words (Hemingway counted them himself). Trying to turn it into something manageable, Life's editors had to cope with the author as prima donna. Thompson observes: "He was fiercer in defense of doubtful material than when he knew they were dealing with his best."
The most revealing portrait in the book is of Thompson's inscrutable, stubborn, often brilliant boss, Henry Luce. He possessed "an almost painful integrity and pride in his work," Thompson writes. "And when he did have bad ideas, one soon learned — by trial and error — which ones he could be talked out of and which could be quietly ignored and left to collapse of their own weight."
Luce lived in a world of his own. In Rome while his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, was Ambassador to Italy, he had his own office in a building where there was a charge for using the elevator. Since Luce never thought to carry change, "Time Inc. furnished the elevator operator with lira and several portraits of Harry from different angles so that the fees would be paid on his behalf." When his flight was delayed on a trip to Europe, an exasperated Luce ordered an assistant to "call Juan Trippe [who then ran Pan Am] and tell him to get his goddamned plane off the ground." Irritated by the fact that his executives had to pay such high taxes, Luce came up with a cockamamy scheme for providing them such perks as household servants or vacations aboard a corporate yacht. "Those in the highest salary brackets would get two full-time servants . . . and so on down to one cleaning woman once or twice a week." The idea collapsed when Luce learned that perks were taxable too.
Nevertheless, Thompson admired Luce for his seriousness of purpose, his business acumen, and his willingness to gamble on his own ideas and those of his editors. When he was offered the top job at Life, Thompson was asked by colleagues how he could abide the thought of working for someone who wasn't a regular guy. He concluded: "He was enough of a regular guy for me."
In 1970, having retired from Time Inc., Thompson became the founding editor and publisher of Smithsonian. He says he "invented" it. In fact, he did. S. Dillon Ripley, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, wanted a popular magazine that would extend the Institution's reach, and he left it to Thompson to carry out the mission. In the book, his stories about the early days of Smithsonian — the shaky finances, the uncertain backing of the Board of Regents, the surprising (although not to him) early success — may be familiar to our regular readers. A monthly magazine, with its stately pace, is less productive of last-minute crises and high drama than a newsweekly. But the fact is that Thompson ran this magazine for the first decade of its life, and although there have been changes — he probably does not approve of all of them — it bears his stamp today.
If there's a message in Ed Thompson's book, it comes not at the end but in the very first sentence. "To those all-out converts to computerized journalism who declaim that 'print is dead,' I say, 'Not so fast.'"
By Don Moser