(1867 to 1937)
Claim to fame: Editor of The Saturday Evening Post during its glory days.
Quote: “Editors and crowned heads are the only people in the world…with the right to say we. Editors should be the only despots.”
Contradictory quote: “[T]he prime qualification of being an editor is being an ordinary man.”
Life in 500 words or less: Many magazine editors joke about our trade being like sausage making, but George Horace Lorimer would have known more than most of us about the aptness of the comparison. He spent the first eight years of his working life in the meat-packing business, before switching to journalism.
From there his rise was rapid, culminating in the editorship of The Saturday Evening Post, a post he held onto for the next 38 years. Though the Post claimed a connection to Benjamin Franklin, the publication that Lorimer took over was a distressed property with a circulation little over 10,000. In time he would build it into 3 million circ., middle-brow must-read.
On his death, the New York Times described him, with simultaneous admiration and derision, as “a sort of Henry Ford of American literature. Week after week there sprang from his editorial assembly line technically perfect stories and articles wedged in between costly advertising, and illustrated by the best artists in the country.” Among those writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, and a long list of forgotten but once-famous authors. Most illustrious of his illustrators, then and now, was Norman Rockwell.
The great editor’s work habits are exhausting even to think about. After a long day at his desk, producing a weekly magazine that often exceeded 250 pages, he went home with a stack of manuscripts, which he read at a rate of 100,000 words a night, half a million words a week. (Then he settled into bed for a couple hours of leisure reading.) One thing he didn’t read, however, was other magazines, saying he didn’t want to be influenced by the work of his peers.
Lorimer’s consumption of words seemed to have been matched only by that of chocolates and tobacco products, the latter of which may have contributed to his death, of throat cancer, at age 70. According to biographer John Tebbel, Lorimer once explained his editorial philosophy this way to the mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart: “A magazine like the Post has to be like a full meal, beginning with soup, going on to the most important course, which is roast beef, then maybe a salad, and it must have dessert.”
Whether he actually thought in those terms or was simply hungry at the time, is not known.
Lorimer was sometimes accused of being a mindless cheerleader for big business (at the same time that the muckraking magazines were exposing its excesses). He also vigorously opposed the policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
For more: Lorimer died before writing a planned autobiography. John Tebbel’s "George Horace Lorimer and the Saturday Evening Post" (Doubleday, 1948) is the definitive biography, as far as I know. (Tebbel’s other magazine-related books are also worthwhile.) Otto Friedrich’s "Decline and Fall" (Harper & Row, 1970) only touches on Lorimer but describes in vivid detail the magazine’s later implosion. Among Lorimer’s own books, "Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son" (Small, Maynard & Co., 1902) is probably the most famous.
--Greg Daugherty, 8/08