Claims to fame: Founders of The Reader’s Digest, at one time the most widely read magazine in the world.
Quote: “I simply hunt for things that interest me, and if they do, I print them.” (DeWitt).
Lives in 500 words or less: Much as we like to gripe about how time-starved we are these days, the generation that walked the earth in the 1920s seems to have had the very same complaint. In fact, two of the most successful magazines of all time were created in response. Henry Luce and Briton Hadden’s Time, launched in 1923, clipped and rewrote newspaper stories. Even earlier, DeWitt and Lila Wallace’s Reader’s Digest, launched unsuccessfully in 1920 and then relaunched in 1922, clipped and condensed articles from other magazines.
Before the Digest would take on its famous Pleasantville address, it was headquartered in a Greenwich Village basement. Too poor to afford subscriptions to other magazines, DeWitt hung out at the New York Public Library, copying articles by hand and condensing as he went along.
Volume 1, number 1 (the 1922 version) explained the formula: “Thirty-one articles each month from leading magazines -each article of enduring value and interest, in condensed and compact form.” (Thirty-one articles meant, of course, about one a day for a month, a pace even the busiest Roaring Twenties types could presumably keep up with.) Contents of that issue included “How to Keep Young Mentally,” excerpted from The American Magazine; “Henry Ford, Dreamer and Worker,” from Review of Reviews; and “Advice from a President’s Physician,” from Good Housekeeping.
DeWitt Wallace, Lila Bell Acheson (using her maiden name), and two others appeared on the 1922 masthead as editors. Acheson would start to use her married name in the magazine only in 1938. Whatever her early editorial contributions may have been, by that time she was devoting herself primarily to art collecting, interior decoration, and philanthropy.
For its first 33 years, the Digest took no advertising, relying entirely on subscription revenue. Fortunately there were plenty of subscribers to rely on. By the time of DeWitt’s death, the magazine claimed a circulation of 30.5 million copies in 163 countries and 16 languages. It would also apply its formula to books, with a highly profitable Condensed Books series that packed abbreviated versions of four or five current bestsellers into a single hardcover.
The Wallaces had no children but adopted and doted on numerous causes, including Colonial Williamsburg, the Juilliard School, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the New York Public Library, whose current periodical room is named in DeWitt Wallace’s honor. Another of DeWitt’s pet projects was Richard M. Nixon, whose checkered career he advanced via cash and other means.
If the Wallaces were practically saints to their admirers, they were a more sinister force to many others. In a 1942 article, the writer George Seldes accused DeWitt of spreading pro-Nazi propaganda and called him “the most powerful reactionary propagandist in America.” Fact magazine, another investigative organ, titled its 1966 takedown “The Pleasantville Monster,” calling The Digest “dishonest, ignorant, irresponsible, John Birchite, anti-Jewish, & anti-Negro.”
DeWitt Wallace was often accused (and probably rightly so) of being anti-union, but he was notably paternalistic toward his own employees, rewarding them richly and providing them with perks galore.
For more: A relatively rosy version of the Digest saga is offered in James Playsted Wood’s “Of Lasting Interest” (Doubleday, revised and updated edition, 1967). Later interpretations are “Theirs Was the Kingdom,” by John Heidenry (W.W. Norton & Co., 1993), and “American Dreamers,” by Peter Canning (Simon & Schuster, 1996).
Full disclosure: I worked for the Reader’s Digest Association in its post-Wallace years, first as a senior staff editor on the flagship magazine in 1996 and 1997, and then as editor-in-chief of a Digest-owned magazine called New Choices from 1997 to 2002. Only a handful of my colleagues had known either Wallace, though DeWitt was still affectionately referred to throughout the building as “Wally.” Some welcome traces of the old paternalism remained, including the priceless paintings for all to enjoy (many of which were soon auctioned off), free turkeys at holiday time, garden plots for employees, and a garage where you could have your car tuned up while you attended to somebody’s prose. -- Greg Daugherty, 9/08