Claim to fame: Built McClure’s into one of the first mass-market magazines, in part by charging 10 cents for a copy, half the price of many competing magazines, and raising ad rates as circulation grew. His grandson and biographer, Peter Lyon, wrote that McClure’s was “the most exciting, the liveliest, the best illustrated, the most handsomely dressed, the most interesting, and the most profitable” magazine of its day, which may well be true.
Quote: “[I]f I like a thing, then I know that millions will like it. My mind and my taste are so common that I’m the best editor.”
Another one: “I never get ideas sitting still.”
Life in 300 words or less: Samuel Sidney McClure, born in Ireland, arrived here poor, and worked his way through college before finding his calling in journalism. He was already a player in the newspaper syndication business (he even claimed, apparently exaggerating, to have invented it) when he decided to try his hand at a magazine. His hope, it seems, was to fill the magazine with the work of writers he already had relationships with, presumably at bargain prices.
His timing might have been better. The year McClure’s was launched, 1893, represented the start of one of the worst depressions the U.S. has ever seen. In a year or so, however, the magazine was modestly profitable, and not long thereafter hugely so. It attracted so many unsolicited manuscripts from would-be contributors that the staff kept them, by the thousands, in barrels.
Within a few years, and largely by accident, McClure’s evolved into the premier muckraking magazine of its day or any other. Its marquee writers included Ida Tarbell, who fearlessly took on John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Trust in its pages; and Lincoln Steffens, whose “Shame of the Cities,” an expose of urban slums, was also first published there.
McClure the man eventually lost financial control of McClure’s the magazine. He and others made several attempts to bring it back, but it closed once and for all in 1933.
McClure had both fans and detractors. His own protégé Ida Tarbell ultimately summed him up as “an uncivilized, immoral, untutored natural man with enough canniness to keep himself out of jails and asylums.”
S.S. McClure died in 1949 at age 92, outliving both his influence and his namesake magazine.
For more: McClure’s “My Autobiography” (Frederick A. Stokes Co.), apparently ghostwritten by Willa Cather, who was also one of his editors, was published in 1914. A biography is “Success Story: The Life and Times of S.S. McClure,” by Peter Lyon (Scribner’s, 1963).
Postscript: My own copy of McClure’s autobiography was inscribed by its author to a friend whose wife apparently had literary ambitions, and it says a lot about McClure’s dark mood toward the end of his life. As far as I know this inscription, which I’m excerpting here, has never been published elsewhere. It is dated Thanksgiving 1943.
“I inscribe, this, my book to you with my very best wishes. You already have the greatest possible blessing on earth in the one you have chosen for your life companion.
“In one respect I hope she may fare much better than Mrs. McClure did; for she, like N-- possessed a rare gift as a writer. This I did not realize until too late and I deprived her of great opportunities for happiness and achievement….
“My failure to do this is a source of unending regret.”
--Greg Daugherty, 9/08