My Recollections: The Condensed Version

Writer Ben Cheever looks back at life at Reader’s Digest.



Photo Courtesy of The New Castle Historical Society

An aerial view of the Reader’s Digest building on Roaring Brook Road in Chappaqua.

 

The New Castle Historical Society opened an exhibit this winter subtitled “The Local Magazine That Conquered the World,” and veterans of Reader’s Digest thronged Greeley House, sharing wine in plastic cups along with that mixture of exultation and grief that must have marked the survivors of the Titanic.

Former editors Janie Couch Allen and Elinor Griffith were among those who assembled the relics of a lost grandeur, including vintage photos, letters from presidents, and the helmet and gas mask brought back by DeWitt Wallace from World War I. The exhibit, which will stay up all year, features the portrait of founders DeWitt and Lila Wallace painted for a 1951 Time cover story that declared Wallace the most successful editor in history. With 100 million readers, “the little magazine” wasn’t just the largest in the United States—it was the largest monthly magazine in England and Japan. Al Mukhtar min Reader’s Digest was the best-selling Arabic-language magazine. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had his life changed by a Reader’s Digest article he read while in prison.

Dewitt Wallace died in 1981, and Lila’s death in 1984 freed corporate gremlins to take the company public and run it like a proper business. The Wallaces wasted money on employees, the public was told. The editors were unrealistic perfectionists. What the whiz kids neglected to mention is that Wallace had made gigantic profits while wasting money on employees. When it came to editorial, DeWitt himself was the very archetype of the unrealistic perfectionist.

As editor of “Life in These United States,” I once submitted an item about a man who adored his Labrador. Faced with an unavoidable trip, the man phoned the airline and asked if he could buy his pet a ticket. The only dogs allowed on airplanes, he was told, “are for the blind.” Our hero appears next in sunglasses and with Fido in a harness. After he and the dog settled in, the flight attendant remarked that it was unusual—and it was at the time—for a seeing-eye dog not to be a German Shepherd. “Oh, oh,” said the fake blind man, feeling the neck and muzzle of his pet, “Isn’t he a German Shepherd?” The issue editor approved, but Wallace—who still read every word—struck the joke because it made light of dishonesty.

Photo Courtesy of The New Castle Historical Society

Founders Lila and DeWitt Wallace in front of Marc Chagall’s Three Candles, one of the many paintings that graced company hallways.

Circulation was still growing when I first went to work at the brick Georgian headquarters in 1976. At that time, the magazine’s political stance was so conservative that one old friend wrote to call me a Nazi. I figured the shame would fade, the job would last a lifetime. But it wasn’t the conservatism that had us all embarrassed. It was the do-gooderism. Article titles were so relentlessly upbeat that it was difficult to distinguish the real thing from the parody. “The Incredible, Edible Egg,” “Kudzo—Another Agricultural Miracle,” and “I Am Joe’s Man Gland” were actual titles, but “Red China: Threat or Menace?,” “What a Friend We Have in Cheeses,” and “New Hope for the Dead” were not. Our only serious competition was The Bible—so we went ahead and condensed that. There were two jokes: “I bet it begins with an anecdote” and “In the beginning was the end.”

Sure, sure, Reader’s Digest is still published and wins awards, but it is not even a ghost of its former self. The corporation has filed for bankruptcy and abandoned the grand headquarters just off Reader’s Digest Road and above the Saw Mill River Parkway. For survivors, though, the most startling changes are on the page. Wallace was no socialist, but he knew that labor counts. Winston Churchill is said to have put an hour’s work into every minute of a speech. Digest staff put in hundreds of hours of work for every article. This is no longer true. And it shows.

The contemporary understanding of business is wonderfully expressed in The Godfather when Tessio is caught in a scheme to murder Michael Corleone. “Tell Mike it was only business,” he says. “I always liked him.” And so it is understood that in business we will kill our friends. “It’s only business” is bugled now by Donald Trump. But Wally and Lila didn’t kill their friends—they made a profit by indulging their friends and employees. We got a month off and a week’s paid travel. A hot lunch could be had at the cafeteria for 25 cents. Lunch was free on your birthday or if heavy weather had made the driving difficult. Doctors’ bills were secretly taken care of and tuitions paid.

When Peter Canning’s newborn son got a serious ear infection, Wallace phoned the editor at home to ask if Josh was all right. “To this day,” Canning wrote for the website that accompanies the exhibit, “I can still hear the tremor that came into his voice when I revealed that Josh would be fine. He cared, he really did, and it made a huge difference.” Wallace phoned again on the boy’s birthday—and on the birthday after that. Reader’s Digest’s founding editor liked to say, “The dead carry with them to the grave in their clutched hands only that which they have given away.” He and Lila gave more than one hundred million to charity.

The sparkle of vanished youth gives the past a luster not entirely deserved, but it’s important not to forget in these days of brutal lay-offs that there is another way. Nestled right at Westchester’s heart—and for decades—was a company so earnest about doing the right thing that it was the laughing stock of the County.

Author of such novels as The Plagarist, The Partisan, Famous After Death, and The Good Nanny, and such nonfiction titles as Strides and Selling Ben Cheever, Pleasantville resident Ben Cheever worked at Reader’s Digest for 11 years. “It’s just astonishing how quickly the behemoth melted away,” he says. 

“Reader’s Digest: The Local Magazine that Conquered the World” will be on exhibit at the New Castle Historical Society, 100 King St, Chappaqua, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays through January 2011 from 1 to 4 pm; admission is free. For more information: (914) 238-4666.