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At 75, 'Life' Revisits Its First Cover Story

Seventy-five years ago this month, Henry Luce, who had launched Time magazine in the 1920s, created his third great magazine: Life. Over the coming years it would come to be known as the weekly with the most and the best photographs. It would show Americans what war and peace looked like. There were photographs in Life of the Spanish Civil War and of V-J Day in Times Square that are rare cases for which the term "iconic" truly makes sense. And there were dozens of others, too.

Of course, Henry Luce's magazines had their detractors. One line went, "Life is for people who can't read; Time is for people who can't think." But in the new, commemorative coffee table book, Life 75 Years: The Very Best Of Life, the pictures, in fact, make you think. And if you're old enough, they make you remember, too.

The first cover of Life magazine

The first cover of Life magazine Courtesy of Life hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Life

The very first issue of Life, reprinted in its entirety in the book, told readers about the black widow spider, the actress Helen Hayes and the new actor Robert Taylor. But the cover story is full of lessons about pictures and competitive journalism.

The story, shot by one of Life's original four photographers, Margaret Bourke-White, covered the construction of the Fort Peck Dam, a Public Works Administration endeavor to build the largest earth dam in the world during the Great Depression. Luce had read a story by about the raucous frontier lifestyle in the shantytowns surrounding the construction. As Bob Sullivan, managing editor of Life Books explained, it was kind of a sensationalistic piece. "Luce was taken by it," Sullivan says. And so Bourke-White was sent out to Montana to capture the story for Life.

The people of Fort Peck were dismayed to find that of the 17 photos that ran with the story in the first issue of Life, eight were taken inside ramshackle saloons. "It just shows the power of the editors because Bourke-White was a a great photojournalist. ... She went out there and got the whole story, brought it back to New York, Luce looked at it — and he wanted half the story. ... The editors, I'm sure at Luce's instruction, only ran the sexy stuff."

One of the photos from Margaret Bourke-White's cover story in the first issue of Life: Residents of a Fort Peck gather at a saloon.

One of the photos from Margaret Bourke-White's cover story in the first issue of Life: Residents of a Fort Peck gather at a saloon. Margaret Bourke-White/Life hide caption

itoggle caption Margaret Bourke-White/Life

And so began Life's legacy: It lived for decades as a generalist magazine for politics, culture, news and entertainment. From salivating scenes of Hollywood to gruesome sights of war, all walks of life could be found in Life. "It was an American Idol-sized hit overnight," says Sullivan.

At the end of the anniversary book, the Life editors revisit the story of Fort Peck and deliver the other half of the story: "It was about hard-bitten people during the Depression, working themselves dog-tired while trying to survive and raise their kids," the text reads.

  • Marilyn Monroe relaxing at home in Hollywood, 1953.
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    Marilyn Monroe relaxing at home in Hollywood, 1953.
    Alfred Eisenstaedt/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Life wasn't all Hollywood glam. This wildlife scene in Botswana is from a 1966 "Great Cats of Africa" photo essay.
    Hide caption
    Life wasn't all Hollywood glam. This wildlife scene in Botswana is from a 1966 "Great Cats of Africa" photo essay.
    John Dominis/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Louis Armstrong practices during a plane ride from Nigeria to the Gold Coast in 1956.
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    Louis Armstrong practices during a plane ride from Nigeria to the Gold Coast in 1956.
    Larry Burrows/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Alfred Eisenstaedt captured timeless moments — like this scene of children at a puppet show in Paris, 1963.
    Hide caption
    Alfred Eisenstaedt captured timeless moments — like this scene of children at a puppet show in Paris, 1963.
    Alfred Eisenstaedt/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Adolf Hitler at a Nazi rally in Bukeberg, Germany. Life photojournalists covered wars extensively.
    Hide caption
    Adolf Hitler at a Nazi rally in Bukeberg, Germany. Life photojournalists covered wars extensively.
    Heinrich Hoffmann/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Famed photographer W. Eugene Smith captures a tender moment between an American soldier and a wounded infant in Saipan during World War II in 1944.
    Hide caption
    Famed photographer W. Eugene Smith captures a tender moment between an American soldier and a wounded infant in Saipan during World War II in 1944.
    W. Eugene Smith/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Hollow-eyed prisoners at Buchenwald concentration camp stare through a barbed wire fence after their liberation by advancing American forces in April 1945.
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    Hollow-eyed prisoners at Buchenwald concentration camp stare through a barbed wire fence after their liberation by advancing American forces in April 1945.
    Margaret Bourke-White/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Mickey Mantle tosses a cap during a game at Yankee Stadium in 1965.
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    Mickey Mantle tosses a cap during a game at Yankee Stadium in 1965.
    John Dominis/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Gandhi sits near his spinning wheel during a boycott of British textiles in 1946.
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    Gandhi sits near his spinning wheel during a boycott of British textiles in 1946.
    Margaret Bourke-White/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Artist Pablo Picasso uses a flashlight to draw a centaur in the air at Madoura Pottery in France in 1949.
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    Artist Pablo Picasso uses a flashlight to draw a centaur in the air at Madoura Pottery in France in 1949.
    Gjon Mili/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Busboy Juan Romero cradles Robert F. Kennedy's head after he was assassinated in 1968.
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    Busboy Juan Romero cradles Robert F. Kennedy's head after he was assassinated in 1968.
    Bill Eppridge/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Wounded Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jeremiah Purdie (center) is led past stricken comrades after a fierce firefight during the Vietnam War.
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    Wounded Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jeremiah Purdie (center) is led past stricken comrades after a fierce firefight during the Vietnam War.
    Larry Burrows/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • A young girl at a feeding station during the Somali famine, 1992.
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    A young girl at a feeding station during the Somali famine, 1992.
    Andrew Holbrooke/Courtesy of 'Life'
  • Navy Capt. Bruce McCandless becomes the first free-flying human in space on Feb. 7, 1984.
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    Navy Capt. Bruce McCandless becomes the first free-flying human in space on Feb. 7, 1984.
    Navy Cmdr. Robert L. Gibson/Courtesy of 'Life'

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One of the very last photos in Life's anniversary book is a contemporary photo of 96-year-old Becky Powell Sterley. She recalls what life was like at the Fort Peck Dam in 1936, when she was a 20-year-old newlywed. But she doesn't recall what it looked like in Life. "We were too poor to buy a magazine," she is quoted as saying. It's a loaded way to end a book about Life's wide reach.

The magazine ran as a weekly until 1972 and as a monthly until 2000, when it fell victim to the economy and finally folded. For decades its pages were home to some of the best photography in the industry. Books like this one provide the last hope for Life photos to remain in America's living rooms. Today, much of the photography has a new home via Life's newest lifeline, the Web.

Correction Nov. 7, 2011

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Fort Peck Dam was a Works Project Administration project. It has been corrected.

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