At 75, 'Life' Revisits Its First Cover Story : The Picture Show A hefty anniversary book looks back at the best of Life, including its controversial cover story.
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At 75, 'Life' Revisits Its First Cover Story

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At 75, 'Life' Revisits Its First Cover Story

At 75, 'Life' Revisits Its First Cover Story

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Seventy-five years ago, in November 1936, Henry Luce, who had started Time magazine in the 1920s and Fortune in 1930, launched a general interest weekly built around photography. For the next 36 years, LIFE magazine showed Americans what the world looked like every week: what war looked like, even what peace looked like. Alfred Eisenstaedt's "V-J Day in Times Square," the famous kiss, was a LIFE photo, so were hundreds of images that really do warrant that overused adjective, iconic.

They've been collected in an anniversary book called "75 Years: The Very Best Of LIFE." It's edited by Bob Sullivan of LIFE Books. Needless to say, it is full of great LIFE photographs, but it has something else. It comes with a reprint of the first issue of LIFE from 1936. And as Bob Sullivan tells it, it turns out that the very first cover story, a nine-page photo spread by a renowned photographer, warranted some checking 75 years later and even an apology.

BOB SULLIVAN: Yeah. It was on the Work Projects Administration project out in Fort Peck, Montana, where they were building the largest earthen dam in the world. And Henry Luce, you know, he's putting together this first issue of LIFE with his editors, and he had read a story by Ernie Pyle, who was a nationally syndicated columnist at the time. And Pyle had gone out and visited the Fort Peck project himself, and he wrote about a rooting-tooting lifestyle, a cowboy lifestyle in the shantytowns out there.

And he wrote about the saloon life and, you know, the grubby kids outside, and it was kind of a sensationalistic piece. Luce, obviously, was taken by it, and as he was inventing a magazine that would be dedicated to the visual, he said, well, boy, this is a terrific photo story, and let's see if it won't work for that first issue. So one of our first four staff photographers in LIFE had shot a lot for Luce's Fortune magazine, and she became, along with Eisenstaedt and others, the first four staff photographers. This was Margaret Bourke-White.

SIEGEL: Well, she went out. The photo spread that runs, I think, nine pages at the beginning of the magazine, tells the story of this dissolute, raucous life out on the new frontier.

SULLIVAN: It's wild, and it just shows the power of the editor because Bourke-White was a great photojournalist. She went out there, and she got the whole story, brought it back to New York. Luce looked at it, and he wanted half the story. He wanted to illustrate the Ernie Pyle half of it. This is old stuff that we've only found out in the last few months in putting this new book together. We thought it would be fun to end the new book - our part of the book - by revisiting Fort Peck.

And the original thought we had was, hey, look, it was 75 years ago. I'll bet a lot of these people are still alive or at least people that remember the scene. You know, they would have been kids at the time, but they, you know, capable of memory, and let's get back in touch with them and see how fondly they remember LIFE magazine hitting the stand back in the day, back in 1936. Well, they didn't remember it fondly at all.


SIEGEL: Their hometown was actually vilified in the pages of this new magazine.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. They liked the fame, but they sure didn't like the notoriety. So we go out, and we started talking to people. I talked to a man named Jim Rae(ph) out there who knew everyone. He's not that old himself, but he's a historian, and he put us in touch with a lot of these people. But we did come away with the impression, hey, LIFE didn't tell the whole story. These were a bunch of hardworking folks. They got to bed at 4 o'clock in the morning if they were on the middle of three shifts out on the dam.

They bowled at the bowling lanes that that they had put up there in one of the shantytowns as often as they went drinking, you know, and only a certain percentage of them did that. They had a more wholesome life as well. They were trying to make ends meet in the Depression. The next step was, of course, to go back to the archives and see if Bourke-White had covered both sides of the story.

SIEGEL: Yeah. There's the bowling alley, people who went bowling. They didn't just go to the saloon, and she had a picture of it.

SULLIVAN: Exactly. And we have pictures of the assembly line making lunch bags for the guys going up to the dam. We have the pictures of the guys going up to the dam. We have this woman who's running her own little business, her own little beauty shop in the shantytown. We fessed up. The title of the story in the book: "The Fort Peck Dam Story We Never Told."

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Sullivan, thank you very much for talking with us.

SULLIVAN: It's been my pleasure.

SIEGEL: Bob Sullivan of LIFE Books edited the book "75 Years: The Very Best Of LIFE." One more odd twist to that first LIFE magazine, Margaret Bourke-White's photo on the cover was so stunning it was later used on a postage stamp, part of a Celebrate the Century series. Unfortunately, it was mislabeled in the magazine, New Deal, Montana: Fort Peck Dam. The Army Corps of Engineers corrected that. It was actually a shot of a spillway 3 miles east of the dam.


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