The Digest's Most Unforgettable Characters


By John Heidenry

Norton x 701pp x $29.95

In 1941, just after the Reader's Digest had become the world's most widely circulated magazine, its founder and editor, DeWitt Wallace, invited the famous New Yorker contributor Alexander Woollcott to write a series of articles. Woollcott's reaction was typically waspish. "Mr. Wallace has destroyed the pleasure of reading" he told a friend. "Now, he is about to destroy the pleasure of writing." For all its worldwide popularity, the Reader's Digest has never won much respect from journalists, writers, and intellectuals, who have tended to view it as pabulum for the masses.

An obvious response is, so what? As John Heidenry documents in Theirs Was The Kingdom, his fact-crammed story of the magazine and its founders, the Digest piled up money just by being, as critic Walter Goodman quipped, "a magazine nobody reads, apart from its 30 million subscribers." In time, it reached a circulation of more than 17 million in the U.S. alone and was published in 32 editions in 13 languages. Woollcott ended up contributing to the magazine, as did many other well-known writers. Wallace outpaid all other publishers.

Heidenry's book is eminently worth reading, though it dwells too long on comings and goings at the Digest up to half a century ago. A bit of the Digest's boil-it-down editing would have helped delineate Heidenry's most intriguing story: that of a couple who didn't quite know what to do with the money-making machine they built, and the businessmen who did.

DeWitt Wallace, or Wally, as everyone called him, launched the Digest in 1922, when he was 23, to give people with little time or inclination for reading an easy way to sample what he judged to be the best articles from America's magazines. This meant not simply reprinting articles but pruning them rigorously--sometimes by as much as 75%.

Wally's approach to story selection was straightforward. "I simply hunt for things that interest me," he once said, "and if they do, I print them." What interested Wally were articles that informed the reader--unusual facts, self-help tips, medical treatments--or that offered a lift or a chuckle. An upbeat tone was paramount. Adversity was mentioned only to show it could be overcome, in the type of article a wag once parodied as "New Hope for the Dead."

To reinforce the magazine's appeal to women, Wally listed his wife, Lila, on the Digest's first masthead. Thus she is usually identified as co-founder, but she actually never had much to do with the magazine, Heidenry reports.

Heidenry portrays Wally as a man of contradictions, some of which would have stunned readers of his magazine, which opposed smoking, refused liquor advertising for years, and espoused traditional values. Wally enjoyed cigarettes, martinis, poker, and off-color stories. And in nearly 60 years of marriage, he carried on numerous affairs, including a disastrous one with Lila's niece.

One area in which he was consistent, though, was politics. His views, strongly reflected in the magazine, ranged from conservative to reactionary. Liberal critics often accused the Digest of being a mouthpiece for the CIA and the FBI, and Heidenry makes clear that it cooperated closely with both agencies, which were often the key or only sources for articles on topics such as communist influence in Latin America.

The Digest's steady growth eventually forced Wally to take on hired hands, including highly paid men not content to preside over one magazine, even if it was a colossus. Two questions nagged these executives: How could they keep the Reader's Digest Assn. (the corporate name of the magazine and its offspring) growing and profitable? And what would happen to RDA when the Wallaces, who were childless, died?

Wally didn't want to be a media mogul like his celebrated contemporary, Henry Luce. And even though his empire was eventually worth upwards of $3 billion, money meant less to him than spreading the Digest and its message around the globe. He consistently warned his executives to avoid "excessive profits."

Naturally, they tended to disregard such whimsical advice, and RDA steadily expanded into new businesses. Those that exploited RDA's direct-mail expertise, such as the Condensed Book Club, generally succeeded. Those that ranged farther afield, such as producing movies, flopped.

As the Wallaces aged, with no clear successor in sight, infighting and intrigue at RDA were, The Economist reported, "worthy of the court of the Medici." Meanwhile, Wally and Lila spent their time giving their money away to schools, hospitals, and art museums. In a final burst of generosity (and to keep RDA in private hands), they left all nonvoting stock to eight charities and all voting stock to three Wallace trust funds. Wally died in 1981, at age 92. Lila died three years later, at 95.

Effective control of RDA passed to the trustees of the Wallace trusts, who agreed that RDA must keep growing. Even after a 1990 public stock offering, the trustees controlled the majority of the voting shares, ensuring, as Heidenry puts it, "that the RDA, though public, also stayed forever private." Nonetheless, Heidenry notes somewhat mournfully that the RDA is marching "into the anonymity of a high-profile communications giant." Wally would have hated that. But the charities that own the company don't mind excessive profits at all.

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