THEIRS WAS THE KINGDOM
Lila and DeWitt Wallace and the Story of the
By John Heidenry
701 pages, Norton, $29.95
JOHN HEIDENRY was born in St. Louis. In 1947, when he was 8,
his father, a bookseller, wrote a letter to DeWitt Wallace.
By then Wallace had run the Reader's Digest for 25 years,
building it from a tiny publication that "everybody" said would
fail into probably the largest-circulation, most profitable
magazine in the world.
The letter told Wallace what a wonderful magazine he had
founded. Wallace responded with a letter praising the elder
Heidenry's prose style; how about traveling to Reader's Digest
headquarters in Pleasantville, N.Y., for a job interview?
The bookseller packed his family into the family Chevrolet and
drove 1,000 miles. Wallace talked with the elder Heidenry for an
hour. Wallace's wife Lila, in many ways the brains behind the
magazine, served tea.
Four decades later, John Heidenry was working as a freelance
writer in New York City after leaving Missouri, where he had been a
co-founder of the St. Louis Literary Supplement. "I decided there
was a fascinating publishing and human-interest story to tell about
the Reader's Digest and its founders," Heidenry says. He mentioned
the book idea to his father, who reminded him of that 1947 journey.
Author Heidenry was surprised. "I thought we had gone to New
York to see Coney Island," he says. "My father was not offered the
job, by the way; otherwise this book would never have been written."
It is a good thing that the elder Heidenry never took the job,
because this book by his son makes an important contribution to
contemporary American history.
Until now, serious journalism about Reader's Digest and its
founding duo has been limited. Admiring researchers (mostly
self-styled political conservatives) have been blinded by what they
see as the wisdom of the magazine's supposedly pure family values
and supposedly sincere support of Republican Party stances on
issues. Detractors (most self-styled political liberals) have been
equally blinded by what they see as a magazine aimed at bigots.
There is some truth in both stereotypes. The magazine has
indeed brought works of literature and issues of importance to
millions of readers who probably would have avoided anything so
intellectually healthy in any other format. On the other hand, the
magazine has reinforced biogtry, especially against
African-Americans, Jews and communists, alleged or actual.
Heidenry, while exploring the stereotypes, has avoided
subscribing to them. Like most investigative biographers who spend
years studying the lives of their subjects, he is alternately
attracted and repelled by what he has found. Attracted or repelled,
though, he never loses his fascination, bringing a passion to the
book that seeps through chapter after chapter. …