Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

`Pulpit and Fig Leaf': The Personalities Behind the Reader's Digest

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

`Pulpit and Fig Leaf': The Personalities Behind the Reader's Digest

Article excerpt

THEIRS WAS THE KINGDOM Lila and DeWitt Wallace and the Story of the Readers Digest 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. …

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