Like the nation it covers, American Heritage was revolutionary at its birth. And like that nation’s story, ours is a real cliffhanger.
November/December 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 6
It is rare for any magazine to live half a century. This one’s unusual longevity has been immeasurably helped by the circumstances of its birth, when a brilliant array of people came together hoping to produce a publication for all those interested in our American story. 1, for one, have a personal stake in this account, as my father, Robert L. Reynolds (1924-1981), was on the American Heritage staff—ending as managing editor—from 1958 through 1970. But even for those with no familial tie to the magazine, the story of how the founders and staff of Heritage brought it about is a fascinating one.
It was almost no story at all. Research published here for the first time reveals an undertaking that came within hours of complete failure. But the founders were as tough and persevering as they were gifted. Not only did they save an evidently doomed enterprise in its infancy, they passed on to their successors a tone and quality, set 50 years ago this month, that still rests squarely upon the shoulders of James Parton, Oliver Jensen, and Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr.
In 1953, Thorndike, then 40, Jensen, 39, and Parton, 41, were three very different individuals who nonetheless shared not only a New England Yankee background and Ivy League schooling at Harvard and Yale but most of all a love and respect for the written word that kept them together for two decades. All of them already had distinguished careers in publishing, but it was during those 24 crucial months between the autumn of 1953 and another autumn two years later that all three came to understand that what they’d made would last and would be the legacy they’d be remembered for.
Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr., had gone to Harvard with James Parton, and on the Crimson he began what would be a lifetime of writing and editing. After graduation Thorndike joined the staff of Time , later moving on to its fledgling off-shoot Life , where he became managing editor. But after 13 years he found himself restless to be on his own, so in 1950 he teamed up with his friend and Life colleague Oliver Jensen.
Jensen had seen publishing at its most desperate while on the staff of the expiring humor magazine Judge and had served in the Navy and written a fine account of carrier war in the Pacific. Now the two young partners were scrabbling for editorial work for their freelance consultancy firm, Picture Press, finding stability when they won the contract to produce an elaborate fiftieth-anniversary book for the Ford Motor Company.
Picture Press became TJP when the two persuaded Parton to join them. Parton had started out at Fortune, moved to Time, and during World War II had become chief historian of the Mediterranean theater. While stationed in England, he spotted a series of illustrated war pamphlets selling for about 35 cents. Stunned to learn that each issue had a circulation of a million copies, he pitched to his superior, Gen. Ira Eaker, the idea of a similar publication brought out under the auspices of the Army Air Force. It was a hit, and after the war Parton went on to create a successful history called Target: Germany. The experience, he recalled in 1959, “made me feel strongly that there was a need and opportunity in this country for a revival of popular historical writing.… As little as five or six years ago, history was regarded as a dull, dead subject. Before World War II we were complacent, smug and successful. All of a sudden we’re faced with this great ideological conflict with Russia. It seems to me that uncertainty makes people look back to the rootsprings of how they got where they are, hoping to find guidance as to where they’re going from here.”
More than anyone else, it was James Parton who made American Heritage a practical reality. In November of 1953 he attended a board of directors’ meeting of his old prep school, Loomis, near Hartford, Connecticut. While there he spotted a slim publication entitled American Heritage sitting on the desk of the headmaster, who told him, “That is one of Winthrop Rockefeller’s struggling projects.” Minutes later, Mr. Rockefeller, also a board member, said this wasn’t true at all. He put Parton in touch with the publisher, the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), in Albany. Losing no time, Parton sent a letter on December 22, 1953—and traveled upstate two weeks later—to offer the services of TJP to the publication. This letter is the first documented step leading the three men toward forming a new company that would own (in 7 months) and publish (in 12) a very much more substantial American Heritage magazine.