- Historic Sites
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
The first pressing order of business now was to obtain ownership from the AASLH. Parton asked to appear at their next meeting—in a month’s time on April 21, 1954, in Madison, Wisconsin—for the sole purpose of requesting the association’s vote to sell their magazine. When he arrived at the Hotel Loraine, it was discovered, to the dismay of all in attendance, that with 12 members present they were one shy of a quorum. With the clock ticking, a frantic phone call went out to another member, Henry D. Brown of the Detroit Historical Society, imploring him to come immediately to Madison. Brown arrived at midnight, and his yea vote cleared the first hurdle in the eventual transfer of the magazine to the newly formed American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc.
Now Parton faced an even more daunting task, raising $50,000 by June 30, only a little more than two months away, to capitalize the venture. Otherwise, said the contract, “the magazine and all its assets” would revert to the association. The clock was ticking even more insistently.
The next nine weeks saw an outpouring of letters and phone calls from New York to potential investors. Touting the new publication as “a handsome, lively magazine devoted to our country’s history … aimed at a cross-section of intelligent Americans,” Parton received commitments from Marshall Field III of the Chicago real estate family, James Sachs of Wall Street, and Robert Strauss of the Macy’s fortune, all old friends of his.
With the deadline two weeks away, Winthrop Rockefeller agreed to “lend” the additional money needed, adding, “My family will think I am nuts.”
But in mid-June, with the deadline two weeks away, he was still short $8,000. He approached his Loomis classmate Winthrop Rockefeller, asking him to invest. Rockefeller said he wouldn’t—publishing was outside the family’s usual business territory—but he would “lend” the money. Parton recalled that Rockefeller added cheerfully, “My family will think I am nuts,” but he sent the check out of loyalty to a friend, never really expecting to be paid back. However, finances were still very tight. In mind-July Parton took a second mortgage on his summer home in Vermont, bringing the total funds to launch the venture to $64,000. (In a coda to the Rockefeller “loan,” Parton was so concerned with honoring this commitment that even as Heritage began showing promise, he took out a $10,000 personal death policy naming Rockefeller the sole beneficiary, “should I step off a curb and collide with a bus.”)
Now the larval magazine needed an editor. The position was first offered to Earle Newton of the AASLH. Newton accepted but soon withdrew. He did not wish to live in New York City and would have liked the New York crowd to relocate to New England (preferably Sturbridge, Massachusetts). After a second candidate, the Columbia professor John Kouwenhoven—whose magnificent newly published illustrated history of New York City might have served as a template for the magazine’s highest editorial aspirations—turned the partners down, their third choice proved the charm.
Thorndike traveled to Washington, D.C., to make a formal offer to Bruce Catton. A former newspaperman, Catton had been born in 1899 in Petoskey, Michigan, and grown up in nearby Benzonia. World War I had interrupted his studies at Oberlin College, and though he tried twice afterward to finish, he found himself repeatedly pulled away to work for a succession of newspapers, the Cleveland News, the Boston American, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (He was awarded an honorary degree from Oberlin in 1956.) Too old for active service in World War U, he put his formidable writing skills to work as information director for the War Production Board. He left the government in 1952 to begin writing A Stillness at Appomattox , which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1954. After hearing Thorndike’s proposition, he had some reservations, thinking he would stand too much in contrast with the Ivy League founders. But these hesitations melted away when he met the three men in New York. He accepted on August 1, 1954. With Catton aboard, Heritage immediately acquired a cachet that later attracted great writers, additional financial backing, and respect in the publishing field.
Catton put his stamp on Heritage on the first pages of the first issue: “We intend to deal with that great, unfinished and illogically inspiring story of the American people doing, being and becoming. Our American heritage is greater than any one of us. It can express itself in very homely truths; in the end it can lift up our eyes beyond the glow in the sunset skies.”