Golden Anniversary

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Parton now directed most of the startup money into promotion, leaving Catton, Thorndike, and Jensen to put together the first issue. Weighing in one week after the sale with a seven-page memo, Jensen, as associate editor, spelled out how he envisioned American Heritage ’s editorial content: There must be a balance, with stories that are “important,” “entertaining,” and “thoughtful,” with “regional variety,” and spanning various “periods in history.… We should look over every issue to see whether it offers a good look at how people lived in the past, what they wore, ate, looked at, laughed at and loved. There needs to always be good writing, one or two exciting discoveries, a few things to smile at mixed with plenty of nostalgia and solid information.”

Jensen described in his “treatise” what is essentially the magazine that exists today, one whose “beat” (as the newspaperman Catton called it) lies not only in the momentous but also in the minor—that is, what goes into the forming of any nation as well as any human being. The founders staked their success on a brochure describing this blend that went out to hundreds of thousands (and later millions) of people from lists they had begged, shared, borrowed, or reluctantly bought. Parton mailed the first piece in July 1954, saying, he later recalled, that “if it worked, we’d go ahead, if it didn’t we’d fold up our tents.”

To make this vision persuasive to the potential subscriber, Parton hired a promotional copywriter named Frank Johnson, who found the assignment so congenial he stayed with Heritage the rest of his working life. And to achieve the look that would help justify the magazine’s steep tariff, Oliver Jensen hired Irwin Glusker, who was Vogue magazine’s promotions art director, for the job of graphic designer. At first Glusker moonlighted, not fully convinced this new venture would make a go of it. (If he had not finally come on board, he wouldn’t have met his future wife, Lillian, who was then Oliver Jensen’s secretary.)

Glusker had a good time. “It was an opportunity to play with guys I liked in a game I liked.” But he needed a steady paycheck. For the first mailing piece, he set out to create “what they call a bedsheet; the folding piece of paper that keeps on unfolding and unfolding, like an accordion.” This seductive origami, Glusker remembers, “later became the Heritage standard for direct mail—and was copied by others—for a long time thereafter. I don’t know if we invented it but we perfected it.”

Within two years Glusker rose to oversee all of the company’s artwork and Murray Belsky stepped into his shoes. These two men achieved Heritage’s classic “look” by mixing three printing processes: letterpress (from a raised surface), offset (from a flat surface), and gravure (using etched plates or cylinders). It was all a matter of taking infinite pains. If anything went awry during the printing stage, Belsky said he immediately “stopped the presses,” something easier said than done, since they were the size of trucks. He would “bring up a little yellow in this section … pull back a bit there on the green… until George Washington really looked like George Washington.”

Even with the combination of great writing and beautiful illustration, it still took one more individual to bring Heritage out onto the national stage. Richard V. Benson joined the effort in late 1953. A 33-year-old economics graduate of the University of Maryland, he was given control of the magazine’s circulation. He thought the quality of the mailings had to reflect the quality of the magazine-to-be, and took a big risk to make sure it did. “ Heritage spent nearly $110 per thousand instead of the more normal $60,” he recalled, “because we were the first to understand that cost per order was what mattered, not cost per thousand.”

Benson’s business acumen lent order to impending chaos, as the numbers from the mailing lists that Heritage culled eventually neared seven million. In that precomputer age, Heritage, out of necessity, created “mail purge”—by successfully labeling the order cards, alphabetizing by post office, and removing duplicates—all painstakingly done by hand.