Mister Thorndike

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Last Thanksgiving Day brought with it sad news: An obituary in The New York Times told of the death of Joseph J. Thorndike, Jr.

His passing severed a final strand connecting American Heritage to its corporate past, for Joe was the last of our three founders. Years ago he had teamed up with two Life colleagues, Oliver Jensen and James Parton, to form a publishing company of their own. All three men knew plenty about magazines, but Joe’s experience was especially formidable. Born in Peabody, Massachusetts, in 1913, he had graduated from Harvard before going to work for Henry Luce. In time he became managing editor (which in the Luce empire meant “editor in chief”) of Life , then at the peak of its influence. With Jim Parton handling the business side, Joe and Oliver gambled that a magazine combining their Life -honed knowledge of the pictorial with well-written popular history would find an audience. That was more than a half-century ago, and here we still are.

I drew my first American Heritage paycheck in the summer of 1965, when the company generously accepted my efforts as a mailboy. The mid-sixties were a great time to be at Heritage , even in so minor a position as mine. It was a big operation then, far larger than it is today, with a half-dozen floors’ worth of different divisions, including (a portent of our future ownership perhaps) a financial newsletter.

David McCullough and his staff were editing a history of World War II that has been in print ever since. Richard Ketchum had not long before overseen the genesis of a Civil War history that won a Pulitzer Prize. (Its text had been written by Bruce Catton, whom I would see in his office, clacking out with newsman’s speed on yellow copy paper paragraph after paragraph so well wrought that the pages would go directly from his Underwood to the press with nary an editorial scratch.) And Joe Thorndike was running Horizon , a still keenly missed magazine that reflected the immense breadth of his interests. Horizon was an American Heritage that covered every nation and every era: An issue might contain a story on the great age of the Dutch Republic and Hadrian’s Wall (which Joe took his young son on a vacation to explore), a comparison of Tennessee Williams’s and Seneca’s ideas of tragedy, and the wonderfully fluent Gilbert Highet making sense of Hieronymus Bosch’s hellscapes.

Nobody knew more about more things than did Joe Thorndike, no one was a more enthusiastic traveler along every intellectual pathway. But the fires of his enthusiasm lay banked, or seemed to, for Joe was a model of New England reserve. When Oliver hired me onto the magazine staff in the early 1970s, he said, “There are just two conditions.” For the life of me, I can’t recall what the first one was, but I remember the second: “. . . and you’ve got to call ‘Mr. Thorndike’ Joe.”

It didn’t come easily. Mr. Thorndike was taciturn, always perfectly dressed—in a taciturn way—and always calm. He was a gentleman. He was somebody who got called mister.

I found out as the years went by that he was indeed a gentleman, but in a sense of that much-abused word that goes beyond mere correctitude. He was scrupulously polite to those who worked for him, and as real politeness does, this took on many forms. I remember writing a chapter on the whaling industry for a book he was assembling on the history of American seafaring (as I said, he knew about everything). In my manuscript I had used the word swart to define the kind of courage it took to earn your living by poking to death from the bow of a rowboat an animal the size of an apartment house. I hadn’t looked up swart to see what it meant; it just sounded right. Joe—as I had finally learned to call him—questioned me attentively and then said that perhaps I might find another word. This may sound minor, but there are not many busy executives who would have so gently handled a kid who had further cluttered their day with a lazy solecism.

I’m not sure Oliver would have. Outwardly he was the opposite of Joe: volatile, loquacious, quick-tempered, equally quick to latch hold of a joke and delightedly squeeze every drop of nourishment from it. Joe was a counterpoise to Oliver, and it was fascinating to watch them together in an editorial meeting, Oliver seething with ideas and, briefly enamored with one as it flitted from him, beaming at Joe and saying, “Well?” Joe would alter his expression by the merest millimeter, and Oliver would shrug massively, grin, and say, “You’re right, Joe,” and then be on his headlong way again.

Oliver died just a few months before Joe, and they’ve been on my mind a lot lately. Both men were fine writers with many books to their credit, and both had a deep, sympathetic understanding of the past; but they scarcely could have been less alike. It is pleasing to think of two such different people working together on a magazine about a nation that owes its existence to very different kinds of people finding a way to work together.

Richard F. Snow
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