February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
The sad story of a magazine born eighty years too soon
Some time ago a man lit on a publishing idea that seemed obvious enough but apparently had never been tried before: since people are most interested in the doings of famous people, why not devote a magazine to just that? And, for good measure, have it well illustrated? And so the new publication appeared—in 1895.
But unhappily for Benjamin Joseph Falk, the People magazine of the 1890’s did not fare so well as its lusty descendant. For one thing, of course, there were no supermarkets to display it next to the cash register; for another, the best advertising Falk seemed able to attract was for Dr. Jaeger’s Normal Sanitary Underwear. Moreover, it was expensive—thirty-five cents an issue in an era when most magazines cost a dime. This was the fault of production costs, for Falk apparently felt the state of the art in printing was not up to what he had in mind: he wanted every illustration to be an actual photograph, pasted to the page.
This purity of vision is hardly surprising in a man who was one of the paramount portrait photographers of his era. Born in 1853, Falk opened his first New York studio at twenty-four. He was capable enough to offer tips to no less a photographer than David Bachrach, Jr., who called his younger tutor “a splendid fellow” who was “always open and friendly.” Falk was vigorous and innovative, and he prospered. In 1892 he was able to put up his own building near Madison Square, where the rich and powerful of the day came to sit for his portraits. He knew how to get the best from his subjects—he provoked an exhausted Grover Cleveland into perking up by saying, “Mr. Cleveland, there are six good Democrats in our family,” just as the shutter fell—and at the peak of his career he was selling perhaps as many as one hundred thousand professional portraits a year.
So the idea for Celebrities Monthly came naturally to Falk, but it came too soon. The publication expired after only two years. However depressing this may have been to Falk, it was not much of a professional stumbling block; in 1897, the year after Celebrities folded, he opened a studio at the top of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. It was palatial enough to remind visitors of the home of Louis XIV.
He died in 1925, still a good half-century before his idea at last came of age. Here we present some representative pages from People ’s long-forgotten progenitor.