AMERICAN DREAMERS: The Wallaces and The Reader's Digest: An Insider's Story

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9780684809281: AMERICAN DREAMERS: The Wallaces and The Reader's Digest: An Insider's Story

A managing editor of Reader's Digest traces the behind-the-scenes evolution of the magazine from a tiny operation run by DeWitt and Lila Wallace to a beloved American institution plagued by rivalries and greed. 20,000 first printing.

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Review:

Dewitt and Lila Wallace founded Reader's Digest in the 1930s to provide edifying articles for people who often read little else. Canning, a former Digest managing editor, has written an in-depth history of the Wallaces' project, which turned into a publishing phenomenon. While he shows due respect to the Wallaces for their early struggles, their generosity to staff and their philanthropy, the author reveals unDigest-like details of their unusual sex lives, and more tellingly documents considerable government interference with the magazine's content. In the 1940s and 50s the CIA fed articles to the Digest. During the Vietnam War it was stridently hawkish, and Richard Nixon's speeches formed the basis of editorials. While too many Digest stories have had the insipid flavor of packaged pieces of puffed-up positive thinking, Canning's history is stronger stuff.

From Publishers Weekly:

At once a touching human drama, a gripping tale of business skullduggery and a lucid examination of changing American mores over three quarters of a century, this is an enthralling book that succeeds in transforming its apparently homely subject into something vividly emblematic. Canning, whose first book (amazingly) this is, was a Reader's Digest managing editor for 25 years until he resigned in 1987 as the magazine was beginning what turned out to be a long and still-continuing decline. He therefore enjoyed extraordinary access to staffers from various periods, understood the odd Digest ethos and was privy to many of the machinations that disfigured its last decade. It helps that he also writes cleanly and often dramatically, able to clarify complex legal and financial issues. His story is essentially in two parts: first, the saga of the two idealistic Midwesterners, DeWitt and Lila Wallace, who combined to create, out of an idea scorned by other publishers, a magazine empire that embraced the globe, with a circulation at its height of more than 20 million, and a mailing list many times as large. For their first 50 years, as WWII helped it expand internationally, Digest sales leaped year by year; then, during the Cold War years, the magazine began to become a political football. The conservative Wallaces had carelessly let it be used by the CIA and the FBI, and when Ed Thompson, a more liberal editor, tried to turn the magazine into a real force for truth, the knives were out in Washington. At the same time, as the founders began to fail, with no heirs to take on their vast fortune, avaricious eyes were cast on it, notably those of Laurence Rockefeller, who, ostensibly to help with taxes, began to siphon off stock worth millions into his chosen charities. The end for both Wallaces was pitiful: awkward but upright Wally, who never wanted to take ads and hated anything underhand (such as the current Digest Sweepstakes), when he lay dying and alone in his vast mansion, was actually carted off to a hospital by a faithful chauffeur. Narcissistic, charming Lila wasted away, her death eagerly awaited by the lawyers and business types poised to take the business in their own directions, in the process cheating many faithful, longtime staffers who had hoped always to prosper, as the Wallaces had promised they would. Rockefeller today still pours millions into causes the Wallaces cared nothing for, while those they did cherish are largely neglected. George Grune, chair from 1984 to 1994 and now a retired multimillionaire, presided over a degradation of the operation into a cynical business far from its founders' hopes. It is a sad and bitter story, magnificently told, with a full sense of its implications for contemporary, "bottom line" America. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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