The Best of Times
By Robert Hood
As the BSA magazine for boys celebrates its 85th birthday, a former editor-in-chief looks back at the venerable publication's Golden Age in the 1950s and 1960s.
"Oh, it's great to be young and a Giant!" One of baseball's memorable quotations was uttered by a young Larry Doyle, second baseman on John McGraw's championship New York teams in the 1920s.
The early 1950s sparked the same joyous feeling in me. To be young in the Big Apple and join the staff of a famous national magazine was pure exhilaration.
It was a Golden Age of magazines. Each issue of publications like Life, Look, Good Housekeeping, The Saturday Evening Post, and McCall's was read by millions.
Excitement in the air
In 1953, fresh out of graduate school at New York University, I joined the staff of Boys' Life as a lowly editorial assistant. I considered myself extremely lucky, as editorial jobs were scarce that year. However, things were looking bright in major institutions such as Scouting, where excitement seemed to fill the air.
The BL business department and circulation director were predicting grand things. When I joined the staff, nearly 900,000 subscribers received the magazine each month. That figure wouldn't remain there for long.
It was the first year of Dwight Eisenhower's presidency, and millions loved Ike. Ernest Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and The Sea. Former California Governor Earl Warren became Chief Justice of the United States. Young Senator John F. Kennedy married Jacqueline Lee Bouvier. Marilyn Monroe was starring in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and all of us gents were mad about her.
When I reported for work that September, U.S. troops were beginning to return from war in Korea, and Americans were overjoyed. I had served a stretch in the Pacific in World War II and was relieved of worrying whether the U.S. Navy might recall me.
I lived in a room on Manhattan's West Side. Rent was $15 a week, and a subway ride to work cost a dime. At a salary of $70 a week, I figured to do pretty well. You could buy a husky meal of spaghetti and meatballs with salad for 65 cents; extravagant soup to-nuts dining would set you back three bucks.
The national offices of the BSA and Boys'Life were on the 16th and 17th floors of a skyscraper at 2 Park Avenue. The building also housed the United States mission to the United Nations before the U.N. building was finished on the East River. I was thrilled to see former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt step out of the elevator one morning. As I gawked like a rube she smiled and nodded, "Good morning."
The Boys'Life staff was peppered with ex-G.I.'s. Editor Harry Harchar had served as officer in charge of the London edition of Stars and Stripes. As a combat engineer, art director Andy Lessin helped liberate Paris and fought in the battle for the Huertgen Forest.
Circulation director Lloyd Eberhart had served with the Navy in the Pacific, as I had. Promotion director Harold Levitt was a naval officer aboard a sub chaser in the Atlantic and Caribbean. On D-Day his little craft steamed dangerously close to the beaches of Normandy, lobbing shells into the German positions as the Allies landed.
Articles editor Tom MacPherson had been an Army officer. Assistant editor Bill McMorris had served in Japan in Army intelligence during the Korean War.
The ex-G.I. with the most combat experienceand ability to tell war storieswas Gene Allendorf, who joined the production department in the late 1950s after earning Purple Hearts and battle stars in World War II and Korea.
The Boys'Life operation was under the dynamic direction of business manager Charles F. Jackson. Charley was a burly man with the look of an ex-pug. We considered him a good guy, always on our side.
He worked closely with Dr. Arthur A. Schuck, the hard-driving Chief Scout Executive. These two men, aided by a strong sales and promotion team, made Boys' Life hum.
In those days, Dr. Schuck never made a speech without praising Boys' Life and its vital role in the success of Scouting. And circulation director Eberhart was on the road constantly, zigzagging across the country, beating the drum for our "book," as the magazine was called. When he wasn't traveling, he was creating programs to entice more Scout units to subscribe.
'Over one million circulation'
A former track star at Kansas State, Eberhart was constantly searching for incentives to make every Scout unit 100 percent subscribers to Boys' Life. When he became circulation director in 1952, the magazine had about 640,000 subscribers.
In October 1954, we ran the cover line: "Over one million circulation." This was a fantastic jumpalmost 350,000 in two years, 100,000 of them in the previous six months.
Much of this was due to the peripatetic Eberhart, known as "Mr. Boys'Life" to Scout executives across America. Another big factor was the impact of what was being called the "postwar baby boom."
Like many other popular magazines of the day, Boys' Life was a large-format bookwhat was then called "Life magazine size." Usually in the fall and winter, we printed bulky issues of 100 pages' packed with Scout features and a smorgasbord of short stories, hobby how-to's, general interest articles, jokes, and cartoons. A 16-page section of color comics was an important and popular part of the book.
An impressive staff
Now, it's a truism that the character of a magazine is shaped by its staff. Ours was impressive.
The fiction editor, Frances C. (Fran) Smith, was without question our finest editor and one of the best in the nation. Quiet and shy, with a master's degree from Columbia University, she was a published book author and reviewer, a hiker and mountain climber, and a licensed pilot of small aircraft.
Two editors senior to me in experience and status, Bill McMorris and Bob Brooks, had both joined Boys' Life at the tender age of 21. McMorris came straight to New York after graduating from Arizona State University. Brooks joined the staff after graduating magna cum laude from the University of North Carolina.
Photo Editor Brooks was an excellent photographer and reporter who focused on stories about Exploring. A nearly tireless worker, he was nicknamed "Mr. Incredible Energy."
Roaming the U.S.A.
Boys'Life editors were expected to rove for stories as well as ride a deskand most considered the travel requirement an unpaid bonus.
Bill McMorris covered the Southwest. The first time I saw Arizona Bill, he was crouched over a pink sheet clotted with figures. His expense account for a Western junket covered a page and a half and totaled $822.50. Wow, I thought, he's a big spender. I later learned he'd been on the road for most of the summer.
Articles editor Tom MacPherson could write about anything"anything that gets me out of this office," as he once said. From a single small page of notes he could pound out a 2,500-word article.
From 1953 until 1964, when I became editor, I visited 42 states on magazine assignments. I wrote and photographed Scouts in every part of the United States.
In the 1950s, the magazine was heavily involved with contests, annually running six of them. And every editor was stuck with one: photo, writing, radio, fishing, patrol flags, and neckerchief slides.
The latter was mine. I also worked on the first Boys' Life index because of my literary background at NYU. That I was not qualified didn't trouble editor Harchar, who said, "Nobody else is either."
Book authors galore
The staff had plenty to do, yet its creative juices were so effervescent that magazine work was not enough. Most of the editors wrote books in their spare moments.
Tom MacPherson was working on a book on how to make money raising worms. Fran Smith was writing two children's books. Bill McMorris was writing a juvenile on mountain climbing. I was working on a book called Find a Career in Photography (this by a guy who didn't know which end of a camera was up when he joined is the magazine).
The most dedicated and prolific of all the writers was my good friend, promotion director Hal Levitt. One day I saw him eating a luncheon sandwich at his desk while writing in a small leather notebook.
I thought he was making notes for a promotion piece. It turned out he was writing dialogue for his second play. His first drama, "One Foot to the Sea," had been a success, running for nearly two years off Broadway.
Throughout the 1950s, circulation continued booming, advertising revenues shot up, and editorial pages increased as BL readers received a bonus of exciting features.
A new erathe 1960s
As a new decade dawned, circulation reached two million and continued to climb year by year.
When I became the magazine's editor in 1964, we had 2,250,000 subscribers. Our major competitors of years pastAmerican Boy, Open Road, Youth's Companion, St. Nicholaswere out of business.
Like any new editor, I wanted to move the magazine forward with fresh ideas while building on the work of my predecessors. The book of the 1950s had been heavy in staff writing. But the old days were over: McMorris, MacPherson, and Brooks had left for other jobs in publishing, and Fran Smith soon would retire.
My choice for executive editor was Walter Babson, whose soft-spoken, manner concealed steely determination to get the job done calmly and quickly. The new publisher, Oliver S. Johnson, and the Chief Scout Executive, Joseph A. Brunton, both agreed with me, and Walt was promoted to the No.2 spot.
The articles editor was Lou Sabin, an idea man who expedited with the speed of a sprinter. These two men, along with Andy Lessin and art editor Bert Marsh, would help map new directions.
It was time to set new standards of excellence, and this meant lobbying the publisher for a larger editorial budgetevery year!
Ollie Johnson agreed. He believed in a quality product, convinced that the better the book, the more it enhanced Scouting and increased advertising revenue.
More sophisticated, visually hip
Higher quality and more features for the readersthat was the goal. The readers of the 1960s were becoming more sophisticated. They demanded more, and the editors had to produce at a higher level.
Every year the audience of the turbulent era was more visually hip, trained by television to respond to big pictures, especially color ones.
Over the years BL had had its share of famous contributors, from Orville Wright to Jack London to Theodore Roosevelt.
But in the 1960s famous names began to drop into Boys' Life with regularity: Pearl Buck and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Prize winners; Catherine Drinker Bowen and Margaret Coit, Pulitzer Prizewinning biographers; Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey; Alex Haley, author of Roots; Isaac Asimov, the star science and science fiction writer; the scientist George Gamow; historian John Toland, and cartoonist Bill Mauldin.
We went after major-league artists such as Milton Glaser, Al Parker, Bob Peake, John Groth, Alan E. Cober, Bob McCall, Fletcher Martin, and Antonio Frasconi.
A finer stock of paper was introduced to showcase the outstanding photographs of Andre Kertesz, Philippe Halsman, Ernst Haas, Walter Chandoha, Roman Vishniac, and Howard Sochurek.
Seeking a bold new look, we brought in a freelance designer, Robert Crozier. A former art director of Ladies' Home Journal, he redesigned the book from cover to cover, creating a new logo and fresh typeface.
By the end of the 1960s, the magazine's circulation reached its peak of 2,650,000. It ranked No. 17 in circulation in the United States and was read by another seven or eight million. We boasted of being the largest magazine for boys in the free world.
The best of times?
They were great times, but, hey, any time is glorious when you're young and working for a magazine with millions of lively readers.
This year Boys' Life is celebrating its 85th birthday, having evolved into a new format with exciting new approaches.
Now is the best of times for the talented editors who make up its current staff.
Editor emeritus of Scouting as well as Boys' Life, Bob Hood is a regular contributor to this magazine. He lives in Woodstock, N.Y.
Copyright © 1996 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.