There are some things that one can never bring back: the soaring arc of a Mickey Mantle hit, the slapstick antics of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour on the road to anywhere, the tailfins on a ’50s Chevy. But, Life magazine is back. After a six-year hiatus, the familiar red and white logo is once again on the newsstands and old Life readers will not be disappointed in the new effort. Many of the best-loved features are back, albeit with different
names. The famous back page, “Speaking of Pictures,” has resurfaced as “Just One More,” this month spotlighting teen-age actress Brooke Shields and a look-alike friend. There are two popes, six family reunions, 13 celebrities in boy scout gear, 28 National Football League coaches, and pictures of Jerry Ford and Henry Kissinger they would undoubtedly rather forget. Not to mention a whale, two seals, nine penguins, nine dogs catching frisbees, and that great Life tradition—a bullfight picture. Who says one can never go home again?
The new Life, however, will not be a carbon copy of the old. It will appear monthly, not weekly, and as a consequence will no longer hustle for the fast-breaking story. In its heyday— with an editorial staff of over 300—Life packaged the world in a coffee-table edition once a week. Reduced to a spartan staff of 35, Managing Editor Philip Kunhardt Jr., a 28-year veteran of Time Inc., plans a different approach: “The cost of covering the news the way Life used to is prohibitive. Our stories will have to reflect a lot of advance planning and thought—we are not in the business of chasing the news.”
Life’s scope, nonetheless, will hardly be modest. “Our stories will be built around what people are doing, wearing, trends, medicine, science, art, architecture, nature and fascinating places,” Kunhardt explains. And text will definitely take a back seat to pictures, no doubt a reflection of the belief in some quarters that the old Life failed because it forgot its mission as a picture maga-
zine. The glory of the new Life will be photography, an attempt to recreate what co-founder Henry Luce called “picture magic.” Some Life fans have expressed disappointment at the slower-moving pace of the new version. A feature on the Shah of Iran’s summer hideaway, for example, is spectacular but sadly outdated by Iran’s recent upheavals, both political and seismic. But for most of the faithful, the reappearance of Life was good news enough without quibbling about points of content. “I was sold out before we even got the magazines,” a New York newsstand dealer reported happily. “At least 100 people asked me to put a copy away for them.”
The newsstands had better prepare for an onslaught because in January they will have not only Life but also a new Look to
zcope with. French publishing whiz Daniel Filipacchi, who revivified a failing Paris Match, has bought the Look name and is putting $25 million behind his conviction that his Gallic resuscitation formula will work in North America. The new look at Look promises to be more like the old Life than Life reborn. Formerly a biweekly, Look will hit the stands as a weekly picture newsmagazine. “We are going to be much broader than Life,” proclaims publisher Boris Troyan. “And because we are a weekly, we’ll be able to scoop Life three weeks out of four.” Life publisher Charles Whittingham appears unfazed by the looming competition. Rising to the bait of the current publishing wisecrack—“If Life comes, can Look be far behind?”—he counters, “Yes, very, very far behind ... we hope.”
Surprisingly, Life and Look seem less interested in trading brickbats than in differentiating themselves from Time Inc.’s highly successful People, nicknamed “Life with a lobotomy.” “In the monthly format I think Life will be more of a celebrity book,” sniffs Look’s Troyan. But Life’s Assistant Managing Editor Eleanor Graves emphatically rejects the comparison: “We will be covering celebrities, but it’s a question of how you do it. We will be taking our own original approach.” Original may be the best word to describe Life’s feature on the current king of the rag trade, Halston, in which we see our hero reclining in bed on a cashmere blanket, garbed in a white cotton nightshirt and red kneehigh socks he designed himself.
But the bottom line for both Life and Look will not be editorial but financial. How can the magazines turn a profit now if they couldn’t in their previous incarnations? Ironically, television— the medium that most people think killed the two publications—is helping to bring them back. With their enormous circulations (Life’s was as high as 8.5 million and stood at 5.6 million when it suspended publication) and the resulting high production costs, the magazines charged advertising rates comparable to prime-time television. In fact, a full-page color ad in the old Life
cost $64,200, more than many television spots. At those prices, most advertisers felt television was the better deal. Today, with television costs skyrocketing and the competition for the best primetime spots intense, Life and Look are once again attractive advertising buys, and at an attractive price. A full-color page in the new Life sells for $13,900, and Life’s October issue set a record for a first issue of an American magazine— selling over $800,000 in paid advertising.
To boost profits and cut costs, Life and Look both intend to cut back on
their previously massive circulations. Life’s first press run was 700,000 and they are aiming for a top figure of two million. In addition, both publications will market their wares in a changed manner. In their former lives, the magazines offered liberal discounts to subscribers to push up circulation. “We were really giving the magazine away,” says Whittingham. “Some people paid as little as 14 cents for a subscription copy.” Now subscribers, like single issue buyers, will pay the full freight.
Who is going to plunk down $1.50 for Life magazine? With the photo boom that has seen weekend photographers switching from Brownies to Nikons, the magazine hopes to pull in a new generation of camera buffs. “I was at the United States Open,” Whittingham recounts, “and I saw more kids photographing the action than watching the tennis. We have a whole new audience out there.” And, there is the old audience. When Life suspended publication after 1,864 issues, its demise created a mini-boom in journalism. There were over 1,000 articles on the folding of Life, including an entire supplement in The Sunday Times of London. Life’s return has generated equal amounts of copy. Requests for interviews have come from as far away as Japan. Closer to home, publisher Whittingham says that even the president has climbed on the Life bandwagon: “Jimmy Carter has let us know he’s very interested in Life’s return. Maybe it’s because the magazine is folksy.” Carter has yet to promise a Life exclusive inside the White House, but don’t be surprised if the view from Amy’s tree house appears soon.
There were grins as wide as Carter’s on the faces of 3,000 of Life's nearest and dearest when they jammed a New York pier for Life’s launch—the kind of evening the magazine used to cover in “Life Goes to a Party.” A prep school band blared out ruffles and flourishes as guests threaded their way through a dozen bars and buffet tables, consuming 50,000 hors d’oeuvres and rubbing elbows with the likes of James Mason, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Yogi Berra, Ruth Carter Stapleton—and Halston, who gleefully pronounced the first issue’s pictures of him far more flattering than those of the Shah of Iran. At the party’s finale, joyous celebrants scrambled up to haul away the 1,200 Life pennants decorating the ceiling of the enclosed pier—sharp eyes actually spotted a few Look staffers in the crush. But Look’s Managing Editor John Durniak didn’t bat an eye when asked how his publication would outdo the Life bash. With real journalistic style, he shot back, “We’ll hire the city of Paris and bring in a Chinese military band.”
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