Life was born January 4, 1883, in a New York City artist’s studio at 1155 Broadway. The founding publisher was John Ames Mitchell, a 37-year old illustrator, who used a $10,000 inheritance to launch the weekly magazine. Mitchell created the first Life nameplate with cupids as mascots; he later drew its masthead of a knight leveling his lance at the posterior of a fleeing devil. Mitchell took advantage of a revolutionary new printing process using zinc-coated plates, which improved the reproduction of his illustrations and artwork. This edge helped because Life faced stiff competition from the bestselling humor magazines The Judge and Puck, which were already established and successful. Edward Sandford Martin was brought on as Life’s first literary editor; the recent Harvard graduate was a founder of the Harvard Lampoon.
The motto of the first issue of Life was “While there’s Life, there’s hope.” The new magazine set forth its principles and policies to its readers: “We wish to have some fun in this paper... We shall try to domesticate as much as possible of the casual cheerfulness that is drifting about in an unfriendly world... We shall have something to say about religion, about politics, fashion, society, literature, the stage, the stock exchange, and the police station, and we will speak out what is in our mind as fairly, as truthfully, and as decently as we know how.”
The magazine was a success and soon attracted the industry’s leading contributors. Among the most important was Charles Dana Gibson. Three years after the magazine was founded, the Massachusetts native sold Life his first contribution for $4: a dog outside his kennel howling at the moon. Encouraged by a publisher who was also an artist, Gibson was joined in Life’s early days by such well-known illustrators as Palmer Cox (creator of the Brownie (elf), A. B. Frost, Oliver Herford, and E. W. Kemble. Life attracted an impressive literary roster too: John Kendrick Bangs, James Whitcomb Riley, and Brander Matthews all wrote for the magazine at the turn of the Century.
However, Life also had its dark side. Mitchell was sometimes accused of outright anti-Semitism. When the magazine blamed the theatrical team of Klaw & Erlanger for Chicago’s grisly Iroquois Theater Fire in 1903, a national uproar ensued. Life’s drama critic, the rascal James Stetson Metcalfe, was barred from the 47 Manhattan theatres controlled by the so-called Theatrical Syndicate. His magazine hit back with terrible cartoons of grotesque Jews with enormous noses.
Life became a place that discovered new talent; this was particularly true among illustrators. In 1908 Robert Ripley published his first cartoon in Life, 20 years before his Believe It or Not! fame. Norman Rockwell’s first cover for Life, "Tain’t You", was published May 10, 1917. Rockwell’s paintings were featured on Life’s cover 28 times between 1917 and 1924. Rea Irvin, the first art director of The New Yorker and creator of Eustace Tilley, got his start drawing covers for Life.
Just as pictures would later become Life’s most compelling feature, Charles Dana Gibson dreamed up its most celebrated figure. His creation, the Gibson Girl, was a tall, regal beauty. After her early Life appearances in the 1890s, the Gibson Girl became the nation’s feminine ideal. The Gibson Girl was a publishing sensation and earned a place in fashion history.
This version of Life took sides in politics and international affairs, and published fiery pro-American editorials. Mitchell and Gibson were incensed when Germany attacked Belgium; in 1914 they undertook a campaign to push America into the war. Mitchell’s seven years spent at Paris art schools made him partial to the French; there wasn’t a shred of unbiased coverage of the war. Gibson drew the Kaiser as a bloody madman, insulting Uncle Sam, sneering at crippled soldiers, and even shooting Red Cross nurses. Mitchell lived just long enough to see Life’s crusade result in the U. S. declaration of war in 1917.
Following Mitchell’s death in 1918, Gibson bought the magazine for $1 million. But the world was a different place for Gibson’s publication. It was not the Gay Nineties where family-style humor prevailed and the chaste Gibson Girls wore floor-length dresses. World War I had spurred changing tastes among the magazine-reading public. Life’s brand of fun, clean, cultivated, humor began to pale before the new variety: crude, sexy, and cynical. Life struggled to compete on newsstands with such risqué rivals.
1922 cover, "The Flapper" by F. X. LeyendeckerIn 1920 Gibson tapped former Vanity Fair staffer Robert E. Sherwood to be editor. A World War I veteran and member of the Algonquin Round Table, Sherwood tried to inject sophisticated humor onto the pages. Life published Ivy League jokes, cartoons, Flapper sayings, and all-burlesque issues. Beginning in 1920 Life undertook a crusade against Prohibition. It also tapped the humorous writings of Frank Sullivan, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Franklin P. Adams, and Corey Ford. Among the illustrators and cartoonists were Ralph Barton, Percy Crosby, Don Herold, Ellison Hoover, H. T. Webster, Art Young, andJohn Held Jr.
Despite such all-star talents on staff, Life had passed its prime, and was sliding toward financial ruin. The New Yorker, debuting in February 1925, copied many of the features and styles of Life; it even raided its editorial and art departments. Another blow to Life’s circulation came from raunchy humor periodicals such as Ballyhoo and Hooey, which ran what can be termed outhouse gags. Esquire joined Life’s competitors in 1933. A little more than three years after purchasing Life, Gibson quit and turned the decaying property over to Publisher Clair Maxwell and Treasurer Henry Richter. Gibson retired to Maine to paint and lost active interest in the magazine, which he left deeply in the red.
Life had 250,000 readers in 1920. But as the Jazz Age rolled into the Great Depression, the magazine lost money and subscribers. By the time Maxwell and Editor George Eggleston took over, Life had switched from publishing weekly to monthly. The two men went to work revamping its editorial style to meet the times, and in the process it did win new readers. Life struggled to make a profit in the 1930s when Henry Luce pursued purchasing it.
Announcing the death of Life, Maxwell declared: “We cannot claim, like Mr. Gene Tunney, that we resigned our championship undefeated in our prime. But at least we hope to retire gracefully from a world still friendly.”
For Life’s final issue in its original format, 80 year-old Edward Sandford Martin was recalled from editorial retirement to compose its obituary. He wrote, “That Life should be passing into the hands of new owners and directors is of the liveliest interest to the sole survivor of the little group that saw it born in January 1883. ... As for me, I wish it all good fortune; grace, mercy and peace and usefulness to a distracted world that does not know which way to turn nor what will happen to it next. A wonderful time for a new voice to make a noise that needs to be heard!”