August 18, 1972: Surge to the Olympics.

The latest in a series of posts we’re calling Past LIFEs, in which — inspired by a grandfather — we’re revisiting the last few months of the original LIFE magazine, issue by issue, 50 years after they came out. We’re up to the August 18 issue:

The Olympics are a pretty sweet deal for a photo magazine — lots of multi-cultural strain and pain and grimacing and emotion and victory and defeat, not to mention well-toned cheesecake/beefcake.

LIFE has already put the Winter Games (in the person of a Japanese ski jumper) on a cover in February, and concocted some reason to put gymnast Cathy Rigby there in early May. With the Munich Summer Games just around the corner, we get a nice close-up of Mark Spitz, looking like he’s watching a tramp steamer explode from a just-safe-enough distance.

So what’s inside the issue? (Besides cigarette ads?)

Well, managing editor Ralph Graves — who has not outdone himself thus far in our series — devotes his weekly column to introducing a special guest. It turns out that this week’s issue features an excerpt from Roald Dahl’s latest children’s novel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

(Aw, man. Are we gonna get dames in bathing suits and Roald Dahl in the same issue? And if so, why couldn’t I have read this when I was, like, 12? Anyway.)

Hugh Sidey doesn’t really have a great point to make this week, but he’s quite entertaining (I can practically taste the iced tea with fresh mint) as he lays out the perks of being President. As of mid-August ’72, they include a new Russian hydrofoil personally presented by Leonid Brezhnev. I’m sure the boat’s fate following Nixon’s resignation is a matter of record — a Commie hydrofoil with wolfskin upholstery doesn’t just go missing, after all. I wonder where it ended up?

Then there’s a full-page ad for Kodak Instamatics — this particular type being the long skinny rectangular model — illustrated by a photo that absolutely, positively was not produced by any Kodak pocket Instamatic ever made. LIFE, before the end of its run, is going to do something that will make the Kodak corporate brass in Rochester spit out their chicken French … but we’ll get to that.

The Army takes two pages to make a pitch to young men with no plans after high school. “It’s a job that lets you live away from home and afford it. Not only in the States, but in places like Europe, Hawaii, Panama, and Alaska.” I don’t know which side of the barn is broader — the one that says, “Uh, Hawaii and Alaska are states,” or the one that says, “My older brother got Vietnam.”

On to the weekly reviews. TV reviewer Cyclops raves about public television coverage of the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky chess championship. There’s no video feed of Fischer or Spassky. Instead there’s a studio with a couple chess buffs and a big chessboard. When they get news of a move they adjust the board to reflect it. Then they speculate at wild length about what they think will happen next … until the next move comes in and it turns out they’ve all been totally wrong (since, after all, Fischer and Spassky are operating on a different level than the guys in the studio.) It sounds like a stone gas … distinctly more fun than Deliverance, which movie reviewer Richard Schickel doesn’t overmuch care for.

Book reviewer Webster Schott praises with not-so-faint damns A.E. Hotchner’s Depression semi-memoir King of the Hill, which shares its page with ads for Tampax and the new ’72 front-wheel-drive Renaults.

Somehow a reminder of the Depression — of a family eking out an existence of grinding want in one room of a hotel-slash-bordello in St. Louis — seems out of place amidst the blithe, blue-sky affirmations of consumerism stacked up on every other page … cars, cameras, cigarettes, Canadian Club. You mean there were people in America who couldn’t afford a General Electric fridge, with 50 percent larger top-mounted freezer? (You mean … there still are?)

After a Bacardi ad — most notable for showing a can of Fresca emblazoned, “NEW! NO CYCLAMATES” — the redoubtable Albert Goldman turns his pen on John McLaughlin. Goldman takes a totally gratuitous swipe at George Harrison, then adds a reasonably well-aimed swipe at McLaughlin’s tendency to fill all available space. The piece ends with the assertion that McLaughlin’s violin player, Jerry Goodman, is the real reason to listen to his band. I can’t quite say I agree … and I can’t quite say I understand why, if Goodman is so revelatory, Goldman waits for the final paragraph to work him in.

Plowing through a few more tidbits (I retract any promise I ever made to mention every single damned thing in these issues), we get to the annual look back. This week it’s 20 Years Ago in Life, and don’t you just know it, they ran pictures of a gorgeous woman that week.

The shot in question is very creatively constructed — even, dare I say, iconic … and they balance it with a picture of a tubby despot, as if they knew I was going to call them on it half a century later. But, man, file photos of beauty queens have a way of popping up in LIFE, the way cars with out-of-state license plates have a way of getting pulled over in small towns.

Sundry ads follow, the most interesting of which is for James Beard’s American Cookery, a twelve-course feast of 1,500 recipes. I’d page through that, though Mr. Beard’s well-fed appearance discourages me from following too closely in his footsteps.

Are we ever gonna surge to the Olympics? First we gotta get past the Letters to the Editor.

I recently read a book that positioned Spiro Agnew as a predecessor to President No. 45 — a polarizing figure, a bellicose attacker of the press, and a liar who stonewalled and prevaricated until the rope tightened unavoidably around his legs and he was pulled down (45 has not reached that final stage, and may never.) Several of the letters here draw that connection even more sharply. There is also a letter — a response to a photo essay on “The Bare Look” for women — that makes me suck in my breath reflexively and wince.

OK, I guess I can take my time getting to the stories if there’s gonna be a classic full-page Volkswagen ad (still the work of Doyle Dane Bernbach in ’72, I wonder?) The ad announces that the ’72 VW bus has an engine that’s 32 percent more powerful than before. Does this mean that a VW bus could finally outrace a dozy hippo to the top of a hillock? Reader, the ad sayeth not.

Stories at last! George McGovern has a running mate — Kennedy auxiliary Sargent Shriver — and the mag prints an interview with his wife, Eunice, along with headline teasers about a “potent political legacy” and “a Kennedy in the room.” Sarge himself apparently didn’t talk to them, though he is seen posing for a snazzy picture on his Maryland farm. Of course he had a Maryland farm.

Much more interesting is an interview with the man Shriver replaced, Tom Eagleton, which portrays Eagleton as firm yet forgiving, and a genuinely likeable person who attracted more support from average Americans than he expected. Makes me wonder how the rest of his life went. If I ever get through this frigging magazine I’ll make a point of looking it up.

Hey! Finally the Olympic spread. Co Rentmeester, who took the cover shot, works out from various other artsy angles. Oooh ahhh — one’s even solarized. Fancy, like every third high-school yearbook cover back in ’72-’73. The first four pages are two-page spreads; the last photo, of boxer Duane Bobick, consists of a one-page portrait placed against a razor-blade ad. If it’s accidental, it works marvelously.

Then we get several pages on the East German women’s track and field team, dubbed the best in the world. (Hey, what would Henry Luce say about using the pages of his magazine to talk up the Commies?) The “Rhinemaidens” (LIFE’s word) are a mixed group — this is neither an exercise in cheesecake, or a series of bulky shot-putters — and the article gently approaches but does not touch the idea that they might be doping.

The Olympic spread concludes with a brief piece on American 5,000-meter runner Steve Prefontaine, not yet the James Dean of track and field. (You might remember the two Pre biopics that hit theaters simultaneously some years ago.) A shame this wasn’t longer, but thankfully Pre’s distinctive mystique has been captured extensively elsewhere.

From a beach in Oregon, we go to an apartment in Chicago, for one of those statistic-free, non-study-based, no-experts-quoted trend stories — this one about couples choosing to have their babies at home. Epifanio and Misarai Lozano welcome a healthy nino named Rafael on their kitchen table. LIFE briefly profiles 75-year-old Dr. Beatrice Tucker, whose Chicago Maternity Center supports at-home births; she will send crews anywhere in the city except the notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects.

Roald Dahl takes over with a hefty chunk of Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. I read it multiple times when I was a kid; memory says it was OK but it wasn’t quite the equal of its predecessor. I have a mild urge to re-read it, but I’m not gonna do it from a 50-year-old magazine on a computer screen. I scan the copy just long enough to see if the racist joke that is the only firm thing I remember from the book is included in the excerpt. Of course it is.

A while along in the copy is a half-page ad for Sylvania flash cubes — the perfect accessory for your Kodak Instamatic, no doubt. Once again, the ad is illustrated by a photo almost definitely not taken using flash cubes. (Oooh! I see Sylvania’s corporate address listed as Danvers, Massachusetts. I doubt they made those now-faded photographic appendages here in the Bay State but I’m tickled to know there was at least a front-office connection.)

This week’s Consumer Watch column focuses on rabies awareness. The hook for consumers, I guess, is to get your dog trained and keep it under control, because if it gets out and bites somebody and then can’t be caught, that person is on the hook for 23 shots. The story is illustrated by an appropriately satanic picture of a rearing, snarling dog. I wonder whether it was really a hellhound by nature, or if they had to insult its mother for 20 minutes to get the shot.

Oooooh! Tucked into the back of the magazine is a juicy morsel, very much of its time (here comes The Dark Side of ’72 again.) It’s a story about increased crime in American skyscrapers, a trend that’s been followed by “the creation of a new, alien and somewhat spooky atmosphere in American offices.” These are the roots, right here, of the lanyard I hang on my belt … well, nowadays, the lanyard I hang on my belt two days in a typical week.

Downtown Detroit’s Fisher Building has been chosen as a representative American office building, and one by one, its safeguards are detailed — a security staff, video monitors, locking gates that prevent people from getting off elevators, even a squirreled-away pistol in a desk drawer.

Secretaries contribute a life hack that once again proves they are the smartest people in any organization: They take their phones off the hook at the end of the day so that thieves, calling to see if anyone is present, will get a busy signal.

More glorious still, if that’s possible, are the “Polish Mafia” — the building’s staff of 71 cleaning women who serve as an important ground-level set of eyes and ears to notice anything unusual. A group of them are photographed from the ground up, with mops, vacuums, and scowls. They look like they’ve come to kick dupa and scrub tile, and they’re plumb out of Lysol.

I was once told that listing all of your business’s security features in public only makes it easier for an enemy to break in — since (s)he knows what (s)he is up against, (s)he can plan precisely for it. Makes me wonder whether the Fisher Building security team kept some other weapon hidden up their sleeves. Snarling dogs, maybe?

At long last we reach the end of LIFE. It caps off with items on Sir Francis Chichester cutting short a sea voyage for health reasons; the father of a young Irishman killed in the troubles; and a guide to hosting a successful garage sale.

Sir Francis died on August 26, eight days after the cover date of this issue; the recurrence of cancer that forced him off the sea allowed no return. The fate of the $442 earned by the Chuck Ericksons of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, at their family yard sale was unspecified.

…. and y’know what? Somehow we never got babes in bathing suits.


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