September 15, 1972: Tragedy.

The most recent in a series we’re calling Past LIFEs, in which we revisit the last few months of LIFE magazine, issue by issue. You can read along with the September 15, 1972, issue here.

For what it’s worth, this issue is the earliest in the pile of old LIFEs that my grandfather saved, and that I first read a dozen or so years later.

In which geopolitics arrives in the sandbox with a sickening impact:


It seemed remarkable to me that a photographer caught a perfect image of the Israeli Olympic team at the opening ceremonies, not knowing what was to come.

But multiple explanations are possible. Perhaps LIFE (or some other media outlet) made a policy of getting a photo of every incoming team. Or maybe LIFE bought the pic from an Israeli media outlet, which would have had an obvious interest in taking the picture. We’ll see if the credits inside the magazine give any clue, once we get past the cigarette ads.

(Squint and you’ll find out: The cover is a United Press International shot. Maybe they did, indeed, photograph every team in passing. I hope they found buyers for their shots of Trinidad and Tobago, or Dahomey, or the one-man team from Upper Volta.)

Managing Editor Ralph Graves’ column contrasts two young champions who “have raised a fair number of hackles on the way to their triumphs” — Bobby Fischer and Mark Spitz. The column acknowledges that Fischer has irritated far more people than Spitz, and in fact Graves never bothers to tell us what it was that Spitz did (maybe it’s later in the magazine?)

At any rate, Fischer has gone down in history as an awful human being, while Spitz’s legend is dulled by time but largely unsullied. Or, at least, that’s my perception.

Skipping the usual BEAT of Life starting ragbag, the magazine opens cold after Graves’ column with several pages of photos from Munich. Most of them are very Seventies: blocky concrete architecture, submachine guns, helicopters, black and white grain. We are then introduced to the murdered Israelis, with special focus on one who grew up in Ohio. The spread ends with a pair of Bavarian folk dancers, in costume for a canceled rehearsal for the closing ceremony, walking in the empty Olympic stadium.

After fifty years the spread holds up pretty well, in terms of capturing the moment. Presumably LIFE, with a national magazine’s inherent delay and lead time, was trying to show people scenes they hadn’t already seen. (The attack took place September 5 and 6; I don’t know when an issue dated September 15 would have had to get out the door.)

Hugh Sidey remains, essentially, pointless; he files a column about Richard and Pat Nixon spending time in San Clemente before the formal start of their campaigning. It feels inessential, padded with cotton, devoid of substance.

After that we get a whomping big ad for the Record Club of America, another of those popular-culture institutions our kids and their kids will never know or understand. The mockup cover of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street is something I wish I could see better; the original cover was presumably too illegible to represent itself in an ad at small size.

Cyclops the TV critic gets lit up about ABC cutting Dick Cavett’s late-night show to one week a month, a tempest that must have meant something in 1972’s teapot. The TV column shares its page with a promotion by America’s savings and loan associations, who are handing out a free guide to Monday Night Football. I bet that would be a fun read for 15 seconds or so. (My personal ban on all things NFL does not apply retroactively.)

Albert Goldman is very Albert Goldman, pressing all the expected buttons in his “analysis” of the popularity of “Amazing Grace.” Rolling Stones concerts and Nuremberg rallies get compared to each other, of course, and the piece ends with a backhanded slap at young people caught up in the holy-rolling trend of the early ’70s. There’s always gotta be a dismissal somewhere with this kind of writer, doesn’t there?

(Goldman shares a page with an ad for what’s either a hyperextended cigarette or a very skinny cigar. With its mention of “your very own style,” the ad practically grabs young men between about 19 and 25 — the age where you think consciously about having a style, and what it might be — and shakes them by the collar. The cigar in the mouth of the beaming gent in the photo is proudly rampant.)

Kellogg’s Corn Flakes takes a full-page ad that literally could have run 50 years before. The copy is maybe a little deflated compared to Jazz Age jazz, but not by much.

As a lifelong lover of breakfast cereal, I recoil instinctively from the photo of a kid holding a bowl of corn flakes in the out-of-doors. Who eats breakfast cereal al fresco? Like, a leaf might drop into your bowl or something.

Reviewer Hugh Kenner likes Andre Dubos’s book The God Within, and although I don’t come away from the review with a well-formed sense of what’s in the book, it sounds as if I might kinda like it as well. Garry Wills doesn’t like Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends, and, ditto.

A full-page ad for a very familiar-looking set of “Mediterranean-Look Decorator Shelves” follows. I don’t think my grandparents had those, but I recognized them as soon as I saw them … maybe from the occasional photographs of regular Uhmuricans’ living rooms that got printed in LIFE every so often.

“35 Years Ago in Life,” steel magnate Ernest Weir (who?) was on the cover, and LIFE printed eight pictures of Frank Chadwick of the Bronx and his daughter Marion. It seems Mr. Chadwick had someone take a picture of the two of them together every summer.

LIFE continued to print the annual pictures until 1954, when they stopped coming. For this issue, LIFE tracked down Marion Chadwick and her mother in Florida and printed a photo of them. (LIFE did not deign to explain Frank’s absence — America didn’t need to know, I guess — but some searching on Newspapers dot com reveals that he died in 1970.)

A couple ads follow for things that make me mildly nostalgic — a big Zenith TV with Chromacolor picture tube and fake-wood casing, and a three-LP set called as you remember them. (They lower-cased the title; I’ll do the same.) The set featured standard-type songs “played note for note from reconstructions of the great original arrangements that made them famous.”

I take some degree of interest in the once-common belief that it was the song, not the singer, that mattered, and that a generation of music lovers didn’t care all that much whether they were listening to Glenn Miller as long as they heard “Moonlight Serenade” with the notes in the right places. Imagine selling teens and twentysomethings a three-LP set of Beatles or Stones tunes as played by random session musicians?

(Yes, I know that sort of thing was practiced on the single-LP level; Elton John, for instance, got a start singing on “cover albums,” some of which copied the original records more closely than others. I’ve never gotten the sense that these albums were popular in any measurable way, or that Mick Jagger or John Lennon lost any sleep about these recordings cannibalizing their own bands’ sales.)

From there we get a half-page ad for Total cereal — awwww yeah, maybe Sir Grapefellow will show up this week too! — and 35-year-old photos of people in New York City reviving a collapsed dray-horse on a hot day by opening a fire hydrant. I will have to send this to my younger son, recently arrived in the Big Apple, for useful advice in case he encounters any clapped-out dray horses.

Letters, they got letters. This week there are letters dunking on Ramsay Clark, and letters dunking on Rudy Vallee, and a letter dunking on a guy who was pictured wrestling a python in the Nile, and a letter from the president of the Walter Cronkite Fan Club, and a letter from Eric Sevareid of New York, New York, who presumably was the TV newsman but not identified as such. There is also a letter from novelist James T. Farrell, taking LIFE for task for quoting his remarks without providing sufficient context.

David Maxey turns in a story examining the Committee to Re-Elect the President, notorious then and now as CREEP. He notes early on: “The Watergate affair … in which important people close to the committee were deeply involved, will not go away.”

The CREEPers come across as jerks with a mission — which is perhaps misleading, because their Democratic equivalents (if the fractured and stumbling Democrats had any equivalents in 1972) would probably have come across the same way. Getting somebody elected President is a bloody-knuckled business no matter which side you’re on. The real meat of the story — CREEP’s collective amorality, going above and beyond mere intense competitiveness — had yet to be told.

(Although the two pages immediately after the Maxey story, a summary of Watergate as it appeared in its early months, does indeed tell some of it. Watergate had reached a point where even a photo-magazine couldn’t ignore it.)

After that we go back to Munich, where LIFE lays on the praise for the Games’ early days: “Staged with opulence and graceful efficiency, the XXth Olympiad was blessed with the most keenly balanced competition since World War II.” Well, yeah, I guess if you ignored the brutal and tragic act of terrorism that the Germans weren’t prepared to stop, it might have been.

(It’s a funny thing about sports — they only stay somber for so long before their water-carriers start nattering anew about Competition and Narratives and Statement Games and Redemption and the Unquenchable Soul of Man. It’s as if we were supposed to be fooled about how much sports actually mean.)

The best photo of the Olympic spread shows a pair of disappointed Black faces in a grandstand crowd. They are U.S. sprinters Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson, who missed their chance at reaching the final race because a U.S. track and field coach, working off an outdated schedule, gave them the wrong time for their qualifying heat. It’s easy to have keenly balanced competition when incompetence wipes out some of the best competitors. (There would be more of this at Munich.)

Chrysler-Plymouth takes out a two-page ad to promote new electronic upgrades to its cars, including a dashboard clock you can allegedly set your watch to. How refreshingly novel. Actually, as recently as last year I owned a Honda (a marvelous car in all other respects) whose digital clock had a weird way of creeping.

Brad Darrach, who turned in a piece about “The Bobby Fischer I Know” (or somesuch) in one of the previous issues I read, is back with another pagelong piece called “Can This Be Bobby Fischer?” I am retroactively so burned out on America’s conquering chess-punk that I can’t bring myself to read it. I wonder if Americans in September 1972 felt the same way.

Given that Jon Voight has turned conservative of late (or maybe always was), I don’t especially want to read a profile of him from the set of Deliverance, either.

Author Joan Downs describes Voight early on as “a shy, ornery, funny, serious quicksilver man, an actor playing at life as if it were his own personal shell game, slipping in and out of a variety of roles on and off screen as easily as a snake sheds skins.”

That phrasing telegraphs to me that the former Cowboy Joe Buck managed to keep the writer at arm’s length, and that she really never got a firm handle on him … which only reinforces my decision not to read the piece.

A two-page ad for “A Dress You Can Make Without a Stitch” looks like a story but reads like an advertisement; if it is marked as the latter, I didn’t see it. Sloppy work, LIFE.

Having long ago read all that stuff about subliminal seduction in the ad business, I persist in looking for sexual subtext in every ad I see — well, maybe not the ones for breakfast cereal. Anyway, there’s some racy subtext to the Gilbey’s Gin ad, I just know it, but I can’t figure out what it is. I know I could use a G&T, but that’s pretty much my default setting in the warmer months; I don’t think a crafty adman is specifically to blame.

The next piece, called “Tracking Down the Forger,” looks at the small handful of established handwriting experts plying their trade in crime labs. “Fraud thrives in a pay-by-paper economy,” LIFE tells us. (Well, you’re never gonna guess what happens when everything goes digital, LIFE.)

A full-page ad for Crow Light whiskey features a cruel-looking man with a crow on his hand (!) as if it were a falcon. Behind them sits a woman who is gazing anxiously at his crow (his crow?) as if she fears it. Dunno what all this signifies but I’ll stick with the Gilbey’s, thanks.

Merriam-Webster Dictionaries takes out a piquant ad as well. One side shows a dissatisfied-looking young man in work clothes, holding a shovel. The other shows a beaming young man, professionally dressed, holding a dictionary. “One of the differences between a blue collar and a white collar could be a red jacket,” the headline says — that is, make sure your son knows how to use words, and he won’t have to work on the highway crew. (Your daughter is on her own, apparently.)

The ad seems somewhat condescending in a country that had a stronger blue-collar population than it does now. I guess it speaks to parents who want their kids to do better than they did, but it also alienates the ditch-diggers of the world, who apparently weren’t smart enough to suss out that a Merriam-Webster dictionary was the key to success.

As a professional communicator, I am also required to point out that simply knowing what words mean is not the same thing as having the ability to motivate and influence others with them. But by now I have looked at and thought about this ad for too long.

The story of the forgery hunters winds on and on, and it’s not without interest, but I’ve been reading for a while so my eyes jump to the ads.

Oh, look, an ad for front-wheel-drive Renaults — top speed 93 mph. The coupe is sleek, and I bet its looks sold more than a few, but when the owners got a taste of the famous French build quality they probably traded in and went Japanese or Swedish. (Maybe that’s a cold shot … but there’s a reason Renaults never got a lasting foothold on American roads, and it’s not Francophobia.)

State Farm takes out an ad about a program in Michigan that sends drunk drivers and their spouses to a month of group therapy, apparently to encourage them to talk through the underlying issues that are presumably driving one spouse to drink. Wonder if it worked (or works).

We get about five jumps into the forgery story until they substantively touch on the Clifford Irving/Howard Hughes fraud that ensnared TIME/LIFE in 1971-72. I suppose it must have taken some guts for an editor to propose an article on forgery after that debacle.

Or perhaps this article arose from that situation: I can picture some LIFE editor in New York, following the winding trail of the examination and re-examination of Irving’s forgeries, and suggesting that the work of handwriting examiners would make a great story.

On and on LIFE goes about forgery, accompanied by a half-page ad featuring a teenage girl — from the look of her, fun-loving and perhaps a little tomboyish. “High school girls and high school boys. We think they both want basically the same things out of life. A feeling of belonging, a sense of accomplishment, and some fun. We think Army Junior ROTC is a way to achieve these things” — and there the needle scratches on the vinyl.

Finally the forgery article wends to a close, having gone on so long that the page designers are forced to fill the final page with a black-and-white version of the art that featured on the first page. That tells you something.

Your Investor-Owned Electric Light and Power Companies take out an ad to point out that the recycling plants that create new uses for old materials need lots of electricity. “Our country’s ability to clean the air, water, and land will depend on an adequate supply of electricity,” Your Investor-Owned Etc. Etc. assure us.

On the surface this is a rich claim, since American electricity in 1972 came predominantly from burning vast quantities of coal. I assume in retrospect that the endgame here was the promotion of nuclear energy — an industry still developing in 1972, and one that offered more or less carbon-free energy in the short term in exchange for the creation of nuclear waste that must be safeguarded for many generations to come.

LIFE then hands us an extended spread — the first page appears to be missing — with photos showing the first six years of a Connecticut girl named Dionis Lindsay.

It’s a mildly interesting exercise as it explains the way kids grow and develop year-by-year — the move from misbehavior to behavior, or the first curiosities about babies or other mysteries of life.

But this spread lacks spark or spice. In its effort to show us the life of one average kid, it fails to explain why we should care about this average kid. So little girls lose their teeth at six and get crushes on their dads at five. So what? Why is Dionis Lindsay in a national magazine?

A trip back to the table of contents solves the mystery to some degree: The story was adapted from a book by longtime Look and LIFE magazine contributor Patricia Coffin. If you squint closely at one of the first pages, it carries a small, easy-to-miss credit: “Copyright 1972 Patricia Coffin.”

Perhaps more explanation was provided on the missing first page. And, perhaps books by staffers or regular contributors provided easy-to-arrange back-of-the-mag content, especially when they came loaded with lots of photos.

Once again, Newspapers dot com fulfills my curiosity about what happened to some of these folks after their moment on America’s newsstands passed. Patricia Coffin Lindsay, who wrote under her maiden name, died in 1974. A news story from 1965 listed her daughter as 11 years old; by the time her childhood appeared in LIFE, she would have been roughly 18.

Of course, even a somewhat pointless spread on a young girl qualifies as hard-hitting news next to this week’s final feature — a spread about a new trend of Hollywood movies in which hordes of murderous animals gang up to kill people.

This dives gleefully and headlong into pure cheese. The largest photo is given — doubtless by design — to the looming mega-bunny villains of Night of the Lepus, a movie that would have been forgotten a week after filming wrapped up if not for its absurd central gimmick of grotesquely enlarged mega-bunny villains.

Will we get one last breakfast-cereal ad on the back page? Naw, it’s another light whiskey — Four Roses this time. With all the absurdity and ugliness facing them, one would think the Americans of 1972 would have reached for the 100-proof stuff.

The ad for Four Roses (which, thankfully, has been restored in 2022 America to legit full-powered bourbon) features the headline, “Born to Underwhelm You,” and goes on to declare: “How it tastes is absolutely underwhelming. After all, life has whelm enough as it is.”

Yes, the past is a different country.


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