We continue the PAST LIFEs series, in which we revisit the last few months of LIFE magazine, issue by issue, on the 50th anniversary of its departure. There’s this one, and then there’s two more.
We are up to the issue of December 8, 1972, which can be read here if you want to see what I’m talking about. This is not one of the issues my grandfather saved; I’ve never seen it before today.
Presumably, Diana Ross’s agent (and maybe Miss Ross too) wants to put some distance between her real-life self and the junk- and pain-wracked Billie Holiday she is currently portraying onscreen in Lady Sings the Blues … and so we’ll get a spread this week of “home husband and babies.”
Also, I once again can’t accuse LIFE editors of writing what today would be called clickbait headlines. I’m pretty sure that this same headline in 2022 would simply be “A U.S. pilot faces his last mission,” or maybe even “A U.S. pilot’s final mission — will he make it home?”
It’s a given in 2022 that a little suspense or drama boosts readership. But LIFE editors in ’72 were content to give away the store and let us know that he’d be getting home again.
Anyway, here we go.
Two pages of Polaroid ad; two pages of Zenith television ad. The latter brings back memories: There was an appliance shop in the Rochester of my boyhood called Hill TV, locally celebrated for its earnest, wooden advertisements (whose unvarying backing music I can still hum to this day.) Its owner also owned a minor-league pro basketball team that he named the Rochester Zeniths in honor of his core product line.
The store, the ads, the team, and the TVs are all long gone.
Managing Editor Ralph Graves teases next week’s issue. Apparently LIFE has thought for years about doing a special Christmas-themed issue, but the idea always comes up too late to act on. Last year somebody finally set the wheels in motion at an appropriate time, and as a result, LIFE will finally present the Christmas issue of its dreams.
Incidentally, a visit to Newspapers dot com confirms that LIFE staffers were told about the magazine’s impending shutdown on December 7. This issue would have been put to bed by then. I’ll have to wait and see whether the Christmas special issue makes reference to it.
Good news, ladies: “The Beat of LIFE” begins with a mention that female U.S. Navy personnel have been cleared to serve as regular sailors, not just as nurses and secretaries. Less-good news: The lead photo still manages to capture a woman sailor with her arse to the camera and as much of her legs exposed as possible, in the classic LIFE fashion. (The explanation? A conveniently slippery gangway.)
A photographer follows Sherpas as they haul up supplies for a base camp on Mount Everest; the shots, while scanned in sideways for the online magazine, are impressive if you turn your head 90 degrees.
We then move to Camp David, where news reporters covering President Nixon are denied access to the camp and forced to use telephones set up on picnic tables under plastic sheeting in the rain. Cry me a river.
Editorials about Nixon rearranging his administration and property tax improvements follow. My opinion of editorials in general has plunged about as low as my opinion of White House reporters, and these don’t help.
Just ’cause you buy ink by the gallon doesn’t mean your institutional opinion (which at best means the opinion of two or three middle-aged white men at the top of the masthead, and at worst means the opinion of the guy who signs their checks) is worth using that ink to print.
Old Spice advertises decanters of cologne shaped like telescopes and cannons. “Tell him to keep the bottle – it could be worth plenty in a few years,” the ad counsels. This appears to be the same advertising approach used by the 2022 incarnation of LIFE magazine, which exists solely to churn out “Collector’s Edition” magazines, for sale at a checkout line near you, about the likes of Van Halen.
Four Roses is still promoting itself as “underwhelming,” and our editorial position here at Neck Pickup is that we will be glad to see the end of that misbegotten pitch. The ad does remind me, though, that it’s just about the season to make bourbon balls. I have of late been torn between the urge to make batches of cookies higgledy-piggledy, and the knowledge that I am not at present able to run off the resulting calories.
GE advertises electric appliances for the woman who cooks and irons but also does stuff like go for bicycle rides. I find the approach charming, even if half the appliances in question are still beauty-based. One step at a time, I guess.
Chevy advertises a new Camaro for 1973 called the LT, for Luxury Touring. Who buys a fastback Camaro to do luxury touring is beyond me; you buy something like a Monte Carlo or an Impala to do that.
Book reviewer Selma G. Lanes raves about the detail-intensive illustrations of Nancy Ekholm Burkert, which accompany a newly issued translation by Randall Jarrell of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (Jarrell, a superb poet, had been dead for seven years at that point, but if his translation waited for the right visual accompaniment, it seems to have been worth the wait.)
Fruit of the Loom men’s briefs! I remember those. Never stopped to think much about what a gorgeously daffy name Fruit of the Loom is. It has as little to do with the product as … I dunno … Grape Nuts.
Next to ads for freeze-dried Sanka and the Plymouth Duster, my favo(u)rite TV critic sings the praises of the BBC as it marks its 50th anniversary. Cyclops doesn’t entirely laud Auntie Beeb: He points out that Americans tend to see their best stuff, and they also make a lot of trash. This is not a bad deal for Americans, though, who regularly see Beeb productions that clean the clock of almost everything produced here.
A Schick ad promotes its SuperSharp electric razor. This is the kind of implement I remember my maternal grandpa (the guy who got me on this LIFE kick) having — a chunky, buzzing fistful of plastic and metal. The design looks like it could double as a 16-story building in any third-rank city in the U.S.; I catch myself mentally picturing where in Allentown’s street grid I would insert a Schick Building.
Richard Schickel drills the movie version of 1776, which I’ve never seen but probably wouldn’t like either. He closes by hoping that its “tawdry historical sensibility” will not set the tone for the upcoming Bicentennial celebration. I don’t think it did, although I’m a touch too young to remember myself.
Garry Wills lauds David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, expressing the hope that it will save America from its best and its brightest. I don’t think I’ve ever read it; it sounds like the kind of thing well worth it if I find a gracefully worn 50-cent paperback at a library booksale. (One of the nicest things in post-pandemic America is the return of the library booksale.)
Oh, here’s a new advertiser: Cox, maker of motorized model planes, urges America’s fathers to “Fight a duel in the sky. It will make you better friends than ever.” The reader is urged to “pit your flying skill against your boy’s” (we all know the skies are no place for a girl!) using Cox’s model Sopwith Camels and Fokkers.
It’s likeable enough, and it might have been fun … but at the same time, it summons the idea of a vast and urgent yearning among American fathers to be liked by their sons, and the thought of that unfillable national chasm makes me a little sad.
My own father and older brother participated in a program called Indian Guides when my brother was young — if it still exists today, it presumably goes by another name. For years afterward my father wore an old Indian Guides T-shirt with a slogan that went something like, “Fathers and Sons: Pals Forever,” or maybe “Fathers and Sons: Friends Forever.” When I cared to think about it, the slogan touched me with its … naivete? Innocence? Fathers and sons aren’t friends or pals. They’re fathers and sons. The connection is more complex than that.
(This is not, incidentally, a criticism of my father. They gave him a T-shirt and he wore it holey, probably without thinking deeply about what it said. I do the same.)
Being who I am, of course I had to go digging for visual proof. My dad wore this shirt forever, and it stuns me that I can’t find a full frontal picture of it. If you squint you can see the words “Father and Son” above the arrowhead, and the tail end of “Forever” poking in below it. The gent at right is the grandfather who saved the LIFE magazines and owned the beefy electric razors. This photo suggests they were doing a fine job.
Back to the magazine. Fleischmann’s is selling its blended whiskey in holiday gift boxes whose patterns would have made groovy wallpaper. I would need a bottle (at 90 proof) to get through the adjoining “Comment” column, another of William Zinsser’s attempts at humor — this time, a parody of the family Christmas letter. Maybe in 1972 that wasn’t the howling cliche it seems like now.
A full-page ad promotes the Fire Islander, a line of acrylic-plus-polyester doubleknit clothing, and I once again wonder whether this is a zoned ad for the Northeast, or whether they were pitching the Fire Islander to readers in Omaha and Coeur d’Alene. (If the former, I wonder what ran in other editions?)
United Airlines advertises its first-class dinner menu, and I wonder how many Alaskan king crabs gave their glorious legs for the dubious purpose of being served on airline flights. United also offers a “Poor Boy Sandwich, Garni,” which is not a New Orleans-style po’ boy but rather turkey, salami, ham and Swiss.
This issue’s cover date — December 8, 1972 — was coincidentally the day that a United Airlines flight crashed on an aborted landing in Chicago, killing 45 people, including a U.S. Congressman, an up-and-coming Black female TV journalist, and the wife of White House dirty-trickster E. Howard Hunt.
“33 Years Ago in LIFE,” Betty Grable in Du Barry Was a Lady gets the cover, and at least semi-leggy young women imitating Al Capp characters get big inside play. My wife went through a stage of interest in Li’l Abner and still has a bunch of the books. For the most part the appeal was lost on me, and Al Capp himself was kind of a disagreeable article.
Two Letters drub LIFE for its dreadful cover photo of Richard Nixon, while a third suggests that the cover question — what he’ll do with his big win — is easily answered: “He will exercise the ancient Latin of get even — Soc et tuem.” As humor in LIFE goes, that’s pretty good.
LIFE’s look at the hijinks of typical NYC boy Brian Sullivan draws criticism from one reader who basically calls young Brian an undersupervised brat. Another writer, Sharon Smith of Los Angeles, asks simply: “I enjoyed your article about a boy growing up in a big city, but what’s it like for a girl?” Ding ding ding! You win a year’s supply of Rice-a-Roni, Sharon.
Next, LIFE gives me a view of a world I am grateful not to inhabit. The United Mine Workers, an organization traditionally riven by violence, is voting on a new president. LIFE points out negative aspects to both the incumbent and his rival, quoting the president of a UMW local: “I’m sort of leery of them both.”
It is a sharp leap from the black-and-white photos of local union leaders (of course the union spread is all in stark black-and-white) to a full-page color ad of Santa Claus toting a Kodak pocket Instamatic. Santa cannot erase the suspicion that the suspicious, ground-down men of the UMW will probably get a bitter deal either way.
(Wiki tells us that incumbent Tony Boyle not only lost the December 1972 election to challenger Arnold Miller, but was later convicted of charges related to the killing of rival union leader Jock Yablonski and his family shortly after the previous election in 1969. It is interesting to know that the man pictured here, campaigning furiously to hold his position, has a secret.)
“New Day for Diana” is next … and as I imagined, with no great prescience, Diana Ross is eager to separate herself from the Lady Day image. We see her husband, Bob Silberstein, shirt open to mid-chest in the Seventies style; and her mirrored piano; and her pool table; and her young daughter; and the Beverly Hills home she decorated herself; and her mentor Berry Gordy; and some other stuff.
The spread doesn’t convey much beyond the message that the real Diana Ross is successful, rooted, married, and not addicted to drugs. But, that might have been the point.
From Diana Ross’s glamorous contentment, we leap wildly to a spread on “CALCULATORS FOR A POCKET.” These remarkable new machines are “a spin-off of our space program,” LIFE notes. One- or two-sentence evaluations are offered of six of the most popular models. One is capable of trig or log functions; another does not handle decimals or negative numbers.
LIFE, bless its heart, resists the temptation to set up any of the calculator screens so that they read 5318008.
Feminism seems to be a recurring theme of this issue — surprisingly so for an issue with “home husband and babies” on the cover. The next story introduces America to Janet Bonnema, an engineer who sued her employer, the Colorado Department of Highways, because it wouldn’t allow her to work on a highway tunnel project — based on an old belief that it was bad luck for women to enter a tunnel or mine.
The story is surprisingly well done, giving us a fairly full picture of Bonnema as well as of a growing trend for women to sue in pursuit of jobs they were traditionally denied. And it has a happy ending: She settled her suit for $6,750, got permission to work in the tunnel (only one man quit in response), and was planning to use some of her money to take a trip to Africa.
(Newspapers dot com tells me that she died in 2008 in Florida at age 69, having retired from a civil engineering job with a regional water management agency.)
Jim Beam offers about nine different holiday booze options and takes out an ad to promote them. They include “Beameister” wines, imported from Germany and sold in ceramic crocks “to protect the delicate flavor of the pick of the grapes.” That sounds like a ceramic crock.
We move on to the spread on the American pilot wrapping up his tour in Vietnam. As the U.S. presses for a cease-fire, nobody still in Vietnam wants to be the last person to die there — including 25-year-old pilot Thomas Waskow.
Waskow, whose role seems to involve reconnaissance rather than bombing, navigates his final flight successfully and is greeted by his buddies, who drop him into a trough of water in celebration and hand him a foaming bottle of New York State champagne. (The brand is Taylor, a name I remember well from my time in the Finger Lakes. Nothing but the finest for our men in uniform.)
Waskow’s return home after a year’s absence is marked by a photo of him kissing his wife, Kathy; they have a young son, just two months old when his father shipped out. Like Diana Ross’s older daughter, we don’t see him.
LIFE mentions that Waskow was bound for a new military role as a flight instructor. Fifty years later, Wikipedia tells us that he built a distinguished military career for himself.
A profile of Laurence Olivier follows. The expected tributes are paid to his complexity. If you like Olivier or acting you’d find this interesting.
I have a blind/numb spot myself when it comes to actors and acting: I don’t appreciate or understand the mindsets or techniques that actors use to get themselves in the zone. So acting talk doesn’t hit my monkey nerve. (And anyway, the best way to understand a great actor’s performance is to watch it, not to read people talking about it.)
Kodak takes an intriguing ad for its Ektachrome movie cameras, a two-handed ship-shaped jobbie that allegedly films in natural light without requiring movie lights. I’d love to see a random sampling of home films shot with them, to see how true that really was. If I wanted to search YouTube I probably could.
Fiat talks about how popular its cars are in Europe. I wonder if they are any better-built there. Ah, for the golden days when an Italian car company thought it had a shot at conquering America. Magnavox advertises portable TVs (in beige or red — and don’t I wish the ad were in color?) and alarm-clock radios that stand tall like ungainly urban towers.
I guess the Olivier profile is this week’s go-on-and-on piece. There’s always one at the back of the book. I think the LIFE editors’ logic was, if you’re going to lose impatient people who put the magazine down two jumps into a long story, you’d rather lose them on page 60 than page 16.
LIFE gives itself a quarter-page ad, urging people to subscribe. I assume if you saw the issue on December 8 and called the phone number, they would still set you up with a subscription as if nothing were wrong. I wonder. A few pages later Time-LIFE gives itself a full-page ad to promote holiday gift subscriptions to Time, LIFE, Sports Illustrated and Fortune. Maybe in the Coeur d’Alene edition they sold that space to somebody.
Next up is the story of a well-regarded former New York police detective, retired from the force at 44, who took his own life in October 1972 with, apparently, no particular warning. The piece is accompanied by photos of the detective taken seven years earlier — I assume to accompany a different news story, either in LIFE or some other media outlet.
After lingering a touch longer than necessary on the physical impacts of shooting oneself, the story explores various reasons for police dissatisfaction — including a growing paranoia that cops are “wired” to entrap each other, and that every action they take or every remark they make could boomerang against them in court or in internal discipline.
Unfortunately, no one truly knew why old-school detective Bob Kenney killed himself — or whether it had anything at all to do with the issues described in the story. This lends LIFE’s story a certain hollowness. It feels as if they have used him, without full justification, to tell a larger story about police problems that could have been told equally well in his absence.
Another wild segue follows to a story marking the 150th birthday of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed some of America’s most famous public parks.
The story makes only a one-sentence passing mention of his work in Boston, and the words “emerald necklace” seems to be entirely absent, which means the story naturally fails to meet my full approval. (The story ends with a Boston-centric stinger, reporting that Olmsted died in 1903 at McLean Hospital in Belmont, not far outside the city. He had designed the grounds there three decades earlier.)
Sears, whatever its other failures, at least has the good sense to realize that an ad for a portable television really works better in color.
The closing “Parting Shots” column touches on feminism once again, with a brief profile of an Evansville, Indiana, housewife who wrote the Western novel The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing on the quiet, as a remedy for housewifely boredom. Production was about to begin on the movie version, starring Burt Reynolds.
LIFE also provides a quick profile of Alex Karras, who since ditching the NFL has tried to reinvent himself as a TV host, an actor — and a critic of NFL owners. Conveniently, the short piece is written by the Chicago sportswriter who co-hosts Karras’s show. (LIFE acknowledges this; it still seems pretty weak. The world is full of other writers who could have fulfilled the assignment, after all.)
A shot of a cute, round-faced grinning two-year-old with a massive boa constrictor around his neck is … memorable. Apparently a Hollywood film studio put out an open call for a trained snake to appear in a movie, and young David Jackson was one of those who turned up. The snake belonged to an adult friend, but David apparently played with it on the regular, and the photographer captured him with it. It didn’t make the cut for the movie.
A peanut vendor is covered with pigeons. A Canadian whiskey brand is — get this — selling its wares in holiday packages.
And always, it seems, at the back of the mag, there are cigarettes.