Writing for LIFE magazine

I loved the last book I read, loved it so. I liked it so much I wished I’d have been born a century earlier so I too could have worked at LIFE magazine. Which was, for a few splendid decades, a work place of unparalleled opulence and adventure.

In “A Life in Writing” Charles Champlin takes his readers from his early childhood roots in a small town in the foot of New York’s Adirondacks, Camden, to the peak of his journalism career: getting asked to write a column on the arts for The Las Angeles Times. On the first page, he writes of his childhood years, “Always a hungry reader, I discovered early the joys of language, and spent my teen years running barefoot through them.” I liked that.

In-between his childhood and the pinnacle of his career he goes to Harvard—a college he can hardly believe he even gets into, something he considers somewhat of a fluke—and to war, too, where he fights overseas in France. He gets marries after the war to his wife, Peggy, after falling in love with her in a library (how appropriate, right?) and begins working for LIFE after one of his college professors recommends him, something Champlin considers a miraculous bit of luck. At LIFE, he starts out as a correspondent in the magazine’s Chicago bureau (Yes, back then, magazines had their own bureaus as newspapers do). He worked there for three years, then spent two years in the Denver, Colorado bureau. After five years as a correspondent, he’s asked to return to New York City, where LIFE takes him on, finally as a writer.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the book is the insider’s look at what working at the storied magazine was like. Here are some examples: Champlin has six children; the publisher pays for all their private school education. Just because he wanted to. Whenever an employee had a baby, the publisher sent a gift of a sterling silver porringer with the baby’s name engraved. Saturday night was when the paper got put “to bed,” meaning that’s when it was finished. Employees worked late into the night those days. So, every Saturday the publisher bought an extravagant catered dinner for everyone. The philosophy at the magazine was the more you could discard, the better the final product would be. Champlin says the company could easily have published a second magazine with all the discarded pictures and articles that never made the final cut, and the hypothetical magazine created from the discarded material would have been “damn good,” he says.

Of his time at LIFE, he writes, “The principal joy of working for LIFE was that so many of the stories were a pleasure to do. Whether they finally ran in the magazine or not, getting there was all the fun, sometimes amounting to a paid vacation, with scenery and even occasionally a sense of adventure.” (Not long ago my mom found a box filled with old LIFE magazines for only $20 at a used book sale. It was quite the find. One magazine online costs for more than all of them together. I want to go back through them now and look for some of Champlin’s writing.)

He misses correspondent work after becoming bored with the desk work in New York City and the long hours; he asks for a transfer to the bureau in San Francisco. It’s granted. There he gets back into the field and writes stories about the old Hollywood movie sets, now abandoned in the wake of television, something that took away from the grandeur—and advertising dollars—of movies. He writes that they’re “ghostly” now, abandoned and grim, with only whiffs of their former fabulousness. He gets the chance in the city to write about three very famous authors. These assignments were his favorite. He writes, “It follows that anyone with a passionate love of words and writers would have a special fascination about talking with writers.” I’d agree.

LIFE likes his work in California and asks him if he wants to work in London. He does. So he moves to London where he writes about the Beatles, then just a start-up band. Few knew they’d sweep the world as they did. Champlin pitches stories three times on the Beatles before the magazine finally agrees to publish something on them. Turns out Champlin was right they’d be famous. He works 10 years in London before his career enters a new phase.

The last line of the book reads, “I’d fantasized about being a professional writer all my young days. I’m not sure I ever dreamed of being a signed columnist in complete charge of my own work and my destiny, but I was about to enter than enviable, magical state.”

In his touching Afterword, he writes: “I’ve tried to capture intimations of twenty years of a life and a time remembered, hazier now that macular degeneration has dimmed my sight and made my pen stumble. But if I invoke my own special past, the scenes from a particular life, I may invoke memories in others. Memory is shot through with universals. We are all moving on the same continuum, hoping to remember our lives even as they sift through our fingers, like sand beside the sea.”

Four books down, 48 to go.

Next book: “The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life” by Marion Roach Smith.

Number of Pages: 111.

Date to be read by: Saturday, Feb. 4.

Why this book? This is a random one, I admit. I was browsing the new nonfiction shelf, my favorite, at the local library, when I spotted this one. I ran my finger along its spine and pulled it out, where I read the back. I enjoy reading memoirs—just finished one—so now, I thought, is an appropriate time to a read a how-to on the subject. Let the reading begin.


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