UNFORGETTABLE DeWitt Wallace
Reader's Digest UK|March 2022
As we continue to celebrate 100 years since Reader's Digest got its humble start, here's part two of the remarkable story of the man who, with his wife, Lila, built it into a global success
Charles Ferguson

THERE WERE NO CANCELLATIONS AFTER THE FIRST ISSUE. SO THE EDITORS GOT BUSY ON A SECOND. LILA KEPT HER SOCIAL-WORK JOB TO PAY THE RENT. WALLY WENT UPTOWN EACH DAY TO FORAGE THROUGH MAGAZINES IN THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY AND THUS AVOIDED HAVING TO BUY THEM. HE CONDENSED ARTICLES THAT ENGAGED HIS MIND.

HE WROTE THEM in longhand on yellow sheets of paper, eliminating asides, pruning wordy prose, getting straight to the point.

In September 1922, the Wallaces rented a garage apartment for $25 a month in Pleasantville, New York, the town where they'd been married. Orders kept coming in as Wally kept mailing out promotions. By the end of the magazine's first year, circulation had increased to 7,000. More working space was needed, so for $10 extra per month the Wallaces rented a pony shed beside the garage. They brought in typewriters and stencil cutting machines, and hired some neighbourhood help.

Wally still wrote his own promotion circulars and letters that were personal in tone. Some envelopes were handwritten. His direct-mail approach established a personal connection, a kind of companionship between editor and reader. The promotion letter you got was from the man who originated and produced the magazine, asking you to subscribe for your own good. Other magazines launching at about the same time aimed at millions of readers. The upstart Reader's Digest aimed at the individual—and out succeeded the whole pack.

When they began to feel prosperous enough, co-editors DeWitt and Lila would go somewhere to escape interruption and, in a seven-to-ten-day work binge, put together the next issue. They'd take adjoining hotel rooms, he working in one and giving her a batch of publications to read in the other. To rule out distractions they communicated by notes slipped under the door. He kept all her notes. This one was scribbled on a pad of the St Regis Hotel in New York:

"I've covered 12 issues of each of these magazines, darlin'—and I am a tired, baby! Hope there is something useful. Come and kiss me good night.”

Once during those early years after he'd left on a trip, she wrote:

“Make the most of this trip, Sweet, for I am not at all sure I'll ever be able to let you go away without me again! You looked so sweet and desirable as you drove off that I almost lost my courage and didn't keep my promise not to weep a bit.”

Wallace had originally set himself a goal of 5,000 paid readers. That would bring in $15,000 a year-enough, in 1922, to cover costs and provide a comfortable living. They might even be able to travel, taking the issue with them to work on at will. After four years, however, Reader's Digest circulation had reached 20,000. Then in the next three years it skyrocketed to 216,000.

As the magazine kept growing, the Wallaces began renting whole floors in various Pleasantville office buildings. One day Ralph E Henderson, 26, turned up at the pony shed office looking for an editorial job. Ralph records the DeWitt Wallace who hired him: "He listens far more than he talks. But his quick eyes are the clue to his restlessness, energy, curiosity. All editorial work went on in the living room, where Wally had his desk. There he would read 40 or 50 magazines regularly, select 30-odd articles and condense them with painstaking care. That's the way it went, straight from the pencil-marked magazine article to the typed yellow sheets for the printer. Every scrap of copy had to flow through his own portable Corona typewriter. In the same room Lila had her piano, which she played often. So the click of the Corona and the notes of "Blue Room" sometimes reached the nearby studio office where I worked, in a mingled sonata.”

It is a storybook view: a young couple, not needing to hold hands to be in love, on their way to a stunning success.

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