Life at Its Most Lush

Life at its most lush.

The magazine, I mean. Life Magazine as a large weekly magazine, with glossy paper and often full-page ads, came into existence in 1936 when Henry Luce bought the name from a smaller-scale humor “rag.” Throughout World War II and the 1950s, Life brought images of war and peacetime prosperity into millions of American homes.

Why do we care? The ads! Better than any photograph (and the legion of outstanding photographers working for Life includes Margaret Bourke-White and Robert Capa), Life ads show the United States undergoing an enormous transition. Pages 2 and 3 from June 22, 1942: on the right a full-page ad for the Bell Telephone System with a drawing of a lovely young lady with cameo pin and soft curls at the back of her neck, speaking into a receiver of an telephone with a “cradle.” “When war needs delay your call…let’s put the blame right where it belongs–on the war.” The subtext is that beauty and romance in its old-fashioned guise will be delayed, but accepted with a smile because of the war.

On the adjacent page, a young man rises in pencil drawings from a sailor to a chief petty officer. Though often at sea, his Arrow Collar make him so irresistible that Genevieve believes him when he boasts:
it won’t be planes, ships or cannon
that will win the war, he’ll do it
Note: Davy drags home knocked-out German, Italian, and Japanese, each caricatured so deftly they’re unmistakable. His puss is ready for Gen to kiss.

By June 14,1943, Graduation graces the front cover of Life, but inside it’s very much war business: Pages 44-45, Western Electric sends an “Uncle Sam-clothed” arm pointing to a plane flying above the clouds: “Radar puts its finger on our enemies,” while on the facing page “Romance begins when Five O’Clock Shadow Ends,” and the sailor with a cute snub-nose grins as he’s surrounded by a bevy of pretty girls. It’s an ad for Gem razor blades.

Is there any text on these pages: Yup. A thin column of pretty girls in backless dresses, the newest summer fashion. Begins the article: “Since many women will not be getting to the country or shore this summer, country fashions are going to the city.” The implication is that everyone makes sacrifices for the war, but there are dandy compensations.

Finally from April 30, 1945, in the last year of the war, “Life’s War Artists” are on the cover Inside there are pages of vivid images from war artists: note Bruce Mitchell’s drawings from Iran where American soldiers and sailors off-load a ship with supplies for Russia, and trucks deliver Lend-Lease supplies over 750 miles of “frying desert and brutal mountains” to Karzin. But for my money, it’s still the ads that tell the truest story: on the back cover, “Just like old times…Have a Coca-Cola,” and in the midst of a soda fountain scene, with pretty girls in pageboy hairdos, the pipe-smoking father points over his soldier’s shoulder to the two bars of ribbon. A footnote says, Our fighting men meet up with Coca-Cola many places overseas where it’s bottled on the spot.”

From this sampling, here’s what strikes me: the “can-do” hearty goodwill and success of U.S. troops; the “can-do” and willing sacrifice of folks back home. This is commercial propaganda at its best. I’m serious. World War was brutal; hundreds of thousands of Americans died or were injured. But the war boosted the United States out of the Depression, gave it humming industry and purpose, united the country (at least on the surface), and pushed into existence social changes, like allowing African-Americans and Japanese-Americans into the military, which would have been hard to win otherwise. Not only that, it put women to work in industries where before they would not have been welcome. To incorporate these changes fully into peacetime society would take decades. I can’t help but thrill to the sloughing of prejudice and willingness to work together for a truly momentous purpose which these issues of Life recognize.

Do we still have such energy and focused purpose? I won’t answer that except to say, I pray that some galvanizing event will rouse us from our contentious lethargy and selfishness to create an all-out determined assault on the energy crisis which burns just below the surface. It’s our war of the worlds today.

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