Last summer in a used bookstore, I happened on an enormous, bound volume of Life magazine, from July–September 1945. I opened to the very first story in the first issue, July 2, 1945. The headline read:
“This Is Art by Piet Mondrian: Mondrian Hated Curves.”
Can you imagine a better headline for a story about an artist of squares and rectangles?
I was hooked.
I bought the volume, and some of the happiest and most confounding hours I’ve spent since have been leafing through it, trying to figure out how and why a 68-year-old weekly news magazine feels more exciting than almost anything I read today. The longer I spent with it, in fact, the more I wondered whether any magazine, ever, has been as interesting, and relevant, and fun, and durable as Life was during those three months.
To understand why, I cataloged and classified the more than 200 stories and photo essays in the volume. For starters, these 13 issues include both the (arguably) most beloved magazine photo of the 20th century and the (arguably) most important magazine article of the 20th century. The Aug. 27 issue contains Alfred Eisenstaedt’s picture of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square after Japan’s surrender. (It’s the capstone of a spread of photos titled, “The Men of War Kiss From Coast to Coast.”) And the Sept. 10 issue gives 12 pages to Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” the essay that predicted the information age, personal computers, the Internet, networking, and the democratization of knowledge. Bush’s essay had originally run in the Atlantic three months earlier, but the editors of Life, recognizing its profound importance, republished it, and gave it the huge audience that helped make it legend.
It would have been hard for anyone to make a boring magazine in summer 1945, given that these were perhaps the three most eventful months in human history: the end of World War II and the surrender of Japan, the dropping of the atomic bomb, the signing of the U.N. charter, the discovery and initial prosecution of Germany’s holocaust crimes. Life’s writers and photographers captured an astonishing amount of that history. (Life was the third great magazine of Henry Luce’s empire. Time summarized the world through aggregation, 75 years before aggregation was invented, and Fortune put American business under a microscope. The purpose of Life was: The world in pictures.)
Life ran the aerial photos of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs that you still remember. It visited Hitler’s bunker just after Hitler’s suicide, and Mussolini’s love nest. It traveled home with Audie Murphy, the war’s most decorated soldier, and photographed him with his sweetheart, and also with actor and Col. Jimmy Stewart, perhaps the single most famous American in uniform. Life was there for the start of the Nuremberg tribunals, the trial of Norwegian Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling, and the botched suicide attempt of Japanese military leader Hideki Tojo. It took the United Nations charter so seriously that it published photos of every single one of its signatories at the moment he signed the document—a grid of 50. It went on vacation with new President Harry Truman, and rode down the avenues of lower Manhattan with conquering Gen. Dwight Eisenhower at his tickertape parade. Oh, and it also toured the eugenic compound that had housed children of German SS officers, bred to be Aryan superbabies. Life was there.