Home Book editor Richard Stolley, founding editor-in-chief of People magazine, dies at 92

Richard Stolley, founding editor-in-chief of People magazine, dies at 92


Richard B. Stolley, founding editor of People magazine, which changed the course of American publishing with its personality-oriented approach to journalism and which has long been one of the most popular magazines in the history of the country, died on June 16 in a hospital. in Evanston, Illinois. He was 92 years old.

The cause was heart failure, his family said.

For more than six decades with the Time Inc. media empire, Mr. Stolley was a leading writer and editor at Life magazine, where he covered the southern civil rights movement and the space race, among other great stories.

While at LIFE, he marked one of journalism’s great coup d’etats, acquiring the rights to Zapruder’s film for his magazine about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. 8mm of Kennedy’s procession – one of the earliest examples of a citizen capturing footage of an extraordinary event – was once called the most important 26 seconds in celluloid history.

Mr. Stolley rose through the ranks at Life and was associate editor when its last weekly issue was published in 1972. He then went to the development group of Time Inc. to help imagine new magazines. One day a call came from Andrew Heiskell, president of the company, who said that his wife, Marian Sulzberger Heiskell, a family member who controls The New York Times Company, had suggested a new magazine that would focus on personalities. Mr. Heiskell suggested removing the “People” section of Time magazine in its own publication.

When a test issue hit the press, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the cover, it was an instant hit. Making her official debut in March 1974 with a cover photo of Mia Farrow, who starred in the movie “The Great Gatsby,” People made a profit after just 18 months and turned out to be a cash cow.

In Mr. Stolley’s first four years, his circulation soared to 2.2 million, with a “passing” readership of nearly 14 million, which People said was the highest in the country.

For Mr. Stolley, the magazine’s mission was clear: to write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things and extraordinary people doing ordinary things, but never about ordinary people doing ordinary things.

The inaugural issue featured interviews with wives of missing soldiers in Vietnam as well as reports on the widow of Lee Harvey Oswald (“At last at peace with herself”) and Gloria Vanderbilt (“A Fourth Marriage That Really Works”) .

“I think the climate in the country was very suitable for this type of magazine,” Mr. Stolley said in 1978 in an interview with his hometown newspaper, Greenwich Time, Connecticut.

He said he believed that by the 1970s the interests of mass magazine readers had drifted away from the political turmoil of the 1960s and towards personalities. Yet, said Mr Stolley, he was never sure whether People had spawned personality-oriented journalism or if he had exploited something already in the air.

Regardless, the magazine relentlessly focused on humans, not issues or trends. Mr. Stolley had cover rules, which were to entice readers to the newsstand in an instant.

“He said the pretty sells better than the ugly, young people sell better than old people, movies sell better than television, television sells better than sports and everything sells better than politics,” Longtime Life and People colleague Hal Wingo said in a statement. telephone interview.

Although immediately popular with readers, People has been dismissed by some reporters, including some from Time Inc., as a celebrity gossip sheet, Wingo said. This prompted Mr Stolley to break his own rules regarding blankets. To show that the magazine was not just a showcase for celebrities, the second cover featured Martha Mitchell, the chatty wife of former Attorney General John N. Mitchell involved in the Watergate scandal. The third featured oil mogul J. Paul Getty.

Much of the beginning was trial and error. One of his biggest mistakes, Mr Stolley has often said, was not putting Elvis Presley on the cover when he died in 1977 at age 42. Mr Wingo said it hadn’t occurred to them because the magazine had never featured a deceased person before.

In 1980, when the murder of John Lennon shocked the world, Mr. Stolley didn’t think twice. Lennon’s cover has long been the magazine’s best-selling issue.

Richard Brockway Stolley and his twin brother, James, were born on October 3, 1928 in Beijing, central Illinois. His father, George Brockway Stolley, was a plant manager. Her mother, Stella (Sherman) Stolley, was an English teacher.

Dick knew from an early age that he wanted to be a journalist. When he was 15, he landed a job with his hometown newspaper The Pekin Sun Times. After high school he dropped out of the Navy, then earned both his bachelor’s degree in 1952 and his master’s degree in 1953 from the Medill School of Journalism in Northwestern.

After a brief stint as a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times, he switched to Life. Mr Stolley believed deeply in his mission as a pictorial chronicle and in the power of photojournalism, especially when based in the South and covering the violence that often surrounded the desegregation of schools.

Speaking to The Digital Journalist in 2009, he recalled a photo in Life of several white boys, their faces crooked, screaming and spitting at a lonely black girl entering high school in North Carolina. “Photographs like this explained to America what was going on in the South in a way words never could,” he said.

Mr. Stolley was working in the Life office in Los Angeles when President Kennedy was shot in November 1963. He flew to Dallas and a Life freelance writer told him that a businessman had filmed a family movie that clearly reflected what had happened. She said her name sounded like Zapruder. Mr. Stolley found Abraham Zapruder in the phone book and called him. Mr. Zapruder told him to come home the next morning at 9 o’clock; Mr. Stolley arrived at 8 a.m.

“Dozens of other reporters were knocking on the door while Dick was inside,” Mr. Wingo said. “They were all shouting, ‘You can’t discriminate, you have to give it to all of us!’ “, did he declare.

Inside, Mr. Stolley and Mr. Zapruder, a fashion designer, were negotiating the terms of the printing rights. They accepted $ 50,000 and Mr. Stolley left with the film through the back door. (The amount was quickly increased to $ 150,000 for all rights.)

Mr. Zapruder told an associate that he decided to work with Mr. Stolley because, in Mr. Zapruder’s words, he “acted like a gentleman”. He said he felt he could trust Mr. Stolley, and by extension his magazine, to treat the film with dignity.

As part of the deal, Life agreed that when it printed footage from the film, it would omit frame # 313, which showed the president’s head exploding from a bullet impact. This setting has not been shown publicly for 12 years, a delay that has helped spawn conspiracy theories.

While Zapruder’s film helped the official Warren Commission conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president, it has been used by others to undermine this explanation. (Alexandra Zapruder, granddaughter of the filmmaker and author of “Twenty-six seconds”, a 2016 book on the film’s effect on his family, said it brought his grandfather “nothing but heartache.” “)

Mr. Stolley has always called his acquisition of the film the most dramatic moment of his journalistic career.

After Life stopped publishing as a weekly, Mr. Stolley edited People for eight years, then returned to Life, which by then had become a monthly. He was editorial director of all Time Inc. magazines until his retirement in 1993, then continued as a consultant for the company until 2014.

Her first marriage, to Anne Shawber in 1954, ended in divorce, as did her second marriage, in 1997, to Lise Hilboldt.

He is survived by four daughters, Lisa, Hope, Melinda and Martha Stolley; one stepson, Charles Hilboldt; and seven grandchildren.

In the early days of People magazine, Mr. Stolley was often asked if he wasn’t worried about finding enough interesting people to write about. No, he would reply. In fact, he always had a plethora of suitors, which prompted him to say, “I don’t think we’re ever going to run out of people.”


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