The Life founded in 1883 and was in response to two recently established successful magazines, Puck Magazine and Judge Magazine. It was a light entertainment magazine that placed an emphasis on jokes and cartoons. It employed some of the most important artists of the period, including Charles Dana Gibson and James Montgomery Flagg.
Henry Luce purchased the magazine in 1936 so that he could acquire the rights to its name. Luce employed Ralph Ingersoll, one of his senior editors, to work on the project. Luce, the publisher of Time and Fortune, based his new magazine on similar picture magazines published in Germany during the 1920s. The weekly news magazine made full use of America's leading photojournalists such as Margaret Bourke-White, Carl Mydans, Grace Robertson, Constance Larrabee, Gordon Parks and Esther Bubley.
Luce predicted a circulation of 250,000. In order to cover the news-stands the first print order was for four hundred and forty-six thousands, but no one really expected to sell that many. According to Stephen Shadegg: "The public embraced Life with a passion. Some magazine stands began reserving all their favorite customers. Others just charged two or three times the published price of ten cents. At the end of three months the demand reached the one-million mark and the advertisers were getting four times the circulation they were paying for."
On 22nd November, 1963, Abraham Zapruder filmed the motorcade of President John F. Kennedy. He later explained to Wesley J. Liebeler about the background to the filming. "I didn't have my camera but my secretary (Lillian Rogers) asked me why I don't have it and I told her I wouldn't have a chance even to see the President and somehow she urged me and I went home and got my camera."
By 25th November, 1963, Zapuder's film had been sold to Life Magazine. In charge of the purchase was C. D. Jackson, a close friend of Henry Luce, the owner of the magazine. According to Carl Bernstein, Jackson was "Henry Luce's personal emissary to the CIA". When appearing before the Warren Commission, Zapruder claimed he received $25,000 and then gave this money to the Firemen's and Policemen's Benevolence. However, when the contract was eventually published it showed that Zapruder received $150,000 for the eighteen-second film.
On 29th November Life Magazine, published a series of 31 photographs documenting the entire shooting sequence from the Zapruder film. It was only later discovered that the critical frames that depicted the rearward motion of Kennedy's head had been printed to indicate a forward motion. James Wagenvoord, the editorial business manager and assistant to Life Magazines Executive Editor, realized that a mistake had been made: "I asked about it when the stills were first printed, (they didn't read right) and then duped for distribution to the European and British papers and magazines. The only response I go was an icy stare from Dick Pollard, Life's Director of Photography. So being an ambitious employee, I had them distributed."
Ray Marcus was one of those people who purchased a copy of the magazine. He told John Kelin: "I wasn't sure of it, as there weren't enough other photographs available. But the direction in which the shoulders slumped presented a picture of the man just as he was hit, and it indicated to me that the shot could have come from the front."
In its 6th December, 1963, Paul Mandel wrote an article about the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Life Magazine. "The doctor said one bullet passed from back to front on the right side of the President’s head. But the other, the doctor reported, entered the President’s throat from the front and then lodged in his body. Since by this time the limousine was 50 yards past Oswald and the President’s back was turned almost directly to the sniper, it has been hard to understand how the bullet could enter the front of his throat. Hence the recurring guess that there was a second sniper somewhere else. But the 8mm film shows the President turning his body far around to the right as he waves to someone in the crowd. His throat is exposed – toward the sniper’s nest – just before he clutches it." Jim Marrs has argued: "The account is patently wrong, as anyone who has seen the film can verify. The reason for such wrongful information at such a critical time will probably never be known, as the author of this statement, Paul Mandel, died shortly afterward."
At the time of the assassination of the president, Lyndon B. Johnson was being drawn into political scandals involving Fred Korth, Billie Sol Estes and Bobby Baker. According to James Wagenvoord, the magazine was working on an article that would have revealed Johnson's corrupt activities. "Beginning in later summer 1963 the magazine, based upon information fed from Bobby Kennedy and the Justice Department, had been developing a major news break piece concerning Johnson and Bobby Baker. On publication Johnson would have been finished and off the 1964 ticket (reason the material was fed to us) and would probably have been facing prison time. At the time LIFE magazine was arguably the most important general news source in the US. The top management of Time Inc. was closely allied with the USA's various intelligence agencies and we were used after by the Kennedy Justice Department as a conduit to the public."
The fact that it was Robert Kennedy who was giving this information to Life Magazine suggests that John F. Kennedy intended to drop Lyndon B. Johnson as his vice-president. This is supported by Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy's secretary. In her book, Kennedy and Johnson (1968) she claimed that in November, 1963, Kennedy decided that because of the emerging Bobby Baker scandal he was going to drop Johnson as his running mate in the 1964 election. Kennedy told Lincoln that he was going to replace Johnson with Terry Sanford.
Life Magazine provided impressive coverage of the Vietnam War. However, sales began to fall and it ceased to be published as a weekly magazine after 1972.
(1) James Wagenvoord, email to John Simkin (3rd November, 2009)
Beginning in later summer 1963 the magazine, based upon information fed from Bobby Kennedy and the Justice Department, had been developing a major news break piece concerning Johnson and Bobby Baker. On publication Johnson would have been finished and off the 1964 ticket (reason the material was fed to us) and would probably have been facing prison time. At the time LIFE magazine was arguably the most important general news source in the US. The top management of Time Inc. was closely allied with the USA's various intelligence agencies and we were used after by the Kennedy Justice Department as a conduit to the public....
The LBJ/Baker piece was in the final editing stages and was scheduled to break in the issue of the magazine due out the week of November 24th (the magazine would have made it to the newsstands on November 26th or 27th). It had been prepared in relative secrecy by a small special editorial team. On Kennedy's death research files and all numbered copies of the nearly print-ready draft were gathered up by my boss (he had been the top editor on the team) and shredded. The issue that was to expose LBJ instead featured the Zapruder film.
(2) James Wagenvoord, email to John Simkin (5th November, 2009)
I didn't read the embargoed and destroyed material. My boss headed the reporting team and the material was kept under wraps and was seen by only those working the story. I did know that it included references to TV advertising kick-backs (mentioned to me because it was known that my father and brother were in the local broadcasting business - my brother had a TV station in New Orleans at the time.) I was asked about the frequency and how billings were recorded. And it was stated flatly that this was to be the end of LBJ on the 1964 ticket. Life had already run two Baker pieces, the first a general survey bad guy picture essay detailing the opening of the Carousel Hotel and his generally sleaziness, (issue originally dated Nov.22...on the news-stands around the 14-15) and a short follow-up as the story began to break. The story that got scrapped was the big one that would finally tie LBJ in directly to the compromises and graft. The issue dates referenced in my first e-mail to you were wrong. The story was in the process of being closed but the issue that would have carried the story would have been Dec. 2 or 3. on stands 5 or 6 days earlier. I don't remember Reynolds name as such but I knew that a Congressional hearing about to take place (Reynolds was the only immediate hearing) was the reason for getting the LBJ piece out. I had seen Department of Justice couriers coming in and out of the offices and knew that a lot of material was being fed directly to the magazine from the department.
(3) William E. Kelly, Journalists and JFK: Real Dizinfo Agents At Dealey Plaza (May 2011)
In the immediate aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy a decision was made at the highest levels of government; that, even though the evidence indicating the accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was acting at the behest of Cuba was not true, it could be used to strong arm reluctant leaders in the legislative and judicial branches of government to do what the new president wanted.... By threatening nuclear war if it were true, LBJ used the disinformation of Castro and Cuban complicity to convince the Chief Justice and congressmen to join the Commission. The nuclear threat helped persuaded them to go with the Lone-Nut scenario because a conspiracy had to be a foreign one. To accept the Lone-Nut scenario as possible or even plausible, all of the accused assassin’s intelligence connections had to be ignored and the assassin portrayed as a sociopathic loser acting upon unknown psychological motives.
Life magazine was one of the most prolific supporters of this fairytale. Just as it had been previously in leaking Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis and Mongoose intelligence. And as it would after the assassination in anointing the disputed Tonkin Gulf Incident in order to get Congressional authorization for the war in Vietnam.
As the most popular magazine in America, Life was more influential than radio and TV news at the time. Life was the perfect platform to deliver any disinformation the CIA wanted widely distributed to a mass audience. It was used to influence key policy makers as well as the public, and also to discredit President Kennedy, as it tried to do on numerous occasions.
Who were these guys? Well in looking at the Life magazine masthead of that era you will find a number of pertinent names – including Henry and Clare Booth Luce, C.D. Jackson and Issac Don Levine...
With the new Democratic administration, Luce brought aboard a new publisher, C. D. (Charles Douglas) Jackson, an OSS hand and President Eisenhower’s personal administrative assistant on psychological warfare and Cold War strategy.