In Print : Two, by Vineyard friends
"Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea." By Linda Greenlaw. Viking, New York. $25.95. On sale June 1.
"The LIFE I Led: The Editor of America's Most Beloved Magazine Tells His Inside, Intimate Story." By Ralph Graves. Tiasquam Press, New York. $12.50.
Ralph Graves is a Chilmarker with a long part-timer's Vineyard pedigree and even a season or two as a columnist for the Vineyard Gazette, telling the story from his summer visitor's vantage point. He sent a copy of his self-published memoir, "The LIFE I Led," inscribed to me, "Who, like the author, is old enough to remember the subject of this book."
He's right, of course, but I hasten to add that I am not alone. Millions of Americans got their news and entertainment, in just a few published words, combined with a multitude of wonderful photographs worth thousands more, from LIFE, which Mr. Graves joined in 1948 and edited beginning in 1969 for the three last years of its life.
LIFE was a Time Inc. weekly first published in 1936, when newspapers across the country published Sunday rotogravure sections. LIFE reflected what was then the nation's innocent and admiring interest in itself, and its growing interest in the larger world with which Americans were uneasily becoming more closely acquainted.
It was not the greatest generation's version of People or Us magazine. Americans then were different. It was not the equivalent of Gawker or TMZ.com. Americans then would almost certainly have been embarrassed by such online species, devoted to the promotional interests of celebrities of minor note and substantial notoriety. Its goal was, as Time Inc.'s chief Henry Luce described it, "to see life, to see the world, to eyewitness great events."
In a talk to journalists, shortly after weekly LIFE folded, Mr. Graves, who set out to be a book publisher, not the editor of a weekly picture magazine, compared LIFE to what he called special or narrow interest publications.
"LIFE always tried to do something different. We tried to talk to people across all barriers and special interests. We weren't talking to our readers as skiers, or teenagers, or TV watchers, or single women, or suburbanites, or inhabitants of some particular community. We were trying to talk to our readers as people, who share the common experience of humanity. LIFE tried to be a bridge of understanding between people who need to know more about each other. For as long as we lasted, I hope we did not fail in that purpose."
They did not. But, as Mr. Graves reports rather dispassionately, LIFE cost much less than it was worth. When it closed in 1972, readership had declined so that the magazine was insupportable. There was no promise, despite heroic tactical and strategic efforts. In this memoir, Mr. Graves's examines many of these efforts in detail. But, after all, the nation of readers who had lived with LIFE for more than 30 years had in 1972 moved on, and who could stop them?
Apart from LIFE itself, the central figure in Mr. Graves book is the editor himself, and no wonder because LIFE was where folks, notables and unnumbered, turned to get the story or get their story out. Many of the men and women whose LIFE stories he tells will be recognizable as Vineyard neighbors and visitors.
Mr. Graves illustrates LIFE's, and his, central national role with a story about Teddy White, the journalist who wrote the Making of the President 1960, and then, for LIFE, the account of the return of the assassinated president's body to Washington in November 1963.
After the funeral, and after the Kennedy family had withdrawn to Hyannisport, the president's widow had something further to say. She wanted Mr. White to report what she would say, and she wanted it reported in the next week's LIFE magazine.
"Would Teddy be willing to come up to Hyannisport and listen to her and then write it for LIFE," Mr. Graves remembers her request. "Yes, of course. Good. Right now tonight, for next week's issue."
The next week's edition was closing that night, Mr. Graves recalls, and the press-wise Kennedys knew it. Would the magazine wait for Mr. White to speak with Mrs. Kennedy and write the story? In consultation with other editors, Mr. Graves, then acting as managing editor, agreed that it would. In Mr. White's midnight report, dictated over the phone from Hyannisport to New York, Mrs. Kennedy, through the instrumentality of her favorite journalist and the nation's favorite magazine, created the Camelot myth.
Linda Greenlaw is a Vineyard favorite, though she lives in Isle au Haut, Maine, where for several years she's been lobstering alongshore. She is the author of five books, "The Hungry Ocean" the most well known. Ms. Greenlaw wrote Hungry Ocean in the wake of Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm," a work of pseudo-journalism and imaginary history, and the even less dependable film account of the book about the sinking of the swordfisherman Andrea Gail in the North Atlantic. Ms. Greenlaw was the highlining captain of the Hannah Boden, which skipped the trip beyond the eastern edge of the Grand Banks and the calamitous weather that sank the boat run by her friend and competitor.
As Ms. Greenlaw puts it, "I'm Linda Greenlaw, the woman who was launched from near obscurity into a full 15 minutes on the other end of the spectrum with the publication of Sebastian Junger's book, 'The Perfect Storm.' Being touted as one of the best swordfish skippers on the entire East Coast was a tough image for me to uphold at the close of a 19-year career full of the fits and starts that define commercial fishing. But I managed to avoid becoming disillusioned with that mega image well enough."
Indeed she did, with a new writing career and lobstering besides. But, lobstering is poor now, the bills have piled up, Ms. Greenlaw is responsible for a teenage girl, and she has a significant other and an extended family. She finds a surprise invitation to return to long-lining attractive, both because she needs the money and because she wonders if she's lost her swordfishing mojo. "Seaworthy" is the story of what became a misbegotten ocean fishing voyage in the context of an intense mid-life self-examination. It won't be giving away too much to tell you that, in the aftermath of this fishing trip, which incidentally begins in Fairhaven, the money problems only worsen - hence the new book - but it turns out that, except for an exceptional run of very bad luck, the results of the introspection are heartening.