The Americanization of Edward Bok/Chapter 18

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The Americanization of Edward Bok by Edward W. Bok
Chapter 18: Building Up a Magazine

THE NEWSPAPER paragraphers were now having a delightful time with Edward Bok and his woman’s magazine, and he was having a delightful time with them. The editor’s publicity sense made him realize how valuable for his purposes was all this free advertising. The paragraphers believed, in their hearts, that they were annoying the young editor; they tried to draw his fire through their articles. But he kept quiet, put his tongue in his cheek, and determined to give them some choice morsels for their wit.

He conceived the idea of making familiar to the public the women who were back of the successful men of the day. He felt sure that his readers wanted to know about these women. But to attract his newspaper friends he labelled the series, “Unknown Wives of Well-Known Men” and “Clever Daughters of Clever Men.”

The alliterative titles at once attracted the paragraphers; they fell upon them like hungry trout, and a perfect fusillade of paragraphs began. This is exactly what the editor wanted; and he followed these two series immediately by inducing the daughter of Charles Dickens to write of “My Father as I Knew Him,” and Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher, of “Mr. Beecher as I Knew Him.” Bok now felt that he had given the newspapers enough ammunition to last for some time; and he turned his attention to building up a more permanent basis for his magazine.

The two authors of that day who commanded more attention than any others were William Dean Howells and Rudyard Kipling. Bok knew that these two would give to his magazine the literary quality that it needed, and so he laid them both under contribution. He bought Mr. Howells’s new novel, “The Coast of Bohemia,” and arranged that Kipling’s new novelette upon which he was working should come to the magazine. Neither the public nor the magazine editors had expected Bok to break out along these more permanent lines, and magazine publishers began to realize that a new competitor had sprung up in Philadelphia. Bok knew they would feel this; so before he announced Mr. Howells’s new novel, he contracted with the novelist to follow this with his autobiography. This surprised the editors of the older magazines, for they realized that the Philadelphia editor had completely tied up the leading novelist of the day for his next two years’ output.

Meanwhile, in order that the newspapers might be well supplied with barbs for their shafts, he published an entire number of his magazine written by famous daughters of famous men. This unique issue presented contributions by the daughters of Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, President Harrison, Horace Greeley, William M. Thackeray, William Dean Howells, General Sherman, Julia Ward Howe, Jefferson Davis, Mr. Gladstone, and a score of others. This issue simply filled the paragraphers with glee. Then once more Bok turned to material calculated to cement the foundation for a more permanent structure.

He noted, early in its progress, the gathering strength of the drift toward woman suffrage, and realized that the American woman was not prepared, in her knowledge of her country, to exercise the privilege of the ballot. Bok determined to supply the deficiency to his readers, and concluded to put under contract the President of the United States, Benjamin Harrison, the moment he left office, to write a series of articles explaining the United States. No man knew this subject better than the President; none could write better; and none would attract such general attention to his magazine, reasoned Bok. He sought the President, talked it over with him, and found him favorable to the idea. But the President was in doubt at that time whether he would be a candidate for another term, and frankly told Bok that he would be taking too much risk to wait for him. He suggested that the editor try to prevail upon his then secretary of state, James G. Blaine, to undertake the series, and offered to see Mr. Blaine and induce him to a favorable consideration. Bok acquiesced, and a few days afterward received from Mr. Blaine a request to come to Washington.

Bok had had a previous experience with Mr. Blaine which had impressed him to an unusual degree. Many years before, he had called upon him at his hotel in New York, seeking his autograph, had been received, and as the statesman was writing his signature he said: “Your name is a familiar one to me. I have had correspondence with an Edward Bok who is secretary of state for the Transvaal Republic. Are you related to him?”

Bok explained that this was his uncle, and that he was named for him.

Years afterward Bok happened to be at a public meeting where Mr. Blaine was speaking, and the statesman, seeing him, immediately called him by name. Bok knew of the reputed marvels of Mr. Blaine’s memory, but this proof of it amazed him.

“It is simply inconceivable, Mr. Blaine,” said Bok, “that you should remember my name after all these years.”

“Not at all, my boy,” returned Mr. Blaine. “Memorizing is simply association. You associate a fact or an incident with a name and you remember the name. It never leaves you. The moment I saw you I remembered you told me that your uncle was secretary of state for the Transvaal. That at once brought your name to me. You see how simple a trick it is.”

But Bok did not see, since remembering the incident was to him an even greater feat of memory than recalling the name. It was a case of having to remember two things instead of one.

At all events, Bok was no stranger to James G. Blaine when he called upon him at his Lafayette Place home in Washington.

“You’ve gone ahead in the world some since I last saw you,” was the statesman’s greeting. “It seems to go with the name.”

This naturally broke the ice for the editor at once.

“Let’s go to my library where we can talk quietly. What train are you making back to Philadelphia, by the way?”

“The four, if I can,” replied Bok.

“Excuse me a moment,” returned Mr. Blaine, and when he came back to the room, he said: “Now let’s talk over this interesting proposition that the President has told me about.”

The two discussed the matter and completed arrangements whereby Mr. Blaine was to undertake the work. Toward the latter end of the talk, Bok had covertly—as he thought—looked at his watch to keep track of his train.

“It’s all right about that train,” came from Mr. Blaine, with his back toward Bok, writing some data of the talk at his desk. “You’ll make it all right.”

Bok wondered how he should, as it then lacked only seventeen minutes of four. But as Mr. Blaine reached the front door, he said to the editor: “My carriage is waiting at the curb to take you to the station, and the coachman has your seat in the parlor car.”

And with this knightly courtesy, Mr. Blaine shook hands with Bok, who was never again to see him, nor was the contract ever to be fulfilled. For early in 1893 Mr. Blaine passed away without having begun the work.

Again Bok turned to the President, and explained to him that, for some reason or other, the way seemed to point to him to write the articles himself. By that time President Harrison had decided that he would not succeed himself. Accordingly he entered into an agreement with the editor to begin to write the articles immediately upon his retirement from office. And the day after Inauguration Day every newspaper contained an Associated Press despatch announcing the former President’s contract with The Ladies’ Home Journal.

Shortly afterward, Benjamin Harrison’s articles on “This Country of Ours” successfully appeared in the magazine.

During Bok’s negotiations with President Harrison in connection with his series of articles, he was called to the White House for a conference. It was midsummer. Mrs. Harrison was away at the seashore, and the President was taking advantage of her absence by working far into the night.

The President, his secretary, and Bok sat down to dinner.

The Marine Band was giving its weekly concert on the green, and after dinner the President suggested that Bok and he adjourn to the “back lot” and enjoy the music.

“You have a coat?” asked the President.

“No, thank you,” Bok answered. “I don’t need one.”

“Not in other places, perhaps,” he said, “but here you do. The dampness comes up from the Potomac at nightfall, and it’s just as well to be careful. It’s Mrs. Harrison’s dictum,” he added smiling. “Halford, send up for one of my light coats, will you, please?”

Bok remarked, as he put on the President’s coat, that this was probably about as near as he should ever get to the presidency.

“Well, it’s a question whether you want to get nearer to it,” answered the President. He looked very white and tired in the moonlight.

“Still,” Bok said with a smile, “some folks seem to like it well enough to wish to get it a second time.”

“True,” he answered, “but that’s what pride will do for a man. Try one of these cigars.”

A cigar! Bok had been taking his tobacco in smaller doses with paper around them. He had never smoked a cigar. Still, one cannot very well refuse a presidential cigar!

“Thank you,” Bok said as he took one from the President’s case. He looked at the cigar and remembered all he had read of Benjamin Harrison’s black cigars. This one was black—inky black—and big.

“Allow me,” he heard the President suddenly say, as he handed him a blazing match. There was no escape. The aroma was delicious, but— Two or three whiffs of that cigar, and Bok decided the best thing to do was to let it go out. He did.

“I have allowed you to talk so much,” said the President after a while, “that you haven’t had a chance to smoke. Allow me,” and another match crackled into flame.

“Thank you,” the editor said, as once more he lighted the cigar, and the fumes went clear up into the farthest corner of his brain.

“Take a fresh cigar,” said the President after a while. “That doesn’t seem to burn well. You will get one like that once in a while, although I am careful about my cigars.”

“No, thanks, Mr. President,” Bok said hurriedly. “It’s I, not the cigar.”

“Well, prove it to me with another,” was the quick rejoinder, as he held out his case, and in another minute a match again crackled. “There is only one thing worse than a bad smoke, and that is an office-seeker,” chuckled the President.

Bok couldn’t prove that the cigars were bad, naturally. So smoke that cigar he did, to the bitter end, and it was bitter! In fifteen minutes his head and stomach were each whirling around, and no more welcome words had Bok ever heard than when the President said: “Well, suppose we go in. Halford and I have a day’s work ahead of us yet.”

The President went to work.

Bok went to bed. He could not get there quick enough, and he didn’t—that is, not before he had experienced that same sensation of which Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: he never could understand, he said, why young authors found so much trouble in getting into the magazines, for his first trip to Europe was not a day old before, without even the slightest desire or wish on his part, he became a contributor to the Atlantic!

The next day, and for days after, Bok smelled, tasted, and felt that presidential cigar!

A few weeks afterward, Bok was talking after dinner with the President at a hotel in New York, when once more the cigar-case came out and was handed to Bok.

“No, thank you, Mr. President,” was the instant reply, as visions of his night in the White House came back to him. “I am like the man from the West who was willing to try anything once.”

And he told the President the story of the White House cigar.

The editor decided to follow General Harrison’s discussion of American affairs by giving his readers a glimpse of foreign politics, and he fixed upon Mr. Gladstone as the one figure abroad to write for him. He sailed for England, visited Hawarden Castle, and proposed to Mr. Gladstone that he should write a series of twelve autobiographical articles which later could be expanded into a book.

Bok offered fifteen thousand dollars for the twelve articles—a goodly price in those days—and he saw that the idea and the terms attracted the English statesman. But he also saw that the statesman was not quite ready. He decided, therefore, to leave the matter with him, and keep the avenue of approach favorably open by inducing Mrs. Gladstone to write for him. Bok knew that Mrs. Gladstone had helped her husband in his literary work, that she was a woman who had lived a full-rounded life, and after a day’s visit and persuasion, with Mr. Gladstone as an amused looker-on, the editor closed a contract with Mrs. Gladstone for a series of reminiscent articles “From a Mother’s Life.”

Some time after Bok had sent the check to Mrs. Gladstone, he received a letter from Mr. Gladstone expressing the opinion that his wife must have written with a golden pen, considering the size of the honorarium. “But,” he added, “she is so impressed with this as the first money she has ever earned by her pen that she is reluctant to part with the check. The result is that she has not offered it for deposit, and has decided to frame it. Considering the condition of our exchequer, I have tried to explain to her, and so have my son and daughter, that if she were to present the check for payment and allow it to pass through the bank, the check would come back to you and that I am sure your company would return it to her as a souvenir of the momentous occasion. Our arguments are of no avail, however, and it occurred to me that an assurance from you might make the check more useful than it is at present!”

Bok saw with this disposition that, as he had hoped, the avenue of favorable approach to Mr. Gladstone had been kept open. The next summer Bok again visited Hawarden, where he found the statesman absorbed in writing a life of Bishop Butler, from which it was difficult for him to turn away. He explained that it would take at least a year or two to finish this work. Bok saw, of course, his advantage, and closed a contract with the English statesman whereby he was to write the twelve autobiographical articles immediately upon his completion of the work then under his hand.

Here again, however, as in the case of Mr. Blaine, the contract was never fulfilled, for Mr. Gladstone passed away before he could free his mind and begin on the work.

The vicissitudes of an editor’s life were certainly beginning to demonstrate themselves to Edward Bok.

The material that the editor was publishing and the authors that he was laying under contribution began to have marked effect upon the circulation of the magazine, and it was not long before the original figures were doubled, an edition—enormous for that day—of seven hundred and fifty thousand copies was printed and sold each month, the magical figure of a million was in sight, and the periodical was rapidly taking its place as one of the largest successes of the day.

Mr. Curtis’s single proprietorship of the magazine had been changed into a corporation called The Curtis Publishing Company, with a capital of five hundred thousand dollars, with Mr. Curtis as president, and Bok as vice-president.

The magazine had by no means an easy road to travel financially. The doubling of the subscription price to one dollar per year had materially checked the income for the time being; the huge advertising bills, sometimes exceeding three hundred thousand dollars a year, were difficult to pay; large credit had to be obtained, and the banks were carrying a considerable quantity of Mr. Curtis’s notes. But Mr. Curtis never wavered in his faith in his proposition and his editor. In the first he invested all he had and could borrow, and to the latter he gave his undivided support. The two men worked together rather as father and son—as, curiously enough, they were to be later—than as employer and employee. To Bok, the daily experience of seeing Mr. Curtis finance his proposition in sums that made the publishing world of that day gasp with sceptical astonishment was a wonderful opportunity, of which the editor took full advantage so as to learn the intricacies of a world which up to that time he had known only in a limited way.

What attracted Bok immensely to Mr. Curtis’s methods was their perfect simplicity and directness. He believed absolutely in the final outcome of his proposition: where others saw mist and failure ahead, he saw clear weather and the port of success. Never did he waver: never did he deflect from his course. He knew no path save the direct one that led straight to success, and, through his eyes, he made Bok see it with equal clarity until Bok wondered why others could not see it. But they could not. Cyrus Curtis would never be able, they said, to come out from under the load he had piled up. Where they differed from Mr. Curtis was in their lack of vision: they could not see what he saw!

It has been said that Mr. Curtis banished patent-medicine advertisements from his magazine only when he could afford to do so. That is not true, as a simple incident will show. In the early days, he and Bok were opening the mail one Friday full of anxiety because the pay-roll was due that evening, and there was not enough money in the bank to meet it. From one of the letters dropped a certified check for five figures for a contract equal to five pages in the magazine. It was a welcome sight, for it meant an easy meeting of the pay-roll for that week and two succeeding weeks. But the check was from a manufacturing patent-medicine company. Without a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Curtis slipped it back into the envelope, saying: “Of course, that we can’t take.” He returned the check, never gave the matter a second thought, and went out and borrowed more money to meet his pay-roll!

With all respect to American publishers, there are very few who could have done this—or indeed, would do it to-day, under similar conditions—particularly in that day when it was the custom for all magazines to accept patent-medicine advertising; The Ladies’ Home Journal was practically the only publication of standing in the United States refusing that class of business!

Bok now saw advertising done on a large scale by a man who believed in plenty of white space surrounding the announcement in the advertisement. He paid Mr. Howells $10,000 for his autobiography, and Mr. Curtis spent $50,000 in advertising it. “It is not expense,” he would explain to Bok, “it is investment. We are investing in a trade-mark. It will all come back in time.” And when the first $100,000 did not come back as Mr. Curtis figured, he would send another $100,000 after it, and then both came back.

Bok’s experience in advertisement writing was now to stand him in excellent stead. He wrote all the advertisements and from that day to the day of his retirement, practically every advertisement of the magazine was written by him.

Mr. Curtis believed that the editor should write the advertisements of a magazine’s articles. “You are the one who knows them, what is in them and your purpose,” he said to Bok, who keenly enjoyed this advertisement writing. He put less and less in his advertisements. Mr. Curtis made them larger and larger in the space which they occupied in the media used. In this way The Ladies’ Home Journal advertisements became distinctive for their use of white space, and as the advertising world began to say: “You can’t miss them.” Only one feature was advertised at one time, but the “feature” was always carefully selected for its wide popular appeal, and then Mr. Curtis spared no expense to advertise it abundantly. As much as $400,000 was spent in one year in advertising only a few features—a gigantic sum in those days, approached by no other periodical. But Mr. Curtis believed in showing the advertising world that he was willing to take his own medicine.

Naturally, such a campaign of publicity announcing the most popular attractions offered by any magazine of the day had but one effect: the circulation leaped forward by bounds, and the advertising columns of the magazine rapidly filled up.

The success of The Ladies’ Home Journal began to look like an assured fact, even to the most sceptical.

As a matter of fact, it was only at its beginning, as both publisher and editor knew. But they desired to fill the particular field of the magazine so quickly and fully that there would be small room for competition. The woman’s magazine field was to belong to them!