What's Nostalgia Got To Do With It? —
Mementoes From The Trash Bin Of History
Vol. I, Issue I - April 2010

True Story, March 1945, Volume 52, No. 2
Editor: Henry Lieferant
Publisher: Bernarr “Body Love” MacFadden
First Issue Published: 1919
Remembered As: The most widely read confessional magazine of the 1920s
Circulation At Heyday: over two million (or so they claimed)
Proceeds used to: Buy MacFadden an airplane (which he named Miss True Story)
Supporter of: War Bonds! Adverbs! Exclamation points!
Aesthetically Against: Dandruff, dry skin, constipation, halitosis, body odor
Appeared How Often: Monthly
Chief Competitors: True Experiences; True Romances; and True Love and Romance (also published by MacFadden)
Pledge to Readers: “The stories in this magazine are about REAL PEOPLE and except when otherwise stated, fictitious names, which bear absolutely no relation to the real characters and places involved in the stories, have been used.”

There she was on a dusty magazine rack at an antique shop in Kalona, IA: film starlet Barbara Britton, peering upon me with starry green eyes. The magazine’s masthead held great promise: True Story.

Pick me, Barbara seemed to say. I’ll tell you secrets.

So I did—and, in the process, met the literary precursor to You-Tube, reality TV, and other user-generated media.

Fitness guru Bernarr MacFadden started a string of publications in the early 1920s that introduced an entirely new concept in American journalism: the confessional. Readers were encouraged to contribute the bulk of its content and, in doing so, received cash rewards. For example, in this issue of True Story, the column “I’ll Never Forget” asks readers to compose 350-word memoirs about “some happening in your own life that has persisted in your memory throughout the years” and to “put it on paper as concisely and dramatically as you can.” Published pieces earn the author $10. The section “Home Problems Forum,” meanwhile, invites couples to write in with their relationship problems, and offers readers up to $15 to solve them. This issue features the plight of “Carol and Eddie:” childhood sweethearts who wish to marry before Eddie gets shipped overseas. Their parents think they are too young, however. Should they elope? Third place winner Miss M. S. advises Carol to: “do all in your power to make him happy and right now the one thing that would make him the happiest is to marry him.” First place winner Mrs. E. N., meanwhile, thinks they should not only marry but pop out a baby as quickly as possible. “Those four parents would love it so much that they would be thrilled to help you out. That could even be their contribution to the war effort.”

What happens when a magazine invites non-writers to supply their copy? Adverbs, apparently. Lots of adverbs. Especially after dialogue attribution. Here’s a smattering: “I cried heartily.” “I said indifferently.” “She said haughtily.” “I laughed shakily.” “I rebuked faintly.” “I thought viciously.” “I said drowsily.” “I demanded caustically.”

Another phenomenon appears to be exclamation points—not just on every page, but every paragraph, and sometimes every other line. Here is a segment from a column called “How Did You Meet?”:

“It’s astonishing how much help I needed with my personal problems! It’s equally astonishing how much time I spent figuring out short-cuts for the Statistical Department! Eleanor and I grew to depend upon each other to such an extent that a mere daily lunch hour provided too little time for our respective dilemmas. Frequently I spent at evening at her house, helping her with some problem she had found insurmountable. It wasn’t long before we both admitted to each other that we were creating office predicaments – in order to have an excuse for spending more time together!”

As for the prose, it is the purplest I’ve seen. Although the competition was fierce, the magazine’s best worst metaphor is probably: “Love is a garment woven of rainbows that swirls about you in clouds of glamour when someone who counts takes you somewhere that counts, and you feel very dark and mysterious, very willowy and tall.” Huh? The best worst simile: “Like a dried pea lost in a steaming, souplike caldron of despair.”

The magazine’s dialogue, however, has some inspired moments:

“A musty, dusty sort of woman waited on me, that time. ‘Peared as though she might be your sister.”

“I have no sister,” I seethed. “The resemblance is purely coincidental!”

“Reckon it’s just that that woman had the same sort of long nose. Well now, there I was, with my eyes full of snow, thinking I was walking into an antique shop to get a present for my Aunt Ursula—”

“And here you are, wasting your time.”

“S’pose I could join up with your circulating library?”

How do these elements compose a story? Let’s examine the issue’s “Book Length True Story: My Love Set Free.” The artwork features a red-lipped woman raising her arms into a “V,” surrounded by sea gulls and a kicker announcing: “She was a selfish kid, always reaching greedily for the brass ring—and always missing it. Now that she had a gold ring on her finger, she didn’t want it, and she was neither subtle enough, nor fine enough, to make her husband think that she wanted it.”

The story begins with childhood memory-musing. After being accused by a teacher of “some juvenile crime,” the heroine is kept after school and misses a party, which leaves her seething: “One of these days I’ll be a writer and books will be published with my name on them, and she’ll buy a book and she’ll ask me to autograph it and I’ll say I won’t and I’ll say it in front of a lot of people and she’ll be ashamed.” At home, she begs her parents to send her to college so that she can be a famous writer someday, and when her father balks, she storms upstairs, prompting him to…. commit suicide. No time for sorrow, though: now she and her mother can move to the city! There, she lands a job at a newspaper and falls in love with star reporter Michael Burke. The two eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together for months, until he gets shipped off to cover the war. Before leaving, he confesses that he’s been married all along. Bastard! Until he gets himself killed. Martyr! Our heroine throws herself into her work, “writing unimportant paragraphs” for a fashion magazine, until she captures the fancy of an adman, who begs for her hand in marriage. They abscond to a “seashore place” for their honeymoon and our heroine slips into “a crisp taffeta negligee.”

Here’s where things should get a little steamy, no? A bottle of wine, followed by the dimming of lights and a candle or two? Not here:

“I was suddenly struck—not by panic, but by resentment. Michael had tried so hard to be a soldier, he’d even managed to make a compromise. Why wasn’t Bart in uniform? As he came toward me, I shrilled, ‘No, Bart—no!’ And when he asked, in a puzzled voice, ‘Why, Alma?’ I told him, ‘You’re only a shadow on a brick wall—just a shadow.’”

That’s right. The story turns into a wartime propaganda piece. Indeed, nearly all of them do—including the advertisements. “Have you the vitality for wartime living?” asks an ad for a weight-loss program. In fine print, an ad for Sitroux Tissues issues an apology: “Tissue manufacturers are faced with raw material shortages and production difficulties but we are doing our level best to supply you with as many Sitroux Tissues as possible.” Samsonite urges customers to “Buy a War Bond first!” while Palmolive admonishes: “Soap is made of vital war materials. Don’t waste it!” Meanwhile, recruitment ads for the Women’s Army Corps feature glamorous blue-eyed blondes in smart-looking uniforms posed before fighter planes.

This is True Story’s most redeeming quality: it truly captures a historic moment. World War II won’t end for five more months. This issue reveals a nation anxiously waiting.

Another curiosity about this magazine is that, while its audience is clearly white, middle-class women, it appears to have been assembled almost exclusively by men. Both editors on the masthead are male, as is the publisher and all of the artists. Few articles include bylines, but in those that do, more than half are penned by men.

How does this impact the magazine’s tone? Admittedly, there are a few nods to the rights of women. In one story, the narrator muses: “The days of slavery, when a woman did just what a man ordered, are past. At least, I have always thought they were.” There is also a one-page biography about Elizabeth Blackwell, a pioneer who forced her way into a New York medical college in 1847, practiced in England and France, and opened a women and children’s hospital in New York.

For the most part, however, women are slighted on these pages. The most ghastly example is the “I’ll Never Forget” column in which a young couple quibbles over how to discipline an unruly child. The husband wants to spank the brat, but when the wife protests, he throws her across his lap, shouts “By the Lord Harry, you’re the one that needs the spanking!” and raises his fist above her fanny. She is saved by Little Junior, who pleads “Me do, Daddy, me do!” The wife concludes, “While I do not recommend this system to all families, I must admit that it worked like a charm for us. We had very little trouble with our son after that.”

The advertisements are even harsher, berating women on practically every page. One depicts a tear-streaked young woman beneath the headline: “My mother could have spared me this heartbreak…. If only she had told me these intimate physical facts!” The copy reads: “Well it’s happened. Jim has left me and never was there a better husband! I felt it coming—first his ‘indifference’—then a decided resentment. If only I had known earlier how important intimate feminine cleanliness is to womanly charm, beauty and health.” Enter Zonite: a bottled substance that promises to be “positively non-poisonous, non-irritating, non-burning for feminine hygiene.”

Therein seems to be the mission of True Story: cajoling readers to obey their husbands, moisturize their skin, pump their children with vitamins and laxatives, and buy war bonds. Lots of war bonds.

True Story concludes, 162 exhausting pages later, with an open letter from editor Henry Lieferant, who is pictured puffing on a pipe. His column is called “Sweet Land of Liberty,” and is as propagandistic as it sounds—only not just for Uncle Sam. Rather, Lieferant beseeches his readers to “Pray for faith for Him Who Is Love” and mind those Ten Commandments. This is actually the first time God is evoked in this publication (unless you count the collection of “Our Families Like These During Lent” recipes) and it comes as a surprise, considering publisher MacFadden’s dedication to smut. (Among his achievements: journalism’s first sensationalist tabloid The New York Evening Graphic, which critics nicknamed The New York Pornographic.) Perhaps this is MacFadden’s attempt at moral redemption. There is, after all, a war going on out there.

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