The JFK assassination industry

In our media-liberated age, it is hard to grasp the almost monopolistic hold the large-format weeklies enjoyed over any news that could be photographed. Circulation numbers don’t reflect their impact or ubiquity. (Life peaked in 1969 at 8.5 million subscribers; Look was not far behind, with 7.75 million that year. This was a time when the U.S. population was just reaching 200 million.)

Before TV took over the role–and JFK’s assassination marks a key phase of the transition—Life and Look andThe Saturday Evening Post were charged with illustrating and interpreting national and world events for the white middle class. Between 1963 and 1967, Life devoted 10 covers to JFK. (During these years only the cover of Time was a more valuable piece of journalistic real estate.) Three covers alone appeared before the end of 1963: “Murder of the President” (Nov. 29); “Kennedy’s Last Journey” (Dec. 6); and an undated “John F. Kennedy Memorial Edition.” These issues were extremely popular, cherished even. Copies can still be found in attics all over America.

In the months that followed, the editors turned their focus to JFK’s accused killer. “Lee Harvey Oswald” (Feb. 21) and “Oswald’s Full Russian Diary: He and Marina in Minsk” (July 10) were both covers, and when the Warren Commission released its report, Life asked committee member (and future U.S. president) Gerald Ford for his first-hand assessment of the findings (Oct. 2).

A magazine war broke out in 1965 over which one would publish the first official history of JFK’s life. Life excerpted Arthur Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days over two issues in summer and fall. Look retaliated by devoting three issues to Theodore Sorenson’s Kennedy. Finally, in 1967 Look trumped its rival by publishing William Manchester’s The Death of a President: November 20-25, 1963 in four separate issues.