The Life He Led

By ericg July 1, 2010

Ralph Graves, who divides his time between Sarasota and Martha’s Vineyard, is a novelist and a former longtime staffer at LIFE, the legendary weekly picture magazine that enthralled readers from the 1930s through the early 1970s. He joined LIFE in 1948 and was named its top editor in 1969. His most recent book, The Life I Led, shares some of his highly personal memories of his days at LIFE, which was launched by Time founder Henry Luce.


Everybody called him one of two things. To the huge bulk of us, if we ever spoke to him at all, he was Mr. Luce. High-level insiders called him Harry, but only after making dead certain in their own minds that that would be permissible. Nobody ever called him Henry—except for one person, President Dwight Eisenhower…

At the time [a moment when Luce felt the major weekly LIFE article needed to be better defined], I still called him Mr. Luce. I had been an editor in the Articles Department for five years and the boss for the last two. It was the best job I had in my 35 years in the company. Not the highest ranking, but the one I liked best. I reviewed our articles and my review confirmed what I already thought and had practiced from the start. The main LIFE article could be about any interesting subject or person or story. The entire world was the subject. The very last thing it needed was a restrictive definition.

Our duel began when Luce and I met for dinner at Manhattan’s prestigious Lotos Club. He was then in his early 60s, medium-tall, trim, wearing heavy, dark-rimmed glasses under the very bushiest gray eyebrows. Luce and I argued and arm wrestled through three long, long dinners. It was good fun for us both. Every time he proposed a limitation on what the LIFE article should be, I was able to mention articles we both admired that did not fit into his restriction. “Well,” he would say, “all right, we have to broaden that a little bit.” Then he would come back with some other restriction or suggestion, always provocative, always stimulating, which I would try to counter with other good articles that shouldn’t be ruled out. The principal result of these meetings was not the definition or nondefinition of the LIFE article, but that Harry Luce and I got to know each other and had a lively time arguing together. From then on we got along very well.

Graves worked with a host of acclaimed photographers during his years at LIFE, from Margaret Bourke-White to Gordon Parks to Alfred Eisenstaedt.

One of the strange relationships at Time Inc. was that Henry Luce, an intense intellectual, got along so well with [the rather childlike] Alfred Eisenstaedt, who shot the best portraits of Luce. The explanation is that they shared an overwhelming curiosity about everything.

Eisie and I did a big color story together on the Florida Everglades. Eisie was a cheapskate. He didn’t cheat on his expense account, as a number of others did, but he took every possible advantage. If you used your own car on a story, LIFE allowed you seven cents a mile. Given this profit-center window, Eisie drove his new car all the way from New York to Florida, and his was the car we used, at seven cents a mile, throughout the story.

But this was a new car, and Eisie, very much in character, took pristine care of it. Back in the 1950s, many of the narrow little roads through the Everglades were dirt and one-track, and they threaded between trees and bushes, some of them thorny, all potentially scratchy to Eisie’s brand-new car. He would not accept scratches, even at seven cents a mile. My most indelible memory of our weeks in the gorgeous Everglades is that I am walking down some narrow dirt road, bushes on both sides, my arms stretched out wide to indicate clearance and looking back over my shoulder toward the car, shouting to Eisie, “It’s okay, keep coming.”

In the process of doing the story, we both learned the difference between an anhinga and a cormorant and a heron, and we did a lot of alligator pictures, and we knew we had to find a roseate spoonbill, as indeed we did.

We also got chiggers, those tiny, nasty red bugs that itch like crazy, worse than poison ivy. My case was far worse than Eisie’s. I think he was just a little bit jealous. Why was I, a young editor, suffering worse than he was?

Graves also had encounters with U.S. Presidents, including one memorable one with the dominating Lyndon Baines Johnson.

I never worked in our Washington bureau, so I never reported on or wrote about any of the eight American presidents who held office during my long career but I did spend one extraordinary five-hour, intimate evening in the White House with that monstrous figure, President Lyndon Johnson.

By monstrous I don’t mean, in dictionary terms, either “ugly or frightening appearance” or “inhumanly or outrageously evil,” although severe critics would disagree. What I do mean is “extremely and dauntingly large.” I can’t remember anyone I ever met who seemed so much larger than life.

I and several of my colleagues were summoned to Washington in the spring of 1964 because of an investigative story we were doing on the President’s finances, both LBJ’s and his wife, Lady Bird’s. The White House knew all about our prospective story and demanded that we appear to discuss it in detail.

The five-hour meeting took place in the family dining room on the second floor of the White House. A long, bare, polished dark wooden table, chairs down the sides with one chair at each end. The President, seated at the head, rose when we walked in and shook hands with each of us. A huge, firm handclasp, a direct stare into each face. Very tall, a dominant figure, the voice still full of Texas in spite of all his years in Washington.

The only document in sight was a sheaf of standard-size sheets of paper stapled together. It lay on the dining room table at Johnson’s right hand. Johnson made an elaborate show of going through those pages. With the sheets in hand he looked around the table at each of us. Then he carefully licked a forefinger and turned a page and looked at it. Then he looked around at us again, licked his finger again, and turned another page. Finally, he said, “This is a report on all the people you been talking to about my money. And my wife’s money. They are my enemies, so I know every lie they told you.”

He tossed the sheaf back on the table and never referred to it again. He looked at us slowly, one by one. The mournful eyes, the long head, the powerful nose, the big long ears. “Gentlemen,” he said with ponderous sincerity, “I’m the only President you got.”

He explained that if the one and only President was falsely accused or misrepresented in the public press, the country itself would be damaged because the public would lose faith in its leader. The press has a sacred duty to avoid that, especially when it comes to the President himself.

And we must not think that we could print something false that he or his press secretary could simply deny. He shook his head, dead serious. In politics, he said, you never deny. No matter how wrong it is. “So get it right before you publish.”

He glared around the table. “Ask me a question. I got nothing to hide. I’ll take down my pants, I’ll show you my pecker. But don’t you write that it’s nine inches long if you’re too lazy to look.”

For the next two hours, he was vivid, vitriolic, scataological and extremely funny. He never indicated that a single word was “off the record” or “you can’t repeat this.” He was too big, too monstrous for that kind of nonsense.

It was all politics and personalities. He frequently laid into “those Kennedys.” He plainly despised and hated and feared Bobby Kennedy, repeatedly holding him up to sharp ridicule. He mocked his own popular vice-president, Hubert Humphrey.

The forever FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, long the most feared man in Washington, was lightly tossed off as an “old fairy” but “very useful” to a president. Hoover sent Johnson super-secret FBI reports and Johnson said he read them with great relish. He described how one evening he was idly watching a TV attack by a leading opposition senator while at the same time reading a juicy FBI report about who was patronizing an elegant new Washington whorehouse. “Here is this son of a bitch attacking my morals on TV and here he is right in this report f***-ing a hundred dollar whore!”

At one point Graves found himself making some news headlines, due to LIFE’s involvement with the Clifford Irving/Howard Hughes “autobiography.”

Unless you are Franklin Roosevelt or Winston Churchill, the chances of seeing yourself portrayed in a Hollywood movie under your own name are very slim. But that happened to me in the Richard Gere movie The Hoax, about Clifford Irving’s famous phony autobiography of Howard Hughes….

I was the one who, under a severe pledge of total secrecy, actually bought the magazine rights for LIFE. From that day through all the investigating and challenging and unraveling, right up to the final denouement, I was an active participant in everything that happened. I spent substantial time with Clifford Irving himself, some of it at crucial moments.

I was also the biggest single fool in the shipload of fools at McGraw-Hill and Time Inc.

I was in the journalism business. I should have asked McGraw-Hill and asked myself a flock of tough questions. Why would Howard Hughes, invisible for years, decide that he now wanted to tell his story—and tell it to, of all people, this minor figure Clifford Irving?

Answer: Journalists are suckers for a scoop. And Howard Hughes was at that time perhaps the most super-scoop in the world. We all wanted to believe this was true, me most of all—and with the least justification. I should have known better.

Cliff said that it might be very helpful to him if he could get a look at our company files on Hughes. They might help him to ask Howard sharper questions. Since we were now on the same team and eager to get the best possible book, I said sure, why not, but he could not take the files out of the Time-Life Building. He would have to read them right there, and he could not take them away.

No problem for Cliff. Dave Maness put the big bushel of files in their well-organized, well-labeled manila envelopes in a small office and locked Cliff inside. The files proved an invaluable bonanza. Cliff photographed many, many pages with a handheld camera. One of the documents he photographed was Frank McCulloch’s last long interview with Hughes, never published by Time. (Bear this in mind when we reach the last quarter of this game.)

The rough manuscript that Cliff eventually produced was almost a thousand pages long in question-and-answer form. Working from all the documents they had collected, both published and unpublished, he and his partner [Richard] Suskind had taken turns pretending to be Hughes while the other asked brief questions. They had taped and then transcribed these “interviews.” While they invented many lively little touches, the huge bulk was based on careful research. Make no mistake, they did an enormous amount of hard work.

The forthcoming Irving book was announced on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day. Hughes’ lawyer Chester Davis instantly denounced it as a fraud. Frank McCulloch, the Time correspondent who had known Hughes quite well, got a call telling him that Hughes wanted to talk to him. The phone call to come from Hughes was a critical moment in the saga.

The event took place on the corporate 34th floor of the Time-Life building. In one office were McCulloch, Time Inc. lawyer Jack Dowd, Time Inc. vice president and spokesman Donald Wilson, along with Chester Davis and his supporting lawyers. In a separate office down the hall were Cliff, his colleague Richard Suskind, a small McGraw-Hill contingent and me. None of us could hear the phone conversation. We were all standing by, waiting to be told the result.

It was the only time in this long caper that I saw Clifford Irving lose his cool. He fidgeted, he doodled, he complained, he told us it could not possibly be the real Hughes, it could only be an imposter, a fraud, a fake. Finally he could not stand the suspense. He announced that he and Suskind had a dinner date at a restaurant with a lawyer friend, and by God they were leaving. And by God they left.

 Following Hughes’ denial of authorizing the book, Irving was convicted of fraud for forging his handwriting and depositing checks meant for Hughes into a Swiss bank account. He spent a total of 17 months in prison.

After Cliff pled guilty and was sentenced to prison in June 1972, I got a letter from a lawyer asking if I would be willing to write my support for a reduced sentence.

Back then I was still angry and embarrassed by all the anguish and humiliation he had caused all of us, very much including me personally. I threw the letter away. I have not seen or heard from Cliff since then.

But I wish now, all these years later, that I had given my support for a reduced sentence. He had, after all, given me and all the rest of us dupes a journalistic hayride that would be hard to beat.

I take my final ironic delight from Cliff’s published comment on The Hoax movie.

He said it wasn’t quite accurate.

Filed under
Show Comments