Lila Bell was the co-founder and co-chairperson of Reader’s Digest, the popular magazine which garnered a massive following, crossing 30 million subscribers in Bell’s lifetime. Today, Reader’s Digest is synonymous with brilliantly condensed articles covering a wide array of topics and stands strong with a 100 million subscriber base across the globe. While Reader’s Digest will always remain Bell’s creation, her legacy endures owing to her dozens of philanthropic endowments towards preserving culture, arts, music and even natural beauty.
YWCA – the stint that shaped her character
Wallace was born Lila Bell Acheson to a Presbyterian father and a housewife mother. Her childhood was naturally inclined to church visits and gatherings, where Bell learnt the Presbyterian virtues of spending time and money on the needy, austerity and developing genuine interest in the well-being of underprivileged people. Later in her life, these traits would shine bright as Bell would be felicitated for her extensive philanthropic activities.
After graduating from the University of Oregon, Bell taught for a brief period at a school. After teaching for 2 years, Bell joined the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), volunteering at the YWCA’s summer home in Puget Sound. It was the time around onset of war, and YWCA was beginning to get concerned for the women employed in factories at that time.
Bell was asked to travel to eastern side of America and make the conditions more relaxing for the working (some single) moms – many with their husbands protecting the borders. Bell was a great support to those females, organising hot meals for late night shift workers and planning musical events and other recreational activities. After her time spent with the women factory workers, Bell was assigned to more industrial areas by the Labour Department where she further organised recreational events. Many workers and soldiers in those areas were also prone to isolation and helplessness owing to the war. Lila took it upon herself to keep everyone in high spirits – she started giving public speeches and motivational lectures, which were attended by thousands of people in those areas.
Launching the Digest
During one such stint in 1920, she was deployed at Minneapolis to establish a YWCA for industrial workers. It was here that she met William Roy DeWitt Wallace, an advertising professional who had served in World War before being shot by a shrapnel. DeWitt was still healing at that time, and spent his convalescence condensing magazine articles in bite-sized format – a hobby he had acquired since the start of his career. The two became good friends, and after few years, decided to marry. With that decision, they also jointly became invested in the magazine Wallace was preparing, peppered with easy-to-digest general articles.
Both were committed to fully investing their time in making the magazine a rousing success. They spent days and nights in the New York Public Library, scouring thousands of magazine articles to find the possible one for their condensed magazine. Lila was chiefly responsible for compiling the first list of subscribers, soliciting contacts from friends and relatives.
Finally, in 1922, a year after their marriage, the Reader’s Digest was launched on the promise of 1,500 subscribers who had agreed to buy their first edition. Each magazine was sold at 25c a piece, and the original print was made for 5,000 copies. Quite contrary to both their expectations, the Digest quickly became a staggering success. By 1924, the subscribers had quintupled to 6,000. By 1926, it had again quintupled to cross 25,000 subscribers. And within 10 years, Reader’s Digest had already touched the 1 million mark.
The astounding success of the magazine was attributed to its witty, well-written and humorous articles which covered a wide legion of topics from home, family life and relationships, to health, food and personal accounts.
Making a home out of an office
Bell was instrumental in the selection of articles which finally got printed in the Digest. With the expansion of business, the Wallace couple soon moved to a three-storey redbrick building in Pleasantville, New York. Here, Bell completely immersed herself in leading the interior and exterior design of the building – the office had tea-gardens, expensive arts adorned on office walls, space for employees to grow their own vegetables and French glass doors in some cabins. Bell was determined to provide a stimulating environment for each of her employees, and packed their benefits to the brim – five day workweeks (with early Friday closures to allow employees some early time for gardening), free turkeys on Thanksgiving, car tuning at the office garage, and space to grow their own vegetables in the campus’ sprawling gardens.
Former Reader’s Digest senior editor and Chappaqua resident, Suzanne Chazin, recalled “I remember the Chagall on the wall.” Chazin continues, “For the people who were there, it was daily life. Now, it seems sort of amazing but we were around this decor every day, with all this art on the walls that you could just walk up to.”
If there was one thing the Bell were more famous for than Reader’s Digest, it was the sheer number of philanthropic activities she engaged in over the course of her life. Her Presbyterian roots and early experience serving as a YWCA volunteer had instilled in her a strong belief in giving back to the community. Also, over a period of time, Bell developed particular fondness for everything artsy, including music, paintings and even fresh flowers.
One particular interest of her was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to which she donated generously. Bell bore the cost for the restoration of the museum’s Great Hall; the museum returned the favour by naming one gallery containing 32 pieces of Egyptian art in her name. In addition, she donated $1mn dollars to save Abu Simbe, an ancient Egyptian temple. Her Wallace Trust foundation also pledged to bear the cost of fresh flowers kept in the Museum’s Great Hall.
Similarly, Bell donated large sums elsewhere too; she donated $8 million to The Julliard Schools for its music and art programs, $5 million to the New York Zoological Society and many million dollars to each of her alma mater.
Leaving behind a lasting legacy
All in all, Bell’s donations totalled an astounding $60 million dollars. Both she and her husband were honoured by then US President Richard Nixon (of whom she was a big donor) with the Medal of Freedom, US’s highest civilian honour, in 1972 for their philanthropic efforts.
Lila Bell Acheson Wallace will always be remembered for founding Reader’s Digest, at one point the most widely circulated magazine in the world with over 100 million subscribers. But more importantly, she will hold a special place in the hearts of her employees who had the privilege of receiving her maternal care, and the millions of people who benefited through her philanthropic efforts.
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Anant Gupta is a writing analyst at Qrius.