Liberty was a weekly, general-interest magazine, originally priced at five cents and subtitled, “A Weekly for Everybody.” It was launched in 1924 by McCormick-Patterson, the publisher until 1931, when it was taken over by Bernarr Macfadden until 1941. At one time it was said to be “the second greatest magazine in America,” ranking behind The Saturday Evening Post in circulation. It featured contributions from some of the biggest politicians, celebrities, authors, and artists of the 20th Century. The contents of the magazine provide a unique look into popular culture, politics, and world events through the Roaring 20s, Great Depression, World War II, and Post-War America. It ceased publication in 1950 but was revived briefly in 1971.
Liberty Magazine was founded by cousins Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick and Captain Joseph Medill Patterson, owners and editors of the Chicago Tribune and New York Daily, respectively. In 1924, the owners held a nation-wide contest to name the magazine offering $20,000 dollars to the winning entry. Among tens of thousands of entries, Charles L. Well won with his title Liberty “A Weekly for Everybody.”
The publication was constantly losing money though achieving high circulation. It is believed to have lost McCormick and Patterson as much as $12 million dollars over the course of their ownership, and as a result, it was sold to Bernarr McFadden in 1931.
Under McFadden’s early leadership, the magazine was a strong proponent of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and an article proclaiming him to be physically fit to hold office may have held substantial sway in the outcome of the election. McFadden led the magazine to considerable success, until it was discovered in 1941 that he had been falsifying circulation reports by as many as 20,000 copies to increase ad revenue. John Cuneo and Kimberly-Clark Paper company took over for McFadden in 1941 and righted the indiscretions, but ad revenues would never recover.
In 1968, Dr. Seuss sued Liberty over a copyright dispute regarding cartoons the author and illustrator had sold to the magazine in 1932. Unlike most publications at the time, Liberty typically bought not only first serial rights, but all publishing and distribution rights to the work of their contributors. Liberty won the case, and their copyrights were solidly established by a landmark ruling in copyright law.
Liberty carried work by many of the most important and influential writers of the period. As a general interest magazine, it featured content across a broad range of genres including adventure, mystery and suspense, western, biographies and autobiographies, love, war, humor, and a whole host of opinion and interest articles. Unusual for a magazine of the era, they bought the rights to many of the printed works outright, and these remain in the hands of the Liberty Library Corporation.
The magazine featured works of fiction from literary giants whose legacy is still strongly felt today. Examples of some of Liberty’s most well known authors include F. Scott Fitzgerald, P.G. Woodhouse, Dashiell Hammett, George Bernard Shaw, Agatha Christie, H.L. Mencken, Robert Benchley, Paul Gallico, Irvin S. Cobb, John Galsworthy, Mackinlay Kantor, F. Hugh Herbert, H.G. Wells, and Louis Bromfield.
As a general interest magazine for the masses, Liberty frequently had opinion pieces by the biggest names in sports and entertainment of the day, many of whom remain iconic in American culture. Featured in Liberty’s pages are articles by Frank Sinatra, Harry Houdini, Groucho Marx, Shirley Temple, Mae West, Jack Dempsey, W.C. Fields, Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Al Capone, Babe Ruth, Mickey Rooney, Jean Harlow, and Joe DiMaggio. The magazine offers a unique look into popular culture during some of the most influential times in American history.
Perhaps giving Liberty its greatest historical significance and value is its contributions by some of the most influential world leaders and historical figures. Included in its lofty ranks are the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, Leon Trotsky, and Amelia Earnhart. The articles written by these figures provide a unique view of world events and insight into the minds of those who changed history, supplemented by an extremely large quantity of articles written about these figures.
Liberty’s image library consists of 1,300 vibrant full-color covers, 12,000 article illustrations, and 15,000 cartoons from a combined 818 artists. Some of the greatest artists and cartoonists of the 20th Century contributed images to Liberty, and their work retains its poignancy, relevance, and humor today. Included within the magazine’s pages are James Montgomery Flagg (of “Uncle Sam Wants You” fame), Walt Disney, Dr. Seuss, Leslie Thrasher, John Held Jr., Peter Arno, McClelland Barclay, Robert Edgren, Neysa McMein, Arthur William Brown, Wallace Morgan, Ralph Barton, W.T. Benda, John T. McCutcheon, Willy Pogany, Harold Anderson, and many, many more.
A memorable feature was the “reading time,” provided on the first page of each article so readers could know how long it should take to read an article, such as “No More Glitter: A Searching Tale of Hollywood and a Woman’s Heart,” Reading Time: 18 minutes, 45 seconds.” This was calculated by a member of the editorial staff who would carefully time himself while reading an article at his usual pace; then he would take that time and double it.
Liberty was revived in 1971 as a quarterly nostalgia-oriented magazine published by the Liberty Library Corporation, a company formed by Robert Whiteman and Irving Green. Originally dedicated solely to reprinting material from the original magazine, the 1970s Liberty eventually settled into a “then and now” format, featuring thematically related newly written articles alongside the vintage material. The new version ended with the autumn 1976 issue. Liberty Library Corporation now offers a similar online feature called “The Watchlist” which features early stories linked to current news headlines. A recent pairing, for example, was a 2009 headline about New York Yankee player salaries and a 1938 article by Joe DiMaggio titled “How Much Is a Ball Player Worth?”
The complete run of the 1970s version was briefly available online via Google Book Search. Liberty Library Corporation, which still owns the rights to the Liberty archives, stated at the time that Google would also eventually digitize the 1,387 issues that comprised the original magazine’s run. As of 2014, collections of Liberty articles are available via the Amazon Kindle store.
Over 120 full-feature films and television shows have been produced from content within Liberty, including Mister Ed The Talking Horse, Double Indemnity (film), and Sergeant York (film).
In the Marx Brothers comedy The Cocoanuts, Groucho Marx exhorts his hotel employees, “Remember, there’s nothing like liberty—except Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post!”
In the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, author James Thurber Makes a reference to the magazine.