Spivak, Lawrence E. 1900-1994
SPIVAK, Lawrence E. 1900-1994
PERSONAL: Born June 11, 1900, in Brooklyn, NY; died of congestive heart failure March 9, 1994, in Washington, DC; son of William Benjamin and Sonya (Bershad) Spivak; married Charlotte Bier Ring, 1924; children: Judith, Jonathan Martin. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (English and history; cum laude), 1921.
CAREER: On managerial staff of periodicals Antiques, Hunting and Fishing, and National Sportsman, 1921-33; reporter, Boston American; business manager, American Mercury, 1933-35, publisher-editor, 1935-50, founder of American Mercury Books, 1937; publisher of Mercury Mysteries, 1940, Bestseller Mysteries, 1940, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, 1941, Jonathan Press, 1942, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1949, and Detective, 1950; founder, moderator, and panelist, Meet the Press, National Broadcasting Company, 1950-75.
AWARDS, HONORS: Edgar Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1981, for forty years of Mystery Magazine; United States Conference of Mayors Award, for Meet the Press.
(Editor, with Charles Angoff) The American Mercury Reader, Blakiston Company (Philadelphia, PA), 1944.
SIDELIGHTS: Best known as the creator of the National Broadcasting Company's television news program Meet the Press, Lawrence E. Spivak also made noteworthy contributions to American print media in the 1930s and 1940s. He was business manager, publisher, and editor of H. L. Mencken's controversial American Mercury, and founded American Mercury Books, a paperback publishing house, as well as many of its offshoots.
The unrehearsed interview format of Meet the Press proved extremely popular. "Talk about your bright ideas," Ron Miller wrote in the Knight-Ridder News Service. "'Meet the Press' was designed to be a 'press conference of the airwaves,' a round-table with journalists quizzing important newsmakers. Simple, but irresistibly appealing to information seekers, it stayed and stayed and stayed."
Spivak began his career in journalism as a paper carrier for Brooklyn's Eagle while a schoolboy at Boys High School in Brooklyn. At Harvard University he became a skillful boxer and excelled in his studies.
He became the business manager for Antiques magazine and reported for the Boston American in the evenings. Exhausted, Spivak gave up the reporting position. He married Charlotte Bier Ring and continued working for Antiques magazine until accepting the positions of circulation manager and assistant to the publisher at Hunting and Fishing and National Sportsman.
In 1933 Spivak became the American Mercury business manager. The Mercury's circulation had plummeted more than fifty percent from 1927 to 1933; advertising had dropped as well. Spivak realized that the decline was due to the absence of the flamboyancy Mencken, now retired, had given the magazine. To revive it, he and journalist Paul Palmer went with a more conservative slant. In January 1935, they bought partial rights to the Mercury from Alfred Knopf, and almost immediately shifted the magazine's emphasis to the political right. W. J. Hug wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "A staunch conservative agenda, strongly anticommunist and anti-Roosevelt, was established, espoused in a tone of earnest polemic by a new group of contributors, among them William Henry Chamberlain, Harold Lord Varney, and Eugene Lyons." Under Spivak and Palmer, the magazine focused more on conservative politics than on the literary and scholarly pursuits it had under Mencken, but still managed to maintain a level of literary integrity. To reduce printing costs, Spivak and Palmer cut the trim from the large octavo to a pocket size. And to encourage more sales, they reduced the charge for each issue in half from fifty cents, then considered exorbitant.
Though circulation increased, the Mercury still could not attract advertisers. Spivak, unwilling to shift from the right politically, found an alternative to subsidizing the magazine as well as turning a profit: In 1937 he came up with American Mercury Books, digest-sized, softcover reprints of fiction and nonfiction popular titles that could be sold at newsstands.
The series launched with The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James M. Cain. Mercury Books was a quick success. In 1940 Spivak stopped publishing nonfiction titles and began specializing in mystery novels, renaming the series Mercury Mysteries. That year, he launched Bestseller Mysteries, and the next year Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The fourth offshoot, Jonathan Press, also a mystery-oriented series, appeared in 1942, followed by Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1949 and Detective, the Magazine of True Crime cases in 1950. All of the series were profitable, and Spivak funneled the excess money into the Mercury, which by then was running up debts of up to $100,000 annually.
By 1939 Spivak had bought complete control of the Mercury and hired Eugene Lyons as editor. Lyons maintained the magazine's conservative stance, publishing a steady stream of articles on Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia by authors such as Cordell Hull, Winston Churchill, Herbert Hoover, and Alexander Kerensky. The Mercury's circulation climbed steadily and in 1945 it peaked at 80,000. Despite the high circulation, the magazine continued to rely on its subsidiaries financially. One of them, The American Mercury Reader, an anthology of essays, fiction, drama, and poetry from the magazine's first twenty years, featured writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Lee Masters, and Robert Frost.
In the late 1940s Spivak softened the Mercury a bit with more human-interest articles and essays on topics such as health issues and humor. In 1949 he commemorated the magazine's twenty-fifth anniversary with an editorial retrospective that highlighted its achievements. As Hug wrote: "Chief among these were its independence of thought, limited only 'by considerations of truth and the immemorial decencies,' and the battle against totalitarianism: 'we believe we are simply stating a fact when we say that no other periodical of our class has devoted so much space to it.'"
The Mercury, however, continued to lose money. When Spivak raised the price in 1949 to thirty-five cents per copy, circulation fell to half of what it had been at its peak. Determined to keep the Mercury afloat, Spivak began a weekly radio and television show, Meet the Press, as a means to promote the magazine. Ironically, by 1949 the show consumed so much of his time that he decided to sell the Mercury.
The Mercury changed hands many times after Spivak sold it to Clendenin J. Ryan, a former adviser of New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and as the McCarthy era set in, the magazine gradually became more politically right, falling under ownership of staunch right-wing groups such as the Defenders of the Christian Faith in 1960, and the Legion for the Survival of Freedom in 1963. Publication ceased in 1980.
Though disappointed with the fate of the Mercury, Spivak concentrated on developing Meet the Press, which NBC introduced to television audiences on November 6, 1947. By 1953 Spivak had complete ownership of Meet the Press and a year later he sold all of the paperback subsidiaries to concentrate exclusively on the program. Early guests included Senator Joseph McCarthy, John and Robert Kennedy, Fidel Castro, Richard Nixon, and Indira Gandhi. "The show frequently made as well as covered the news when, amid the panelists' questions, guests would make revelations of national or international impact," Hug wrote.
Spivak, according to J. Y. Smith of the Washington Post, was not afraid to ask hard questions. "I just felt that the question had to be asked," Smith quoted Spivak as saying. "It just had to be fair and informative and accurate." NBC's Tim Russert, a more-recent host of Meet the Press, explained the lengthy success of the show: "We don't have to continually reinvent ourselves. We never run out of scripts and we have an an unending supply of new talent."
After serving for twenty years as moderator and producer, Spivak retired from the program in 1975. His only return to public life was to moderate a symposium a year later on the regulation of American political campaigns. He died in 1994.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Castleman, Harry, and Walter J. Podrazik, Watching TV: Four Decades of American Television, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1982, pp. 25-26.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 137: American Magazine Journalists 1900 1960, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1994, pp. 302-308.
Schick, Frank L., The Paperbound Book in America, R. R. Bowker (New York, NY), 1958, pp. 62-65.
Look, February 10, 1953, Hubert Pryor, "Bigwigs under Fire," pp. 33-34.
Newsweek, August 21, 1950, "The Mercury's Bills," p. 58; September 3, 1962, "Question Man," p. 68.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), November 9, 1997, Ron Miller, "A Show with Staying Power; 'Meet the Press' Turns 50," p Y3.
Washington Post, March 10, 1994, p. D5.*