Wallace, Lila

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Wallace, Lila

Reader's Digest Association, Inc.


The cofounder of The Reader's Digest, Lila Acheson Wallace, along with her husband DeWitt Wallace, was a publishing phenomenon who was able to turn a magazine with an initial circulation of 5,000 into an American cultural institution with a readership of 100 million in 163 countries worldwide. Mrs. Wallace was also one of the most generous philanthropists in the fields of art, music, healthcare, and education.

Personal Life

Born in Virden, Manitoba, December 25, 1889, Lila Bell Acheson, was like her husband, DeWitt Wallace, the child of a Presbyterian minister. The third of five children, she was of Scotch-Irish descent. At the time of her birth, her father was studying theology at the University of Manitoba. After entering the ministry, he moved with his family to the United States and became an American citizen. Lila grew up in the small Midwestern towns of Marshall, Minnesota; and Lewistown, Illinois, where her father preached. Her favorite girlhood recreations were horseback riding and hunting, which she had learned from her father. She majored in English at Ward Belmont College in Nashville, Tennessee, and the University of Oregon in Eugene, from which she graduated in 1917. She overcame her father's opposition to her going out to work and taught school for two years in Eatonville, Washington, while helping to manage a YWCA summer home on the Puget Sound. During World War I, she was hired by the YWCA full-time to organize recreational centers for women workers at the Du Pont plant in New Jersey. She next became the head of a new social service department of the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, speaking and fund-raising all over the country and establishing a network of day-care centers in Mississippi, New England, and New York for the Inter-Church World Movement.

Lila Wallace met her future husband while he was a classmate of one of her brothers at the University of California, Berkeley. She rejected his instantaneous proposal of marriage. While DeWitt Wallace was working in St. Paul as a book salesman and trying to sell his idea for Reader's Digest, he learned that Lila Acheson was still unmarried and sent her a telegram: "Conditions Among Women Workers in St. Paul Ghastly. Urge Immediate Investigation." They were married a few months later. When they returned from their honeymoon, they found that there were sufficient subscriptions for the proposed Reader's Digest to justify producing their first issue in February 1922.

As Reader's Digest grew successful and expanded beyond the Wallaces' Greenwich Village basement office, they opened new headquarters in Pleasantville, New York, under Mrs. Wallace's design. As the Los Angeles Times commented, "She has made it one of the industrial showplaces of the nation and visitors from all over the world take the hour's train trip from New York for a tour of the buildings and landscaped grounds." She also decorated "High Winds," the Wallaces' castle-like home in Mt. Kisco, New York. As their personal fortune increased, Lila Wallace devoted much of her time and an estimated $60 million to philanthropic activities. Her benefactions included the restoration of Boscobel, an eighteenth-century mansion on the Hudson River and Monet's house and garden at Giverny. She became a powerful influence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she supervised the restoration of the Great Hall and the protection of the Abu Simbel temples from flooding by the new Aswan Dam. Her other benefactors included the Juilliard School, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Zoological Society, the University of Oregon, the Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, and numerous Presbyterian charities. In 1972 Mr. and Mrs. Wallace were awarded the United States Medal of Freedom. Mrs. Wallace was petite at five feet, three inches, and 120 pounds, and provided the perfect complement to her tall and shy husband, who was a worrier and afflicted with self-doubt and bouts of melancholy. Mrs. Wallace, however, was an optimist. When Dewitt Wallace died in 1981, Lila Wallace became the sole owner of Reader's Digest. Because the couple had no children, Mrs. Wallace determined that the company be administered by a trust to ensure that it would remain in private ownership after her death in 1984.

Career Details

Reader's Digest originated from DeWitt Wallace's conception of reprinting condensed articles from popular magazines. After his discharge from the Army in 1919, Wallace returned to St. Paul and for six months studied magazine articles in the public library and copying out excerpts. He prepared a prototype edition of the Reader's Digest with 31 articles from such magazines as Atlantic Monthly, Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic, and Ladies Home Journal. As he advertised, each article that appeared was of "enduring value and interest" and appeared in "condensed and permanent form." However, none of the dozen publishers to whom he sent the sample were interested. Dewitt's biggest supporter was his young wife, who helped him mail out thousands of solicitations for subscriptions when he decided to publish the magazine himself. After their initial issue of 5,000 copies in 1922, circulation rose by 1929 to 200,000, and by 1939 to 2.5 million. The magazine published a British edition in 1938. Later Spanish and Portuguese editions made Reader's Digest the most widely distributed periodical in South America. Rising costs made it necessary in 1957 to add advertising for the first time to prevent raising the price of the magazine. Expansion during the 1950s included the Reader's Digest Condensed Book Club, a television show, a record and film division, an educational edition and a Braille edition.

The popularity of the Reader's Digest is attributable to the great variety of subjects covered in science, social service, education, government, politics, industry, sports, travel, nature, biography, among other topics. There was something for everyone in every issue. Regular features included such popular entries as "Life in These United States," "It Pays to Increase Your Word Power," "Humor in Uniform," and "The Most Unforgettable Character I've Met." Mrs. Wallace supervised the magazine's covers and occasionally suggested articles. Her most important role, however, as co-editor and co-owner of Reader's Digest was in managing her husband and helping to facilitate the smooth running of the magazine's operation. One of the distinctive innovations of Mrs. Wallace was her decorating of the Reader's Digest offices with original oil paintings and daily cut flowers from her gardens. She was determined to overcome any gap between business and beauty. Lila Acheson Wallace became the only woman member of the board of directors of a major railroad in 1954 when she was named as a director of the New York Central Railroad. As the president of the railroad explained, he "wanted an intelligent women who could make top decisions—not only about the housekeeping of a railroad, but corporate decisions where a woman's viewpoint and intuitive sense would make a valuable contribution."

Social and Economic Impact

As the cofounder and co-editor of the Reader's Digest Lila Acheson Wallace helped to turn a good idea into a publishing phenomenon and American institution, as the most read magazine in the world. In its various international editions reaching 163 countries and 100 million readers, no other American publication has been as influential in exporting American culture and values. Both DeWitt and Lila Wallace understood what their audience wanted to read, and Reader's Digest reflected popular taste for more than 75 years through the majority of the twentieth century. The Wallaces deserve to be considered on the same level as such influential publishing giants as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, who helped define American journalism and publishing.

Chronology: Lila Wallace

1889: Born.

1911: First met DeWitt Wallace.

1917: Graduated from the University of Oregon.

1917: Taught school in Eatonville, WA.

1921: Married DeWitt Wallace.

1922: Published first edition of Reader's Digest.

1938: Published first international edition of Reader's Digest in England.

1954: Named to board of directors, New York Central Railroad.

1957: Began to place advertising in Reader's Digest.

1972: Received along with her husband DeWitt Wallace the U.S. Medal of Freedom.

1984: Died.

Lila Acheson Wallace's legacy is also great because of her philanthropic generosity. Few other benefactors have made such positive contributions to so many areas of contemporary life. As former Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird stated after her death, "Publishing, music, art, opera and the performing arts have lost a grand woman. Her contribution to all will be a living memorial to her for many, many decades."

Sources of Information

Contact at: Reader's Digest Association, Inc.
Pleasantville, NY 10570
Business Phone: (914)238-1000
URL: http://www.readersdigest.com


Heidenry, John. Theirs Was the Kingdom: Lila and DeWitt Wallace and the Story of the Reader's Digest. New York: Norton, 1993.

"Lila Wallace, Who Bestowed Reader's Digest Wealth, Dies."New York Times, 9 May 1984.

Los Angeles Times, 26 September 1955.

Nation, 27 September 1993.

Time, 10 December 1951.