Delacorte, George Thomas, Jr.

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Delacorte, George Thomas, Jr.

(b. 20 June 1893 in Brooklyn, New York; d. 4 May 1991 in New York City), founder of the Dell Publishing Company and Delacorte Press, and philanthropist whose gifts to New York City became Central Park landmarks.

Delacorte was one of ten children of attorneys George Thomas, Sr., and Cecilia Koenig, and a product of Brooklyn’s primary and secondary schools, graduating from Boys High in 1910. Even before he went away to Harvard he had decided against becoming an attorney like his parents, perhaps because he regarded the profession as “too sedate,” a complaint he registered in later years about Harvard itself. He transferred to Columbia College in the fall of 1911, married Margarita von Doerhoff on 30 August 1912, and the following year brought his wife and baby son to his graduation. Upon receipt of his B.A. degree and $100 from his father, he set out to learn the magazine publishing business. He was nineteen years old.

His first job was in advertising and circulation at New Fiction Publishing Company in Manhattan. Here he learned the mass-market magazine publishing business from the ground up, initiating distribution techniques such as handing out cigars to newsstand dealers to ensure prominent display space for New Fiction magazines. He developed a keen sense of the tastes of his readers, and he was to spend the remainder of his publishing career correctly guessing and satisfying those tastes.

Within two years he was business manager and president of New Fiction, but this success was short-lived. Economic hard times hit and Delacorte was fired in 1921. With his severance pay (alternately reported as $10,000 or $15,000) he launched Dell (a diminutive of “Delacorte“), publishing in a one-room office in New York’s Masonic Temple Building on West Twenty-third Street. He reveled in the challenge to stay on top of what a mass audience wanted to read. Early publications were ten-cent horoscope and character analysis pamphlets printed on wood pulp paper, and formula fiction publications like Sweetheart Stories andI confess, which capitalized on the popularity of romance and confession magazines. After the death of his partner, William A. Johnston, a former New York World editor, Delacorte took on every aspect of the business, from editing to distribution to management. Operating on a shoestring, he bought manuscripts in England by the barrel-full, changed the characters and plots to reflect American situations, and repackaged them in the pulp magazines My Story, Modern Romances, Cupid’s Diary, War Stories, Inside Detective, and Modern Screen. By 1931 he had originated three dozen magazines and abandoned more than half of them.

With the onset of the 1930s Delacorte cashed in on the rising popularity of talking movies, issuing movie fan magazines. Ever the promotional-minded innovator, he launched Ballyhoo, a biweekly that lampooned advertising; it was wrapped in cellophane with the label “Read a fresh magazine.” Soon Ballyhoo was selling more than 2 million copies. Despite its success, Delacorte, who practiced rigid economy, never put stock in a single title. Instead he tested the market with one-shots—if it caught on, it lived; if not, he buried it. Joining the pulps in the 1930s were ten-cent comic books—featuring Flash Gordon, Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, and the entire Walt Disney stable of characters, which Delacorte had brought under license. By the end of the decade he had amassed a comic book line of staggering proportions and Dell, the first to introduce four-color comics, was the world’s leading comic book publisher, selling 300 million a year and sometimes 3 million copies in one month alone.

Perhaps because of his fondness for children (Delacorte and Margarita, who died in 1956, had six children), Delacorte avoided the sleaze that came to be associated with the “pulps” and was known as the “Mr. Clean” of the comic book industry, abjuring crime and sex scenes. In the 1940s, with the United States at war, he satisfied mass reading appetites with war romances, comic books, and crossword puzzle books—all cheaply priced. He concentrated on newsstand sales and relied on circulation, not advertising, for revenue. As late as 1949 he continued to reject the idea of putting ads on comic book covers because he felt that he could sell more copies using full-color cover illustrations.

Delacorte developed innovative strategies to ensure sales. For example, rather than date magazine issues, he numbered them. Unsold copies distributed in the East were redistributed in the West. To build demand for his titles, he handed out free copies. As an outgrowth of this vast publishing empire, Delacorte launched a line of paper-bound books in 1943, initially reprints of classic novels and genre fiction by Ellery Queen, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Hughes, and Rex Stout. In 1953 he started Dell First Editions (“Not a Reprint,” the cover announced), leading off with The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. By 1957, when he acquired the reprint rights to Peyton Place, he had become the leading publisher of twenty-five-cent paperbound books, and by 1962 Dell accounted for 20 percent of all paperbacks published. To ensure a constant supply of material for Dell paperbacks, he formed the hardcover Delacorte Press in 1963, with J. P. Donleavy, Kurt Vonnegut, and Irwin Shaw among his earliest writers.

In 1976, when Dell was sold to Doubleday for a reported $35 million in cash, Delacorte retired. Although he had homes in Sharon, Connecticut; North Palm Beach, Florida; and Manhattan, his generous philanthropy was dedicated to the city in which he made his fortune. When in town he walked daily to his midtown office, often through Central Park, where he visited his gifts—the Delacorte Theater, the animated Delacorte Clock with its dancing bear, goat, monkeys, and elephant, and the Alice in Wonderland statue. Delacorte fountains graced Columbus Circle, Bowling Green, and City Hall Park, as did Delacorte’s Folly, an ill-fated geyser that once gushed 400 feet in the air from the foot of Roosevelt Island. Helen Meyer, Dell chairman and Delacorte’s right hand for six decades, said that he always liked to see his name on fountains and memorials. When Meyer’s daughter was born, Delacorte wired: “If you can’t name her after me, you can’t have your job back.” Meyer named the child Adele. Later, when her son was born, Delacorte wanted him named Cort. Delacorte also contributed more than $6 million to Columbia University, which awarded him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in 1982.

Tanned and fit, he was an avid tennis player until the age of ninety-one and played golf up to the time of his death. Delacorte died in his sleep in the home that he shared with his second wife, the former Valerie Hoecker, a widow he had married on 15 May 1959. He is buried in the family plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. In his philanthropy as in his publishing, Delacorte was an iconoclastic loner. He did not serve on boards. He gave money to projects he liked and that struck his fancy. A founder of Make New York Beautiful, he encouraged “guys who are going to kick off” to give the city $500,000. In his business, he was an innovator and risk taker with no interest in improving the intellectual atmosphere of America’s heartland. Rather, he made money, as a 1962 New York Herald Tribune article noted, by “guessing what the lowbrows wanted.”

Some of the literary and editorial papers and correspondence of Delacorte are in Columbia University’s Butler Library Rare Book and Manuscript Division in New York City. A complete set of Dell paperbacks is held in the Library of Congress Special Collections in Washington, D.C., and includes documentation on major changes in cover design. “The Story of Dell Publishing Company, Inc.,” Book Production Magazine (Nov. 1964), offers background on the company’s early days. Several books contain detailed information on the forces that influenced the evolution and development of the American publishing industry, including Theodore Peterson, Magazines in the Twentieth Century (1956), J. P. Wood, Magazines in the United States (1971), Allen B. Crider, Mass Market Publishing in America (1982), and Kenneth C. Davis, Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America (1984). An obituary is in the New York Times (5 May 1991).

Martha Monaghan Corpus

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Delacorte, George Thomas, Jr.

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