Wallace, Lila Acheson (1889–1984)

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Wallace, Lila Acheson (1889–1984)

Canadian-born philanthropist who was the cofounder and publisher of Reader's Digest magazine . Born Lila Bell Acheson on December 25, 1889, in Virden, Manitoba, Canada; died in May 1984 in Mount Kisco, New York; daughter of T. Davis Acheson and Mary E. (Huston) Acheson; graduated from University of Oregon in Eugene, 1917; married DeWitt Wallace (a publisher), on October 15, 1921.

Became a director of the New York Central Railroad (1954); received, with husband DeWitt, the distinguished service award from the Theodore Roosevelt Association (1954), and the distinguished service to journalism award from Syracuse University (1955); received Medal of Freedom from President Richard Nixon (1972).

Born in 1889 in Canada, a middle child in a family of five, Lila Bell Acheson moved with her family to the United States and lived in several states while growing up. As a girl, she learned to enjoy hunting and horseback riding from her father

T. Davis Acheson, a Presbyterian minister. She studied English at college in Nashville, Tennessee, and at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, completing her four-year degree in less than three years. After graduation in 1917, she returned to Washington state where she taught high school for two years and managed a Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) summer home on an island in Puget Sound. During and after World War I, Acheson continued doing social service work for the YWCA, the Interchurch World Movement, and the U.S. Labor Department.

After the war, the "dainty" Lila moved to New York City. In 1921, she married a longtime friend from Minnesota, DeWitt Wallace, who had himself just moved to New York to start up a new magazine called Reader's Digest. Founding the magazine on borrowed funds, on their wedding day the couple mailed out hundreds of advertisements from their Greenwich Village apartment. When they returned from their honeymoon, they found some 1,500 subscription checks awaiting them. They published the first issue of their innovative magazine in February 1922. Working from a modest basement office, the Wallaces created the unique format of Reader's Digest by going to the library and selecting and copying articles from other magazines for reprint. Reprint permission was easy enough to obtain, and the magazine's popularity mushroomed. By 1929, Reader's Digest was grossing over $600,000, and the Wallaces could afford to pay for reprint rights.

The magazine began publishing some of its own articles in 1933, and by offering some of these articles to other magazines for free publication, the Wallaces expanded their own supply pool. Reader's Digest did so well, even during the Great Depression, that in the mid-1930s the couple began making plans to construct a $1.5 million four-story suburban plant. Lila was in charge of the design of the building and applied her exceptional talent for art and architecture to the task. The result was "one of the industrial showplaces of the nation," noted the Los Angeles Times, and sightseers from all over the globe enjoyed tours of the buildings and grounds. In 1938, the magazine went international when the first British edition was published; Spanish and Portuguese editions followed, and by 1956 it was being published in 11 languages.

Until 1955, Reader's Digest accepted no advertising for the domestic edition, and even then the Wallaces insisted it be limited. They would not accept ads for certain products such as liquor. The Wallaces suffered criticisms that their editorial policies were "reactionary" and the magazine's content was "intellectually mediocre." However, an ever-growing circulation, which in 1955 nearly equaled that of the next two most widely distributed magazines combined, made the Wallaces very wealthy. Lila Wallace became the only woman member of the board of directors of a major railroad in 1954. They won several joint awards and became known as philanthropists, contributing to many causes.

The Wallaces together built a global publishing empire from an idea which was ridiculed by others in the industry. They adhered to an editorial ethic which emphasized selecting from a wide variety of subjects and presenting stories of achievement, decency, and simple virtues in an uncomplicated way. Their business practices were equally principled. The Lila and DeWitt Wallace Foundation donated generously to many arts organizations and to media such as National Public Radio and educational television.


Canning, Peter. American Dreamers: The Wallaces and Reader's Digest: An Insider's Story. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Current Biography 1956. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1956.

Jacquie Maurice , freelance writer, Calgary, Alberta, Canada