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Periodically Speaking

Just Who Was DeWitt Wallace, Anyway?


DeWitt Wallace Periodicals Reading RoomDeWitt Wallace Periodicals Reading Room

In the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, there is a reading room with high wooden carved ceiling called the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Reading Room. You may have seen the historical room decorated with large murals reflecting major publishers of periodicals, newspapers and books at the turn of the century by Richard Haas, an American muralist known for his architectural murals.

Periodicals Division, Digital ID 1153334, New York Public Library

The wifi'ed room also provides access to some of the most popular and current printed newspapers and magazines from U.S. and abroad including The Economist, The New Yorker, Vogue, Le Monde, and our zine collection. All for FREE to read!

If you work or live in vicinity of the Library, you can escape from the midtown madness by reading and lounging in one of the Library's magnificent reading rooms. The reading room is currently funded by the Wallace Foundation devoted to the collection of periodicals. There are two reasons why I like this room aside from the architecture and murals: 1. It may be perhaps the quietest room in the Library. 2. I dare not to reveal their identities but I have spotted a few popular celebrities and literary scholars who have sat in Room 108 and gazed at the ceiling and murals in awe.

Lila Acheson Wallace and DeWitt WallaceLila Acheson Wallace and DeWitt WallaceHaving worked in the Periodicals Division for a few years now, I have always wondered about DeWitt Wallace's history. Thus I looked him up and found some interesting facts about him:

  • DeWitt Wallace (1889-1981) co-founded Reader's Digest with his wife Lila Wallace. (The Reader's Digest can also be requested in Room 108).
  • From the Encyclopedia of World Biography: "During World War I, Mr. Wallace was enlisted in the Army, was sent to France and in 1918 was seriously wounded in action near Verdun. He passed the hours in a French military hospital editing superfluous words from magazine articles, preparing himself for the Reader's Digest."
  • In 1920, the Library was his "personal office" where he served as the magazine's only condenser and spent "countless hours in the Periodical Room, reading and condensing articles from the Library's collection."
  • Founded in 1922, the Reader's Digest was initially rejected countless times by publishers. "Only William Randolph Hearst (founder of Hearst Publications) was slightly encouraging saying that the magazine might in time circulate 300,000 copies a month." (New York Times, April, 1st, 1981, p. D23).
  • By 1981, "its circulation is 30.5 million copies a month for more than 100 million readers in 163 countries." (Ibid).
  • The Reader's Digest was one of the "first major periodicals (in 1954) to link cigarette smoking and cancer, and it frequently attacked unfair business practices. The Digest's most famous article, '...And Sudden Death,' published in August 1935, graphically portrayed the hazards of reckless driving. It became the most widely reprinted article in magazine history, with four million copies in circulation." (From the Encyclopedia of World Biography, Dec. 12, 1998).
  • Today the magazine covers everything from health to financial tips and beyond. Mr. Wallace stated, "the final condensation" when he was asked what he thought would be the epitaph of the magazine. (New York Times, April, 1st, 1981, p. D23).
  • On March 30th, 1981, Mr. Wallace died of pneumonia at his house in Mount Kisco, New York. He was 91.
  • On April 1st, 1981, The New York Times obituary section described Mr. Wallace as a frugal person: "Memos to staff members often arrived on the back of a used envelope. He clicked off unused lights. For years he drove a rather battered car. His one travel extravagance was a private plane, which he learned to fly and in which he cruised, usually at 2,000 feet, while gathering editorial thoughts." (Ibid).
  • DeWitt Wallace also has a museum named after him: DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum located in Williamsburg, Virginia.
  • Print biographies of DeWitt Wallace.
  • Online biographies of DeWitt Wallace.

The First Copy of The Reader's DigestThe First Copy of The Reader's DigestToday, the Periodical Reading Room occasionally holds Periodically Speaking, a reading series hosted by Karen Gisonny, that provides a major venue for emerging writers to present their work while emphasizing the diversity of America’s literary magazines and the magazine collections of The New York Public Library.

For 2013, Periodically Speaking will return on the second Tuesdays of April, May and June from 6 pm to 7:30 pm. Check us out on Facebook for periodic program updates and collection news!


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