Richard Stolley, Founding Editor of People Magazine, Dies at 92

He also scored a major journalistic coup by securing the rights to the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy’s assassination for Life magazine.

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Richard B. Stolley, the founding editor of People magazine, which changed the course of American publishing with its personality-driven approach to journalism and which has long been one of the most successful magazines in the nation’s history, died on June 16 at a hospital in Evanston, Ill. He was 92.

The cause was heart failure, his family said.

Over six decades with the Time Inc. media empire, Mr. Stolley was a prominent writer and editor at Life magazine, where he covered the civil rights movement in the South and the space race, among other major stories.

While at Life he scored one of the great coups in journalism, acquiring for his magazine the rights to the Zapruder film of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The 8-mm footage of the Kennedy motorcade — one of the earliest instances of a citizen capturing images of an extraordinary event — was once called the most important 26 seconds in celluloid history.

Mr. Stolley rose through the ranks at Life and was assistant managing editor when its last weekly issue was published in 1972. He then went to Time Inc.’s development group to help dream up new magazines. One day a call came from Andrew Heiskell, chairman of the company, who said that his wife, Marian Sulzberger Heiskell, a member of the family that controls The New York Times Company, had suggested a new magazine that would focus on personalities. Mr. Heiskell suggested spinning off the “People” section of Time magazine into its own publication.

When a test issue rolled off the presses, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton on the cover, it was an instant hit. Making its official debut in March 1974 with a cover photo of Mia Farrow, who was starring in the movie “The Great Gatsby,” People turned a profit after just 18 months and proved itself a cash cow.

In Mr. Stolley’s first four years, its circulation soared to 2.2 million, with a “pass along” readership of almost 14 million, which People said was the highest in the country.

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Mr. Stolley’s inaugural issue of People magazine, in 1974, put Mia Farrow on the cover. The magazine quickly became a cash cow for Time Inc.Credit…People magazine

To Mr. Stolley, the magazine’s mission was clear — to write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things and extraordinary people doing ordinary things, but never about ordinary people doing ordinary things.

The inaugural issue included interviews with the wives of soldiers missing in action in Vietnam as well as features on Lee Harvey Oswald’s widow (“Finally at peace with herself”) and Gloria Vanderbilt (“A fourth marriage that really works”).

“I think the climate in the country was absolutely right for this type of magazine,” Mr. Stolley said in 1978 in an interview with his hometown newspaper then, Greenwich Time, in Connecticut.

He said he believed that by the 1970s, the interests of readers of mass magazines had shifted away from the political turmoil of the 1960s and toward personalities. Still, Mr. Stolley said, he was never sure whether People had spawned personality-driven journalism or whether it had tapped into something already in the zeitgeist.

Either way, the magazine focused relentlessly on humans, not issues or trends. Mr. Stolley had rules about covers, which had to grab readers at the newsstand in an instant.

“He said that pretty sells better than ugly, young sells better than old, movies sell better than TV, TV sells better than sports and anything sells better than politics,” Hal Wingo, his longtime colleague at both Life and People, said in a phone interview.

Although immediately popular with readers, People was dismissed by some journalists, including some at Time Inc., as a celebrity gossip sheet, Mr. Wingo said. That prompted Mr. Stolley to break his own rules about covers. To show that the magazine wasn’t just a showcase for celebrities, the second cover featured Martha Mitchell, the chatty wife of former Attorney General John N. Mitchell, who was embroiled in the Watergate scandal. The third featured the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty.

Much of the early going was trial and error. One of his biggest mistakes, Mr. Stolley often said, was not putting Elvis Presley on the cover when he died in 1977 at 42. Mr. Wingo said it had not occured to them because the magazine had never featured a dead person before.

In 1980, when John Lennon’s murder shocked the world, Mr. Stolley did not think twice. The Lennon cover was long the magazine’s best-selling issue.

Richard Brockway Stolley and his twin brother, James, were born on Oct. 3, 1928, in Pekin, in central Illinois. His father, George Brockway Stolley, was a plant manager. His mother, Stella (Sherman) Stolley, was an English teacher.

Dick knew from an early age that he wanted to be a journalist. At 15, he landed a job at his hometown paper, The Pekin Sun Times. After high school, he did a hitch in the Navy, then earned both his bachelor’s degree, in 1952, and his master’s degree, in 1953, at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.

After a brief stint as a reporter for The Chicago Sun Times, he moved to Life. Mr. Stolley believed deeply in its mission as a pictorial chronicle and in the power of photojournalism, especially when he was based in the South and covering the violence that often surrounded the desegregation of schools.

Speaking to The Digital Journalist in 2009, he recalled a picture in Life of several white boys, their faces contorted, screaming and spitting at a lone Black girl who was integrating a high school in North Carolina. “Photographs like that explained to America what was happening in the South in a way that words never could,” he said.

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To acquire the rights to the Kennedy assassination film, Mr. Stolley showed up at Abraham Zapruder’s home at 8 in the morning. After they struck a deal, he left with the film by a back door as other journalists clamored at the front of the house.Credit…The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

Mr. Stolley was working in Life’s Los Angeles bureau when President Kennedy was shot in November 1963. He flew to Dallas and was told by a Life freelancer there that a businessman had taken a home movie that vividly caught what had unfolded. She said his name sounded like Zapruder. Mr. Stolley found Abraham Zapruder in the phone book and called him. Mr. Zapruder told him to come to his house the next morning at 9; Mr. Stolley arrived at 8.

“Dozens of other journalists were banging on the door while Dick was inside,” Mr. Wingo said. “They were all screaming, ‘You can’t discriminate, you have to give it to all of us!'” he said.

Inside, Mr. Stolley and Mr. Zapruder, a dressmaker, were negotiating terms for the print rights. They agreed to $50,000, and Mr. Stolley left with the film by the back door. (The amount was soon raised to $150,000 for all rights.)

Mr. Zapruder told an associate that he had decided to work with Mr. Stolley because, in Mr. Zapruder’s words, he “acted like a gentleman.” He said he felt he could trust Mr. Stolley, and by extension his magazine, to treat the film with dignity.

As part of the deal, Life agreed that when it printed frames from the film, it would omit frame No. 313, which showed the president’s head exploding from a bullet’s impact. That frame was not shown publicly for 12 years, a delay that helped give rise to conspiracy theories.

While the Zapruder film helped the official Warren Commission conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in killing the president, it was used by others to undermine that explanation. (Alexandra Zapruder, the filmmaker’s granddaughter and the author of “Twenty-Six Seconds,” a 2016 book about the film’s effect on her family, has said that it brought her grandfather “nothing but heartbreak.”)

Mr. Stolley always referred to his procurement of the film as the most dramatic moment of his journalism career.

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Mr. Stolley in 2013. He was editorial director of all Time Inc. magazines until he retired in 1993, then continued as a consultant to the company until 2014.Credit…Dave Allocca/Starpix, via Shutterstock

After Life stopped publishing as a weekly, Mr. Stolley edited People for eight years, then returned to Life, which by then had become a monthly. He was editorial director of all Time Inc. magazines until he retired in 1993, then continued as a consultant to the company until 2014.

His first marriage, to Anne Shawber in 1954, ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, in 1997, to Lise Hilboldt.

He is survived by four daughters, Lisa, Hope, Melinda and Martha Stolley; a stepson, Charles Hilboldt; and seven grandchildren.

In the first days of People magazine, Mr. Stolley was often asked if he didn’t worry about finding enough interesting people to write about. No, he would reply. In fact, he always had a surfeit of contenders, prompting him to say, “I don’t think we’re ever going to run out of people.”

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