November 30, 2011 | by Josh Lieberman
Here’s how it begins. You are in a bookstore on the main drag of a small town. You walk along the mystery and western paperback sections, and then you see a wicker basket overflowing with Life magazines. You idly flip through the stack because you know Life was once an important cultural force but have never seen the magazine in person. The copies of Life are musty and torn, and in the middle of the heap you come across something called Holiday. It has the same heft as Life, more than a foot tall and surprisingly heavy, but in place of a black-and-white photograph on the cover there is a colorful swirling yellow illustration of the sun and the words “California Without Cliches.” The magazine is from 1965 and you think it would look good on your coffee table. Also the ads are campy and fun (“San Diego Is a See-Do Vacationland!”), so you buy the magazine—why not, it’s only a few bucks—and take it home. You turn on the TV and half watch Seinfeld as you flip through for the ads. Then you come upon “Notes from a Native Daughter,” the Joan Didion essay you read in college but don’t really remember. You read how California is only five hours from New York by jet but really that is just a delusion: “California is somewhere else.” Now you are somewhere else. Seinfeld ends and another Seinfeld begins and you read the entire essay and then discover a piece by Ray Bradbury, your old pal from high school English. You read his rhapsodic paean to Disneyland (“No beatniks here. No Cool people with Cool faces pretending not to care, thus swindling themselves out of life or any chance for life”), and you think that’s pretty good, too. You head back to the bookstore to see if they have any more issues of Holiday.
Whenever I mention to someone that I’ve started collecting old issues of Holiday, the excellent yet forgotten monthly travel magazine that was born after World War II and lived until the late seventies, the response generally falls between bafflement and irritation. “Why would you do that?” people ask, as though I’ve just admitted to hoarding old shoehorns or something truly sinister.
Holiday was composed of almost all long-form travel essays—it was not, like many modern travel magazines, list after list of where to eat, shop, and sleep. (There would be little point or pleasure in reading a 1957 Holiday if it were just about where to get the best goulash.) A handful of the pieces are dated, but, like the greatest travel writing, many are timeless. After all, plenty of people still read The Great Railway Bazaar and Travels with Charley, not to mention the roughly 150-year-old Innocents Abroad.
The most puzzling thing about the lost history of Holiday is that the magazine published so many famous writers: Joseph Heller, Irwin Shaw, Arthur C. Clarke, E. B. White, Arthur Miller, Gay Talese, Paul Bowles, Steinbeck, Saroyan, Kerouac, Cheever, O’Hara, Bellow, Thurber, Faulkner. It was in Holiday that Truman Capote declared that he lived in Brooklyn—by choice! On several occasions even Papa Hemingway appeared in the magazine, both as a writer and eventually (yikes) as a pitchman: “Ernest Hemingway says ... Pan American and I are old friends.” (Such advertisements, in fact, seem to be Holiday’s primary legacy: eBay sellers almost exclusively note the magazine’s “great vintage ads,” and it is not hard—yet still somewhat disheartening—to imagine someone cutting out a colorful ad for a long-retired cherry liqueur at the expense of a Mordecai Richler piece on the reverse side.)
But more than the essays by major writers, what I find most fascinating about Holiday is the articles by little-known, or totally unknown, authors. In my first issue of Holiday—purchased on eBay for an article I couldn’t find elsewhere, by the underappreciated Joseph Wechsberg—I came upon an essay by Romain Gary. There may be no more than two or three people who can recall this essay, and I say this not to boast of esoteric knowledge but because it’s a shame.
Gary’s essay, published in 1967, is a relatively straightforward travelogue about Guadeloupe, the southernmost archipelago in the Caribbean, but it ends with one of those anecdotes you find yourself recalling at odd intervals in the following days and weeks. As part of Gary’s trip he plans to visit an old Royal Air Force buddy from whom he hasn’t heard in twenty years. The friend, Moran, asks that Gary bring books on Judaism, specifically about bar mitzvahs. Gary agrees, though five months pass before he makes it to Moran’s house with the books. He arrives to discover that Moran is dead. He is met at the house by a Dominican priest holding a Hebrew book and teaching Moran’s son the rites of the bar mitzvah.
I turned back toward the dark faces in the candlelight and said nothing. A colored family in Guadeloupe and a white Catholic priest teaching them how to address the Lord on Sabbath eve according to the Law of Moses.
“Yes,” the Dominican said quietly, and nodded, as if reading my thoughts.
Perhaps because of my astonishment, I felt angry with myself and a bit ashamed. If there was a cause for surprise here, it lay only in the fact that a truly nice man is always something to be looked at in wonder.
We left the books and went away in the soft tropical night. My trip to Guadeloupe was over, and it was good to leave with the feeling that the sweetness and gentleness of this island could reach higher than its hills and deeper than its sea.
That’s when I started buying up copies of Holiday. There is something satisfying about discovering great literature that is virtually unknown; it’s a bit like the purpose of travel itself, answering the question, Well, what do we have here?
There are plenty of other lost masterpieces I’ve discovered in Holiday but to repeat too many would strain your patience. I will mention just one other that floored me.
In 1967, Welles Hangen, an NBC correspondent, visited the village of Ravensbrück, the former site of a women-only concentration camp north of Berlin. Hangen’s piece touches on a number of fascinating topics: East Germany’s attempt to memorialize the camp as a place where many Communist inmates were killed, to say nothing of Jews; the doctor Hertha Oberheuser, who performed unfathomable experiments on Ravensbrück inmates and who, after having served only a seven-year sentence (!), received a grant from the West German government (!!) and became a successful pediatrician (!!!); and the general weirdness, horror, and begrudging acceptance of living in a town where one hundred thousand people were murdered and where old bones are still discovered (“What would you think if you unexpectedly came across a pile of skeletons in your backyard?”). But then there’s a disturbing little historical detail I’d never read about before and which I find no reference to outside of this article. Hangen talks to a pharmacist’s helper who still lives in the town and used to smuggle medicine to the female inmates. Aside from medicine, says the woman, “I also sent the prisoners hair dye. The older women begged for it to darken the gray in their hair so they wouldn’t automatically be selected for the gas.”
Hangen himself came to an unfortunate end: three years after writing this piece he was captured in Cambodia while on assignment. His skeleton was discovered and identified two decades later.
Holiday is a testament to the fact that some things still manage to get lost in an age when almost everything is archived, or at least mentioned, online. As far as I can tell, no one seems to care much about the legacy of Holiday, and no archive exists. By now I own some forty copies of the magazine. I may be the archive.
Josh Lieberman lives in Brooklyn, New York. His last piece for the Daily was on the German musician Michael Rother.