WASHINGTON — Ralph Graves, a former writer, editor, and executive at Time Inc. who as the last managing editor of the weekly Life magazine strove to keep an American institution afloat in its turbulent final years, died last Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.
The cause was kidney failure, said his wife, Eleanor.
Mr. Graves joined Time Inc. in 1948, as a researcher for Life, and his career there described a steady upward arc. Among other posts he was a reporter in the Time-Life news bureau in San Francisco, Life’s Chicago bureau chief, and a senior editor for all of Time Inc.’s magazines.
He became Life’s managing editor, taking over its daily operations, in May 1969. Life, which Time began publishing in 1936, was one of a number of general-interest magazines — among the others were Look and The Saturday Evening Post — that both informed and entertained large numbers of Americans throughout the 1940s and ’50s. Life, in particular, with its emphasis on photography, was said to be the country’s chief source for learning what the world looked like.
But by the late 1960s general-interest magazines, squeezed by television on the one hand and specialty publications on the other, were an endangered species. Life’s circulation was 8.5 million when Mr. Graves took over; a year and a half later it was 5.5 million, despite a strong run of journalism.
Within weeks of becoming managing editor, Mr. Graves supervised a controversial issue whose cover article, under the headline “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll,” showed photographs of more than 200 American soldiers killed in the Vietnam War from May 28 through June 3.
The article was especially startling appearing in Life, which had a history of supporting the war, and it drew a passionate reaction, both from those who found that it exploited the country’s grief and from those who found it courageous and moving. As a journalistic device, it has since been used by many publications, including The New York Times. That same year, 1969, Life covered Woodstock, the moon landing, and the unlikely success of the New York Mets. In 1970, it published unauthorized reminiscences by the former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev that the Soviet government newspaper said were fraudulent. Experts on Khrushchev consulted by the magazine declared the manuscript legitimate.
In 1971, Mr. Graves and Life were victims of a genuine fraud after Clifford Irving, a relatively unknown writer, with the aid of a researcher, created a phony memoir of the reclusive industrialist Howard Hughes and sold it to McGraw-Hill. Life bought serial rights and was set to publish three 10,000-word installments when the hoax came to light.
Mr. Graves was the author of several books, both nonfiction and fiction, including the novel “Orion: The Story of a Rape” (1993), which was based on the rape of his daughter Sara in 1983. The novel tells of the crime and the victim’s participation, with the police, in tracking down her assailants.
His first marriage, to Patricia Monser, ended in divorce. He married Eleanor MacKenzie Parish, an editor at Life, in 1958. He leaves his wife along with his daughters, Sara Savage and Katherine Venooker; two sons, William and Andrew; two stepsons, William and Alexander Parish; and 11 grandchildren and step-grandchildren.