Almanac

Cover Story - April 10, 2013

Shaping the West

Bill Lane's compelling account of the hard-won success of Sunset magazine

by Dave Boyce

It's a safe bet that few can now say what these four things have in common: asparagus, the sliding glass door, a wilderness vacation, and teaching teenagers to cook. According to the new book "The Sun Never Sets: Reflections on a Western Life," Sunset magazine introduced and gained acceptance for all this and much more in Western households.

This memoir by the late Bill Lane, the former publisher of Sunset magazine, is published this month by Stanford University Press and co-written with Bert Patenaude, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a lecturer at Stanford University.

The book is a tour de force of the many and significant accomplishments of Laurence William Lane Jr. Prominent among them are events from his 44 years at Sunset magazine and how he and his brother Mel carried the torch lit by their father Larry to transform Sunset into an institution that helped define suburban lifestyles in the post-war American West.

The 200 pages are packed with analysis and anecdotes from a man with a relentless desire to succeed. The headlong pace covers Mr. Lane's 92 years, starting with his early appreciation of ice cream and his parents' role in the development of the Eskimo Pie. The story takes off in 1928 when the family left their Iowa farm and came to California in a new Packard automobile. In the car with Bill, age 8, were his mother Ruth, his younger brother Mel, his grandmother, and the farm caretaker, who drove the car. On the outside — on the running board and roof — was baggage. The family dog, a German Shepherd named Cleta, came later.

Laurence Lane, Bill's dad, had quit his job as an advertising man for Better Homes and Gardens and was already in San Francisco to complete the purchase of Sunset. His mission: transform it from an Atlantic-Monthly-like literary magazine to a how-to journal covering what were to become the "four wheels" of Sunset's content: gardening, travel, home life and cooking, Mr. Lane writes. A penetrating and perhaps lucky strategy; the Roaring Twenties were still roaring, but the Great Depression was right around the corner.

Tough times for business were, of course, inescapable but — and this will not surprise anyone who knew Bill Lane — optimism and perseverance permeate the book. In Mr. Lane's telling, those qualities also fit his brother, father and mother. The memoir is one man's inside story of a family wresting success from difficult circumstances, with a leg up from his parents' effort when he and Mel took over the business. Over the decades, with notable pauses for military service and foreign service in Japan and Australia, Mr. Lane says he applied the lessons of his experience widely — to publishing, to environmental advocacy and to philanthropy.

At one point, he addresses his upbeat attitude: "Over the years, in any activity I've been involved in with my children, I've heard them say, 'Dad, you're always looking at the bright side,' because I'm always saying that out of adversity almost inevitably comes opportunity."

Mr. Lane developed deep roots on the Peninsula. He went to elementary school in Burlingame, high school in Palo Alto, college at Stanford University (and Pomona College), and was instrumental in incorporating Portola Valley in 1964. With his wife Jean, the couple had three children. He also took much pride and joy in playing Santa Claus at Christmas at Sunset and later at the Ladera shopping center. Mr. Lane died July 31, 2010, at Stanford Hospital.

In addition to being Portola Valley's first mayor and a member of its first Town Council, Mr. Lane served as U.S. ambassador to Australia and Nauru, and U.S. ambassador-at-large to Japan. While at Sunset, he orchestrated a shift toward environmental advocacy in the world as well as at home; after the 1990 sale of the magazine for $225 million in stock and cash, he became a busy philanthropist.

The book mentions many notable friends, acquaintances and officials instrumental to Mr. Lane's accomplishments, including President Lyndon Johnson and his successors up to and including Bill Clinton, key members of the administrations of those presidents, California Gov. Pat Brown and several of his successors, environmental pioneers David Brower and Martin Litton, members of Congress, and others.

It was President Ronald Reagan who appointed Mr. Lane as U.S. ambassador to Australia and and the island nation of Nauru in 1986.

Door-to-door

Such acquaintances were decades away in 1928, when Bill Jr. and Mel were in elementary school and sold Sunset door-to-door on one Saturday morning a month. Mr. Lane writes that he saw "husbands and wives both grabbing for the magazine. I saw firsthand, flesh and blood, how Sunset was a tool — not just a leisure pastime but a tool that was used to help these people in their lives."

"I think as a family we were all committed to making Sunset successful, and we were keenly aware of the seriousness of the Depression and the dire conditions that existed," he writes. "If you look back at the early Lane Sunset, you see that the underlying editorial message has to do with courage and fortitude and looking on the bright side of things."

Sunset became a family institution, according to this account. Sunset brought to the Western dinner table asparagus, artichokes, eggplants and avocados, as well as mango, papaya, kiwi and sourdough bread, he writes. Sunset sponsored home design competitions, and advocated for solar energy, the backyard barbecue, and teaching teenagers to cook. Sliding doors, skylights and other means of "erasing the line between indoors and out" were big, as were homes with hot tubs, eat-in kitchens and kitchen gardens.

Sunset's initial target audience was a particular demographic along the Pacific Coast. Mr. Lane quotes a letter from his dad inviting two Midwest editors to come west and collaborate: "Certainly in these states there is an abundance of money, motor cars, country homes and desire and ability to have the best of everything," he writes. "Strange as it may seem with this condition, we find among the people of the Coast a surprising spirit of friendliness and good fellowship with almost an utter lack of snobbishness.

"While the contents of the magazine should be aimed at families with no less than $5,000 income ($67,900 today, adjusted for inflation), it should not be afraid to address families enjoying income as high as $30,000 ($400,300 today)," the letter continued. "I can't help but feel that we can make Sunset a 'mass' magazine in point of coverage and at the same time, a 'class' magazine in point of editorial contents and appearance." And, Bill Lane adds, "in fact this is exactly what Dad and his staff would achieve."

Editorial priorities carried over into advertising. Privately held and with enviable circulation numbers, Sunset could pick and choose — a tradition that continued after the Lane sons took over. No to beer ads, to tobacco ads, to pesticide ads (some years after publication of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring") and to the National Rifle Association. Staff had approved an ad campaign to soften the NRA's image in the 1980s, but Mr. Lane vetoed it. "Not on your life will we accept that," he recalls saying. "I just didn't believe in what the NRA was doing in undermining the control of handguns."

He says he tried to instill in editors the idea that Sunset reflected public behavior, not private. "We were creating an image there, and it had nothing to do with whether we ourselves drank or smoked or hunted," he writes. "The image of the magazine had to reflect what you would expect of your minister, regardless of what his personal habits were. ... For example, presumably you trust your garage mechanic as a mechanic, to get the job done on your car. You really don't care whether he's sleeping around or not."

Advocate for nature

As a young man, Mr. Lane slept in the mountains, a place he would return to throughout his life. At 15, he got a job as a handyman with a pack-mule outfit that worked for the U.S. Forest Service. Many times, he says, he led eight-mule pack trains carrying milk cans full of baby fish to stock mountain lakes, with no one for company but the mules. At night, the cans had to be unloaded and set down in streams to aerate the water inside and keep the fish alive, then repacked on the mules in the morning, and rocked back and forth at trail stops during the day.

Naturalist John Muir, the champion of preserving Yosemite Valley, was a hero to Mr. Lane, and environmental advocacy eventually came to Sunset. "We became very opinionated, but always the opinion was based on an emphasis in the article to get the reader to visit the place," Mr. Lane writes. And, not forgetting the magazine's focus, "our credo (was) that effective environmental awareness begins at home."

After the oil price shock of the late 1970s, the magazine cut back on stories about wilderness travel and new homes and shifted to remodeling and garden clubs — and water conservation, including the smart use of water and drought- and fire-resistant plants. Sunset collaborated with Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. to build solar panels at the Menlo Park headquarters building.

"We are excited about the future but concerned that we stay down to earth and useful," he says he wrote in a 1978 editorial. "Perhaps the biggest challenge for all of us will be to shift from a habit of plenty to a discipline of limits."

"The Sun Never Sets: Reflections on a Western Life," by L.W. Bill Lane Jr., with Bertrand M. Patenaude, and with an introduction by California historian Kevin Starr. 200 pages, 75 illustrations. ISBN: 9780804785112. Trade paperback, $27.95, available online through Stanford University Press (sup.org), Kepler's Books and Magazines in Menlo Park, and online.

• Visit tinyurl.com/Bill-Lane-book

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