Irwin Glusker, a designer of magazines and books whose long career included establishing the lavish look of American Heritage, a bimonthly about U.S. history that found mass-market success during magazine publishing’s mid-20th-century heyday, died on Aug. 30 at his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He was 98.
The death was confirmed by his daughter, Anne Glusker.
Starting in 1954, American Heritage, with Mr. Glusker defining its visual identity as art director, used a lively news-magazine-for-history-buffs tone to become a fixture in dens across the country, a print precursor to the kind of documentary series the filmmaker Ken Burns now regularly produces for public television.
What began as one magazine grew into a company that published books on subjects like the Civil War and President John F. Kennedy’s assassination; a second magazine, Horizon, devoted to art and culture, which was also packaged and pitched to appeal to popular tastes; and a dictionary that was unusual for its heavy use of illustrations.
Guiding the design of it all was Mr. Glusker, a confident man with a commanding voice and a sharp sense of humor who was described by those who worked with him as generous, enthusiastic and encouraging.
“A good, old-fashioned art director,” said Walter Bernard, who joined the American Heritage company in 1962 to design a book about the history of World War I and who has since gone on to design and art direct many well-known magazines and newspapers.
Mr. Bernard recalled in a phone interview how the American Heritage staff, working in collaboration with United Press International, raced under a tight deadline to produce the Kennedy book, “Four Days,” published in January 1964, less than two months after the assassination, which covered the period from the day the president was killed to the day he was buried.
“Irwin was the engine,” Mr. Bernard said.
Most of Mr. Glusker’s work was not tied to the news. He filled American Heritage’s pages with full-color reproductions of engravings, lithographs and paintings to create magazines worth lingering over, and worth the subscription price: $10 for six issues a year (more than $100 in 2022 dollars).
“It was a great success largely because of him,” said Richard F. Snow, an author who was a longtime American Heritage editor.
Irwin Glusker was born on June 8, 1924, in Brooklyn. His father, Hyman Glusker, worked at a shoe factory. His mother, Ida (Schmitt) Glusker, was a homemaker and seamstress who took in piecework to help support the family.
Mr. Glusker enrolled at the Cooper Union after graduating from Boys High School in Brooklyn, but his studies were interrupted when the Army drafted him soon after he turned 18. As a private, he earned a $10 prize for winning the amateur category in an all-soldiers art show at Truax Field in Wisconsin in 1944, The Capital Times of Madison reported.
After finishing his military service, Mr. Glusker returned to New York and graduated from the Cooper Union in 1948.
He started out, he wrote in a 1986 memo describing his career, working “in various San Francisco and New York design dungeons.”
A chance encounter totally altered his professional trajectory. As Mr. Glusker recounted the story to his daughter, he was at dinner with a former boss when they encountered one of three Time Inc. veterans — he wasn’t sure which — who had recently acquired the five-year-old American Heritage from the American Association for State and Local History, with plans to turn what was a dry history journal into a mainstream magazine.
“My whole career,” Anne Glusker said her father told her, “hinged on somebody meeting somebody else” at a restaurant.
Mr. Glusker initially kept the job he had and worked on American Heritage on the side. His first task involved designing the direct-mail material used to lure subscribers.
The retooled magazine — whose first editor was the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Bruce Catton, and whose first issue included articles about a Union Army general falsely accused of treason and an East Coast steamship line — quickly became a hit, and Mr. Glusker joined full time to oversee every aspect of its design. Within 10 years, it had 300,000 subscribers.
“It was an opportunity to play with guys I liked in a game I liked,” Mr. Glusker told American Heritage for a 2004 article commemorating the magazine’s 50th anniversary.
The company’s books included “The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War,” which won a special group Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Mr. Glusker was the book’s art director.
He stayed at American Heritage until 1969, when it was sold to McGraw-Hill. (It was later bought by Forbes, which discontinued the print version in 2007 and sold a majority stake to a group that includes the current editor in chief, Edwin S. Grosvenor. The American Heritage website has an archive of old issues and also publishes new articles.)
With the sale to McGraw-Hill, Mr. Glusker left to become Life magazine’s art director. The switch from American Heritage’s more leisurely pace to the news-cycle scramble, Anne Glusker said, prompted him to start smoking again.
Life was nearing its end as a weekly magazine, but it did not lack for serious subjects in Mr. Glusker’s time there, including one of the Vietnam War’s most notorious atrocities: “I handled the layout of the My Lai massacre,” he wrote in the 1986 memo.
“I handled Woodstock,” he continued, “and helped bury Teddy Kennedy’s presidential aspirations under a couple of spreads on Chappaquiddick.” There were also, he added, the Kent State shootings, the first moon landings and “eight billion words” by Norman Mailer on that subject, which he squeezed in around ads with odd shapes.
After the original iteration of Life ceased publication in 1972, Mr. Glusker opened a design business and produced books in collaboration with, among others, Nancy Sinatra, Charles Kuralt and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He returned to magazine work in the 1980s as a consultant for Gourmet. The job was a good fit, allowing Mr. Glusker, an inveterate foodie, to make himself a pest in the test kitchen and to act as a mentor young people like the noted food photographer Romulo Yanes.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Glusker is survived by a son, Peter, and four grandchildren. His wife, Lilyan (Goldman) Glusker, whom he met when she was a copy editor at American Heritage, died on July 30.
Although the print publications Mr. Glusker worked on have vanished, his art lives on in physical form in at least two pieces outside the publishing realm.
One, a bronze sculpture, “The Rowers,” has stood outside the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park since 1968.
The other, a black-and-white poster-style calendar depicting the moon’s phases, is sold by the Museum of Modern Art Design Store, which commissioned it and calls it a “beloved classic.” The 2023 version is now in stock.
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