In 1961, Barbara Cummiskey pitched to the editors of Life magazine three stories about the dark side of the American dreams of fame, wealth, and success. Now, her premise might seem quaint but back in 1961, this critical approach was something bold, especially at Life, which was known for its staunch defense of American ideals and upbeat approach to modern American culture.
Cummiskey was one of the small number of female staff at the magazine and worked variously as a reporter, writer, and researcher. Through a friend in public relations, Cummiskey found a man whose lust for success was palpable to everyone who met him. Victor Sabatino was the Chicagoan owner of a national line of foam-rubber-furniture stores, who was developing stores in California. Life assigned Grey Villet, the magazine’s South African-born bureau photographer in Los Angeles to the project.
Villet and Cummiskey worked closely together on the story that would eventually be printed as “The Lash of Success” (November 16, 1962). Cummiskey did spend time with Sabatino before Villet came on board and did most of the talking and listening while Villet silently took photos. But mostly, they stayed in the background during their weeks shadowing Sabatino. Most of the time Sabatino ignored them, as did his colleagues and family.
It was subtitled “A modern parable” and showed Sabatino, a man possessed by a insatiable private hunger, sacrificing his humanity in pursuit of success and ultimately destroying what he’d built. The picture story opened with shot that captured Sabatino’s dark hunger to suceeed mirrored in his eyes and showed Sabatino bullying his employees, manipulating his wife, visiting his tailor, talking to an old friend, and kissing his young daughter good night.
Sabatino was 33 when he began to build a national furniture chain called Foam Rubber City. He said “What I want is to be a winner. People remember winners.” A cold eyed autocrat in his dealings with his employees, Sabatino could accept only one way in running his business: his way. He was often found manipulating and intimidating his employees to get what he wanted from them. In the lead photo topmost, the impact of his anger was palpable in the fearful expression of Herman Horowitz, a store manager whom he was berating for straying from his rules.
Villet called his portraiture work “psychegraphs”: photos which revealed to full effect in emotions etched deep inside a person. Villet saw him as “a puppet master in his own very small theatre.” The price of Sabatino’s ambition was also reflected in the pain and loneliness his obsession with success had inflicted on his wife, his daughter, and himself.
In the end, Victor lost it all: his company, his family and his dreams. As his business began to fail and his marriage crumbled, he told Cummiskey: “I know what Lillian wanted . . . She wanted me to see her—look at her . . . But I had to do what I had to do.” Divorce was a relief. But he could not give up the business. “ ‘Everybody told me, ‘Walk away Victor. Take what you can and walk away.’ But I wouldn’t. I fought and I talked and I fought.’ ”
Villet and Cummiskey had a happier ending. On the day Villet began shooting the story, he asked Cummiskey to marry him. She agreed three days later, and they were married until Villet’s death in 2000.