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Henderson, Man of the Desert

By Phil Brigandi
He was driven, demanding, and notoriously tight-fisted, he also built one of America’s great regional magazines. For more than two decades he gave his heart and soul to Desert Magazine, and his legion of followers survives to this day.

Randall Henderson was born about as far away from the desert as you can get – in Iowa, in 1888. In 1907 Randall rode the rails to California and enrolled at USC. To earn his keep, he began his journalist career as a job as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. When Randall was getting ready to graduate, his editor, Harry Carr, gave him a great piece of advice:

“If I was a young fella like you, I’d go find a little country newspaper and grow up with the community.”

Historical Society of Palm Desert

Randall Henderson Barnstormer

And that’s how Randall ended up on the desert in 1912, as the editor of the Blythe Herald (located in Blythe California). Five years later in 1917, the United States entered World War I and he felt it was his duty to enlist. But it wasn’t until 1918 that Randall received his orders for pilot training, though he was never stationed overseas.

After the war in 1922, looking around for new opportunities, Randall became co-owner of the Calexico Chronicle, which he turned into to a daily paper, with a weekly Spanish edition. He made the Chronicle a major voice in the Imperial Valley.

Randall was to marry his sweetheart Vera and become the father of two children, a daughter named Evonne and later a son named Randall Jr. or Rand for short.

Surrounded by the desert, Randall began to explore his new home. He made a hobby of visiting palm groves, and kept track of the number of trees they contained. He found a kindred spirit in J. Wilson McKenney, one of his young reporters, and in the early 1930s he began sending him out to do desert travel features.

It was about 1935 that Randall started thinking about some sort of desert magazine and before long; McKenney got swept up in his plans. After considerable thought and study, while on the top of the Santa Rosa Mountains in June of 1936, the two of them decided to give it try.

Randall never let his imagination get in the way of his practical side. He sold a half-interest in the Chronicle, and bought a commercial printing plant in El Centro where he could print his magazine, and make a little money doing job work.

In the fall of 1936, the first “dummy” issue of Desert Magazine appeared. The only article was Randall’s famous “There Are Two Deserts” editorial. The first real issue of Desert Magazine is dated November 1937, with Randall and “Mac” writing most of it themselves.

Desert Magazine was published at a loss for the first five years, but the print shop managed to cover the gap – most of the time. McKenney gave up after two years and found a new job and it wasn’t until June of 1942 that the magazine finally showed a small profit.

Two months later, Randall Henderson was called up for active duty in World War II, but at 54, he was too old to fly, so they made him an officer. Capt. Randall Henderson ended up commanding a little refueling station in the middle of the Sahara Desert. And of course, he was fascinated with the place and the people.

When Randall’s son, Rand, heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he vowed to enlist, ended up with the 1st Marines and fighting in the Pacific. Randall had hoped his son might someday take over his magazine, but he was killed while fighting on Saipan in 1944.

Randall was shattered, when he returned from the war, he threw himself into his work. The Desert Southwest was ready to grow, and once again he would grow up with the country.

He was always insistent that Desert Magazine was a desert magazine and he rejected many stories simply because they didn’t stick to the sand dunes and rocky hills.

Randall Henderson and J Wilson McKenney at the birth of Desert magazine.

Randall Henderson and J Wilson McKenney at the birth of Desert magazine.

He also had a very clear vision of the type of stories he wanted. “Feature material should have a strong, personal, human-interest slant,” he wrote to prospective authors, “…avoid generalities. We prefer copy written from the viewpoint of participant rather than onlooker.”

So you didn’t describe a generic visit to some national park, you wrote about your trip into a desert canyon.

Randall wrote many of those features, along with his monthly “Just Between You and Me” column. He also attracted a stable of regular contributors, including ghost town expert Nell Murbarger, botanist Edmund Jaeger, historians Harold and Lucile Weight, and Marshal South, whose “experiment in desert living” atop a rocky, waterless mountain, still excites the imagination.

And his readers responded, even if they couldn’t go out to the desert themselves, they could still make the trip vicariously through the pages of Desert Magazine. It’s also how most of them met its founder.

But what was Randall Henderson really like?

I have been talking to people who knew Randall for more than a quarter of a century now, and have decided that – like most of us – he was complex mix. J. Wilson McKenney left us perhaps the best description in his 1972 book, Desert Editor:

“Randall Henderson was introverted, self-contained, self-reliant, and not always an easy man to know. In speech, he was often inarticulate when he tried to reveal the humanitarian principles which in his late years dominated his thoughts, but when he talked informally at campfires his language could be colorful and precise. In business matters he was usually hard-headed and rigidly conventional, always the slave of his promise and the conscience of his debt…. In his relationships with people he was often uncompromising and severe, or he could be courteous and friendly, but never gregarious….

“Scornful of intemperance, he never touched alcohol, ate simply, and detested the cigarette habit which claimed him most of his life. Awed by the wonders of the natural world … he had no tolerance for the looters and despoilers. He loved the open spaces and solitude; he could tolerate the teeming cities only with dogged determination.”

There have been some efforts lately to try to paint Randall as not much of an environmentalist, especially literary historian Peter Wild’s 2004 book, Desert Magazine: The Randall Henderson Years. The book is not so much about Randall or his magazine, but about what Wild thought about them and what he thought about them is often not very pleasant. He complains about Randall’s “troglodytic thinking” and his “wildly conflicting values” about the development of the desert versus its preservation.

Despite my best efforts to dissuade her, Randall’s daughter, Evonne Riddell, insisted I loan her my copy of Wild’s book to read. Her six word review:

“I hope he feels better now!”

The fact is Randall was a dedicated conservationist in the true sense of the word. He tried to find a balance between use and preservation. He loved the desert, and he wanted to share that love with others.


Click here to read the original issue.

This takes us to his vision for Desert Magazine as an institution. While he was serving in North Africa, he started to dream about, “selecting a blank site on one of the most traveled of the Southern California desert highways, and there founding our own desert community, built around the magazine and its printing establishment.”

When he arrived home, he started searching for just the right location. By October of 1944, he had found what he was looking for – the cove at the bottom of the Pines to Palms Highway. He started buying up land and obtaining options for other property. He also talked about his idea with his brother, Cliff.

Cliff Henderson was big promoter and developer up in Los Angeles. He was excited about Randall’s idea of a new desert town and asked to get in on the action.

So Randall turned the real estate side over to Cliff and focused on his magazine plans. Cliff Henderson went out and rounded up a gang of investors and another brother, Phil Henderson, suggested the name – Palm Desert. Randall, of course, had wanted “desert” in the name and the billboards even used the magazine’s distinctive script.

In 1948, Desert Magazine moved to Palm Desert. Besides the editorial offices and printing plant (again in a Pueblo-style building) there was an art gallery, a book shop and a six-unit apartment house out back, so his employees would have a place to live in the new town.

In later years, sad to say, Randall and Cliff got into quite a battle over who deserved the credit for Palm Desert. And like brothers can do, they knew just how to wound each other.

I’ve spent some time looking at all this, and I think that there’s more than enough credit to go around. Palm Desert would never have been born if Randall Henderson hadn’t come up with the idea and threw the strength of his magazine behind it. And Palm Desert never would have developed the way it did without Cliff Henderson, and his skills as a promoter and a developer.

By the 1950s, Desert Magazine was doing well. But Randall Henderson was getting older. Once he passed 65, he started thinking about what to do next. Running the magazine and all its related parts was a huge burden on him. He started bringing in assistant editors to help lighten the load – but working for Randall Henderson could be kind of tough.

Finally he faced the facts and quietly put Desert Magazine up for sale. It took a couple years before he found a buyer he was happy with and in 1958, Randall sold Desert Magazine to Charles Shelton, keeping only a partial interest as one of the stockholders.

Randall stayed around for a couple months then retired with the title of advisory editor. He also went on writing his monthly column.

Chuck Shelton respected what Randall had built, but he and his staff also started looking for ways to improve it.

Under Shelton, Desert added more “lifestyle” features – desert gardening, desert cooking, desert living, and celebrity profiles. He also ramped up the commercial side of the magazine – there were more chamber of commerce-type features, articles on new products, and even test drives of new vehicles.

Randall Henderson in southern Utah

Randall Henderson in southern Utah

That last one is what finally got Randall Henderson’s goat. For him, the advertisements in the magazine were a part of the total package, part of the overall focus and tone of the magazine. He wasn’t afraid to turn down what he called “objectionable” ads. “It is not necessary to sacrifice ideals to earn fair profits,” he said.

Randall grew more and more dissatisfied with Desert Magazine in the early 1960s. The last straw was the May 1962 issue, which devoted pages and pages to the Tote Gote – a new mini-motor scooter. They were touted as a great new way to see the desert, even when there were no roads to take you there.

It was all too much for Randall the conservationist. He dropped his column, sold his stock and after 25 years cut all his ties with Desert Magazine.

But Randall Henderson’s legacy is secure. It’s bound up in the pages of Desert Magazine. It was, very simply, an extension of the man – his view of the desert, his vision for Desert Magazine.

Randall used to repeat a quote he’d picked up from an old time editor:

“I’ve never been able to edit successful for an audience of which I am not a member.”

That sums up a lot of the success of Desert Magazine under Randall Henderson. Its later editors were not always as devoted to the desert.

Randall died at his home in Palm Desert on July 4, 1970, at the age of 82. Desert Magazine died 15 years later.

Could it have survived? I don’t know. But Randall’s ideals and Randall’s energy kept it growing for more than 20 years. He had a clear vision for what his magazine could be, and he worked doggedly to make his vision a reality. He built his magazine on the success of his own ideals.

He left a great legacy for all of us who love the desert.

One Response so far.

  1. Elizabeth Douglas says:

    I love reading about desert magazine and am so sorry that the magazine couldn’t go on. I was born in the desert near Blyth, California and although I only lived there about two years guess the desert is just in my blood because I love the desert and think it’s beautiful. There’s nothing more beautiful than a desert sunset in the evening. Thanks for the articles about the desert and desert magazine.