For decades, Moris Hoversten’s Passport newsletter was the go-to publication for discriminating travelers
By David A. F. Sweet
In this Internet age, where tourists post tens of thousands of photos and comments daily, it’s amazing to consider the one-time influence of a small, sophisticated travel newsletter distributed via mail.
Passport was the brainchild of Lake Forest resident Moris Hoversten. Known as Morrie to his friends, he published the monthly missive for world travelers on light blue paper designed to look like social stationery. No photos graced the pages, which were small in size and number, but insights from a slew of correspondents who understood their well-heeled audience drove a circulation that peaked above 15,000 subscribers.
“As I look back on it I am continuously amazed by its success,” wrote Hoversten in “The Behind-the-Scenes Story of Passport,” a memoir of sorts distributed to friends well before he passed away in 2008. “I wish I could take all the credit, but I have to admit in all honesty that it was a combination of timing, low key marketing, and good luck.”
Born in Minnesota, Hoversten flew seaplanes during World War II. He and his wife, Anne — a third-generation New Yorker — moved to Lake Forest in the 1950s. Hoversten published business newsletters under Enterprise Publications, which he founded in 1953, before Passport joined the fold a number of years later.
“I began to wonder if there was a gap in the travel information field,” he explained about the idea in his history of Passport, which he started in the 1960s and owned for a quarter century. “Would discriminating travelers be interested in a newsletter that gave them culturally interesting information that could not be found in guidebooks?” Hoversten believed he could keep the reader up to date on theater openings in London and new art exhibits in Paris, Rome and Florence, along with providing insights on inns and restaurants the guidebooks hadn’t discovered yet.
The dummy issue received some praise but plenty of scorn. Recounted Hoversten, “One man roared with derisive laughter and picked the issue apart paragraph by paragraph, saying, “No way! This will never sell!”
Back in the days when buying mailing lists was a popular way to gain subscribers, Hoversten procured one and sent the test issue to 5,000 households. For 10 days, he heard nothing. Then, one subscription at the charter price of $15 arrived, then a few more. Historian Samuel Elliott Morrison, who had won two Pultizer Prizes, was one of the first to subscribe.
At the start, Hoversten didn’t solicit anyone in the Chicago area, as he lacked confidence people would subscribe once they saw his name attached (“I certainly did not consider myself a knowledgeable, sophisticated traveler,” he wrote). But one Chicagoan had heard of Passport in Hobe Sound and wished to subscribe: Louise Smith, wife of Northern Trust Chairman Edward Smith.
“I must admit that when I was first putting Passport together, I visualized Louise Smith as someone I hoped would someday be a subscriber,” Hoversten wrote. “Now I was proud that she had become one.”
He gathered a loyal band of contributors — eventually including a New York Times Rome bureau chief and Lady Elizabeth Longman, a bridesmaid at Queen Elizabeth’s wedding. Ellen Stirling, who was ensconced in London for many years because of her husband Jim’s work there, recalled the joy of contributing to the publication.
“It was just fantastic fun,” said Stirling, who owns the iconic Lake Forest Shop in Market Square. “Whenever I traveled, I would look at it from the point of view whether someone would want to go there. He tried to make it feel like you were getting the inside scoop, and everyone trusted Passport.
“The favorite thing I did was the relaunching of the Orient Express with Jimmy Sherwood (who had bought the old train cars in Monte Carlo and refurbished them). A lot of the press were there. When Jimmy saw Passport was there, he dropped everything and took me through the train.”
Hoversten and his wife Anne — accompanied by a copy of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express — joined the first ride from London to Venice. Despite the many celebrities and nobility on board, Sherwood chose to dine in his private car only with the Hoverstens and their friends, Billy and Eleanor Wood-Prince.
Though trips like that added glamor to the life of an editor, Hoversten labored tirelessly to serve his loyal audience.
“I worked long and hard over every issue,” noted Hoversten who, after trying out editors, eventually tapped himself for the role. “Sometimes I would rewrite the paragraph seven or eight times before I felt it was right and then run it past my wife Anne, who always had good taste and judgment. In addition, she could spell.”
His big break came when he put an ad in The New York Times Book Review (chosen because the section was cheaper than the rest of the paper). Nearly 200 subscribers followed. But some who had previously subscribed to Passport weren’t impressed, including a Mrs. Mellon in New York.
“I am horrified,” she wrote Hoversten. “Now all these charming places you tell us about each month will be ruined if everyone knows about them.”
Despite her letter, Hoversten knew Passport needed to advertise to survive, so he placed ads in The New Yorker, Architectural Digest and Connoisseur. At the same time, he wanted to maintain the publication’s exclusive air.
“Passport was so hard to find. There was considerable mystery about it,” he wrote. “Even many friends in Lake Forest who had heard I had something to do with it were reluctant to come right out and ask.”
Hoversten refused many requests to share his subscriber list. As the years went on, many well-known names procured subscriptions, such as crooner Bing Crosby, designer Bill Blass and Carter Brown, director of Washington’s National Gallery of Art.
“I just didn’t like the idea of treating our subscribers like commodity,” he wrote. “I always considered our readers as friends even though I didn’t know all of them.”
One year, Hoversten and his family traveled to Dragon Bay in Jamaica. He had already written a complimentary review of the resort. That year, it rained incessantly for days. Finally, a bored Hoversten walked to the beach for a swim in the rain, where he met a woman on a raft. Hoversten asked how she had happened to come to Dragon Bay; she said Passport called it “a wonderful place, full of sunshine.”
“I went under the water,” Hoversten recalled. “When I came up I got up my courage and said I am the publisher of that little travel letter.” They both laughed and, after Hoversten met her husband, there was considerable banter about canceling his subscription.
Hoversten eventually sold Passport to Chris Root, scion of the family who created the Coca-Cola bottle and at the time of the sale a Mesirow Financial executive in Chicago. In Root’s obituary earlier this year, Passport was described as the country’s “oldest travel advisory publication.” Let’s just say that initial review of the dummy issue was slightly off base.
Unsung Gems columnist David A. F. Sweet can be followed on Twitter @davidafsweet. E-mail him at email@example.com.