The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, by Alan Brinkley, Knopf, 560 pp., $35
In this age of bloggers and tweeters, when paper-based sources of news and information are either vanishing or transmuting into binary smog, does anyone outside the academy still spare a thought for the time, life, and fortune of Henry Robinson Luce? Let’s hope so, because historian Alan Brinkley has written a new biography retelling the story of Luce’s remarkable life: his emergence from an unhappy and tatty childhood in China, where his father was a missionary; his years as a poor, put-upon scholarship student at Hotchkiss and Yale (class of 1920); and his postgraduate rocket ride to the pinnacle of journalistic power and influence. “Harry” Luce, as he was known, may seem irrelevant to the 21st century, but he was surely relevant to the late 20th, which in 1941 he famously—and, as it turned out, more or less accurately—declared was “the American Century.” (One can only imagine with what pleasure Luce might have reacted to Brinkley’s subtitle, which awards the century to him.)
I labored for much of my career in Luce’s once-lush vineyards and in his gradually fading shadow, but never knew the man. He died of a massive heart attack at the age of 68, a little more than a year before I was hired as a Time correspondent in San Francisco. His death occurred on February 28, 1967, exactly 44 years from the day he held the very first issue of Time, which he and Briton Hadden, his brilliant Hotchkiss-Yale classmate (and fellow Skull and Bones member) had invented.
The most interesting parts of The Publisher are Brinkley’s fine portraits of these two young men as they started out in the early 1920s to create something they called a “news-magazine” (it took them a while to eliminate the hyphen): Luce, intellectually curious but plodding; Hadden, cool and insouciant. Both startlingly intelligent and ambitious, they were only two years out of Yale, where Hadden had won the chairmanship of the Yale Daily News over a deeply disappointed Luce, who had to settle for the managing editorship. Neither could claim any professional experience worthy of the name. After graduation, they worked for a few months as very junior reporters—Luce at the Chicago Daily News, Hadden at the New York World, and then together, even more briefly, at the Baltimore News. Through much of this period, not counting the year Luce devoted to a tour of Europe and a term at Oxford, they developed their idea for a new kind of “paper,” which Luce envisioned as serving “the illiterate upper classes, the busy businessman, the tired debutante, to prepare them . . . for table conversation.”
If their resumés were thin, their wallets were thinner, even after Luce’s marriage in 1923 to Lila Hotz, from a prominent Chicago family. To help finance their enterprise, the young would-be publishers turned first to rich friends, particularly Yale and Skull and Bones contacts. Luce’s father was a first-rate fundraiser for missionary efforts, and his son inherited a similar aptitude. Thus, Luce at first focused more on the business end of the venture, while Hadden tended to the editorial side. The prospectus they developed promised short, sprightly articles on subjects reflecting Luce’s broad interests, in a style that contained more than a hint of Hadden’s cynical worldliness. Their magazine would be organized into easily identifiable sections—national affairs, theater, books—and would offer busy people not just a news digest but a complete, if brief, retelling and categorization of the week’s events, written by the magazine’s staff using newspaper and wire-service accounts. (Time would have no reporters of its own until the late 1930s.)
And they pulled it off. Barely a year after they began working full time on the project, the first issue of Time, the weekly news-magazine was on the stands, dated March 23, 1923, price 15 cents. Luce had come up with the name, or so he claimed years later, after seeing a subway ad for automobile tires that read “time to retire” On the cover of the first issue was a pen-and-ink drawing of Joe Cannon, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. It sold a disappointing 9,000 copies, but by the second half of 1924, weekly circulation had increased to 70,000, and Time Inc. had its first profit.
Luce and Hadden agreed to switch the top two jobs (editor in chief and business manager) annually, but as it worked out, Luce spent more time managing than writing or editing. It was Hadden, aping Homeric poetry, who introduced backward running sentences (“until reels the mind,” as a New Yorker parody put it) as well as the use of nicknames and unflattering adjectives—“bandy-legged,” “wild-eyed”—and neologisms like cinemactor and socialite. By all accounts, including Brinkley’s, Hadden was a moody, urbane, and sometimes outrageous character, especially in his Prohibition cups. When Time was briefly headquartered in Cleveland, he was given to driving drunk through the city shouting “Babbitt!” at strangers on the sidewalk. But Hadden was also a Jazz-Age journalistic genius, perhaps second only to The New Yorker’s Harold Ross.
A heavy-smoking alcoholic, Hadden died in 1929 of a streptococcal infection. He was 31. Soon after his death, Luce took complete control of both the magazine and the rapidly growing publishing company that bore its name. He made a deal to buy his late partner’s shares and dropped Hadden’s name from the masthead. Then he set out in earnest to create Fortune, a new magazine that Hadden had strongly opposed; the 1929 stock-market crash had barely occurred when the first issue appeared. It was probably the best business magazine ever and, with its large-size format, heavy paper, and lavish use of photographs, perhaps the most beautiful magazine ever.
But its success, coming so soon after Time’s and preceding the introduction of Life by only six years, illustrates a problem for any Luce biographer: Harry Luce had done his best and most original work by the time he was 38. (Sports Illustrated didn’t come along until 1954 and was far more of a corporate creation than any of its three fabled predecessors.) Though Luce called himself the editor in chief of Time Inc. (not “the publisher”) and thus claimed dominion over all the company’s magazines, Brinkley accurately describes him as more a CEO than a hands-on editor. He traveled a great deal (though FDR refused to let him or other top-level journalism executives travel to the World War II war zones), met kings, prime ministers, presidents, and the like. He developed pet issues and pet newsmakers, such as Chiang Kai-shek and, in the early 1930s, Benito Mussolini, with whose Italian brand of fascism Luce was briefly infatuated until Hitler’s German brand caused him to think again. But once Luce’s success was assured, whenever he traveled or adopted a cause, he did so as if he himself were a head of state and not a journalist.
He was constantly writing memos to his editors and writers, urging this or that policy (anti-Roosevelt, pro-Chiang, pro–civil rights, pro–Wendell Willkie and Dwight Eisenhower, anti–Joe McCarthy) or this or that coverage. Luce was the boss and, more often than not, got his way. But not always. He was no William Randolph Hearst. His magazines (and newsreels under the “March of Time” logo) were neither as biased nor as predictable as critics often charged. For one thing, many of the top people Luce hired—such as James Agee, Theodore H. White, John Hersey, Ed Thompson, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Ralph Ingersoll, Archibald MacLeish, Hedley Donovan, Henry Grunwald, and Charles Mohr, not to mention a long line of well-educated, sophisticated women, such as Marylois Purdy Vega, Ruth Mehrtens Galvin, and, briefly, even Mary Ellin, Irving Berlin’s daughter, who in those days almost never rose above the masthead position of “researcher”—were too talented and too independent to give in easily when they disagreed with him, which, to Luce’s outspoken displeasure, was often.
Brinkley presents all this in meticulous, balanced detail. His is a much fairer portrayal of Luce than an angry 1972 biography by W. A. Swanburg. But Brinkley can’t escape an inherent problem: a great corporate chieftain can be considerably less interesting than a visionary entrepreneur. Perhaps in an effort to try to overcome the problem, Brinkley goes into detail about Luce’s two marriages and many affairs, casual and serious. These certainly shed light on the kind of man he was. (A top Time Inc. editor described him as a “poor lonely soul [who is] unable to get any normal wholesome fun out of life.”) Luce’s affair with the glamorous, divorced Clare Boothe, a playwright and editor at Vanity Fair, led to the breakup of his first marriage and left him with a permanent sense of guilt. The Luce-Boothe marriage in 1935 made them one of the era’s most visible “power couples.” Later, Clare Luce served two terms in Congress and was U.S. ambassador to Italy. Only her relatively late conversion to Catholicism and his ongoing self-reproof, however, seem to have prevented their distant and largely sexless marriage from ending in divorce.
Brinkley generally does a good job of placing Luce and his magazines in their historical contexts. But he is disappointingly weak on certain aspects of journalism. He makes little effort, for example, to compare Luce’s magazines to their competitors and imitators and never mentions “group journalism” as practiced at Time. Nor does he mention the Time-Life News Service, whose chief was directly responsible to Luce, as opposed to the managing editors of Time and Life, a structure intended to protect correspondents from being identified too closely with the biases and whims of the editors. Without this background, Brinkley’s description of the furious split between Time correspondents and editors over the progress of the U.S. war in Vietnam lacks coherence.
Luce, with his restless mind and his preternatural feel for the national pulse, created or helped create four of the most successful magazines in history and understood that good journalism requires deep pockets. After Hadden’s death, Luce had the steely nerve to come out with Fortune during the Depression and to hire an unlikely staff to produce it. (He pompously said that he found it easier to teach poets like MacLeish and Agee to write about business than to turn bookkeepers into writers.) He had the creative genius to bring out a magazine of photojournalism less than three years before World War II and the flowering of photojournalism. And he had the corporate intelligence to oversee the creation of Sports Illustrated just as television was about to turn sports into a gazillion-dollar industry.
In 1972, Dwight Macdonald, a self-described ex-Trotskyite and another of Fortune’s improbable early staffers, wrote that Luce was “a tragic-comic human being who was pulled one way by his respect for facts, his personal decency, his missionary do-goodism and his genuine intellectual curiosity and the other way by his obsessive prejudices in favor of God, American capitalism and power. . . . He was . . . a strange mixture of intelligence and ignorance and couldn’t help adoring status. . . . [H]is inner conflicts were not resolved, but rather smothered, by success.”
All biographies are, in a way, sad stories. But Luce’s biography, in an age when the company he founded is now called Time Warner and is known more for entertainment than journalism, is particularly sad—and particularly instructive.