THE PUBLISHER: HENRY LUCE AND HIS AMERICAN CENTURY
By Alan Brinkley
Knopf, $35 531 pages
For those of a certain generation, Time magazine was long the must-read periodical for anyone interested in national and world affairs, and especially for those of us who lived beyond the reach of a serious daily newspaper. Television news, of course, did not exist. The “newsreels” at our small-town Texas theater gave equal attention to scantily clad female water skiers in Florida and dated film clips from Washington.
In 1923, two hyper energetic Yale graduates, Henry Luce and Britt Hadden, stepped into this information void. They were an odd couple. Luce, born in China to missionary parents, was an introverted social misfit in his youth, with a severe stutter. By contrast, Hadden, son of a well-to-do Brooklyn family, was “gregarious, witty and charismatic.” But both were blessed with the sort of intelligence not necessarily reflected in classroom marks, and they possessed competitive drives far beyond most other youngsters.
Their creation of what was to become the Time Inc. empire was perhaps the media story of the mid-20th century. Time spawned Life, an attention-grabbing picture/text magazine, then Fortune, which both extolled and criticized business. Later-comers were Sports Illustrated and People, which remain profitable, while the advertising-anemic Time seems on the brink of oblivion. Both circulation and profits were immense during the heyday of Luce’s empire.
Also immense was the ego of “Harry” Luce, who dominated Time Inc. after Hadden’s death of a strep infection on Feb. 17, 1929, six years to the day of Time’s first issue. Luce seemed to consider himself an extra governmental force in American life, issuing periodic manifestoes on his concept of how the world should be run and proclaiming the postwar period as the start of “the American Century.”
Unfortunately, his pronouncements often contained more wind than wisdom, and even such acquaintances as President Eisenhower sent Luce puzzled notes asking, in essence, “What do you mean?”
With “The Publisher,” Alan Brinkley, a Columbia University historian, has written what will stand as the definitive biography of Luce - an evenhanded account that details both accomplishments and failures. Whatever his flaws, Luce was a powerful force in both the media and the country, in his own way an earlier version of Rupert Murdoch.
The founders’ goal was to create a “news-magazine” (a coinage of Hadden, who found “delight in creating new compound words and phrases”) that would “contain all the news on every sphere of human interest. …” It intended to “serve the illiterate upper classes, the busy businessman, the tired debutante, to prepare them at least once a week for a table conversation” toward conservatism, especially on immigration. Success came swiftly, both in paid circulation and newsstand sales.
In its early years, Time had no reporters, only reporters who sat in Manhattan and busily plundered the New York Times and other dailies for story material, using fervent imagination and sprightly prose to “jazz up” events around the world. As Mr. Brinkley writes, Hadden especially drew inspiration from the inventive language of H.L. Mencken, then in his heyday as editor of the American Mercury.
But late in the 1930s, the “News Bureau” had correspondents in “almost every major city in the United States,” as well as around the globe. It employed more than 200 reporters, with uncountable stringers, “one of the largest of any news organization in the world. (Note: I was a Time-Life stringer in the early 1960s while reporting for the Dallas Morning News.)
But for all his energies, Luce had conspicuous blind spots. Time took neither Hitler nor Mussolini seriously during the 1930s - although once war came, both Time and Life covered it with vigor.
But much of the elitist content stemmed from Luce’s strong anti-communism, long before much of the country recognized the dangers of Soviet imperialism. In this instance, Luce offended a class in need of a good offending - “intellectuals,” both academic and otherwise - in terms of Cold War realism.
In the 1940s, Whittaker Chambers, later to emerge as a repentant communist and Soviet agent, served as foreign editor. Under his tutelage, Time sounded constant warnings against the USSR’s imperial aspirations; Chambers was perhaps the first (only?) journalist of note to warn against the deals the Allies made with Stalin at the 1945 Yalta conference. Luce defended Chambers from leftist critics (including many in his organization).
Critics had a better case when addressing Luce’s abandonment of any pretense of journalistic objectivity in support of Republican presidential candidates. Although Luce endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, Time-Life did unabashed cheerleading for Wendell Willkie in 1940 and then for Thomas Dewey and Dwight Eisenhower in subsequent campaigns.
Another ongoing controversy was his direction of coverage of the Chinese civil war in the 1940s and then his stand on Vietnam. Given his boyhood in China, Luce considered himself an expert on Asia.
Concerning China, Luce once cabled correspondent Theodore White that Time had “thoroughly discharged our obligations to print the bad along with the good.” Henceforth, he badgered White “to look for the facts which explain China’s strengths rather than look for the elements of weakness.” Unhappy editor Tom Matthews complained to Luce that China coverage was “indistinguishable from the official propaganda line of the Kuomintang party.”
Initially, Luce was critical of any U.S. involvement in Vietnam. A Time article in 1947 pronounced Vietnam, still under French control, “the sickest part of ailing Asia today.” But when writer-photographer David Douglas Duncan wrote in 1953 that the French had effectively lost, Luce put him on the “inactive list” and accused him of exercising “a seductive power over managing editors.” Thereafter, Luce’s support of U.S. policy was unwavering, angering correspondents whose files were butchered beyond recognition by editors.
For all his riches, Luce was not a happy man. His first marriage failed, and he wed the glamorous playwright Clare Boothe. The marriage was unfortunate, and whatever initial affection existed soon vanished.
Clare and Harry lived separate lives for the most part, with no physical relationship. Both philandered. Indeed, she festooned her cuckolded husband with more horns than Santa’s reindeer sleigh team. His own amours ranged from the granddaughter of Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian-British press tycoon, to a sometime mistress of spymaster Allen Dulles.
Late in life, Luce complained in a letter that he had no real friends other than colleagues at Time. There was “literally nobody in this big town [New York] who ever asks me to a friendly dinner or slightly social dinner…. What I get asked to is banquets or group meetings.”
In the end, the power of television advertising wrecked the Time-Life empire, just as other print publications fell victim. I occasionally leaf through a thin issue of Time in a physician’s waiting room. But for the life of me, I cannot remember the last time I consumed a complete issue of a magazine that once was the ultimate “must read.”
The first of Joseph C. Goulden’s 18 books was “The Curtis Caper” (1965) on the flourishing and collapse of Curtis Publishing Co. and its flagship Saturday Evening Post. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.