By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, April 18, 2010; B01
Henry Luce and His American Century
By Alan Brinkley. Knopf. 531 pp. $35
Henry Robinson Luce seems to be almost forgotten, which to someone who came of age during his heyday is incomprehensible. But the lives and careers of even the most eminent journalists are notable for their evanescence, never more so than now, when journalism as we have known it for generations is itself vanishing into the ether. Still, Luce in his prime was a giant, venerated and despised with a passion accorded to few of his contemporaries, but so influential and important that even those who loathed him had to grant him the respect he had earned.
Whether Luce's story has anything to tell us at this difficult moment in journalistic history is questionable. He understood the needs and interests of the middle and upper-middle classes and used that knowledge to create magazines to which those classes responded eagerly. But the situation of the American press in the 1920s was so different from its situation today that comparisons -- not to mention lessons -- can't be glibly drawn. In that era, movies and radio were new, television did not exist, and the notion of cyberspace would have seemed pure fantasy. Such competition as Luce faced was from established newspapers; the way was entirely clear for him to reinvent the press.
On the other hand, Luce's story does serve as a useful reminder that imagination and daring -- a willingness to go against the conventional wisdom -- can be as useful for today's journalists as they were three-quarters of a century ago, when Luce began, however inauspiciously, to build his empire. My own impression is that newspaper people today, however valiantly they struggle to adapt to the new order, at heart want to keep doing things the same old way. Almost certainly that's not going to work, so an exploration of the life of a man who went off in his own direction is very much in order.
How fortunate we are, therefore, that Luce is now the subject of a monumental, magisterial biography, the finest ever written about an American journalist, a book that secures Luce's large if problematic place in history. Those with personal knowledge of the inner workings of Luce's empire may complain that Alan Brinkley, a historian, captures only part of the flavor of that strange place -- more on that presently -- but he gets the big picture exactly right and does so with even-handedness, a remarkable achievement considering the controversy that swirled around Luce almost from the moment he stepped onto the public stage in February 1923.
That was when he and Briton Hadden, his friend and rival since prep school and college, published the first issue of what they called a "news-magazine." Incredibly, each of the co-founders of Time was 24 years old, yet despite their youth and journalistic inexperience, they had the savvy to understand that the world needed such a publication, and they had the vision to bring it into being. Time, as Brinkley writes, "was almost perfectly designed to respond to several of the most important social changes of its era," including "the increasing pace of modern life, the growing nationalization of commerce, and the need of middle-class people to know much more about the nation and the world."
It was an odd magazine produced by an odd partnership. Luce was the son of Presbyterian missionaries in China, deeply intelligent, ambitious for wealth and power, solemn, humorless and socially awkward, while Hadden, whose stepfather was a physician, used his "charismatic affability to win genuinely loyal friends and admirers"; he was "relaxed, even somewhat flippant, gently derisive of those who seemed to him too serious." Hadden was chiefly responsible for Time's prose, which especially in its early years "was often flip and even sophomoric," but he seems to have been beset by unknown demons that led to his sudden death in February 1929; Luce was left "stunned and distraught" but also solely in control of the magazine. Brinkley says that Hadden's death "may have been the most important event in Harry's life," for it forced him to take command:
"The occasionally timorous Luce of the 1920s, who -- although never openly admitting it -- often saw himself as the slightly junior partner to Hadden and who exuded practical efficiency more than broad vision, slowly became the proud and even imperious leader whose powerful ideas and convictions became his own, and his company's, missions. Although he returned, in effect, to his customary position as business manager of the company, he never again conceded full editorial control to anyone else. He had many titles at different periods of his career: president, publisher, chairman of the board. But the one title Luce consistently held was Editor-in-Chief."
Hadden's death and a subsequent division of stock left Luce with "almost unlimited power to shape the future of the company as he wished -- a power he used almost immediately to launch a new project that Hadden had tried to thwart." This was a magazine about business that would try to explain the new world of corporations and would subject them to "honest scrutiny." Fortune appeared in 1930 -- at the start of the Depression -- and immediately distinguished itself with its opulent design and the high quality of its prose, written by the likes of James Agee, Archibald MacLeish and Dwight Macdonald. It was always Luce's favorite among his magazines, and by most criteria the best.
It was followed in late 1936 by Life, the picture magazine, which was an astonishing newsstand success: "By the end of 1937 . . . circulation had reached 1.5 million -- more than triple the first-year circulation of any magazine in American (and likely world) history." But then, as throughout much of its existence, Life was troubled by high production costs and insufficient advertising revenues.
Luce's empire grew to include "The March of Time," first a radio broadcast and then a newsreel for theatrical distribution, and finally, in 1954, the slow-growing but eventually phenomenally successful Sports Illustrated.
The empire was called Time, Incorporated, a name that no longer exists. In 1990 -- 23 years after Luce's death -- it merged with Warner Brothers and has since been known as Time Warner, a partnership that has seen its rough times but is now "one of the three largest media companies in the United States." It is "a powerful and successful company, although the magazine division that had launched the company [is] weakening fast in the digital world of the twenty-first century." Time, which was required reading in the '30s, '40s and '50s, even for those who detested it, seems now to be waiting-room reading; Fortune retains relatively strong circulation but seems primarily known for its "Fortune 500" rankings; and Sports Illustrated, though still widely read, is no longer noteworthy, as it once was, for superb journalism that at times reached the lower rungs of literature.
If any of these magazines (not to mention People, for which Luce bears none of the blame and which he surely would have execrated) is impelled by a vision, it is not evident in the published products. But in Luce's day, his magazines were all about vision: his vision. It was shaped by "the best of his missionary temperament -- commitment, energy, moral inquiry, and high purpose; and . . . the worst as well -- arrogance, impatience, didacticism, and occasional dogmatism." He was a passionately patriotic man whose feelings for his country had been formed in great measure by his separation from it during his youth. He loved America and he idealized it. This led him to write an essay titled "The American Century," which was published in Life in early 1941. In it he argued that this grand vision would entail "a passionate devotion to great American ideals . . . a love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of self-reliance and independence and also of co-operation. . . . We are the inheritors of all the great principles of Western civilization -- above all Justice, the love of Truth, the ideal of Charity. . . . It now becomes our time to be the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world and do their mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmist called a little lower than the angels."
That declaration was much admired in its day and perhaps was useful in bolstering national morale during the hard war years soon to follow, but in the postwar years it contributed to the messianic streak that became ever more pronounced in the United States' self-image and the foreign adventures it pursued. The essay also marked the beginning of a long period -- until Luce's death in 1967 -- when he used his magazines as vehicles for the promotion of his own ideas and his favored political candidates, Dwight Eisenhower most particularly. He was venomous in his hatred of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and used his magazines to vilify them; he idolized the corrupt, ineffectual Chinese "Generalissimo" Chiang Kai-shek and used his publications to promote Chiang's hopeless cause.
Luce was a complicated, difficult man, by no stretch of the imagination a nice guy. Brinkley is very good on his tangled relationships with women -- especially his equally famous and equally difficult second wife, Clare Boothe Luce -- as well as with the men who worked with, which is to say under, him. My only qualm about this otherwise superb book is that it does not convey much sense of what life was like in his empire. Having spent nearly a decade on its fringes -- after his death but before Time Warner -- I vividly recall the ways in which people sacrificed their convictions in order to earn the fat salaries it paid. Going to work for Luce was commonly referred to as "selling out," and the emoluments were ample: not merely the best salaries in journalism and the most lavish expense accounts, but also carts loaded with free food and liquor that were pushed through the corridors on deadline nights. A great many people hated themselves for taking Luce's oath of allegiance, but they cashed his checks and drank his booze.