a new biography of Henry Luce.
Henry Luce (1898-1967) was the founder of Time, Fortune, Life, and Sports Illustrated. Harry, as he was known, or, as his Time would have written, fabledly potent media magnate Henry Robinson Luce, has been the subject of half a dozen biographies in zillions of pages.
So what are we to make of the near-500 page biography by Alan Brinkley, historian of the New Deal? The commonplace is that Luce was a powerful man. Brinkley makes a shrewder assessment that Luce was never able to exercise as much political power as he wished he had and his adversaries believed he had. Brinkley asks the more intriguing question: how a man who was actually a privately reclusive, shy, awkward introvert with few friends, could connect publicly to millions of strangers, the source of his supposed power. They bought his magazines, the coalescent factor of an emerging middle class culture, but they didn’t necessarily buy the opinions that came to intrude after the '30s.
Luce was an “ambitious, gimlet-eyed Baby Tycoon…Prone to wave aside pleasantries, social preliminaries, to get at once to the matter in hand.”
The crowning edifice of the empire was the late and much lamented “picture magazine” Life. His third magazine, after Time and Fortune, it had at its peak a circulation of more than 13 million. Two things seem clear about Life. The first is that its true begetter was Luce’s second wife, the neurotically vivacious, extravagant, versatile, and politically astute Clare Boothe Luce. The most fun the couple had on their honeymoon was trying photographic layouts; the sexual chemistry never worked though mutually reinforcing ambitions kept them together through numerous affairs. The second thing is that Clare was most ruthlessly deprived of the launch editorship she merited by the misogynistic jealousies of Time’s testosterone brigade who ganged up on her. The intensely competitive Luce himself had wilted on finding she was better at photographic layouts than he was, better at golf, better at swimming, and wittier, too. (“No good deed goes unpunished.”) Both with the wife he guiltily divorced and his new love, Harry, writes Brinkley, “was unable to express his emotions except by relying on conventional and sometimes banal, description.” Harry refers to his “Enchantress of our Twenty Thousand Days.” Clare was willing to analyze herself with at least some honesty: “I am capricious, deceitful, moody, impetuous, and utterly relentless in demanding patience and perfection in others…Altogether you might say that I am a fine subject for a psychological novelist but a very trying creature for a wife.” Brinkley captures the flavor of the Harry-Clare relationship so well one longs for more. (Sylvia Jukes Morris has written Clare’s biography but only up to 1940 so far.)
In the invention of Time, Luce and his partner, Briton Hadden, are chalk and cheese when they meet at Hotchkiss and Yale. Luce, the intellectually gifted but poor and boringly self-righteous son of missionaries in China, likes to ponder the great questions of the world. Hadden, an irreverent dazzler out of the Gatsby era, rich and gregarious, likes to have a good time, and reaches too often for the booze that will kill him six years later. They’re competitors in college journalism—Hadden is the more innovative—but they share the perception that the emerging middle class is ill-served by the meandering text of the serious city newspapers and the shrieks of the sensational press. Newspapers in any event are confined to their circulation areas so the young Yalies, as cocky in this as any dot.com whizz kids today, conceive of a national newspaper with wide appeal. “Civilization,” says an early ad, “moves forward on a thousand fronts—business, art, politics, science, religion. You have only to ignore it and you slip back again centuries in time. But can you afford to live in the dark ages?”
Nobody wants to give a dime to the two 24-year-olds for something they first name Fact. Cheekily, they plan to cull the entire content from other publications, cutting stories into 200 words or less in organized departments (rather than writing collations as the publication The Week does today) The former president of Harvard, Charles W. Eliot, harrumphs that the idea of condensation is “disgusting and disgraceful.”
We see the embryonic tycoons in 1923 pasting up their pages, clipping from The New York Times (and 89 other papers, they claim), testing headline styles and exulting in a new vocabulary to express the excitement they want to convey. Hadden scares the handful of helpers, growling the literary concoctions he’s invented and adapted from a well-thumbed translation of Homer’s Illiad. Hence, we get snaggle-toothed, bandy-legged, etc. and the inverted sentence, so wickedly parodied by the New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs when Luce and Harold Ross declare war on each other. Luce was an “ambitious, gimlet-eyed Baby Tycoon…Prone to wave aside pleasantries, social preliminaries, to get at once to the matter in hand.”
Hadden was the lead editor for Time, Luce the business manager, but Luce was a journalistic genius no doubt. His unerring eye for fine writers, photographers, and designers is manifest in the concept of his start-up of Fortune after Haddon’s death. He invested in talent and gave the contributors freedom for many years until the power-bug got him. He was ready to take a long view. Nay-sayers in the company tried to dissuade him from starting Sports Illustrated in 1954 and use only staff writers. It did lose money for 12 years, but Luce’s optimism and courage paid off big time.
The triumph of Brinkley’s biography is not in a single thesis but in the disciplined, well-judged way the author presents and knits in telling fragments from the millions of words in the diaries, letters, interviews, and documents: no single powerful beam but a series of flashes illumining corners of the cave we are free to explore. My own reading is that there is much to regret in the miserable time Luce had growing up. I say this not to fake a compassion one could hardly be expected to feel now, but because the early years bred a chronic insecurity with some consequences that came to be as bad for American journalism as his creativity in youth and mid-life was good.
Young Harry was a lonely boy. He stuttered. “Nothing in the world,” he wrote, “could possibly be more painful.” At Hotchkiss prep school, he was awkwardly sandwiched. He lived in rooms a mile off campus among other scholarship boys whose table manners offended—“many are still boorish, showing the trade of the farm or perhaps Brooklyn!”—but on campus he waited on boys whose parents could afford the fees. He worked his way through Yale. He was cleverer than most everyone else, but he envied the carefree affluence of the rich and fatuous. He’d hoped to be a virtuous person like his self-sacrificing parents, but he got an irresistible taste of the good life visiting the homes of other boys and especially from time spent in the palatial Chicago home of Nettie Fowler McCormick, the widow of the skinflint mowing machine inventor Cyrus.
Luce’s early infatuation with money and position was a spur in his relentless drive for success, to be a big man on campus; the regret is how on a number of vital issues in his career, it came to subvert his curiosity and corrupt his journalism. He loved hob-nobbing with the great and not-so-great, his emotions vulnerable to flattery—and rejection. He engaged in a long feud with Franklin Roosevelt and Dean Acheson as if the hateful fellows had just expelled him from Skull and Bones at Yale. Luce’s published opinions, argued under his own name, were eloquent and persuasive until he descended into the dark world of conspiracy theories, notably over Yalta and China. Even so, he was by no means as wild and reactionary as his detractors have suggested. Once Luce woke up to the menace of Fascism, admittedly a little late, he was resolute, right, and inspiring in his mission to save Western civilization. He stoutly fought against appeasement and isolationism. His famous essay The American Century was a call for America to realize its destiny and his vision played its part in America’s imaginative post-war reconstruction of Europe and Japan. Later, he did not run scared like much of the press when Senator Joe McCarthy went on the rampage. W.A. Swanberg and the left critics did Luce an injustice.
No, Luce’s fatal flaw was not in the opinions he wrote, but the periods when he browbeat his staff to distort the news. Kingfish Huey Long likened Luce to a “store owner who stocks only the shoes to fit hisself.” The editors were able to resist his impassioned advocacy of the “roll back of the Iron Curtain with tactical atomic weapons” but for many years in the '40s and '50s and into the Vietnam war, Time routinely disguised propaganda as news, rewriting and suppressing the reports from the ground. Of course, the most notorious example was the imposition of his delusion that Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists could save China from Communism. Hannah Pakula’s monumental biography of Madam Chiang Kai Shek, The Last Empress, records a friend’s judgment during the Luce’s dangerous visit in 1941, flying in a darkened plane over Japanese-occupied territory: “The trouble with Harry is that he’s torn between wanting to be a Chinese missionary and a Chinese warlord like Chiang Kai-Shek.” Luce’s personal affection for Chiang made him blind to the brutalities and incompetence of the regime. He declared Chiang “the greatest ruler Asia has since since Emperor Kang 250 years ago.”
Alan Brinkley has worked long and hard to write this ambitious, authoritative, and enjoyable biography. It deserves a better title than the The Publisher. That would never have escaped Hadden’s thick black pencil.
Harold Evans, author of two histories of America, just published his memoir, My Paper Chase. Editor at large of The Week, he was editor of The Sunday Times from 1967-81 and The Times from 1981-82, founding editor of Condé Nast Traveler, and president of Random House Trade Group from 1990-97.