The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century
by Alan Brinkley
Reviewed by Nicholas Fraser
There are many ways of committing professional suicide, and in the 1970s mine consisted of attempting to work as a writer for an American newsmagazine. It probably didn't help that I was British and somewhat over-sure of my abilities. But failure comes to those who seek it earnestly. I remember looking at the gray, windowless cubicle wall some floors above Madison Avenue, telling myself that here, amid the excess adjectival growths and ineptly pruned corporate prose I generated to no avail each week, I was about to be taught a lesson.
I remain grateful to the friend who took pity on me in the weeks before I was fired, suggesting I read about Henry Luce. "By the time you finish this, you'll be begging them to let you go," he explained, as he slid a fat volume my way, entitled Luce and His Empire. As it turned out, he was right. Most interesting was my discovery that the system of journalistic production under which I struggled had been invented in 1923. At Time (and at Newsweek, too, where I labored, though Newsweekers prided themselves, with some degree of justice, on having softened the edges of the Time mold) reporters enjoyed no freedoms. Power was exercised by a hierarchy of executives known as editors, who ruled over those known as writers. What I had thought of as the more baroque bizarreries of Time-ese -- not just the baffling neologisms and the omission of the definite article when describing anyone but also the inelegant syntactical inversions and the awkward hyphenations I strove unsuccessfully to reproduce each week (I was instructed to refer to Kissinger as "mover and shaker Henry Kissinger," or even "swinger Henry K," and I never quite understood the appeal of phrases such as "for lagniappe") -- came from 1920s Yale. They were an invention of Briton Hadden, a long-dead Jazz Age editor of genius, who carried around in his back pocket a well-thumbed copy of the Iliad in a Victorian translation.
Superficially, Henry Luce would appear to resemble Evelyn Waugh's Lord Copper, who loved to bore after-dinner audiences with his recollections and demanded unthinking loyalty from his employees. Luce suffered from a lifelong, periodically disabling stutter. He dressed badly, often sporting unmatched socks or shoes, and he became so distracted by his own monologues that he would forget he had ordered and eaten supper. In the midtown Manhattan building he had constructed for his magazines, he liked to ride alone in the elevator to his palatial office. Lonely and driven, he was an energetic traveler and a more than competent writer, even if his interest in the world was limited to a consideration of whether history was advancing his own ideas about the progress of civilization. Time men (there were few women, and until quite late in the history of Time-Life, corporate ascent was achieved by ritualized male bureaucratic horn-locking) lived in terror at the prospect of a visit from The Publisher. "Luce is a good man on the great issues. . . . But on the small issues, the personal relationships, he is a very bad man, thoughtless and arbitrary," said one of them after traveling with him for some weeks in Europe. "He has such intellectual arrogance that he does not believe anybody can tell him anything." Quizzed on the subject of brainpower, Luce told his wife that he was more intelligent than Albert Einstein, whom he dismissed as a specialist.
Luce's views about journalism were simple and starkly expressed, tolerable only if one believes that ownership carries the right to be persistently, dogmatically wrong. "I don't pretend that this is an objective magazine," he once said of his beloved Time. "It's an editorial magazine from the first page to the last, and whatever comes out has to reflect my view and that's the way it is." Luce frequently mistrusted the work of reporters, insisting that their copy be altered to suit his own, somewhat traditional, views. It was Edmund Wilson who noticed relatively early that the "considerable value" of having the news summarized each week tended to mask "the ineptitude and cynicism of the mentality" governing the reportage. In the 1960s, Fact magazine collected twenty pages of complaints from the prominent about the deficiencies of Luce journalism, listing grievances from P. G. Wodehouse ("about the most inaccurate magazine in existence") and Marshall McLuhan ("Totalitarianism . . . rather than insight or intelligibility is the object of all of Time's technical brilliance").
Many tried to write for Time, giving up or, like myself, being given up. "As a slaughterhouse of moral integrity," Murray Kempton declared, "Time is the Verdun of the young." Writing novels about the sheer awfulness of life at Time became a rite of passage among intelligent rejects. In The Big Wheel, published in 1949, the business journalist John Brooks described the way in which everything "had to sound infallible, be the absolute and irrefutable last word, written by experts who had access to all answers." The Time writing style had been reviled from the magazine's beginnings. Hostility was expressed most elegantly in a profile of Luce by Wolcott Gibbs for The New Yorker in 1936, which caused a lasting rift between Luce and Harold Ross, The New Yorker's editor. "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind" was Gibbs's mischievous assessment of Time-ese. To the elitists at The New Yorker, so much ingenuity devoted to vulgarization was profoundly misguided. "Where will it all end, knows God," the piece concluded.
In books published during the 1970s, such as Luce and His Empire, by W. A. Swanberg, "Harry" (he hated to be called Henry, and it may be that his dislike of FDR arose in part from Roosevelt's use of this name) was depicted as a near-maniacal propagandist, a twister of facts bent on the manipulation of public opinion. But Swanberg's hatchet job sat uneasily with much evidence of the fact that so many Americans, not all of them brainwashed or deficient in intelligence, plainly enjoyed Luce's publications. At the height of his influence, in 1942, more than a million copies of Time were read each week, and nearly four million copies of Life; 750,000 copies of Time and 650,000 of Life were sent by air to the troops and passed around until they disintegrated. Among those who wrote about Luce after his death, a degree of admiration for the scale of his achievement lingered, displacing consideration of his more obnoxious traits. In David Halberstam's outsize 1975 study of the impact of media on politics, The Powers That Be, Luce receives grudging praise. He might have been "one of the first true national propagandists," but he believed in America "as an idea and an ideal." Luce was beginning to seem a representative of a near-extinct species -- the cosmopolitan WASP gentleman who set the world to rights while accumulating several fortunes.
Alan Brinkley is a professional historian who has written about Huey Long and Father Coughlin, and writing about Luce would seem a natural progression, from the badlands of Depression America to the nation's sunny mid-century peaks. With periodic recourse to the hoard of gossip available from previous books, Brinkley re-creates Luce as an Eminent American, royally and sometimes picturesquely flawed. "Luce's legacy is not that he changed the world," Brinkley concludes. "His most important legacy remains his role in the creation of new forms of information and communications at a moment in history when media were rapidly expanding."
This is a sober, incontrovertible judgment; yet it may not reflect the best spirit in which to approach the Luce phenomenon. Luce's magazines did change the media world, and one cannot imagine modern journalism without his looming presence. But Luce isn't easily rendered as an Eminent American. He was an original, touched with madness, in some aspects richly dislikable. Now that journalism is under economic threat, it is possible to see him as the progenitor not just of past glories but of many current failings. At the very least, it would seem too early to be fixing Luce's reputation.
Henry Robinson Luce was born in China, just before the start of the century with which he would identify his life. In 1899, China's ailing imperial system was threatened by the fundamentalist rebellion of the Boxers. Many foreigners were killed, but Luce's father arranged for his family's escape. Missionaries like the Luces believed that China (and indeed the world) must embrace American values in order to modernize. From the beginning, Harry appears to have been industrious, lacking in humor, and touchingly vulnerable. At age four, he composed his own sermons, delivering them while standing on a barrel in front of his parents' house. Harry suffered at a British school for poor expatriates, but he became a lifelong Anglophile. Being a child far from America made him an outsider -- and a believer too -- in the superiority of American civilization.
At Hotchkiss and then at Yale, Luce experienced pangs of envy and contempt toward the oafish rich who surrounded him. He always worked very hard. Amid humiliations experienced as a consequence of his lowly scholarship status, he became adept at forming alliances. Together with Brit Hadden, a wayward, alcoholic baseball fan and flaneur from Brooklyn, he raised money for a new magazine by calling on wealthy acquaintances. The name came from Luce, who spotted the phrase time for a change on an ad in the subway. In 1923, the first issue appeared, selling 9,000 copies and receiving, Luce noted, "extraordinarily little praise." Within four years, the magazine was selling 130,000 copies a week. It had become, as its owners had intended, "an established institution."
From such beginnings, idealism was tempered by raw calculations. Time would "contain all the news on every sphere of human interest, and the news organized," Luce declared to his fiancee Lila Hotz. "Nothing will be too obvious. . . . [It will] serve the illiterate upper classes, the busy businessman, the tired debutante, to prepare them at least once a week for a table conversation." Time never paid for the copy it took from other publications to be rewritten by the magazine's tiny, amateur staff. The stylistic idiosyncrasies and tics were present from its earliest days. "People were 'famed,' not 'famous,'" Brinkley reminds us. "They 'whacked' rather than 'struck,' 'ogled' rather than 'looked,' 'strode' rather than 'walked' and 'smirked' rather than 'smiled.'" On each page, fake homeliness vied with pedantry. "Some like it hot, some like it cold, and some like it in the pot nine days old" is how Time unwinsomely introduced a piece about the divided views of Alaskans. "There is no more tragic phenomenon in this vale of tears than the deliberate perversion of an idea or philosophy out of its original meaning in order to serve the base purpose of its enemies," began another article.
But Time, its somewhat contrived Jazz Age air of frivolity notwithstanding, proved to be the most importantly innovative publication of the twentieth century. The magazine's willingness to consider anyone, even mass murderers, for the accolade of Man of the Year represented a real desire to see the world as it was, without the blinkers of ideology or good taste. Remorselessly, Time linked the reporting of news with the confection of narrative -- this was thought to be the only way in which the busy could be lured to a consideration of public life. In the 1920s, Walter Lippmann, among others, bemoaned the poor state of American journalism. Newspapers were published locally, and they were boringly written. Time ensured that all modern media, not just print, but radio and later television, would henceforth depend on narrative, aspiring to the condition of immediacy, favoring description and personal stories over analysis, and avoiding excessive resort to abstractions. The magazine's enormous, enduring influence defined, very clearly, the dilemma of journalistic popularization, posing the question of whether, in making everything wholly accessible, one didn't end up conveying nothing of importance to harried, impatient readers.
After Hadden's early death in 1929, Luce combined the roles of publisher and editor in chief at Time, and his rule was thenceforth unopposed. By the mid-1930s, he appeared to be everywhere, effortlessly adapting new ideas to the possibilities of the American market. Fortune proved to be a truly remarkable success at conveying the complexities of twentieth-century business, and Luce bravely resisted pressures to tone down negative copy. Life was based on such European models as the French Vu, but it was greatly superior to them. Although it nearly bankrupted Luce, who had underestimated its potential and found himself selling millions of copies at less than cost, Life was the great publishing success of the 1930s. The magazine was celebratory and inquiring, reassuring Depression-era Americans while using photography to tell them about the increasingly alarming state of the world beyond their shores. The same was true of a pioneering excursion into documentary radio and film, The March of Time. (The first treatment of Nazism through the medium of film was a reenactment that made use of German-speaking stand-ins, recruited among the expatriate community in Hoboken, New Jersey.) Luce always described himself as a liberal, but the "anti-capitalism" of the New Deal wasn't to his taste. Nor, for that matter, was FDR, whom Luce initially liked but came rapidly to distrust. As a consequence of so much hostile, slanted coverage in Time, FDR disliked Luce enough to impose a ban on all publishers going to war zones.
Displaying the prejudices of the day, Luce boosted the "virile, vigorous" Mussolini, scorning or patronizing the less socially acceptable ex-corporal Hitler. (The 1936 Nuremberg rallies were described in Time as "the greatest show and heartiest picnic on earth.") Luce loved China as much as he hated Russia, and his aversion to the latter was cultural, based on the bad smells he encountered there. He was, however, interested in the phenomenon of Marxism-Leninism, and an early, extremely long article in Fortune was among the first attempts to make sense of the new Soviet regime. After traveling to Europe, Luce made up for his tardiness in comprehending the catastrophe that was about to destroy Europe. He was in Brussels in 1940, staying at the American Embassy, when the city was attacked by German bombers, and he was among the first and most steadfast advocates of American participation in global war. Luce threw the resources of Time and Life behind the embattled cause of European democracy. It was Luce, writing in 1941, who popularized the phrase "The American Century" (it came originally from H. G. Wells, and many of the sentiments in Luce's piece were those of Walter Lippmann, whom Luce admired, though he later decided that the columnist nursed too many doubts about American power).
As early as 1944, Luce began to see Soviet Russia in a different light. Stalin was the principal opponent to a postwar American order, and Luce reacted personally to the threat, in the style of an outraged country-club member whose golf privileges have been revoked. Thereafter Time and Life were enlisted in a world crusade. Luce's anti-Communism added to his dogmatism. Speedily, he got rid of those on his staff considered to be sympathizers or even New Dealers. He employed the former Communist spy and anti-Communist propagandist Whittaker Chambers, handing the foreign-news pages to him. Unlike most members of his staff, Luce admired Chambers. But he dismissed him when the adverse publicity of the Alger Hiss trial threatened Time's reputation.
It is here, in the reporting of Luce's response to the Cold War, that Brinkley's evenhanded approach begins to seem inadequate. "Grimly ebullient" is his characterization of Luce's view that the conflict in Korea might be extended to China and result in the destruction of Mao's regime, and the description is an understatement. "Luce wants the big war," an underling noted nervously, after a meeting in which the editor in chief reaffirmed his desire to "beat the bejesus out of Stalinism." Time was periodically critical of Joe McCarthy, but Luce's memos (some of the most extreme appear in Swanberg's pages, but they are not quoted in Brinkley's book) reveal a highly unattractive degree of cynicism in relation to the senator and his nefarious activities. "Should we be anti-anti-anti-Communist?" Luce asks. "Yes. The Ship of Public Opinion, or of Man's Emotion, is always lurching to one side or another. . . . In my judgment as a skipper, Public Opinion, especially among the Upper Middle Class (much of our audience), has lurched into anti-McCarthyism. So we need to counter that lurch."
Brinkley believes that these fulminations, aside from cowing his editors, had little practical effect. "There was much in the Luce magazines that was irritating and even infuriating to many readers," he concludes, "but there was little in them that could manipulate readers into abandoning their political or cultural independence." Ike and the Dulles brothers didn't risk provoking another war by attempting to ship the hapless Chiang Kai-shek back to China, and they took their own hot air about rolling back Communism less seriously than Luce did. But that doesn't mean Time had no influence. Not just the media-savvy JFK but Lyndon Johnson, too, appeared fearful of alienating Time readers. (Kennedy was furious when he discovered that Time had run a story suggesting he had posed for the cover of GQ, thereby trivializing the presidency. He was fond of Luce, whom he likened to his own father, but he never allowed himself to forget that Time and Life had endorsed Richard Nixon.) Luce's status-quo views were crucial to the continuation of disastrous American policies. Again and again, he was told by his own carefully chosen reporters that the French would be ejected from Asia and, later, that America's Vietnamese clients were corrupt. Would it have been so easy for America to persist in the catastrophe of Vietnam without the boosterism of Time and Life?
Some of Luce's zeal derived from his notorious second wife, Clare. Much has been written about Clare Boothe Luce: her plays, her politics, her incessant provocations; what she called candidly her "rage for fame." She was indeed, as was said by a French architect, "a beautiful facade . . . without central heating." She sent Harry to a doctor, to whom he explained that the stress under which he had labored for so many years was the cause of his sexual failure. But she also acted as a cheerleader, and Harry admired her own antipathy to Reds. Harry and Clare were happiest when she was appointed ambassador to Rome in 1953, and Harry moved to the Eternal City, assisting in her campaigns against the Communist Italian left. (In a notorious diplomatic episode, Clare insisted that she needed to return to the United States because she had been poisoned by the lead from the ceiling of her Rome bedroom. It appears that she was in reality suffering from bad teeth.) They did both mellow a bit, enjoying an old age playing Scrabble in Arizona. When Clare experimented with LSD, Harry tried it, too. Although he continued to discuss the book he was reading (a biography of Matthew Arnold by the literary critic Lionel Trilling), he found the experience "bio-chemically speaking interesting."
Luce's anti-Communism ran deeper than his otherwise conventional liberal beliefs. He wasn't a bigot, and his magazines devoted considerable space to combating prejudice, covering the activities of civil-rights leaders before this was fashionable. But he stood only for those freedoms of which he could bring himself to approve, and in this respect he remained true to the missionary tradition. A. J. Liebling once described Luce as a smorgasbord maitre d', overeager to make choices on behalf of the customer. "At Time Inc. you are likely to get a bit of Chiang Kai-shek straight out of the deep freeze," Liebling observed. The worst aspect of Luceism was the remorseless blocking of dissonant voices, and Time remained under his stewardship a conformist publication, its journalism an accumulation of meaningless, platitudinous detail. "A lean, greying six footer.... A bird colonel at 30, the younger major general in the Army leads by asking much of his men" was how the magazine described William Westmoreland, who was busy ensuring America's humiliation in Vietnam.
It was the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, writing about his own time on Britain's Fleet Street, who used the phrase "chronicles of wasted time," but he might just as well have been referring to Harry. Luce shows what happens when the spirit of journalistic inquiry is subordinated to the illusory pursuit of influence. Still, it would be wrong to conclude that he had no lasting impact. The world as sound bite, told and retold each news cycle, is part of the Luce legacy. So is the bizarre mixture of fake piety, ideological fervor, and on-the-sleeve cynicism to be encountered each night, whether on TV or online. Ever the missionary, Luce struggled each week in a misapplied quest for perfection; his successors, however, no longer even pretend to try.
Nicholas Fraser is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His essay on Arthur Koestler appeared in the April issue.