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The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century

Meet the man who launched the empire that publishes the other magazines you read.

The Publisher

— Knopf, Inc.

In early February 1922, Henry Luce and his friend and rival, Briton Hadden, negotiated seven weeks’ leave from their jobs as reporters for the Baltimore News. The recent Yale graduates (Class of 1920) had been working at the newspaper only a few months, yet already they had their eyes on a bigger prize. In stolen moments from their day jobs, they had been hitting up established Yale alumni—many of them the parents of rich classmates—to invest in a scheme that Luce characterized as “the gamble of our lives…the crazy, half-romantic thing that has ruined thousands before us.”

Naïvely optimistic, Luce and Hadden gave themselves seven weeks to get their idea off the ground. They moved to New York and plunged headfirst into the business that would consume them both for the rest of their lives.

“The Paper”

The pair had been brainstorming this “half-romantic thing”—creating a weekly newspaper they first called Facts—ever since their stint as undergrads on the Yale Daily News. According to the two opinionated twentysomethings, anyone who wanted to keep abreast of world events was ill-served by the newspapers of the day, which were either sensationalist rags that pandered to working-class ignorance or boring tomes that busy professionals lacked the time to read.

Their paper would be a practical digest of  “all the news on every sphere of human interest…politics, books, sport, scandal, science, society,” as Luce described it in a letter to Lila Hotz (who later became his first wife). With no article longer than a few hundred words, the paper would “serve the illiterate upper classes, the busy business man, the tired debutante, to prepare them at least once a week for a table conversation.”

Further, their paper would not simply copy news from other periodicals, as did the “digests” of the era, but would synthesize information and present it in lively, even irreverent, prose. “The thing is very largely Hadden’s idea,” Luce admitted to Lila, “but he swears that without me he cannot put it over. Personally, I think I am dashed lucky to be teaming up with him again.”

In the event, it took not seven weeks but more on the order of 52, an exhausting roller coaster of a year. On February 27, 1923, Time: The Weekly News-Magazine (with an official publication date of March 3) hit the stands.

“News-magazine” was a Hadden coinage, one of countless invented compound words and phrases that would become grist for parodies of “Timese” or “Timestyle” over the years—the most trenchant being Wolcott Gibbs’s “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.” In the late 1920s the hyphen in “news-magazine” disappeared, but Time itself had hung on—and was on its way to anchoring a media empire, home to magazines that would both reflect and define American popular culture in the middle years of the 20th century.

After Time came Fortune, an elegant and—at $1 per copy in an age when most magazines cost a nickel or a dime—expensive business magazine launched in early 1930, straight into the teeth of the Great Depression. The striking photography that illustrated stories in Fortune became the centerpiece of the next venture: Life, which debuted in November 1936. Luce, an early champion of photography, hired the largely unknown Margaret Bourke-White to shoot covers for Fortune. “The camera would be as an interpreter,” he told her, “recording what modern industrial civilization is, how it looks, how it meshes.”

And in 1954 came Sports Illustrated, a successful effort to elevate sportswriting to a caliber matching that of the company’s other magazines. Although SI’s circulation exceeded 500,000 for every issue that first year, the magazine struggled to win advertisers—and did not turn a profit until 1964. What modern publisher has the pockets and patience necessary to back a money-losing proposition for a decade?

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