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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.

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?

Of all this journalistic success, Brit Hadden lived to see only the dawn of Time. The creative genius behind the magazine's distinctive language died of a streptococcus infection on February 27, 1929, at the age of 31. For the next three and a half decades, the driving force and lone figure at the helm of Time, Inc. would be Henry R. Luce.

And now for what Time Inc. journalists love to call "full disclosure": I was an editor at Time-Life Books for 20 years. Before reading this masterly biography, however, I knew precious little about Henry Luce or his role in founding and shaping the company.

Brinkley, winner of the National Book Award for History for his Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression, is a compelling storyteller. In showing us how Luce’s father came to be an American Presbyterian missionary in China, Brinkley’s narrative re-creates an older period of student activism: from 1888 through the end of World War I, the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions dispatched thousands of idealistic young missionaries abroad—not only from the United States but also from Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.

Brinkley captures the anxiety of Luce's young parents, fleeing the murderous Boxer Rebellion with two-year-old Henry Robinson Luce (called Harry, like his father) and his newborn sister, Emmavail. Henry was not only born in China but spent his formative years there, not leaving for boarding school in the United States until he was 14. (Young Luce’s yearlong solo journey to America—a remarkable story in itself—fostered his insatiable appetite for travel.)

Luce's father, was committed, as Brinkley puts it, to "creating in China a modern, scientific social order based on the American and European models." This ambition—and this attitude—the son absorbed through his father’s example. Drawing on interviews, mining the Time, Inc. archives, and sifting through box upon box of letters to and from Henry R. Luce, Brinkley paints a sympathetic portrait of the child, the adolescent, and the complex man he would grow up to be.

Becoming American

The son's commitment to the Asian country of his birth faded considerably during his prep school and college years. As a foreign-born outsider (and scholarship student to boot), Luce strove to distinguish himself—and to fit into an alien culture. He landed in prep school, at age 15, knowing nothing of American football, baseball, or basketball. His conversation was formal, lacking the slangy familiarity he heard all around him. Yet half a world away from his family, this serious, ambitious, near-indigent student grew confident and comfortable enough to be invited to his wealthier classmates’ homes for holidays and school breaks.

Brinkley doesn't gloss over the many controversial aspects of Luce's personality or his role on the American political stage. Luce was often reviled for the perceived "conservative outlook" of his magazines, and for stepping "over the line" to support Republican candidates. His latent affection for China resurfaced in adulthood, when it took the form of a ferocious frustration that the United States did not do more during and after World War II to "save" China from Communism. Luce's philosophy, expressed in his famous essay, "The American Century" (published in Life in 1941), is easy to characterize as jingoist: "[W]e are the inheritors of all the great principles of Western civilization…. 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."

Brinkley’s treatment of Luce's personal life is deft, but ultimately unsatisfying. Could that be because Luce the husband and lover is less accessible to a biographer than Luce the striver and publishing mogul? Perhaps. In 1935 Luce left his first wife, Lila Hotz, to marry the glamorous playwright and divorcée Clare Boothe Brokaw. As Brinkley makes clear, Henry and Clare made a difficult couple—competitors more than collaborators. (Once Harry discovered Clare to be the better golfer, for example, he never set foot on the links with her again). They managed to stay married for more than 30 years, but it was a purely pragmatic arrangement in which they each carried on multiple affairs.

Henry Luce retired as editor-in-chief of Time, Inc. in 1964 at the age of 66. He died less than three years later, not quite 69, having struggled his entire life, as Brinkley puts it in this absorbing treatment, "not only to be successful, but also, like his revered father, to be virtuous."

Roberta Conlan, the founder and managing editor of book packager EdiGraphics, is an editor and writer who divides her time between Virginia and Hawai‘i.