Magazine | May 3, 2010, Issue

Vision of a Century

The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, by Alan Brinkley (Knopf, 560 pp., $35)

This excellent study of one of America’s greatest media pioneers is entirely consistent with the rigor and elegance of the large body of Prof. Alan Brinkley’s previous work. The book is massively researched, simply written, and completely judicious. It is an excellent read. (I think disclosure practices require mention of two positive reviews Brinkley has written of books of mine.)

Where Henry R. Luce was exceptional was in his genius as a founder of magazines, where he was always successful. He was only 25 when he and his Hotchkiss and Yale companion, Briton Hadden, launched Time, the world’s first newsmagazine, in 1923. A general newsmagazine summarizing a week, divided into concise pieces in distinct sections, was an astounding novelty in 1923. It was an almost instant success, and for two impecunious Ivy Leaguers in their twenties to conceive and swiftly execute such an ambitious media project was a rare accomplishment prior to the Internet era; Lord Northcliffe and William Paley may be the only other examples.

Luce followed, seven years after Time, and after Hadden’s premature death, with Fortune, an unprecedentedly artistically produced, specialist business magazine, which showed Luce’s keen interest and generally good taste in design and photography. Despite the onset of what soon became the Great Depression, Fortune succeeded quite quickly and led the whole industry forward in the use of higher-quality paper, more imaginative photographic content, and beautifully designed Art Deco covers.

Life came six years later, and was an instant and overwhelming success as a magazine of brilliant photography imaginatively applied to a beat as vast as the magazine’s name implied. Time and Life, especially, became symbols of American life: mighty and almost universal trademarks like Cadillac, MGM, and Coca-Cola.

Luce’s fourth and last magazine launch, also a howling success, in 1954, was Sports Illustrated, which again applied high-quality photography, this time to the increased attention a steadily more prosperous America was devoting to both spectator and participatory sports. As with Life and Fortune, it frequently published work by very distinguished authors, such as William Faulkner’s eccentric description of the 1955 Kentucky Derby, and John Steinbeck’s long and interesting explanation of why he could not contribute to the magazine because of his interests’ being “too scattered and too unorthodox.”

For each of these initiatives, Luce had not only a new target market, and a new magazine formula, but a profound and arrestingly expressed conceptual framework. For Sports Illustrated, Luce, who had never had the least interest in watching sports, and had only played tennis as a young man, wrote back to eminent advertising executive Leo Burnett with the following answer about the new publication’s raison d’être: “We have the H-Bomb, and we have Sports Illustrated.” Luce elaborated that while the destruction of the world loomed, people were avidly engaged in “leisure, the pursuit of happiness,” which was, in most cases, “something to do with sport.”

Luce combined in his own person, and relayed to the readers, a sort of Chautauqua: earnest, principled enthusiasm and the promotion of modest cultural elevation. For many years he pre-approved virtually all content. He held the position of editor-in-chief of all the magazines for 35 years and executed it with overbearing conscientiousness.

#page#No other prominent media owner in the English-speaking world has taken as much stylistic interest in the content of his publications, nor possessed as much competence as a writer. Luce was an overabundant source of papers, long memos, articles, speeches, and a huge correspondence. He frequently relied on his classical education to turn his zealous sense of American Manifest Destiny into strong, though not overly profound, arguments.

Through most of his time, Luce had an experimental department working on new products, and every few years he effectively relaunched his magazines, to meet cultural and geopolitical changes. Thus, Life, after the war, became the evocator and the pictorial voice of the triumph of bourgeois, suburban American values. He and Hadden and most of their writers had grown up in the shadow of H. L. Mencken, whom Hadden overtly imitated. But Luce was a Presbyterian missionary’s son, born in China, and never lost his missionary fervor, though it was transposed to secular matters. He was never cynical or world-weary.

Time became the fountainhead of postwar anti-Communism; Life, a slick tout sheet for American popular capitalism. Fortune was reoriented from neutral studies of industries to be the unabashed house organ for (appreciatively advertising) American big business. And Sports Illustrated topped up the pursuit of popular happiness on the golf course and at the bridge table with the portrayal of the successful professional athlete as the coruscation of the American Dream through evolution into a Wagnerian, if not Nietzschean, superman. No other contemporary prominent media leader had any such comprehensive notion of his editorial purposes.

Luce had a serious presence in radio and newsreels and, later in his career, in publishing books. (Among his authors was Winston Churchill, who alleviated his financially straitened post-war circumstances by unloading on Life a lot of filler, which Luce’s editors tried to hammer into stirring Churchillian tocsins.) The Time-Life Book Club, with heavy promotion in the magazines, became another large profit center.

While other contemporary media owners asserted their views in their publications, none was as overtly self-righteous about doing so. Luce constantly made it clear that he required conformity with his strongly held views in what was published in his magazines. In practice, he was quite broad-minded and open to new trends that he could be convinced constituted “progress.” There is a hilarious description of him taking LSD under psychiatric advice at his wife Clare’s request (to try to smooth their marriage), while simultaneously discussing with a visitor “the relationship between Matthew Arnold and Cardinal Newman.”

Luce never cared about a writer’s unpublished (by Luce) opinions, except in the case of writers he considered to be fascists, Communists, or their sympathizers. He forced out Laird Goldsborough as foreign editor of Time in the Thirties, for being anti-Semitic, pro-fascist, and ambiguous about Hitler; Theodore H. White in the Forties, for being pessimistic about Chiang Kai-shek’s chances in the Chinese civil war; and Charles Mohr in the Sixties, for doubting the airy confidence of U.S. military briefings on South Vietnam.

In many respects, Luce’s views were quite admirable: He was interested in all religions, and tolerant of skepticism. His views evolved and deepened throughout his life, and seemed, according to this very thorough account, to have come to rest at disappointment in the “shallowly pietistic attitudes . . . of official Protestantism”; approval of Lecomte du Noüy’s formulation that “men are Collaborators with God in charge of evolution”; and great respect for the unshakeable hostility to Communism of Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians.

#page#Henry Luce’s notions of citizenship and religion intersected in his passion for America and what he perceived to be its mission: to lead the Christian and democratic world to victory over godless and pagan totalitarians. In support of this objective, Luce engaged in relentless propaganda, which on balance is not so hard to justify, considering the nature of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Khrushchev. But he presented a whitewashed, speak- and see-no-evil picture of America that accentuated his intellectual vulnerabilities.

Brinkley very fairly presents Luce’s always positive, often saccharine portrayal of America, especially in Life. Luce was a constant and strong supporter of civil rights and a strenuous enemy of McCarthyism. But he steadily deemphasized any coverage of racial problems or political strife in the U.S. Life had a feature called “Life Goes to a Party,” which over time photographically covered an immense variety of festive occasions, from a dance hall in Harlem for underprivileged boys and girls at “the home of happy feet” to a Ku Klux Klan rally on Stone Mountain in Georgia. The Klansmen were innocuously described as “people who sometimes behave destructively, but usually aren’t up to much more than a primitive form of transvestitism.” (There was a lynching of a black every few weeks throughout the Thirties.) What Brinkley calls “Life’s determined amiability” was impenetrable in domestic matters.

Most psychological accounts in biographies must be read with extreme caution. Brinkley has had access to an extraordinary range of primary material, and this book is a brilliant work of selection and organization, which enables him to enter into this murky area more surefootedly than most biographers.

Luce combined several paradoxes in his personality. He was well-educated (Oxford after Yale), multilingual (German and French, Greek and Latin), and insatiably curious. He was not just clever, like Hearst or Murdoch, who also attended great universities, though he was clever.

He had less of a feel for “everyman” than some other successful publishers. But his eager patriotism and fierce conviction of “The American Century” (his most famous phrase) came from his earliest days as a missionary’s son. It fitted well with the rise, throughout his lifetime, of the U.S. from an isolationist refuge for oppressed immigrants to the leader of evolved Western civilization.

In promoting this national coming-of-age, in saluting almost everything that happened — including, for a time, the New Left in the Sixties — as another manifestation of America’s irrepressible creative ferment, he did become the cheerleader of Middle America, which after World War II was about 80 percent of the country. His vision of America’s Century largely came true.

But Luce, though he meticulously consulted such public intellectuals as Walter Lippmann and Archibald MacLeish, and was helplessly addicted to hobnobbing with the powerful, from Churchill, Eisenhower, and de Gaulle to Mao and Chou En-lai, leaped into turbo-Americanism by instinct and upbringing. It had almost nothing to do with analysis and deduction.

He was not so fortunate in his other passions, and lacked passions that would have made his life happier and longer. He did not pay much attention to China for decades after he left it, until the Sino–Japanese War in the Thirties, when a burning Sinophilia was suddenly kindled within him, compounded by a fierce determination that America must assist China into the modern world and unite with it in promoting the American Way.

He was disappointed when World War II ended without the deployment of an American army to China to assist Chiang Kai-shek, for whom, and for Mme. Chiang, he developed an irrational and wildly inflated respect. Most of Luce’s enthusiasm for the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which went well beyond the conservation of non-Communist regimes in the southern parts of both countries, was fired by the hope that they would lead to direct conflict with China and the disintegration of the People’s Republic. These were not well-thought-out opinions. Intelligent arguments could be, and were, made for seeking victory in Korea and Vietnam, but betting the ranch on the devious and ultimately incompetent Chiangs and proposing a land war in continental China was mad.

#page#For all Luce’s cultivation of the powerful and his desirability as an ally to any American politician, he liked those who were pleasant to him, whether they paid any attention to his views or not. (They didn’t.) He waffled back and forth on Roosevelt; like most people, Luce was overwhelmed by his personality and power when they actually met. But Roosevelt didn’t court him, and didn’t like Luce’s preachy, humorless, unnuanced, and presumptuous manner. Patrician with a direct line to the people as he was, the president was less enthused by prim (usually Republican) Middletown, America, than Luce was.

Roosevelt did everything constitutionally possible, and more, to assist the democracies, was a brilliant war leader, and singlehandedly forced recognition of China as one of the world’s Great Powers in the United Nations he set up, to Luce’s strong approval. Yet Luce fell head over heels for Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s 1940 opponent, although Willkie campaigned on the theory that Roosevelt was leading America to war (a course Luce favored), and could never have imagined, much less passed, Roosevelt’s vital Lend-Lease assistance to the democracies.

Though President Truman was a staunch Cold Warrior and responded swiftly and effectively in Korea, Luce despised him as “a vulgar little Babbitt,” and blamed him for “losing China.” He worshipped Dwight D. Eisenhower, who treated him with great consideration, although Ike declined to intervene in Vietnam, and followed Truman’s policy of a compromise settlement in Korea. He was charmed by Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon, but only Johnson paid much attention to his policy recommendations, including — by coincidence, and to LBJ’s regret — on Vietnam.

Because Luce was terribly awkward in small talk, and was so inhibited and self-absorbed, he had a very unsatisfactory married life. Alan Brinkley tastefully uses a vast cache of correspondence between Luce and his wives and paramours, to the point where he tells the reader, when appropriate, which outings led to consummation and which didn’t. Relations with his second wife, the glamorous, talented, and tempestuous Clare Boothe (Luce), were rarely smooth, almost never very affectionate, often competitive, and a source of intense strain to both of them for decades. Clare liked Luce’s wealth and prominence, but not his stiff nature, and Harry (as he was always known) had no idea how to settle down his excitable wife. He was happy to liven up his public image with the chic wit and beauty of this exotic woman, but was constantly haunted by what he considered to be her rapacity. They each went to the brink of divorce many times, but never both in the same week, and the marriage was an intense and combative farce for most of its 31 years. We learn that though Clare wanted a child with Harry, their sex life wilted early — with each other, that is; it flourished with third parties.

Luce’s torrid affairs with a number of women, and Clare’s with Gen. Lucian Truscott and others, were more satisfying, but ended sadly in the quicksand of the Luces’ enervating but ultimately indestructible marriage. It went better when Clare was Eisenhower’s generally well-respected envoy to Italy and the Holy See (she was an energetic convert to Roman Catholicism), and in their later years, but Luce had aged prematurely. Hypertense, a heavy smoker, he suffered for years from heart disease and arthritis, and died in 1967, at 68.

Brinkley leaves us with the inference that if Luce had lightened up a little, and focused some of the misplaced (and unrequited) passion he lavished on Wendell Willkie and Chiang Kai-shek on friendship and romance, he would, as he ultimately recognized in memos and diaries the author cites, have been much happier. He would also have been less vulnerable to the New Yorker and Algonquin Hotel set’s wickedly clever and wounding barbs.

Henry Robinson Luce was a brilliant publisher and editor, a very intelligent man, but not, as he claimed to his first wife (Clare would not have put up with it), the most intelligent man in the world. (Einstein, he explained, was a “specialist.”) He was a sincere patriot and Christian, an honest and capable businessman, and a strange phenomenon. And this account of his remarkable life and career is an outstanding biography.

–Mr. Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.

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