In a line of media barons who dominated the media world of early- to mid-20th-century United States that included such heavyweights as William Randolph Hearst (q.v.), Joseph Pulitzer, Col. Joseph Patterson, Harry Chandler, Adolph Ochs, and so on, Henry Robinson Luce may have been the ultimate tycoon (a word his own publication first brought into circulation). As a brash and self-confident 23-year-old, only a few years out of Yale and with little experience beyond cub reporting positions in Baltimore and Chicago, Luce and his school friend Britton Haddon began in the early 1920s to promote the idea of a new kind of newsmagazine that would recast the form and style of presentation of how news was delivered in a host of venerable and, in their eyes, stodgy publications. By the time he died at the age of 68, virtually on the 44th anniversary of the launch of his premier publication—Time—Luce presided over a media empire that not only included his signature publications (Fortune, Life, Sports Illustrated) but also was growing into a major presence in other media. Not only was he a master of media, providing a record of events, but also, like his fellow press barons, he sought to influence these events. His most enduring legacy was his championing the destiny and role of the United States in the world. He defined the 20th century as “the American century.” His word was feared, his approbation sought, his name was hated by those of a different political orientation.
The beginning of the Luce empire was grand (perhaps even grandiose) in conception and modest in actual fact. Like another upstart magazine launch of the 1920s, Readers Digest, Time was a home-grown affair, put together by its two founders who had met at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut and then worked together as student editors at Yale. And like Readers Digest, Luce and Haddon’s idea for the magazine directly addressed what they saw as the growing demand on readers’ time posed by the early-20th-century version of information overload. Their publication—whose name directly addressed the temporal demands on its prospective readers—was to be dedicated to presenting a streamlined account of the world through its digesting the week’s news in an engaging style suitable to contemporary readers—or to the editors’ notion of up-to-date readers. Luce and Haddon stressed the economy of their presentation, the week’s events compressed into brief and concise paragraphs organized into departments. As their prospectus announced, they would collect “all important information on all subjects of importance and general interest,” reducing the essence of the information “to approximately 100 short articles, none of which are [sic] over 400 words in length” organized into a fixed and logical “method of arrangement.”
Beyond the appeal to time-pressed readers, the two fledgling but self-assured journalists believed that their magazine would be distinctive for the quality of the writing—bright, detail-laden, and knowing accounts cast in the form of stories with beginning, middle, and end rather than in the bland and wordy style they felt plagued contemporary journalism. They would not be reluctant to take a stand on events and give the readers their opinion, in contrast to the generally neutral way news was presented in the older newsmagazine digests, such as Literary Digest, the category leader, for example. With a modest $86,000 raised from Yale classmates and their families, Luce and Haddon ventured forth with their publication, working with a handful of friends from Yale. They rewrote copy clipped from the New York Times and other publications (other news magazines of the time, like Literary Digest, did pretty much the same thing, but included long quotations from the original sources), boiling the news down to pithy paragraphs larded with neologisms (cinemaddict, tycoon), portmanteau puns (Freudulant), and other colorful epithets, modeled on the Homeric style Luce and Haddon studied at school. Later the style became known as “Timese” and was the subject of parodies in other magazines.
Luce served initially as the business manager of the magazine while Haddon ran the editorial side, and some claim that the stylistic quirks and cheeky tone of the magazine were the latter’s signature contributions. Certainly Luce in his later years came across as a man of great seriousness and earnestness (if not pomposity). Time’s obituary for its founder quoted him as exhorting a Chicago audience early in the 1960s: “Everything we know, from the atom to the stars, calls us to leave our comfortable habitations which no longer comfort us, and to strike forth on a pilgrimage to a new civilization.”
The first issue of Time appeared in late February 1923 (dated March 3) and was not an instant success. But circulation grew modestly and steadily over the next few years and the magazine began to attract advertisers. Haddon’s untimely death at the age of 31 left Luce in charge of a growing company. At his own death four decades later, Luce was credited with having “created the modern news magazine, fostered the development of group journalism, restyled pictorial reporting, encouraged a crisp and adjective-studded style of writing and initiated the concept of covering business as a continuing magazine story,” according to Alden Whitman, writing in the New York Times.
Luce is often described as having had a missionary zeal for his vision of journalism and of American exceptionalism, in keeping with his upbringing as the child of missionary parents. Born in China, where his father was serving as a Presbyterian minister, Luce was a life-long staunch Sinophile. The family’s circumstances in China were modest, but a scholarship brought the young Henry back to the United States for his high school education and then his undergraduate years at Yale. A top student at both Hotchkiss and Yale, Luce was attracted to the classics, and he spent his time in literary and journalistic pursuits. A member of the elite and secretive Skull and Bones at Yale, he was voted the “most brilliant” man in his class and elected to Phi Beta Kappa on his graduation and then went on for some graduate work at Oxford and a brief stint in the military before pursuing his career in journalism.
The early issues of Time were slim (28–40 pages) with a minimum of photos or other artwork (in contrast to the lavishly illustrated Literary Digest), but its cover design would eventually become iconic, with its portrait of a leading newsmaker (in contrast again to LD whose covers were highly artistic but mostly decorative). The first cover, ironically enough for a spanking new publication dedicated to the cult of the New Age, written by men in their twenties, was graced by the unsmiling visage of white-bearded Congressman Joseph Cannon, the speaker of House retiring after 23 terms in Congress at the age of 86, one of the last icons of 19th-century politics. The second cover was of President Warren Harding. The “Man of the Year” cover was introduced in 1928 (Charles Lindbergh) and in the next decade highlighted business leaders (Walter Chrysler and Owen Young) and political luminaries (FDR twice, Hitler, Gandhi, General and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a favorite of Luce, Pierre Laval, Hailie Selassie); Mrs. Wallace Simpson, the twice-divorced lover of King Edward VIII, was the lone woman apart from Mme. Chiang.
With Time’s circulation growing modestly in the late 1920s, Luce started a magazine, Tide, devoted to the advertising industry, and then announced plans for a companion magazine dedicated to covering the world of business. This new venture was conceived in a bold fashion; it would be bigger in format than most magazines, be lavishly illustrated, printed on heavy stock, and sell for the unheard of price of $1.00 a copy. Launched in February 1930, shortly after Wall Street laid its egg, in the phrasing of the entertainment trade paper Variety, Fortune seemed to be a venture that would be just the opposite of its name. Nonetheless, against all expectations, the magazine prospered, drawing to it a stable of brilliant journalists and photographers, many of whom were left-leaning in their politics (Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans, James Agee, and Dwight Macdonald, among others). The annual list of Fortune 500 companies, the benchmark of corporate success, began in 1955.
By the late 1930s, Luce’s publications were dominating their markets and swallowing up rivals. Literary Digest, beset with lagging circulation and a tarnished reputation based on its miscalling the results of the 1936 election due to flaws in its trademark political poll, was swallowed up in Luce’s growing empire. Luce also acquired the name of a venerable humor magazine, Life, which he used as the title for the iconic magazine that he launched in 1936, dedicated to presenting a weekly graphic account of the United States. Featuring the work of pioneering photojournalists Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstadt, and Robert Capa, Life was the United States’ eye on the world, bringing to its readers weekly a portrait of itself in peace and war. Its war coverage in World War II, the Korean War, and the Viet Nam conflict, was highly respected even as its politics became more insistently conservative. At the peak of its success, Life was reaching several million readers a week. Despite its visual orientation, the magazine was also notable for publishing Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea in full.
Luce’s politics were dominated by his unswerving support for the idea of the United States, his love of China, and his fervent anticommunism. According to his political biographer Robert Herzstein, Luce admired Woodrow Wilson’s international idealism and, unlike many Republicans of his age, he was an anti-isolationist. He may have belatedly seen the threat of fascism, but once aroused he condemned both the Republican leadership and Franklin Roosevelt for their isolationism and he campaigned for American intervention in Europe. In his essay “The American Century,” published in Life in 1941, he exhorted Americans to take up the cause of “internationalism of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Initially suspicious of General Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Chinese Nationalists, Luce became his biggest supporter in his campaigns against Communist insurgents within China and Japanese aggression from outside. He particularly favored Mme. Chiang. In the postwar era, as Chiang’s regime retreated in the face of the Communists under Mao Zedong, Luce was an unflinching supporter of Chiang, and, in the wake of the latter’s defeat, he sought to pin blame for the loss of China on everyone except Chiang himself. He campaigned tirelessly for Republican candidates for the presidency, including Wendell Wilkie, Thomas E. Dewey, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his magazines were not subtle in conveying his dislike of their Democratic opponents. (John Kennedy was an exception, based on Luce’s friendship with JFK’s father.) He supported American intervention in Viet Nam, although after his death Life gave prominent coverage to the massacre of My Lai.
Luce married twice, first to Lila Ross Hotz in 1923 and then to Clare Boothe in 1935. The latter, a magazine editor and an aspiring playwright, achieved success with her plays (notably The Women) and went on to a political career as a two-term representative from Connecticut, an outspoken opponent of the Democratic administration of Harry Truman, and later ambassador to the Vatican under President Eisenhower; she is reputed to have been the inspiration for Luce’s launch of Life. After her conversion to Catholicism, she became a prominent writer on religious topics. Her marriage to Luce was a stormy one but they remained together as far as their busy separate activities allowed.
Luce’s empire grew to include Sports Illustrated, Architectural Digest, The March of Time newsreels and radio programs, Time-Life Books, and radio and TV stations. In the post-Luce era, even as its signature magazines began to slump (Life ended its run as a weekly in 1972), Time Inc. became a major player in cable TV (Home Box Office, Turner Broadcasting) and its merger with Warner Communications was one of the biggest business deals of the early 1990s, creating a media behemoth. During the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, the merged Time Warner then merged with the upstart Internet company America Online (AOL) in what would turn out to be a monumental mismatch of corporate cultures that came close to wrecking the house that Luce built.
Baughman, James L. Henry R. Luce and the Rise of the American News Media. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1987, rpt. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Elson, Robert. Time, Inc.: The Intimate History of a Publishing Enterprise, 1923–41. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
Herzstein, Robert E. Henry R. Luce: A Political Portrait of the Man Who Created the American Century. New York: Scribner’s, 1994.
Herzstein, Robert E. “Henry R. Luce.” In American National Biography. www.anb.org/aboutanb.html
Klein, Alec. Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. 5 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930–1968.