Who was the most influential journalist in American history? Some would argue Horace Greeley, for his role in the founding of the Republican Party. Others might say Joseph Pulitzer, in whose name journalism’s highest award is given. Another possibility would be William Randolph Hearst, the model for the titular character in Orson Welles’s famous film Citizen Kane. But a case can be made that it was in fact Henry Robinson Luce (1898–1967), the cofounder and key figure in the development of America’s most dominant newsmagazine, Time.

On the centenary of Time’s founding this year, it is worth looking back on the remarkable career of the man whose magazines—Time, Fortune, Life, and Sports Illustrated—changed America. Fortune was Luce’s real love among his magazines because it heralded the greatness of business in American life and he didn’t have to share credit with anyone for its creation. People, an outgrowth of the “People” section of Time and the most popular of Time Inc.’s chain today (the above were all acquired by the Meredith Corporation in 2018), was launched after Luce’s death. Luce was proud of all his creations. It is doubtful he would have added the current iteration of People to his list of accomplishments.

His three-part takedown of Luce’s publishing empire reflected the verdict of leftist intellectual circles.

All of Luce’s publications were middlebrow magazines par excellence, as Dwight Macdonald wrote in his classic critique for The Nation in May 1937. Still in his Trotskyist phase, Macdonald had worked for six years at Fortune and recently had become an editor at Partisan Review, which sought to combine Marxism and modernism. His three-part takedown of Luce’s publishing empire reflected the verdict of leftist intellectual circles, as well as their veiled envy of mass-circulation magazines that reached a wider public and made money for their capitalist publishers. Time and Life in particular corrupted the mass audience and lowered the tone of intellectual thought, at least according to Macdonald, foreshadowing his ideas of the clash between what he called “masscult” and “midcult.” Despite his dismissal of Time and Life for their lowering of American taste, Macdonald himself ended up writing movie reviews for Esquire, a classic American masscult journal. In spite of Macdonald’s criticism of Luce’s empire, Luce was personally fond of the journalist, and the publisher even attended Macdonald’s wedding.

Luce was born in China to missionary parents, and that land remained an important part of his life, in some ways becoming an obsession. He was educated in America at some of the best schools, Hotchkiss and Yale, where he met Briton Hadden, the co-conceiver and cofounder of Time. Their concept was a simple one—a magazine that would summarize the news of the week in a bright and lively fashion. Time’s readership was young, middle-class, and well-educated: 70 percent were under fifty and had graduated high school or gone to college. Hadden gave Time its signature features: a kind of collegiate wiseguy prose that involved the creation or popularization of new words (such as “cinemactor” and “tycoonery”) and the reversal of sentence structure, with verb first and noun following: “Backward ran the sentences until the mind reeled.” A parody of “Timespeak” by the New Yorker columnist Wolcott Gibbs in 1936 angered Luce. Gibbs’s Luce is an

ambitious, gimlet-eyed Baby Tycoon . . . Stutters in conversation . . . Certainly to be taken with seriousness is Luce at thirty-eight, his fellowman already informed up to his ears, the shadow of his enterprise long across the land, his future plans impossible to contemplate. Where it will all end, knows God.

Gibbs’s parody led Luce to tone down some of the magazine’s signature excesses, but Timespeak remained in evidence long after.

Hadden died in 1929, and from that point Luce molded Time in his own image. A fierce patriot, he wanted a magazine that would cheer and applaud what he regarded as the best of American life. For Luce, it was simple what to promote: his Christian faith, the Republican Party, American business, and the great men who had made the country. Luce was in many ways a great man himself, but he was also always in search of those who shaped history. For a time in the early 1930s, Time thought it had found that man in Mussolini, but the magazine’s flirtation with some kind of American fascism soon passed. During World War II, Luce idolized Chiang Kai-shek, Wendell Willkie, General Douglas MacArthur, and especially Winston Churchill. In the 1950s it was Dwight Eisenhower.

One big man Luce had no time for was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Luce detested the New Deal because it was critical of American capitalism, which to him was the engine that had made America great. He also feared that Roosevelt had dictatorial tendencies and was a threat to American democracy.

Luce rejected isolationism, seeing no way that America could remain aloof.

Luce and Time entered their greatest period of quality in the late 1930s as the world drifted toward war. Luce rejected isolationism, seeing no way that America could remain aloof from events in Europe and the world in general. He was a fierce interventionist, believing that America had a God-given duty to move the world in the right direction. Despite his dislike of President Roosevelt, Luce swung his publications behind the administration’s movement to aid the Allies, especially Great Britain, once Germany had overrun France in the summer of 1940. In the course of that campaign, Luce discovered Churchill. In 1950, Time—with Luce’s strong support—named Churchill the “Man of the Half Century.” Luce’s fascination with Churchill proved lucrative to the aging politician. In 1948, Luce agreed to publish excerpts from Churchill’s multivolume history of the Second World War for $750,000, over $11 million in today’s money.

When the Republican Party, which Luce had loyally supported during its grim period in the Great Depression, flirted with nominating an isolationist, Senator Robert Taft, for president in 1940, Luce found another one of his heroes, Wendell Willkie, a strong internationalist who favored almost unlimited support for Britain. Time played a major role in swinging the nomination to Willkie and lavishly supported him against Roosevelt’s bid for a third term. The magazine remained a loyal admirer of Willkie’s for the rest of his brief life; Willkie died in 1944, aged just fifty-two.

Time and Luce’s other great creation, Life, also had a good war. Luce’s reporters, and especially the photographers Robert Capa and Margaret Bourke White, covered the war’s battlefields brilliantly and made the conflict understandable to millions of Americans. Luce even created a special wartime version for the U.S. military serving abroad, a patriotic venture that paid huge dividends. At this point, Time and Life were among the most popular magazines in America. Time alone doubled its circulation between 1939 and 1945.

World War II also gave a new focus to Luce. His almost missionary sense about America’s role in the future led to a unique creation: Luce’s essay “The American Century.” Appearing in Life in February 1941, Luce argued that America must turn its back on its nativist past and step forward to lead the world, in his words like a “Good Samaritan,” to an enlightened capitalist future, one that would render the appeal of totalitarian ideologies like Nazism and communism irrelevant.

World War II cemented Luce’s almost passionate love affair with China.

World War II cemented Luce’s almost passionate love affair with China and its leader Chiang Kai-shek and his wife. Reflecting Luce’s romanticization of his time as a youth in China, Luce believed that China was a great power and Chiang a statesman on a par with Churchill or Roosevelt in fighting a war not only against the Japanese but also for free enterprise against Mao’s communists. Luce’s rose-colored obsession with China led to a clash with his great correspondents there: John Hersey and Theodore White. The root of conflict was simple: Luce wanted reports that advocated his view of China and not nonpartisanship.

The two decades after World War II saw Time and its sister publications reach the peak of their popular influence. By the 1950s, it was difficult to find a home that didn’t subscribe to Time or Life. They were found in every barbershop and doctor’s office and on the coffee tables of many living rooms throughout America.

And it was not only in America where Time’s impact was felt. After the war, over fifty imitations of Time sprung up: in France, L’Express; in Germany, Der Spiegel; and in Italy, Panorama; as well as versions in Mexico and Latin America. There was even a briefly extant version in England, Everyman, published by the famous author of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Francis Yeats-Brown. None matched the success of the original.

Luce’s post-war causes were simple: he was in favor of the United Nations (though with lessening enthusiasm), and he supported the cause of Civil Rights in trying to place blacks at the heart of American democracy. In 1952 he discovered his last great man, Dwight Eisenhower. The Republican presidential victory in 1952, and especially Eisenhower’s vast popularity, pleased Luce, and he swung his magazines, particularly Time, enthusiastically behind the man almost always referred to in his pages as “Ike.”

Luce was married twice. The first marriage, to Lila Hotz, was a conventional one. He had three children but left them to be raised by his wife and was never particularly close to any of them. His second marriage, to the writer Clare Boothe, a talented, tart-tongued woman, was anything but conventional. She was a playwright, novelist, and magazine writer who moved in the top social circles. She had been married once before and had a child, Ann, to whom she was devoted, as was Luce after the marriage. Apparently he found something in her that he had not in his own children. She died in a car accident in 1944, an event that devastated both Clare and Luce. Ann’s death led Clare to enter the Catholic Church, to which she remained loyal the rest of her life.

Clare’s play The Women was a huge hit on Broadway in 1937 and two years later was a smash Hollywood film. She also wrote the story for the film Come to the Stable in 1948, which was nominated for nine Academy Awards. Luce was never jealous of Clare’s literary successes and often promoted her work in his magazines, especially Time.

Given that they were two ambitious and talented people, there naturally was something of a rivalry about the marriage. Both parties had affairs. One of Luce’s was with the granddaughter of the British press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, whose proximity to power—he was a close friend of Churchill’s—was something Luce longed for but never achieved. There was talk that Eisenhower would name Luce to his cabinet, but nothing came of it, especially given that the only post Luce might have been interested in was secretary of state, a position already promised to John Foster Dulles, who was something of a minor big man in Luce’s eyes.

Her acid tongue and taunting remarks often made for unforgiving enemies.

Luce and his wife were dependent on each other, despite numerous strains in their marriage, and remained together until his death in 1967. It must be said that Luce watched with some jealousy as Clare’s political career flourished. She was twice elected to Congress, naturally as a Republican, and was often thought of as a potential candidate for higher office, with some even projecting that she might be a potential vice-presidential candidate. Her acid tongue and taunting remarks often made for unforgiving enemies. She once described Vice President Henry Wallace’s woolly thinking about international affairs as “globaloney,” a phrase that soon entered the political vocabulary.

Through his contacts in the Eisenhower administration, Luce secured the ambassadorship to Italy for her. During her four-year tenure, he showed his support by spending long periods away from his beloved Time, helping her with ambassadorial duties. Some wag noted that he was the perfect ambassador’s wife.

Luce’s portrait of himself reads better than the ones of him made by many of his political and journalistic contemporaries. He said that he was uncomplicated:

I am a Protestant, a Republican and a free-enterpriser, which means I am biased in favor of God, Eisenhower and the stockholders of Time Inc.—and if anyone who objects doesn’t know this by now, why the hell are they still spending 35 cents for the magazine.

Luce’s empire peaked monetarily in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Time’s circulation topped four million in 1983, and its advertising revenue reached its high point in 1979. But problems developed with constant turnover at the top, especially after Roy Larsen, the last of the original group that founded Time, died in 1979. In the 1990s, Time went through three managing editors in ten years. The threat from the cable-news upstart cnn and then the internet began to take a serious toll by the beginning of the new century. In 1989, to bolster its sagging strength, Time Inc. merged with Warner Communications, but that didn’t help. Time was eventually bought in 2018 by the technology entrepreneur Marc Benioff for $190 million, a little more than Luce left in his estate when he died a half century earlier. Time’s circulation has declined to approximately 1.6 million today, and it is a pale shadow of the powerful journal that shaped American opinion and taste in its heyday.

Despite Time’s decline, one thing is clear: Henry Luce was the single most influential newsman of his day, creating a magazine format that no one has come close to matching. Nor has anyone approached his reach and that of his magazines, especially Time and Life, at their peak. Gardner Cowles, of the rival magazine Look, perhaps put it best: Luce’s “influence will be felt for generations.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 8, on page 77
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