His Life and Time

by James R. Gaines
The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century
By Alan Brinkley
(Knopf, 560 pages, $35)
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Henry Luce in 1937 with Columbia law professor, Newsweek columnist, and disillusioned Brain Truster Raymond Moley ’18GSAS. / Photo Courtesy of Associated PressHenry Luce, the man who created Time, Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, and a publishing empire that both reflected and helped to define American life for much of the 20th century, waited a long time to get the biography he deserves. I labored in Luce’s vineyard for decades but never met the man, so for me Alan Brinkley’s The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century is a real gift.

Luce was more self-regarding than introspective, yet he might have appreciated the wisdom and generosity, if not at times the scholarly rigor, that Brinkley, Columbia’s Allan Nevins Professor of American History and provost emeritus, brings to the task.

The Luce of legend was a monomaniacal tycoon, pigheadedly pro-Republican, anti-Roosevelt, pro-business, and pro-war. Brinkley’s Luce is a vividly three-dimensional character who comes to life in ways he never did to those close enough to call themselves his colleagues: larger than life but also life-sized, domineering and insecure, dogmatic and incoherent, unbending and manipulable. He was as tough on his wives as he was on his co-workers, he did not understand himself or anyone else, and everyone around him paid a price for that, including Luce himself.

Born in 1898 to missionaries serving in China, Luce was raised to sermonize. At four years old, he would stand on a barrel in front of his father’s house in Tengchow and preach. His own true faith, however, was Americanism, which he discovered for the first time four years later — in the first decade of the “American Century” he would later so famously christen — on a long family visit to the “home” he had never known.

After a miserable boarding-school experience back in China, he was sent at 15 to Hotchkiss, a scholarship student among the elite. Ignorance of his schoolmates’ common references and sports-field rules earned him the hated nickname “Chink,” and he lived in town, away from the other boys, in a boardinghouse with fellow scholarship students. The distinction rankled, and he was determined to break through it, repeatedly being named his class’s “First Scholar,” becoming editor of the literary magazine, failing only to make the editorship of the more prestigious school newspaper because of “a boy, Hadden, who is already on the Board.” This was Briton Hadden, whom he deeply admired and whose editorial ability would daunt Luce again at Yale.

It was with Hadden that Luce founded Time in 1923, when both were 25. They planned to call the new publication Facts, a “weekly newspaper,” marketing it in contrast to the staid, objective, almost assertively bland New York Times. Luce and Hadden intuited the need for concision and summary from the popular digests of the day. The publication aimed, as Luce wrote to the woman who would become his first wife, to “serve the illiterate upper classes, the busy business man, the tired debutante, to prepare them at least once a week for a table conversation.”

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