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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A prolific writer of caustic memos, Luce earned a reputation for strict, even ham-handed control over his magazines, but among Brinkley’s most interesting findings is how many times Luce allowed himself to lose the fights he picked with his editors. When he wanted Time to name General Douglas MacArthur as Man of the Year in 1951, the editors declined, naming Iran’s new premier Mohammad Mossadegh instead. They fought Luce over his growing distaste for FDR and the New Deal, over his rapturous support for Wendell Wilkie and Dwight Eisenhower, and over his tepid endorsement of Richard Nixon over JFK. They abandoned him on China and, decisively, on Vietnam. The wonder is not so much that he tangled with his staff so frequently as that he did not fire more of them for insubordination. In this fact, Brinkley suggests, lies the key to Luce’s greatness as a publisher.

Given Time Inc.’s editorial and financial success, Luce can hardly be faulted for feeling that he and his magazines were somehow kissed by fate. In retrospect, nothing seems quite so quintessentially Lucean as all the meetings and memos in which he agonized over the “purpose” of his magazines — the endless “rethinking” of their ambitions and the role they played, or could play, in creating the American Century. One of his memos was actually titled, “The Reorganization of the World.”

His real genius, though, lay in his instincts about his magazines and his people. He hired wonderful writers, photographers, and editors, with whom he struggled mightily and often with pain when, against his stated principles, he let them have their way. When there was a business problem, he assumed it lay in the quality of the magazines, and he worked to make them better.

Luce died in 1967, and he would not recognize the company today. Time Inc. magazines still do fine journalism — People’s recent coverage of Haiti, for just one example — but Life is a photo collection, Time is no longer a news primer (there are apps for that), and Fortune and Sports Illustrated, like most other magazines, are to some extent beset. In their day, though, the Time Inc. magazines defined greatness in magazine publishing, and Brinkley has given us the enviable model of a man of his moment who knew what to do with it, even if he did not always know what it was he knew.

I have to confess to feeling an involuntary shock when I first noted the title on the cover of Brinkley’s book. The Publisher is arguably appropriate, but it is not the title Luce ever wanted. The one he took was that of editor, but that, too, is misleading.

As Brinkley persuasively concludes, Luce was not an original thinker; his magazines portrayed the world more than they shaped it, as much as he may have wished otherwise; he continually worked to cast himself and his company in the role of America’s prophet laureate; and he presided over a great deal of the best magazine journalism ever produced.

He was, in short, someone who could have appeared in Time under two of its most characteristic early rubrics, “Point with Pride” and “View with Alarm.” Though he attributed his success to intellect rather than intuition, he was, for all of that, a man with the music of magazines deep in his lonesome soul.

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