In 1923 Henry Robinson Luce and his partner Briton Hadden cofounded Time magazine, the most influential newsmagazine of the twentieth century. Time quickly became popular among college-educated Americans because of its open political bias, its broad coverage, and its distinctive writing style. After Briton Hadden died in 1929, Luce took Time and turned it into the center of a media empire. His other projects included the development of the magazines Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Architectural Forum, House and Home, and Life magazine, which became the most popular magazine in American history.
Henry R. Luce was the son of Henry Winters Luce and Elizabeth (Middleton) Luce, two Presbyterian missionaries who served in China during the late nineteenth century. In 1898 their son was born in the town of Teng-chow (modern P'englai), where the couple ran a college for Chinese Christians. He remained in China for the first 15 years of his life and then came to the United States to complete his education. He toured Europe alone for four months in 1913 "before returning to the United States for prep school," says Alan Brinkley in Time. "He was, he said, 'a fanatical sight-seer,' and he visited cities, museums and other sites with a relentless and methodical efficiency."
Luce first met his future partner Briton Hadden at Hotchkiss Academy, the prep school he attended in order to prepare for Yale. The two entered Yale as classmates in 1916 and both worked on the Yale school paper, the Daily News. They also served together in the U.S. Army during World War I. Luce emerged from the conflict as a second lieutenant in 1918. He worked briefly as a cub reporter for the Chicago Daily News from 1921 to 1922 and with Hadden as a reporter for the Baltimore News before the two of them pooled their resources to found Time magazine in 1923.
In 1923, Luce married Lila Ross Hotz and they had two children, Henry Luce III and Peter Paul Luce. The marriage ended in divorce in 1935 and Luce went on to marry Clare Boothe. Boothe was a playwright and editor who later became a United States Congresswoman and ambassador. In 1998, 31 years after his death, the United States Postal Service issued commemorative stamps honoring Luce's role in shaping American journalism and American popular culture.
Luce and Hadden cofounded Time on the belief that most educated Americans had no time to keep up with current events. They collected $86,000 from a variety of friends, relatives, and associates, and on March 3, 1923, the first issue of Time appeared. The magazine ran at a loss in its first four years, but by 1927 it was making a profit and, at the age of 30, Luce was a self-made millionaire.
The two businessmen used their magazine as the springboard for a media empire that aspired to bring news to a variety of American readers. In the late 1920s Luce and Hadden began planning what would become Fortune magazine. However, as New Leader contributor August Heckscher stated, "Hadden died tragically in 1929, a year before Fortune was unveiled," and Luce took over all the operations of Time and its sister publications. Despite the onset of the Great Depression, "Fortune celebrated American business in a format more lush than had ever been offered by an American publication," Heckscher continues. Fortune was joined six years later by Life, which quickly became the most successful magazine in American history. By the time Luce died in 1967, it had a circulation of around 750 million copies.
"As the '30s advanced," explained Heckscher, "Luce alone would ride his three chargers, harnessed in a perfected team." "And in the years that followed," declared Lance Morrow in Time, "there unfolded all the high, dark world history for which the magazine's epic rhetoric became a perfectly appropriate libretto: the Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the cold war and all the rest."
As time went on the Luce media empire, and especially its flagship newsmagazine Time, began to reflect Luce's own personal and professional biases. "His journalistic judgment could be clouded at times by his own commitments," stated Alan Brinkley in Time magazine. "On the issues and people he cared most about—China, American foreign policy, the Republican Party, Chiang Kai-shek, Winston Churchill, Wendell Willkie—he personally directed coverage at critical times with a feverish and occasionally suffocating intensity." Luce was also partly responsible for some of Time's most epic gaffes. For instance, his support for Republican Willkie against Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election, said Heckscher, "seriously damaged Time's reputation for truth and objectivity in reporting." Luce's second wife, Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce, also "tested Luce's editors—who were not always as enthusiastically partisan as her admiring husband, not as ready to accommodate themselves to her often idiosyncratic views."
Luce continued as editor-in-chief of Time, Inc. up until his retirement in 1964. He remained principal owner of the company until his death in 1967.
Social and Economic Impact
One of the major factors in the success of Time was the voice given it by its founders. "Luce and Hadden, classmates out of Hotchkiss and Yale," explained Lance Morrow in Time magazine, "succeeded because they understood this truth: history may be complicated, as life is complicated, but the business of storytelling is simple." Based in part on classical poetry, such as the Iliad, the voice of the newsmagazine was "squally, bratty, brash," according to Morrow. "The new smart aleck—its voice distinctive, sophomoric, self-assured—thrived . . . . The magazine's voice, Luce said, had three modes: 'Everything in Time should be either titillating or epic or supercurtly factual.'" At times the magazine's style could be overdone, as Wolcott Gibbs proved in a parody of Time published in the New Yorker in 1936. "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,' Gibbs wrote. Luce also boosted circulation with thought provoking topics such as the Man of the Year, a competition that began in 1927 with the selection of Charles Lindbergh.
However, Luce and Hadden had different concepts of what Time was supposed to be. Hadden, "a true product of middle-class America," explained Brinkley, "wanted Time to be the witty, sophisticated, even cynical voice of his generation—something like a newsman's version of H. L. Mencken's popular magazine The Smart Set." Time, declared Heckscher, "was far more concerned about being provocative and breezy than tackling deep policy issues. It presented the news in a style that Hadden invented and burnished, and had almost no regard for the eminence of its targets."
Because he was raised in the rarified atmosphere of an American mission and "encountered America first as an abstraction," said Brinkley, Luce retained a view of the United States that was less worldly. "To Luce, Time had a different purpose. It was to be a vehicle of moral and political instruction, a point of connection between the world of elite ideas and opinion and middle-class people in the 'true' America hungry for knowledge." With Hadden's death in 1929, Luce's view of Time's mission came to dominate the magazine. Time became a widely respected news source," declared Heckscher, "its freewheeling correspondents reined in by powerful editors who brought their dispatches within the scope of Henry Luce's generally humanitarian, Protestant, Republican, and capitalistic faith."
Chronology: Henry Luce
1914: Entered Hotchkiss Academy, Connecticut, and met future partner Briton Hadden.
1920: Graduated from Yale summa cum laude and a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
1923: Cofounded Time magazine with Hadden.
1929: Hadden died suddenly and Luce took control of Time.
1930: Created Fortune magazine.
1936: Bought Life and changed its subject from humor to photojournalism.
1954: Launched Sports Illustrated.
1998: Honored with a portrait on a U.S. postal stamp.
Luce's greatest impact on business history may have been forming the concept of the newsmagazine. With Life and Sports Illustrated, he created a showcase for photojournalism and a periodical devoted to America's favorite physical activities. Time, however, established a whole new category of journal. "The Weekly Newsmagazine," explained Morrow, "matured into an American institution, mentor to the questing middle class, keeper of a certain American self-image and expectation—America's superego, the child of Henry Luce, a presence infuriating to many but undeniably a force."
Sources of Information
Brinkley, Alan. "To See and Know Everything: Henry R. Luce Had an Insatiable Curiosity, with the Drive and Ambition to Match." Time, 9 March 1998.
Contemporary Authors. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, Inc., 1982.
Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1990.
Heckscher, August. "Henry R. Luce: A Political Portrait of the Man Who Created the American Century." New Leader, 6 June 1993.
"Henry R. Luce Honored on Cover of U.S. Stamp." M2 Press-wire, 6 April 1998.
Morrow, Lance. "The Time of Our Lives." Time, 9 March 1998.