Luce, Henry (1898-1967)

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Luce, Henry (1898-1967)

Editors themselves rarely attract more attention than their news headlines, but Henry Luce's success in the field of magazine publishing made him a legend in his own lifetime, and an enduring influence beyond it. The corporation he founded, Time Inc., has been described as the third most important institution in the United States, after the President and Congress, and his magazines have been estimated to reach one quarter of the entire population of the United States. Luce's constant articulation of and fight for "America" and its values, visually and verbally, personally and corporately, throughout his life (and particularly in the politically and culturally charged years of the Cold War) ensured that his impact went far beyond mere journalism, and established him within the canon of influential American public figures.

All this lay far in the future for the child born Henry Robinson Luce on April 3, 1898, to Presbyterian missionary parents, in Tengchow, China. Not until he was 14, in 1912, did the young Luce see England, and not until the following year did he reach the soil of the nation that was to become his home and his life, America. Although he would never lose sight of his spiritual home back in China, Luce was quick to take on the values of the society in which he found himself, and to become part of its elite. He arrived in America in 1913 to take up a scholarship he had won to the prestigious Hodgkiss School. From there, aged 18, he proceeded to Yale, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and being tapped for Skull and Bones. Luce had now entered mainstream, if privileged, America, and the aristocratic-elitist philosophy of Yale was one to which he would subscribe all his life. He cemented his relationship with the world of establishment privilege by his first marriage, on December 22, 1923, to the wealthy and well-connected Lila Ross Hotz, and furthered his influence and connections with his second marriage, on November 23, 1935, to the rising social and literary star, Clare Boothe Brokaw (famous, as Clare Boothe, for her play, The Women).

Luce's publishing career began shortly after graduation from Yale when he and Brian Hadden, whom he had first met at Hodgkiss, discussed plans to start a magazine together. Although Luce himself saw the world of journalism merely as a stepping stone into the world which really held his fascination, that of politics, he agreed to the venture. Hadden proposed an idea for a magazine that, based upon selected newspaper stories in a given week, would condense the news into an easily digestible magazine format. The pair considered the idea further, moved to premises in New York, and began to gather around them an embryonic staff, several of whom (like Roy E. Larsen) would remain part of Time Inc. for many years to come. After a year spent developing the original idea, the first issue of Time magazine hit the news-stands on March 3, 1923, it's aim being to "summarize the week's news in the shortest possible space." The first issue did not sell particularly well, but over the next few years a dedicated staff worked hard to ensure the long-term success of the publication, and by 1926 the magazine had built a solid foundation from which to grow. By 1935, Time made $2,249,823 profit—a corporate record.

The second Time Inc. publication, Fortune magazine, was started in February 1930. It grew out of the business sections of Time magazine, which Luce thought could be expanded into a publication in its own right to create a new kind of business journalism, radically different from existing trade journals—a "literature of business." Fortune grew steadily, and although it would never reach the circulation levels of other Time Inc. publications, by 1935, it too was making a profit ($500,000). A year later, in November 1936, Luce launched the third of his trio of great American magazines—Life. Breaking new frontiers in photojournalism to tremendous, and ultimately world famous and historically valuable, effect, the magazine aimed to "see life; to see the world; to witness great events … to see and take pleasure in seeing, to see and be amazed: to see and be instructed." Like the other Luce publications, Life magazine soon became a success. Henry Luce was to see the addition of several other elements to his empire, not least of which was the development of The March of Time radio and cinema newsreel programs. Finally, in 1954, Luce added Sports Illustrated. A sports magazine had been his personal project for some time, yet it was born against the advice of many. Luce, however, read the market just right, launching the magazine at the peak of the postwar leisure industry. Advance promotion also ensured that 90 percent of the magazines vanished from the newsstands on the first day of issue, and reader response was excellent.

As editor-in-chief of all Time Inc. publications, Henry Luce was technically responsible for all final editorial decisions, although he left the day-to-day decision making to trusted colleagues on each publication, appointing managing editors such as Edward Thompson at Life, Hedley Donovan at Fortune, and E. Roy Alexander at Time. He himself worked from an office on the Life editorial floor at the Time-Life building in New York City, from where he observed proceedings, occasionally talked directly with individual editors, and sat in on discussions about subjects for editorials. He had little to worry about in terms of magazine content since, even without his direct daily editorship of each and every publication, his managing editors knew well the kind of magazine he wanted and subscribed to roughly the same ideology. As Edward Thompson explains in his autobiography, "One could not ignore Luce's strong political opinions, but if I hadn't believed roughly in the kind of world Luce wanted, I couldn't have worked at Time Inc. very long." Even when he was away from New York, Luce would keep in touch by phone or cable, but even so, as Thompson observed "we knew enough about what he didn't believe in to avoid direct contradiction of his views. We operated on the assumption that the country thought that a Life editorial was in Luce's own words."

There are several accounts of Luce's personality as editor which indicate some of the traits that underpinned his success. Swanberg's impression is of an almost tyrannical figure, unpredictable and frightening, able to control the many aspects of his corporation through fear. His impression countered by Thompson, who asserts that although Luce was hard to please, he was also generous in his praise when he liked an idea or issue. Both give a very strong impression of a man with boundless energy and enthusiasm, a man prepared to take calculated risks, and occasionally make elaborate gestures, but also a man more than ready to put the same energy and enthusiasm into the more mundane tasks of publishing, and into attention to even the smallest detail. It is this boundless energy in all areas, smattered with bursts of immense creative energy and tempered with a cool head for business, that marks Luce's success. One might also add that he chose very well in appointing those who assisted him in his work. Although some personnel departed due to differences of personality or opinion, one is also struck by the number of high-ranking staff who worked for Time Inc. for long periods of time. Men such as Larsen, Billings, Thompson, Donovan, and others provided a core of trusted personnel at the center of the organization, and allowed Luce the freedom to pursue his many other interests outside of his magazine empire—interests which were also crucial in the formation of his reputation and legacy.

Henry Luce's influence spread further than the world of publishing with the establishment in 1936, of the philanthropic Henry Luce Foundation. Grants were awarded largely for cultural and educational needs, although the money available was somewhat limited until the large bequest left by Luce to the foundation on his death. In 1955, the Henry Luce Professorship of Jurisprudence was established at Yale, and the Luce Scholars Program has since promoted and enabled overseas educational exchange. Luce's interests also extended into the world of politics, particularly into the affairs of his spiritual home, China. He was an active member of the China Lobby in the United States and campaigned consistently in support of Chiang Kai Shek and against recognition of Mao. Not only were these opinions expressed fiercely in his magazines, but they were also brought to bear upon the center of the political world through Luce's friendships and correspondence with political figures, particularly Dwight D. Eisenhower. The cause of Republicanism always remained close to Luce's heart, and he was never ashamed to admit his political leanings. He was once famously quoted as saying, when asked if his news reporting was in any way biased, "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." Luce's religious beliefs remained strong throughout his life, providing the moral impetus for much of his life's work, particularly his concern, through his magazines, and other activities, to educate as well as to entertain.

In 1964, three years before he died, Henry Luce passed on his position as editor-in-chief to his trusted friend and colleague, Hedley Donovan. It was a timely decision, ensuring that the success of the corporation he had nurtured throughout his life would continue after his death, as indeed it does today. A memorial service for Henry Luce was held on March 3, 1967 (the occasion of the forty-fourth anniversary of the first ever issue of Time) in New York's Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, where he had worshipped for 43 years. The church was thronged with over 800 people, including governors and senators, publishers, writers, educators, industrial leaders, and scientists. The service was relayed to the reception hall and the eighth-floor auditorium of the Time-Life building, where more than 1200 employees had gathered to pay their respects to their founder and editor-in-chief, and to pledge their services to the continued success of the publishing enterprise he had founded more than 40 years previously.

—Emma Lambert

Further Reading:

Baughman, James. Henry R. Luce and the Rise of the American News Media. Boston, Twayne, 1987.

Guzzardi, Walter Jr. The Henry Luce Foundation: A History 1936-1986. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Herzstein, Robert E. Henry R. Luce: A Political Portrait of the Man Who Created the American Century. New York, Scribners, 1994.

Kobler, John. Henry Luce: His Time, Life and Fortune. London, Macdonald, 1965.

Neils, Patricia. China Images in the Life and Times of Henry Luce.

Savage, Maryland, Rowman and Littlefield, 1990.Swanberg, W.A. Luce and his Empire. New York, Dell, 1972.

Thompson, Edward K. A Love Affair with Life and Smithsonian. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1995.