How Luce's Time marched across America's landscape
Today's myriad news sources have had a democratizing effect on our culture. We now can grab bits of news and comment from here and there, online, TV and, for some of us, still print.
No one dominates the market anymore, not like Henry Luce and his Time-Life magazine empire did for more 30 years, from the late 1920s to the end of the 1960s.
As a summer replacement mail carrier in the mid '60s, I delivered Time and Life magazines to nearly every house on my routes and my family had stacks of Luce's publications piling up in the basement. The magazines were part of people's' lives, like electricity or hot water, before the all-pervasive television genie took over.
Luce and his wife, the glamorous and loudmouthed Clare Boothe Luce were news as well. He was usually shown returning from abroad to advise presidents, while his onetime magazine editor spouse was attacking real or imagined "communists" at every opportunity.
Alan Brinkley's impressive accomplishment was his judicious distilling of all this information into an almost seamless narrative about an intensely private individual who somehow spoke to millions of Americans on a weekly basis with authority, style, dramatic photos and hard facts, as well as facts distorted by Luce's old-fashioned traditional opinions.
As conceived by Luce and his Yale University pal Briton Hadden in 1923, Time magazine appeared at just the right moment in American history when an emerging business class with middle-class sensibilities grew across the country. The two believed, as did the Wallaces of Reader's Digest, that these busy people needed something that was quick to read, but informative.
"Nothing was more consistent than its promise to save people valuable time while keeping them well informed," Mr. Brinkley said. Coupled with that lifestyle was America's move toward a standardized culture in the 1920s as Hollywood films and national radio networks provided touchstones for people coast to coast.
The net result was both millions in cash for Luce and his company and the establishment of the Time brand in popular culture. After Hadden died in 1929, Luce assumed complete control of Time, founded Fortune and Life magazines and oversaw the production of a monthly newsreel, "The March of Time" in 1935 that both dramatized world events and promoted Luce's Anglo-American vision of the world.
Mr. Brinkley's account of this giant leap in media production as Europe lurched toward World War II is history at its compelling best.
War is news at its most dramatic. Luce and his staff capitalized on the conflict better than anybody, building the magazine empire to a dominance it didn't lose until the late 1960s.
A workaholic and public moralist, Luce was also an adulterer and hypocrite, willing to bend the story to fit his own biases, from support of the corrupt Chiang Kai-shek in China, the presidential campaign of Wendell Wilkie in 1940 and the disreputable Diem brothers in South Vietnam.
Magazine editors severely edited or ignored their correspondents' stories when they didn't hew to the Luce party line.
And while he had the ear of presidents from FDR to LBJ, Luce's influence was illusory, Mr. Brinkley demonstrates. His most enduring campaign, "The American Century," did convince the nation that the United States should assume world leadership, ending its isolationist tendencies and reshaping the globe in its own image.
At 459 pages, "The Publisher" reads swiftly and entertainingly while building a rounded portrait of one of American journalism's most important and now perhaps, forgotten figures.
A companion volume to "The Publisher" is "Time: The Illustrated History of the World's Most Influential Magazine" by Norberto Angeletti and Alberto Oliva (Rizzoli, $50.) It's a coffee-table book generously illustrated with photos from the magazine's famed photographers.
First Published April 25, 2010 12:00 am