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Book Review

Luce and his Time machine

Henry Luce (pictured in 1948, a quarter-century after he cofounded Time magazine) is the subject of Alan Brinkley’s new biography, “The Publisher.’’ Henry Luce (pictured in 1948, a quarter-century after he cofounded Time magazine) is the subject of Alan Brinkley’s new biography, “The Publisher.’’ (Time Magazine via Associated Press/File)
By Claude R. Marx
May 4, 2010

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Since we live now in a global village, it may be hard to imagine the time when almost all media were local, and there was no such thing as a newsmagazine.

That was the landscape before Henry R. Luce cofounded Time magazine in 1923.

Luce, a brilliant, mercurial, and often abrasive mogul, made an enormous impact not only on the form of the American media in the 20th century but also on the way people viewed government and the world.

Alan Brinkley has done history and media buffs a tremendous service with his well-written and balanced biography of Luce, who comes across as a great, though not terribly good, man. Brinkley, a Columbia University historian, is especially effective at placing events in historical context, and rarely does his narrative bog down with too much arcane information.

Luce, along with prep school and college classmate Briton Hadden, both just 24, overcame the doubts of many in the media establishment when they founded Time. Brinkley wrote that Hadden and Luce “were nothing if not presumptuous,’’ but noted that if “their outlook had been more tempered by the realities of the world, they might not have dared to imagine such a project.’’

Initially Hadden handled the editorial side and Luce the business component; eventually both were involved in both sides. Luce was forced to take over the whole thing in 1928, when Hadden died after a brief illness. That’s why the company, which would grow to include other landmark magazines such as Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated, is thought of as solely Luce’s progeny.

Luce, who grew up in China as the son of Presbyterian missionaries, saw his publications as opportunities for secular proselytizing. His view of the world — fiercely anticommunist, moderately progressive on civil rights, and generally supportive of moderate Republicans (with a soft spot for JFK) — was driven home regularly in the news and commentary sections. He was subtler than some of the previous press barons, such as William Randolph Hearst, but no less eager to influence those in power.

Luce, who was well read and well traveled, sought to use his writings both to demonstrate his intellectual heft and to shape the public dialogue and the actions of leaders. This was especially evident in his most famous work, his essay in the Feb. 7, 1941 issue of Life where he urged Americans to spread the country’s vision throughout the world so that the 20th century would become, as his essay was titled, “The American Century.’’

“It now becomes our time to be the powerhouse from which the ideals spread throughout the world and do their mysterious work of lifting the life of mankind from the level of the beasts to what the Psalmists called a little lower than the angels,’’ Luce wrote.

The essay helped prod the government toward its eventual entrance into World War II. And Luce’s advice to spread American ideals was practiced throughout the century and beyond, with decidedly mixed results.

Brinkley concludes that Luce had “great success in reaching a broad middle-class constituency and in creating an intimate relationship with his readers,’’ but his magazines “were mostly reflections of the middle-class world, not often shapers of it.’’

On a personal level, Luce had two unhappy marriages (the second one to author and diplomat Clare Booth Luce) and distant relations with his sons, Henry III and Peter Paul. Brinkley quotes Mrs. Luce’s letters describing their loveless (though professionally and intellectually rewarding) relationship.

Luce, the quintessential flawed giant, has, in Brinkley, been matched with the ideal biographer. As a result, “The Publisher’’ will be essential reading for anyone interested in learning about modern mass communication through the prism of the life of one of its founding fathers.

Claude R. Marx is a journalist who has written extensively about politics and history.

THE PUBLISHER:

Henry Luce and His American Century

By Alan Brinkley

Knopf, 560 pp., $35