Alan Brinkley's New Biography of Henry Luce
by Bridget O'Brian
After nine years in academic administration—six as the University’s provost and, before that, as chair of the history department, Alan Brinkley has returned full time to his roots as a historian of 20th-century America with a widely praised biography of Time-Life founder Henry Luce.
A child of journalism, Brinkley is the only member of his family who didn’t pursue that profession. (His father was noted broadcaster David Brinkley, who spent 50 years at NBC and ABC News, while his mother and both of his brothers were reporters.) “History has a lot in common with journalism,” Brinkley points out.
Indeed, they intersect in The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century. For those unfamiliar with the man or his magazine empire, Luce was one of the most powerful and influential publishers of the last century. Along with a Yale classmate, he co-founded a weekly news digest called Time and later launched the innovative business and photo magazines Fortune and Life, all in the years between the two world wars.
“Luce was interesting to me not just because of journalism but also because of the enormity of his life, the enormity of the magazines he created and the influence he tried to exercise,” said Brinkley. “His life intersected with so many areas of 20th-century American history.”
The power and reach of Luce’s flagship publications may be hard to grasp in today’s multimedia-saturated 24-7 news environment. But when it was founded in 1923, Time was the first weekly news magazine to be sold everywhere in the United States. Not unlike some more recent online “aggregators,” the original Time did no original reporting but instead published briefs culled from stories that had already appeared in daily newspapers—a revolutionary idea in its time. Luce’s magazines both created and transformed popular culture. Fortune fundamentally changed business journalism, and Life became popular because it was the first magazine designed specifically around photos from the high-minded to the celebrity-driven. Sports Illustrated created thought-provoking sports journalism. And who isn’t aware of Time‘s “Man of the Year” (now “Person of the Year”)?
Luce’s famous 1941 essay in Life, “The American Century,” is still read as a definition of American exceptionalism, although Brinkley says it was written primarily as a push for Americans to be more active in the world, given the imminence of World War II.
Despite the wealth and power Luce quickly accumulated, his efforts to throw his weight around in politics and global affairs were not so successful. He hated President Franklin Roosevelt (the feeling, Brinkley says, was mutual) and passionately championed the candidacy of Republican Wendell Willkie in 1940; Willkie lost. Luce’s fervent anti-communism and his extensive, editorially biased support of Chiang Kai-shek in China could not halt the rise of Mao Tse-tung. Luce was prominent among those who continued to blame members of Truman’s State Department for “losing” China in 1949 and not fighting hard enough to reunite Korea.
There are certainly influential publishers today—Rupert Murdoch comes to mind—but Brinkley says no current figure combines the evangelical passion, the platform and the core ideals about America that Luce developed as the son of missionaries growing up as a Westerner in turn-of-the-century China. “Luce was certainly happy to make money, but he was very strongly committed to using his magazines to promote ideas that he believed in,” Brinkley said. “I think that’s what makes him different from most publishers.”
Despite a traditional religious upbringing, Luce’s personal life was an ongoing drama. After a tortured decision to leave his first wife and children, his news-making 1935 marriage to socialite and playwright Clare Boothe Luce quickly fizzled. “His was a life of significant misery,” Brinkley said. The Luces remained unhappily married, having widely known affairs and epic battles, until he died in 1967.
“His legacy is as a model of innovation in the history of media, and he helped nationalize news and culture and politics,” says Brinkley. “But then other media came along and replaced it.”