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Henry Luce and the 20th Century

Henry Luce Two biographers of Henry R. Luce met on March 25 in the building that bears his name, and had a conversation about Luce and the 20th century before a capacity crowd.

President Richard Levin, in his introduction, noted that just three years after Luce graduated from Yale in 1920, he and a fellow classmate, Brit Hadden, founded Time as the first news magazine, where Americans around the country could read the same weekly report of the world’s news, engagingly written. Luce went on to found Fortune, Life, and Sports Illustrated, and to build a publishing empire that made him one of the most influential figures in the 20th century.

Alan Brinkley, professor of American history at Columbia, has just completed a biography, The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century. He called Luce “an unlikely revolutionary” because, though he was a Republican and a super-capitalist, “it was his success in creating a new era of communications that had an enormous impact on the culture of the twentieth century.”

Brinkley said Luce “had many flaws but many attractive qualities, including his early commitment to racial justice. He disliked most of the New Deal and loathed Franklin Roosevelt. He said after Roosevelt’s death that ‘It is my duty to go on hating him.’

“His famous 1941 essay in Life, ‘The American Century,’ was a call to reshape the world on an American model, and he was a passionate champion of America’s least popular wars,” in Korea and Vietnam, in which he hoped to see Chiang Kai Shek “unleashed” to reclaim China from the grip of the communists.

Lance Morrow, a former staffer at Time and currently a contributor to the magazine, is working on his biography of Luce. He said, “I’m surprised at how controversial he remains” more than 40 years after his death in 1967. Both speakers said a 1972 biography of Luce by W.A. Swanberg, Luce and His Empire, portrayed his subject in a very negative light, and “was considered the verdict” on Luce for many years, which partly piqued their interest in taking another look.

Morrow said of Luce, “He was liberal on many issues, with a very open and independent mind, a penetrating and probing mind.” He told a story of how Luce, at a social gathering, homed in on a terrified young Time staffer, asked him where he was from, and proceeded to hammer him with questions that drew out an engaging story of how residents of the young man’s native Minneapolis would have picnics and light bonfires on the banks of the Mississippi River in warm weather. As Morrow told it, Luce found the whole story utterly fascinating, and quoted writer John Hersey’s evaluation of Luce as a man “relentlessly curious about absolutely everything.”

He worked his staff relentlessly, and was feared and loathed by many, more than revered.

Morrow opined that many people – including his own mother, a one-time member of the Communist Party – hated him “because he was right about a lot of things, and it made people mad.” Luce was highly critical of both Stalin and Mao before their stars were so thoroughly tarnished by later revelations.

In answer to a question from the audience about how the two men felt about their subject after delving into his life, Brinkley said, “I think he is more complicated and more interesting” than the view he held before he began his book. Morrow replied, “I liked him more than I thought I would.”