The Missionary

Henry Luce

by William Swanberg
Scribner's, 529 pp., $12.50

Henry Luce
Henry Luce; drawing by David Levine

Like Dreiser, the subject of one of his earlier biographies, William Swanberg is attracted by American grotesques: Jim Fisk, Pulitzer, Hearst, and now Henry Luce—men of vast and shallow appetites who rose and fell with their ability to celebrate the tastes and passions of their times; tribunes of the people whose special and largely unselfconscious gift was the power to satisfy in the populace its desire for justification, no matter what its sins, and to provide those images of virtue and success which an energetic and uncertain people require.

With the subject of his current biography, however, Swanberg is deflected and finally defeated by an obstacle he had not met before. For all the glamour that surrounded his magazines, Luce was a plain, taciturn, and colorless man, arrogant, shy, stuttering, and, as he aged, increasingly deaf: separated by a sort of psychic membrane from the world outside. His strong feelings erupted only in random outbursts of anger or restlessness during which he would fling himself from one capital to the next to interrogate, sometimes to flatter, often to scold, invariably to patronize whatever popes, bishops, generals, and ministers the local Time bureaus could assemble.

He seems to have had no real friendships, in spite of the inarticulate affection that he occasionally showed a favored employee. His relations with the four or five women with whom he may have been in love seem to have been taut and without intimacy, though it will take a more subtle biographer than Swanberg to convey what these romances may really have been like. What emerges from the present account is a life by now familiar to readers of Robert Elson’s incomplete history of Time, Inc. and John Kobler’s less comprehensive but less repetitive biography published in 1968.1

What is new in Swanberg’s book, apart from its accumulation of largely uninstructive detail, is an account of Luce’s friendship with Mary Bancroft, an American woman whom Luce met in Zurich in 1946 and who was to fascinate him intermittently for the rest of his life. Her father was publisher of The Wall Street Journal. She herself was a Stevensonian liberal and a disciple of Carl Jung. She baited Luce continually for his preoccupation with the cold war, his unfairness to her candidates, and his assumption of American infallibility; but she never managed seriously to offend him, much less change his views. Swanberg reproduces a number of her letters to Luce and his replies. They suggest on Luce’s part something more like masochism than mere tolerance for the whims of an attractive woman, for her criticisms of him and his magazines were pointed, relentless, and occasionally cruel; yet Luce’s replies reveal hardly more concern than his missionary father must have shown for those infidel Chinese who may have questioned the universal authority of the Presbyterian Church.

Luce was born in Tengchow, China, in 1898, the first son…

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