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The Missionary

Henry Luce

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

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 of a missionary who had been educated at Yale and trained for his calling at Princeton. Along with his alphabet the future evangelist of Chiang and Diem was taught to regard the non-Presbyterian world as a moral swamp to be drained with God’s help by Republican gentlemen from his father’s universities. Swanberg speculates that it was among the household staff at Tengchow that Luce picked up his persistent habit of rudeness to servants. No doubt it was also at Tengchow that he acquired his lifelong addiction to the Bible and to the recitation of prayers which, in later years, he would repeat each morning as he ascended in his private elevator at Time.

At Hotchkiss School, where he entered as a second year student on a scholarship, and where he had to wait on tables, he met his eventual collaborator, Briton Hadden, a rich, clever, and snobbish boy who competed with Luce for school honors as he was later to do at Yale. There Luce became editor and Hadden chairman of the Daily News. They both graduated with distinction, were elected to Skull and Bones, and by 1923 had raised enough money from friends to put out the first issue of Time. Its purpose was to digest the world’s news from the daily papers and to do so, according to the prospectus, “without editorial neutrality.” At the time, the two editors were twenty-four years old.

Swanberg, who believes that “fact” and “opinion” are not only separable but ought to be kept separate by responsible journalists, fusses excessively over Time‘s refusal to treat events neutrally, as if the observation and selection of data do not inevitably presuppose a point of view. But what really seems to bother Swanberg is not that Luce and Hadden rejected a specious and unattainable objectivity for their new magazine but that their snobbish bias is antipathetic to his own more generous one. The scolding that Mary Bancroft inflicted upon Luce during his lifetime, Swanberg has undertaken to continue after his death—and from a similar perspective. He is outraged by Hadden’s sophomoric rudeness, by Time‘s invidious treatment of political enemies, and by Luce’s persistent enthusiasm for various dictators, as one might be offended today by William Buckley’s clumsier antics of a similar sort. As a result, Swanberg’s biography is explicitly an attack from a liberal point of view upon its subject, an inadvertent admission of the chimerical nature of journalistic objectivity.

In fact, the case against Luce hardly had to be pressed as far as Swanberg so tediously takes it. The pathos of his life and the faults of his magazines need no such emphasis. What is not so plain is the degree to which his magazines influenced—Swanberg would say corrupted—the millions of people who read them, for it is never proven by Swanberg’s account that Luce invented the prejudices and the meanness that his readers found so appealing in his magazines.

Swanberg never considers that Time may merely have reflected, occasionally magnified, and generally confirmed these qualities. To be sure, Luce did nothing to admonish his readers for their pious jingoism, their greed, or their moral pretensions: instead, he flattered them for their shortcomings, which he presented in his magazine as virtues to be emulated by lesser peoples who lived in countries not so fortunate as America or in American neighborhoods not so grand as those of Time readers. But had Luce scolded his readers for their high-minded pugnacity; had he reminded them of their Christian obligations to the poor, as Swanberg seems to wish he had done, one doubts there could have been such a thing as Time, Inc. or an occasion for Swanberg to have written this book.

Whatever else Luce may have been he was a consummate businessman, whose conscience was nicely tuned to his ambition. He was the perfect tycoon, to use the word that Time adapted from the Japanese to describe those samurai of the market place whose genius, like Luce’s, lay in an effortless rapport with their customers. For Swanberg to scold Luce for corrupting the American character is as useless as to blame the inventor of Jell-o for spoiling the American taste for marrons glacés. Luce gave his readers what he knew they wanted and he had absolute faith that what they wanted was good.

What Time‘s busy readers probably liked most about the magazine was its air of brisk authority, its easy moralizing, and its anecdotal manner. Hadden’s idea from the beginning was to adapt the techniques of popular fiction to the presentation of news. John Kobler gives a recent example of the technique:

The four-place Cessna 180 descended towards a landing at Wyoming’s Minuteman Missile Site B-6. Down and down it went, faster and faster. Too fast. One of the passengers leaned towards veteran pilot Edgar Van Keuren. The pilot’s eyes were open—but sightless. He was dead of a stroke.

When it came to more complex events, such tactics lent themselves to much abuse. Time‘s heroes were square-jawed and lean-limbed, villains heavy-lidded and sag-jowled. Social and political phenomena became episodes in a moral melodrama. By these means Luce was able to attract a vast and willing congregation, a constituency which politicians, to say nothing of entertainers and businessmen, were to become increasingly wary of. What is more, he was able to preach not in his own halting voice but through the anonymous voices of his well paid writers—many of them liberal in their personal views. The result was a fluent, brightly packaged omniscience, masking a narrow, often deluded, view of events, but one that his readers nonetheless welcomed. Though Luce came to admire George Orwell for his anticommunism, he evidently neglected what Orwell had to say about the corruption of politics by the abuse of language. What kept Luce, however, from the crude demagoguery of which Swanberg accuses him was his sure sense of what the public would buy. His genius was in knowing when to draw the line.

Under Hadden Time was often crudely offensive, brutal, and callow, as squeamish, self-righteous, and exclusive as the degenerate social Darwinism that still lingered at Yale when he and Luce had been undergraduates there. It was by innuendo, if not more openly, anti-Semitic. Leon Blum was “Jew Blum.” Fannie Hurst was a “smart, Semitic novelist.” David Lilienthal was a “smart Jew.” Many years later Luce apologized, according to John Kobler’s biography, a detail that Swanberg has overlooked. “Before Hitler,” Luce explained, “it was not considered pejorative to label a man a Jew. Hitler knocked out our casual enjoyment of Yiddish humor.” But these insults seem to have lost Time no more readers than its jokes about Haile Selassie, whom it called “Little Charlie,” or its early affection for Hitler and especially Mussolini with his “logic, reason, and curt common sense,” or its subsequent enthusiasm for such dictators as Franco, Chiang, Diem, and Thieu. By their thirtieth birthdays Hadden and Luce had become millionaires, in spite of the excesses of such editors as Laird Goldsborough, who was prevented only at the last moment from describing the death of 134 passengers aboard the Morro Castle as a joke, since only second-rate travelers would have boarded such an unfashionable ship in the first place.

Hadden’s death in February, 1929, at the age of thirty-one was fortunate for Luce. He and Hadden had not been getting along. The rivalry that had begun at Hotchkiss had hardened as Time prospered, and Luce’s sober passion for business came increasingly to conflict with Hadden’s mean-spirited frivolity, a quality that threatened from time to time to alienate both readers and advertisers. Hadden had been scornful of the Babbitts who ran American business. He enjoyed making fun of advertisers. Luce saw nothing wrong with Babbitt and claimed to identify with him. Time, he said, was written for the “gentleman from Indiana.” He once exhorted his readers to “Make money. Be proud of it. School yourself for the long battle of freedom in this country.”

  1. 1

    Time, Inc.: The Intimate History of a Great Publishing Enterprise, 1923-1941 (Atheneum, 1968); Luce: His Time, Life and Fortune (Doubleday, 1968).

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