To the End of Time: The Seduction and Conquest of a Media Empire
Time was a glorious place to work in the years that I was there, from 1959 to 1964. I was twenty-seven when I was hired, and an ignoramus, vintage Princeton ‘54, with a degree in history (I had written my senior thesis on Lord Lothian, the Cliveden Set’s house Christian Scientist, an appeaser, and later British ambassador to Washington at the time of the destroyer for bases deal, and never cottoned to the fact that he was also, as Time in those days would have it, Nancy Astor’s great and good friend). I got my job because a woman I was seeing on the sly, Vassar ‘57, was also seeing George J.W. Goodman, Harvard ‘52, a writer in Time‘s business section who was later to become the author and PBS economics guru “Adam Smith.” Goodman, I was informed by Vassar ‘57, was leaving Time for Fortune, which meant that if I moved fast there was probably a job open. I applied to Time‘s personnel man, a friend, Yale ‘49, and was in due course interviewed by Otto Fuerbringer, Harvard ‘32, and Time‘s managing editor. The cut of my orange and black jib seemed to satisfy him, and the $7,700 a year I was offered more than satisfied me, and so a few weeks later I went to work as a writer in the business section, although I was not altogether certain of the difference between a stock and a bond, and had no idea what “over the counter” meant.
The Time (and the Life and the Fortune) of those years was pervaded by a kind of Protestant entitlement and arrogance (no matter that I was an Irish Catholic; I felt spiritually brevetted a Protestant), an arrogance often spectacularly unearned (as in my case), or earned largely in the city rooms of the Harvard Crimson or the Yale Daily News or the Daily Princetonian. A corporate hubris prevailed, a confidence in ourselves, and in our place in the world. However misplaced this confidence, there was a verbal esprit de corps, a sense of purpose founded on the conviction that every Tuesday Time would give the educated man (the educated woman was considered so minor a factor that the magazine would not hire women writers; women on the staff could only aspire to be researchers, the Time equivalent of domestics) a review of the previous week’s events presented with some political rigor and intellectual brio.
There was no pretense to objectivity; Time had a partisan Republican point of view, and if it was one not shared by many of its gentrified Ivy Leaguers, few felt the compulsion to quit. The excessive compression led to what became known as Time style, often ludicrous, easily parodied, but rich with possibilities for veiled and not so veiled innuendo; one wonders how many great and good friends were so identified over the years. Perhaps Time‘s most prophetic contribution to journalism, however, was the importance it attached to “soft news,” the back-of-the-book news that was rarely reported in the daily papers, weekly digests of what was happening in science and medicine and art and education and in the press. We were amateurs for the most part, inspired amateurs in some cases, discoursing easily on the brushstrokes and color schemes of Bernard Buffet one week and on the financial restructuring of the Malaysian economy planned by Tunku Abdul Rahman the next, and few were ever the wiser.
The first piece I wrote for Time was an obituary of oilman Sid Richardson, of whom I had never heard until the day he died. On that first closing night, and all the rest of the closing nights during my tenure, waiters from the Tower Suite, on top of the Time-Life Building, rolled in buffet carts with beef Wellington and chicken divan and sole and assorted appetizers and vegetables and desserts. There was wine, French and domestic, and an elderly Time factotum, once said to be a superior foreign correspondent but by then a burnt-out case, was in charge of dispensing the liquor, and did so in prodigious quantities. Hotel rooms were available for those suburbanites who had missed their last train, or would so claim to their wives when in fact all they wished was an adulterous snuggle with a back-of-the-book researcher, Radcliffe ‘58 or Smith ‘47. For those who lived in town and who were working into the small hours, there were limousines to take us home, Carey Cadillacs for most, but I secured a company charge account at Buckingham Livery, which only used Rolls-Royces, and when I turned in my expense accounts no one objected. It was not journalism, but it was fun, and through constant practice, four or five stories a week, one did learn to meet deadlines and write to space, and with an infusion of curiosity even to learn a little about the world.
Henry Luce was still around, a spectral presence to those of us in the lower editorial orders, so sure of himself and the Protestant hegemony (a legacy as the son of a Presbyterian missionary in China, albeit one with enough wherewithal to send his son to Hotchkiss and Yale) that he ordained this to be “The American Century.” Among ourselves, we called him “Luce,” and envied those higher up on the food chain who referred to him as “Harry,” and we woundered if we would ever reach such eminence, or impertinence. Luce had formulated a doctrine of Church and State, with Church the editorial staff and State those on the business and publishing end. Between Church and State there was to be perfect separation, and we monks and nuns of the Church believed in our bones that the editor-in-chief enjoyed papal infallibility to which the State must always defer. As long as Luce was alive, the Church was indeed prima inter pares, but with his death this was a cross that the State was increasingly unwilling bear, the cross upon which the Church, and Time Inc., were ultimately nailed.
Within the one true editorial church, however, there were schisms, the most nettlesome to Time‘s all powerful managing editors being the independence of the News Bureau, which ostensibly was part of their domain. While the magazine’s chief of correspondents was nominally subordinate to the managing editor, he and he alone, by Luce’s fiat, hired and fired the reporters who staffed Time‘s foreign and domestic bureaus, and it was to him they were responsible, not to the managing editor; the better the reporters, the more insidious the challenge to the managing editor’s dominion. Since Time was an editor-driven magazine, what the managing editor did not dominate he did not entirely trust, and damn the facts.
Theodore H. White, a Luce favorite, discovered this truth in the late 1940s when Luce did not believe his dispatches from China that corruption within the Kuomintang would bring about the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek and victory for Mao Tse-tung. White left; Mao won; Luce was unrepentant. In my years, Otto Fuerbringer questioned the integrity and abilities of the late Charles Mohr, another Luce favorite, a superior journalist and relentlessly nonideological war correspondent who as early as 1962 was reporting from Saigon that the war in Vietnam was at best a questionable and at worst a no-win proposition.1 Mohr finally quit and went to The New York Times, where he covered so many wars so well he earned the reputation of being something of a soldier manqué.
Even without bylines, and even with their files rewritten by editors with partisan views often at war with what was seen on the ground, the correspondents, in the 1960s, were the magazine’s stars, its true professionals, and this was in no small way the doing of Richard M. Clurman, Time‘s chief of correspondents. Clurman “upgraded the news service,” David Halberstam wrote in The Powers That Be, “building what became…one of the great journalistic stables in the world…. He could offer his reporters good jobs, good—very good in those days—pay, [and] unusually generous expense accounts.”2 Clurman was in every way antithetical to what the Time catechism calls, with beguiling and unexamined pomposity, the “Time culture,” which basically meant its Ivy League fiefdom of gentlemen amateurs, every week expert in a new directory of the world’s data base. He was a Jew who went to the University of Chicago and had theatrical connections—his uncle was the theater director and critic Harold Clurman—and he had once worked at Commentary.
Clurman was fiercely protective of his reporters, and they in turn were fiercely loyal to him, although not immune to mocking his well-documented pretentions. His home telephone, it was reported, had as many buttons as the alphabet; and when he visited his troops in the field it was claimed he always booked two first-class tickets so he would not be bothered by the plebs, or would have a place to offer any personage on board worthy of his company. “There are worse sins,” one of his admiring former reporters, Yale ‘57, said recently, “than self-importance.” To this day Clurman drops names as easily as Darryl Strawberry drops fly balls. After I left Time, I ran into him once in the lobby of the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco and mischievously left messages for him with the hotel operator—Mr. Clurman, please call John Sherman Cooper, you know the number; Mr. Clurman, call U Thant, use the private line—confident that he would return every call even as he suspected he was being had.
As journalist and executive, Clurman stalked Time‘s corridors of power for what he calls “twenty gratifying and exhilarating years.” Remembering everything and forgetting nothing, including a few grudges, he is uniquely qualified to report on the abortive merger between Time Inc., and Warner Communications, Inc., and the subsequent (after the merger was challenged in the courts by what was then the Gulf + Western Corporation and afterward became Paramount Communications, Inc.) forced leveraged buyout of WCI by Time. If Clurman is overly romantic, even moony, about the old Time culture, he is bracingly mean-spirited about the confederacy of dunces who sold that culture down the river to the corporate riverboat gambler, Steven J. Ross, chairman and chief executive officer of WCI. What gives To the End of Time its engaging nastiness is Clurman’s account of the way Ross, in every way legally, picked the pockets of Time’s dim senior executives, and the gold from the corporation’s teeth.
In fact, Henry Luce’s death in 1967 all but preordained Time‘s demise as an independent entity. Whatever one might think of Luce’s vision, he did have one, and one that was shared, in large part, by his own designated heirs apparent, Hedley Donovan and Andrew Heiskell, respectively Pope of the Church and Chief of State. After the retirements of Donovan and Heiskell, however, Time passed to a generation of tough-guy managers who had never known Luce well enough to call him Harry, or if they did, only hesitantly, and who did not share his passion for print. They were bean counters, from finance and circulation and ad sales departments, and because the corporate profit centers were increasingly in television and cable systems and forest products they were never entirely comfortable sharing power with the editor-in-chief, as had been laid down in the corporate by-laws by Hedley Donovan, and ratified by the board of directors. According to the Donovan Charter, the editor-in-chief reported directly to the board, and not to the CEO, and was entirely reponsible for the contents of the magazines. He was, moreover, assured membership on the board, and could intervene in business practices “if publishing activities seemed to conflict with editorial standards.”
I was the writer charged with tailoring Mohr's Vietnam cables for the magazine. His last file, in the fall of 1963, began, "The war in Vietnam is being lost," and in that vein I wrote the story, while quite convinced that Mohr's gloomy, and accurate, prescience would not survive the editing process. I was right. The story was entirely rewritten by my senior editor, and then edited by Fuerbringer to the point of saying that the war was not only winnable, but that there was already light at the end of the tunnel. I left Time a few months later.↩
Dell, 1986, p. 502.↩
I was the writer charged with tailoring Mohr’s Vietnam cables for the magazine. His last file, in the fall of 1963, began, “The war in Vietnam is being lost,” and in that vein I wrote the story, while quite convinced that Mohr’s gloomy, and accurate, prescience would not survive the editing process. I was right. The story was entirely rewritten by my senior editor, and then edited by Fuerbringer to the point of saying that the war was not only winnable, but that there was already light at the end of the tunnel. I left Time a few months later.↩
Dell, 1986, p. 502.↩