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 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.”

Time’s man of the year, ten months after Hadden’s death, was Walter Chrysler, the automobile manufacturer. In that same year a total of sixteen “tycoons” appeared on Time’s cover, not as examples of men whose greed and foolishness had brought on the Crash but as saviors whose courage and wisdom would soon set everything right again. A year after Hadden’s death Luce published the first issue of Fortune, a project for which Hadden had shown no enthusiasm. Meanwhile Time’s circulation, which had grown to 175,000 during the first six years, doubled by 1931. The Time stock that Hadden left in trust with his brother, well out of Luce’s reach, was worth $360 a share at his death. By 1931, it had risen to $1,000. By 1935, in the midst of the Depression, Time’s profits were $2,249,823. Time, Luce said, was no longer a “big little business.” It had become a “little big business.”

It would be an oversimplification to say that Luce trimmed his prejudices to suit those of the businessmen who advertised in his magazines. His views, no less than Hadden’s, were fundamentally compatible with theirs to begin with. What he did do, however, and what would probably have been difficult, perhaps impossible, had Hadden lived, was to make these prejudices seem respectable to Time’s middle-class constituency—to the Babbitts whom Luce admired and Hadden despised—rather than seem the snobbish impudence of a pair of thirty-year-old Bonesboys. It was a facility that Luce may have learned from his father, whose vocation was to present American jingoism as a form of Christian love.

Thus Time in 1934 applauded Mussolini’s “civilizing mission” in Ethiopia and Italy’s “supreme right to win security in Africa,” while it denounced the “savage and illiterate blackamoors” who occupied the “hellhole of creation” under their emperor “Little Charlie.” This report was the work of the same Laird Goldsborough who found the sinking of the Morro Castle amusing, and who was to be the first of the anticommunist ideologues whom Luce hired as editors and on whom he depended to keep his liberal writers and correspondents in line.

Among Goldsborough’s successors were Whittaker Chambers and Otto Fuerbringer—who made much the same case for America’s intervention practically everywhere during the cold war that Goldsborough made for Mussolini in Ethiopia. When it came to Hitler, however, Goldsborough was more prudent. Germany did not have a “supreme right” to the Rhineland as Italy did to Ethiopia. “But even to intelligent Germans,” Goldsborough wrote, “it began to seem that the Hitler regime might be useful in getting Germany’s international dirty work done.”

But by 1939 even such a circumspect endorsement of fascism as this became a problem for Time. Circulation had begun to sag. Swanberg speculates that some readers may have been offended by Goldsborough’s enthusiasm for statesmen like “energetic, square-jawed” Premier Daladier, who appeared on Time’s cover after he had won a vote of confidence on the Munich question by 535 to 75, “nearly all the dissidents being communists,” according to Time. Soon thereafter, Ralph Ingersoll, a liberal who was then Time’s general manager, wrote to Luce that “Goldsborough has almost consistently been sly, unfair and uninformed…. People do not buy thousands of copies of a tired, tired Jesuit…my prescription is that he be given a year’s leave of absence.” By November Luce announced to the staff that “Laird Goldsborough this week begins his long overdue sabbatical year.” He was never to return. Ten years later he jumped or fell to his death from an office he had rented in the Time-Life Building where he worked as a free-lance writer.

Thereafter Time actively opposed European fascism and urged American intervention against the Nazis. In 1941 Luce published his remarkable pamphlet, “The American Century,” whose claim was that “the Twentieth Century must be to a significant degree an American Century…. Beside [this] resolve the sneers, groans, catcalls, teeth-grinding, hisses and roars of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry are of small moment.” So much for Hitler. America itself would now save the world from bolshevism and for God—inspired and instructed by the son of Reverend Luce.

Swanberg tries unsuccessfully to show that Luce both admired and defended Joseph McCarthy, but he supplies little, if anything, from the pages of Time and Life to support this claim. On the contrary, in 1951 Luce instructed Life’s editorial writer that “it’s about time now to hit [McCarthyism] hard. But our aim must be accurate.” McCarthy was to be dumped the way Hitler had been. Swanberg paraphrases this directive but ignores what follows. According to Kobler’s biography, Luce then added:

“The general proposition is that Communism has been the explanation scapegoat of everything that’s wrong with us. The fact is that Communism is no longer a real issue, even indirectly, in America. Shame and scallions that it ever was, as indeed it was in the era of Franklin Roosevelt. But it no longer is…. Anti-Communism has now outlived its usefulness. In the U.S. it is a phony, good only for journalistic and other demagogues.”

Swanberg dismisses the attack on McCarthy that then appeared in Life by repeating Luce’s claim that “half my readers are Democrats,” whom no sensible publisher wanted to lose. He also quotes an anonymous informant who told him that “Mr. Luce had a genius for reading the public temper. He wasn’t about to stomp McCarthyism until he was certain that witch-hunting was no longer popular among his readers.”

Luce’s attitude toward McCarthy was probably less devious than either Swanberg or his anonymous informant recognizes. Like Hitler, McCarthy simply could not be made respectable and therefore was unfit to do the job of promoting the US and defeating international communism that God, according to Henry Luce, wanted done, a job that required a vast American consensus, the same consensus that it took to sell cars or breakfast food or weekly magazines, and one that Luce must have felt that only he himself could organize. Domestic Red-baiting was for cranks and opportunists. The real enemy was in Moscow and Peking.

In 1961 Luce told his executives, according to Kobler’s account, that “the dominant aim and purpose” was to defeat communism throughout the world. “Is that a declaration of private war?” he asked.

“And if so, may it not be unlawful and probably mad? Perhaps so, but there are some mighty fine precedents for the declaration of private wars…. Now, of course, at Time, Inc. we don’t have the means to wage war…. We have no ships, no guns, no bombs…. However, ours is an age of journalism—and at least on that battle-ground we can do some service. Private war? No—the term is out of date in this organization age. But even the organization man doesn’t have to wait for the government to do everything. Every individual and every organization in the land can strike a blow for Liberty and against Communism—now.”

Swanberg thinks that Kennedy then succumbed to Luce’s vast influence and took the country to war “for Liberty and against Communism.” But he offers no proof, or even any evidence, for this conjecture. He ignores the possibility that Kennedy himself may have needed no prodding at all, or only as much as he might have felt from his warlike cabinet, to undertake the preservation of liberty under Diem. In 1956 Kennedy told the American Friends of Vietnam that Vietnam was “the cornerstone of the Free World in Southeast Asia, the keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike.”2

No doubt Luce, like Kennedy himself, did much to obscure the truth and confuse the people about Indochina. Diem, Life said, was a “tough miracle man,” a man of “deep religious heart” who had halted “the red tide of Communism in Asia.”3 But that Luce alone, as Swanberg believes, aroused the people and coerced the government is an unreasonable suggestion, a conspiratorial fantasy of the sort that Luce himself probably would have edited out of a piece by Chambers. It is unlikely that Luce influenced the New York Times in 1957 to celebrate Diem’s “firm concept of human rights,”4 or the New Leader to say that “here is a leader who speaks the language of democracy.”5

Luce’s contribution to United States policy toward China may have been another matter. He worshipped Chiang, idealized him out of all proportion, and probably convinced many Americans, who otherwise might hardly have cared, that the communist government was wicked and ephemeral. But in this respect too, he probably did not have to convince the men who made policy in Washington; though, as Swanberg believes, he may have misled some while intimidating others.

For all his presumed power over his millions of readers, the Boeings will—if the Vietnam war ever ends—soon be flying to China, filled, no doubt, with American businessmen reading Time. The self-interest that had once been rationalized as his father’s evangelical mission has already begun to reassert itself, as yet without ideological trimmings. The trouble with Luce was his lust for abstractions, at any rate, for the wrong abstractions. Though he endlessly celebrated financial success, he seems not to have understood its real strength as a political motive. It never occurred to him that Americans would not indefinitely let ideological factors stand between them and the Chinese mainland with its millions of customers. He might have learned something from Marx’s observation that changes in the forms of production generate changes in consciousness and not the other way around. But for all his sense of the market place, Luce was anything but an economic determinist.

Eliot once said of Henry James that he had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it. Luce had the opposite sort of mind. He was addicted to ideas, the larger and more abstract the better. He resisted complexity. His admiration for Niebuhr ended when Niebuhr insisted that America had not, after all, escaped the problem of evil. He liked Chardin, with his benign view of an ever more transcendent evolution. He was oblivious to contradiction. It never occurred to him that Ortega, whom he admired, warned against the very mass mind for which Luce’s magazines catered.

In spite of his compulsive addiction to facts—he had the curiosity of a child—and the armies of Smith girls who worked through the night so that Time’s readers could be correctly informed about the sex of a panda, he tended to dismiss phenomena that conflicted with his theories. Thus he often failed to see the direction in which events were heading. In this way, too, he was like a child, a creature of will, undaunted by a world of facts. For him data were not substantial. They were curiosities, endlessly manipulable.

Toward the end, his obsessions got the better of his instinct for the market place. He no longer could tell what the Americans themselves wanted. It took years and enormous losses before his last magazine, Sports Illustrated, broke even. Even so, it owed its success to a development that Luce could hardly have predicted: the American appetite for televised sporting events. Though he foresaw the decline of Life and worried what to do about it, he was unable to come up with a solution. The problem went beyond the impact of television on Life’s advertising. Life presented a world with which fewer and fewer Americans could identify, while Luce and his staff were at a loss to know what they wanted in its place.

In 1964 he more or less retired. Fortunately for him he never lived to see the wreckage of the American century in Vietnam, or the infestation of the West by Oriental cults and their missionaries, much less the freeways jammed with Toyotas, or his protégé, Richard Nixon, pitching his goods from atop the Great Wall.

With its evangelic energies dissipated, Time since Luce’s death has gone the way of some other totalitarian enterprises once their leaders have departed. It has fallen into the hands of liberal bureaucrats, become a limp and passionless social democracy. Lately the writers have begun to emerge from the gloom of the desanctified crypt to write occasionally under their own names, even expressing an opinion of their own once in a while, however cautiously. But the old spirit is gone and with it the appearance of authority. Like America itself, Time without Luce seems past its apogee, confused and diminished.

Perhaps had he lived he would have been too old to care, but a younger Luce, were he alive now, might be a different matter, might in fact be among those eager journalists and businessmen who have already begun to line up for their Chinese visas. One wonders what he would have found there—a moral abomination or an irresistible opportunity for American energy and investment; the slave society that he had railed against or a society so orderly and efficient, its people so energetic, parsimonious, and disciplined as to become an example for his own demoralized and profligate countrymen. Would he, one wonders, have taken the surface for the whole, as he so often did, and found China the true Calvinist paradise—ignoring the abasement of the individual will upon which the Chinese system rests?

The question is impertinent. Luce is dead, but one has the uneasy feeling that a successor may soon come forth to tell us of Mao’s “logic, reason, and curt common sense” in dealing with ideological dissidents, in forcing productivity from a dissolute people, and in establishing civility and consensus where there had once been brawling division. One wonders where Time’s readers will turn next for moral guidance, for Luce had indeed helped create a kind of church for them, at any rate a home, and he gave them confidence in themselves. It is hard to believe that they will allow themselves to remain for long in their present dismay or that they will not soon elevate from their midst a new universal interpreter, yet another Hearst or Luce to give them bearings toward their unfathomable destiny.

This Issue

November 2, 1972