Alan Brinkley looks beyond the stereotypes to create a more nuanced portrait of magazine publisher Henry Luce.
So many books focused on the years 1900-2000 use the words “American Century” in the title or subtitle that I have become suspicious of them. It is an ethnocentric and sometimes downright xenophobic phrase, suggesting the United States of America is, appropriately or not, the center of the universe.Skip to next paragraph
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But a biography of magazine publisher Henry Luce (1898-1967) can legitimately employ the clichéd phrase. Why? Because Luce either coined it or, at minimum, made it a familiar part of the English language through the magazines he published – especially Time, Fortune, Life, and Sports Illustrated.
As a biographer myself, I am also suspicious of biographies that recount the lives of famous folks already chronicled multiple times. Why, I wondered, would Columbia University history professor Alan Brinkley spend years on a Luce biography when W.A. Swanberg and other skilled professionals had already told the Luce saga?
Brinkley answers that question in his preface to The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, as he discloses that Swanberg’s interpretation of Luce, published during 1972, seemed crabbed and therefore ultimately open to debate.
To Swanberg and other chroniclers of Luce’s life, what seemed important, according to Brinkley, “was his arrogance, his dogmatism and his reactionary, highly opinionated politics – all of which found reflection in his magazines.” The stereotype of Luce held that he had become a cold warrior who hated the Soviet version of Communism and campaigned against the Communist takeover of China. Luce blindly supported capitalism and the Republican Party, despite their flaws, the stereotype continued.
All true to some extent, Brinkley posits, “but Luce was other things as well.” As a publisher, he and partner Briton Hadden pretty much invented the weekly news magazine, giving birth to Time in 1923 shortly after both men had graduated from Yale University. Then Luce invented the modern business magazine with the debut of Fortune, the modern photojournalism magazine with the debut of Life, and the modern sports magazine with the debut of Sports Illustrated.
Furthermore, Luce demonstrated an open mind on numerous crucial issues other than China, the Soviet Union, Communism, capitalism, and Republican Party politics. In fact, Luce used his increasingly influential magazines to promote civil rights, especially for African-Americans.
The biography is pretty much relentlessly chronological, but that standard structure does not suggest that it is boring. Brinkley is a first-rate stylist, which helps sustain interest. Even better, he is a first-rate researcher, digging into the Luce and Time Incorporated archives to unearth fascinating details about Luce’s unusual childhood, unusual family situation, competitive years at Yale, and remarkable success within the magazine world by age 25. Furthermore, Brinkley demonstrates that the apparent curmudgeon had a lively love life involving multiple extraordinary women, including his second wife, Clare Boothe Luce, who achieved celebrity status as a writer, actress, elected politician, and diplomat.