Henry R. Luce

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Luce established a powerful journalistic empire with magazines such as Time, which took survey of all the world, and used this power to influence American politics and foreign policy for almost four decades.

Early Life

Henry Robinson Luce was born in China, the son of American Presbyterian missionaries. His early years were spent in the relative isolation of a missionary compound, where he lived with a few dozen Westerners and their Chinese servants. In 1900, the Luce family and other missionaries fled to Korea because of the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising of the Chinese who despised the foreigners because of their negative influence on China and their arrogant attitudes. After European and American troops supressed the outbreak, the Luce family and other missionaries returned to China.

As a boy, Henry was extremely intelligent and remarkably serious. He was an avid student, and all of his life he was a passionate collector of facts and information. Sent to a British boarding school on the Chinese coast, he developed an intense, sometimes belligerent patriotism which he expressed freely and forcefully.

In 1912, young Luce was awarded a scholarship to the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, where he met Briton Hadden. Hadden, Luce’s equal in intelligence, was also popular, charming, and socially graceful—qualities which eluded Luce then and later. Although the two were soon close friends, their relationship held a constant, hardly muted air of fierce competition.

This competition continued when the two entered Yale in 1916. Both coveted positions on the powerful Yale Daily News, and both were selected to serve, although Hadden took the more prestigious post of chairman, while Luce ranked below him as editor. On a campus whose older students had already enlisted in World War I, Hadden and Luce early gained considerable authority; both of them clearly enjoyed the experience.

Hadden and Luce planned to start their own magazine following graduation. After working for a series of newspapers, the two moved to New York in 1922 and began raising money. They were aided by their excellent Yale connections—the mother of one classmate invested twenty thousand dollars—and within a relatively short period of time had amassed eighty-six thousand dollars. With this, they launched Time magazine, the first issue rolling off the presses on March 3, 1923.

The two young editors were largely responsible for writing the early issues and needed endurance and energy. These were qualities which Luce possessed in abundance throughout his life. Restless, tireless, endlessly curious, he relentlessly interrogated companions, associates, and complete strangers. He was tall and strongly built, with brilliant, piercing blue eyes and shaggy brows. Balding as he grew older, he had hearing problems which increased his tendency to bark out his statements in sharp, powerful staccato. His staff was cowed by his dogmatic assurance and insistent commands.

Life’s Work

Time was not completely novel in journalism: There were other newsmagazines which offered a broad survey of national and world activities. The difference was that Time presented the week’s events in a bright, colorful prose style. Hadden and Luce used newspaper accounts and items from wire services for their content and rewrote these for the magazine. Two devices, introduced by Hadden and perfected by Luce, marked Time: the use of epithets and an inverted sentence style.

The first device, which Hadden probably learned in his Greek classes at Hotchkiss and Yale, used highly descriptive adjectives for persons. Those who appeared in Time were likely to be beetle-browed, tough-talking, even snaggle-toothed. The second method rearranged the expected order of English sentences to startle and provoke the reader. Its effect was best captured in a parody by Walcott Gibbs when he wrote: “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.”

While the new, breezy writing style made Time pleasurable to read, there was a darker side which became increasingly prominent. Time seemed to be objective and factual, but its reporting was carefully loaded to favor Luce’s causes. Politicians whom Luce admired were likely to be steely-eyed and firm-talking; opponents were more likely to be snaggle-toothed or pot-bellied. These and other, more serious, distortions were present in the Luce press from the beginning.

While not an immediate sensation, Time soon began a steady upward climb in circulation. Its compressed news stories appealed to businessmen; its clever style was prized by the sophisticated; schools and libraries valued its coverage of cultural and artistic events. By 1926, the magazine was firmly established, the founders were becoming enormously wealthy, and Luce was the youngest man to receive an honorary Yale degree.

In 1928, eager to expand, Luce began drafting ideas for a new magazine to be a celebration of American free enterprise. At first titled Power, it would later be known as Fortune. Hadden was cool to the idea, but in 1929, he died suddenly from influenza. Luce quickly bought up enough shares to take control of Time; he would keep that control until his death.

Once in charge, Luce directed his press into three causes that dominated his entire career: his vigorous support of American interests worldwide; his desire to see China united as a Christian and...

(The entire section is 2288 words.)