In May 1966 Henry R. Luce—cofounder of what became the largest and most influential magazine empire in America—agreed to participate in an exclusive television interview for the first time in his life. Luce was then sixty-eight years old and had retired as editor in chief of Time Inc. two years earlier. But he remained a figure of fascination to many Americans—all the more so because he was so seldom seen by the many people who were influenced, fascinated, and sometimes outraged by the contents of his magazines.

His interviewer was Eric Goldman, a Princeton historian who had recently worked in the Johnson White House and who now hosted an austere NBC program called Open Mind. Goldman was a courteous and respectful interviewer but not a tame one, and he pressed Luce on a number of controversial issues that had swirled around him through much of his life. Were the magazines Luce had launched—Time, Fortune, Life, and Sports Illustrated—“Republican magazines”? Was there an inherent “conservative outlook” in them? Did his “own attitudes and convictions shape the contents” of his magazines? Had he “stepped over the line” in promoting Republican candidates he had particularly admired and openly supported—Wendell Willkie, Dwight Eisenhower? And most of all, did Luce’s many interventions in the debate over America’s international policies represent “a kind of modern-day American imperialism”?

Luce sat slouched in his chair through most of the hour, his clothes slightly rumpled, his tie askew, his pants pulled up over his crossed legs. He looked gaunt, and he had an alert, slightly restless demeanor. He rambled in conversation, often stopping in midsentence and starting over again, circling around questions before actually answering them, sometimes speaking so fast that he seemed to be trying to outrace the stammer that had troubled him in childhood and that occasionally revived in moments of stress. But he responded to Goldman’s prodding without rancor. “One gets the feeling,” Goldman said, “that you have a view of a kind of American mission in the world … to go out and to bring these nations into a type of civilization much like our own.” Luce—whose famous 1941 essay “The American Century” had said exactly that—noted that his 1941 views had been shaped by the circumstances of World War II. But he did not refute Goldman’s claim. Europe “would not be able to lead the world in the sense it had for a couple of centuries,” he said. “The burden of leadership would fall more and more on the United States … and this burden of leadership necessarily would want to be in the direction of those ideals which we presume to acknowledge.”

As the conversation moved to Asia, Luce’s preoccupation through much of his life, his long-standing grievances became more apparent. He refuted Goldman’s suggestion that other nations should “pursue their own, different paths” and that America should not be troubled by a Communist China. Although he admitted that there was little the United States could do in 1966 to topple the Communist regime, he continued to lament America’s earlier failure to “save” China when, he insisted, it had still been possible to do so. “I think we [had] an obligation to restore Chiang Kai-shek to the position he had before the war,” he said of the 1940s. “It was by no means inevitable that China had to go Communist.” He still could not “excuse the American government.”1

One could have imagined a very different interview with Henry Luce—one that would have focused on the extraordinary success of his magazines, the great power he had wielded as a result, the ideas for which he fought, the enormous wealth he had accumulated, the remarkable network of powerful people who had become part of his world, even his marriage to one of the most famous women in America. For decades he had been among the most influential men in America—courted by presidents, feared by rivals, capable of raising some people to prominence and pulling others down. It must have been frustrating to him that his first (and only) television interview was dominated by the criticisms he had heard through much of his career. For as he neared the end of his life, what meant most to him was his effort to make a difference in history—to embrace a mission that would somehow justify his work and his life.

Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up with the Luce magazines without knowing very much about them. My parents read Time for years with consistent interest and frequent irritation. Life was the first magazine to which I subscribed. And a bit later, like many boys of my generation, I was an enthusiastic reader of Sports Illustrated. As I began my life as a historian, I encountered Luce’s “The American Century.” In the grim, antiwar climate of the 1970s, the essay seemed to me an obsolete relic of an earlier, more muscular, and now repudiated American age. Little did I know how soon its sentiments would be popular again.2

Many years later, as I began thinking about writing a biography of Luce, I started reading a series of letters between the young Harry Luce and his father, a missionary in China. He and his family were seldom together after Harry began attending boarding school—first in China, then in the United States—starting when he was ten years old. His family was a close one, and he sustained his relationship with them through an extraordinary correspondence that continued for years and introduced me to a remarkable young man. Luce was an ambitious child, just as he became an ambitious adult. He was a striver from his earliest years, always aware of his own formidable intelligence, never satisfied with his achievements—in school as in the later periods of his life. He was often a lonely boy—feeling abandoned in a British boarding school in China when he was young, marginalized at times as a scholarship student at Hotchkiss, unskilled in developing deep friendships and sustained intimacy. But in his letters home, at least when he was young, he revealed another part of himself—a person who was unafraid to reveal his weaknesses and failures, a young man who struggled not only to be successful, but also, like his revered father, to be virtuous. That struggle would be a part of him throughout his life. It was from my immersion in his early, remarkably documented life that I began to understand the man he would later become.

Luce was not alone among missionary children who became important public figures later in life. Like young Harry, many others were influenced by the shining example of their ambitious, virtuous parents and the great sacrifices they chose to make for their faith and for the improvement of others. And many missionary children, like Luce, went on to distinguished public careers in diplomacy, politics, academia, literature, and other influential endeavors.

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One of the first major biographies of Luce, W. A. Swanberg’s Luce and His Empire—published in 1972, five years after Luce’s death—reflected the strong opinions many of Luce’s contemporaries had developed about him. It portrayed Luce as a relentless polemicist, whose magazines were more vehicles of propaganda and opinion than of reporting and journalism. In my copy of Swanberg’s book—a used one I picked up years ago at the Strand in New York—some earlier reader had written in pencil on the flyleaf: “A great hatchet job, and 99 percent true.”3

To Swanberg, to that anonymous defacer, and to many others who came to distrust and even despise Luce over the years, what seemed important about his career was his arrogance, his dogmatism, and his reactionary, highly opinionated politics—all of which found reflection in the contents of his magazines. Henry Luce was indeed arrogant. He was often dogmatic, particularly on issues he cared deeply about and thought he understood. He was famously opinionated, and he showed no hesitation about insisting that his opinions be reflected in the editorial content of his magazines. And on some issues—China, the Cold War, Communism, capitalism, the Republican Party—he developed deep and largely unshakable opinions that sometimes blinded him to the realities around him.

But Luce was other things as well. Those who worked for him often bridled at his interference and his orders; some left the company in frustration. But almost all of them considered him brilliant, creative, even magnetic. On many issues that were not part of his personal obsessions, he was tolerant and inquisitive, eager for new information and new ideas, even receptive to challenges and contradictions. Like Luce himself, his magazines had many dimensions. They were both polemical and fair-minded, both reactionary and progressive, both dogmatic and tolerant, both rigidly formulaic and highly creative. They were the great American magazines of their time: great in their flaws but also great in their breadth, originality, and creativity.

The construction of Luce’s publishing empire is part of a much larger phenomenon of the middle years of the twentieth century: the birth of a national mass culture designed primarily to serve a new and rapidly expanding middle class. That new culture had many vehicles: newspaper chains, movies, radio, and eventually television. But those years were also the heyday of national magazines, and the Luce magazines were the most successful, popular, and influential of them all. More than most figures in American publishing, Luce gave his magazines a distinctive and reasonably consistent voice—to some degree his own voice. The magazines were in many ways very different from one another, but they all reflected a set of values and assumptions in which Luce believed and that he assumed were (or at least should be) universal. Part of his considerable achievement was his ability to provide an image of American life that helped a generation of readers believe in an alluring, consensual image of the nation’s culture.

By the time of Luce’s death in 1967, although he himself may not have realized it, his magazines were already on their way either to obsolescence or to a very different future. Life died in 1972. Time, Fortune, and even Sports Illustrated gradually ceased to be the assured voices of a common culture. They became by necessity the chroniclers of a much more fragmented and visibly conflicted world—a role that left them with much less influence and coherence (and, at least for a time, with much less profitability) than they had once enjoyed. But in the four decades of Luce’s dominance, he never stopped believing that he could understand the changing world in which he lived, and that he could use his magazines to shape a better future.

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