The eight Eisenhower years were great years for the Republic,” Luce wrote in his unfinished memoir in the mid-1960s. “Largely by their own efforts, individually or in voluntary association, the American people made giant strides in nearly every field of endeavor under the benign laws of their Republic.” For a man who had recoiled from the nation’s leadership for more than twenty years, a man whose mission in life had often seemed to be railing against the failures of national will and imagination, a man who continuously exhorted the country to change course, this sense of political contentment might have seemed out of character. But Luce’s optimism was not sentimental nostalgia. It was a result of his warm personal relationship with Eisenhower and the flattering attention he received from the president. It also arose out of his conviction that the United States was surmounting its most serious problems and embracing “another word [that] had been put into the language, namely, ‘Excellence.’” 1
Luce considered the mid- and late 1950s not only a good time for America but a good time for him. His sojourn in Italy had rejuvenated him and had at least briefly restored some relative calm to his troubled marriage. His company was prospering as never before, and his magazines continued to flourish. Luce gradually slowed down his restless efforts to remake the magazines and, uncharacteristically, deferred to his talented editors more often than in the past. That made it possible for him to enlarge his activities outside Time Inc. He became increasingly involved with philanthropic organizations, intellectual projects, and new personal relationships that contributed to a growing, if precarious, satisfaction with his life.
But Luce could never be wholly content for long. By the end of the 1950s he was once again facing new crises in his personal life. And at the same time he was also embarking on a new mission—one that combined his new optimism with his old impatience. He set out to lead an inquiry into what he called the “national purpose,” a project he embraced with both enthusiasm and urgency and one that preoccupied him for the rest of his life.
Luce’s happiness with the Eisenhower administration, and with the state of the nation, did not soften the opinionated tone in his magazines. On the contrary, the Eisenhower years produced even more energetic criticisms than Time Inc. had received during the 1952 campaign. In the past complaints about Time’s bias had often focused on Luce’s attacks on Roosevelt and Truman. By the mid-1950s a major complaint was about the magazine’s excessive approval of Eisenhower. Luce had, of course, gone to extraordinary lengths in the past to promote Republican candidates, most notably in his passionate commitment to Wendell Willkie in 1940. But Eisenhower was the first serving president whom Luce wholly admired, and the coverage of the Republican administration was so positive that even Luce’s own editors began to complain. Thomas Griffith, the Foreign News editor of Time, warned Luce in 1956 that the magazine was in danger of “losing the esteem that you and I (and so many others) … want Time to deserve and to have.” In the past, Griffith noted, Time “used to cheat a little” at the end of a campaign, but now, he charged, “it’s a four-year proposition.”2
Griffith’s accusations were hard to refute. In a July 4, 1955, story (with a cover portrait of Eisenhower framed by the Liberty Bell), Time celebrated the “clear and convincing evidence of patience, determination, optimism and faith among the people of the U.S. In the 29 months since Dwight Eisenhower moved into the White House, a remarkable change had come over the nation. The national blood pressure and temperature had gone down; nerve endings had healed over.” The “new tone could be described,” Timeclaimed, as “the return of confidence.” A year later, during Eisenhower’s reelection campaign, Time exulted over the president’s “zest” and his newfound political skills. “Cheerleaders bounded and bounced in a political harlequinade, and Republican dignitaries lined up with grins wide enough for tooth inspection,” the magazine wrote of Eisenhower’s arrival at a campaign stop in San Francisco. “The military hero who walked so gingerly for so long in the political world has become a zestful party leader who thoroughly likes that world and its political inhabitants. Last week, by his every word and act, he proved it.” Timeeven reported gratuitously on other journalists who wrote approvingly of Eisenhower. At one point the magazine ran a story reporting that the usually Democratic columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop described Eisenhower’s legislative program as a “conspicuous success.”3
Time’s undeniable favoritism in its reporting on American politics generated increasing criticism of other areas of the magazine. The Philippine ambassador gave a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1959 describing Time’s editorial philosophy as “All the news as we angle it.” A few years later the left-leaning New York magazine Fact collected complaints about Time from prominent people and published their stories of “lies,” “distortions,” and “rampant inaccuracies.” (The editors apologized for not having enough room in the magazine to publish all the comments they had solicited.) “Every music column I have read in Time has been distorted and inaccurate,” Igor Stravinsky claimed. The actress Tallulah Bankhead went on the Tonight Show to warn the audience, “Don’t believe a word you read in Time…. It is made up of fakery, calumny, and viciousness.” The parade of accusations continued for more than twenty pages: “I regard Time as prejudiced and unfair in its reporting” (Senator John McClellan); “There is not a single word of truth in Time magazine” (Broadway producer David Merrick); “Time slants its news” (poet Conrad Aiken); “Totalitarianism … rather than insight or intelligibility is the object of all of Time’s technical brilliance” (media scholar Marshall McLuhan); “… about the most inaccurate magazine in existence” (novelist P. G. Wodehouse). Time was not nearly as biased as these critics claimed, but there was enough “slanted” reporting to give the accusations credibility. Luce alternated between defensiveness and distress in the face of such attacks, and he occasionally made efforts to defuse the criticisms. But for the most part he simply lived with the charges of bias. “TIME will remain pro-Eisenhower and therefore pro-Republican,” he defiantly wrote a critical colleague in 1955. He remained convinced that pure “objectivity” was both impossible and undesirable, and he was convinced as well that these were his magazines and should reflect his view of the world.4
Through much of the 1950s and the early 1960s, Luce’s view of the world was disproportionately driven by his vision of American abundance and American social and cultural progress. And those views in turn helped drive the contents of his magazines, especially Life. This was not a radical shift for Life, which had always devoted considerable energy to promoting wealth, progress, and American lifestyles. But the 1950s and the early 1960s intensified its fascination with the flourishing economy and with the way the middle class lived. Just as Life in the 1940s had been the great chronicler of the war, it became in the 1950s the great chronicler of prosperity and consensus. As early as December 1945, the magazine happily proclaimed the return of “normalcy.” Prosperity, of course, had been far from a norm even for middle-class Americans for most of the past fifteen years, and it remained far from the norm for many Americans even in the 1950s and 1960s. Nearly a third of Americans lived below the government poverty line in the first decade after the war. But Life was insistent that Americans were putting “their minds and energies to work” and were going back to “football games, automobile trips, family reunions and all the pleasant trivia of the American way of life.”5
By 1954 the idea of abundance was a consistent subject for Life. On the one hand the magazine expressed wonder at, and some concern about, the great bounty Americans had created. “How does one prepare for an Age of Plenty?” the magazine asked in its Thanksgiving issue. “How can one feel thankful for too much?” A year later Life was still worrying: “Is abundance a good enough thing by itself for Americans to take pride in?” Mostly, however, Life celebrated the nation’s wealth. In the magazine’s own assessment of the state of the union (published shortly before the president’s annual message), it claimed that Eisenhower’s “reports get better every year;” and it cited “three major economic blessings which had previously seemed politically incompatible: rising wages, lower taxes and stable prices.” A Life cover story later in 1956, “Peak Year for Big Jobs,” announced an unprecedented $33 billion investment that was “reshaping the continent…. Even on a continent accustomed to huge projects,” it was “more than ever before” and was “providing for the future.” Life regularly trumpeted new milestones in American prosperity. “History’s biggest stock issue” (the first public offering of the Ford Motor Company); “a remarkable recovery” for the “U.S. construction industry,” which was filling “skylines with a spectacular array of bold new building shapes;” an unprecedented $250 million investment by Chrysler in a redesign of its 1955 models (“longer, lower, sportier … with a lot of horsepower”). “Last week,” the magazine reported in July 1955 in a story on houseware manufacturers, “at a time when the country had more money to spend than ever before; the trend seemed to be running toward two pots for every chicken, fish, egg and carrot … a dramatic example of overall U. S. prosperity.”6
The Time Inc. magazines even began to celebrate labor unions. Luce had long been mostly critical of unions, and the company was fighting off efforts to unionize of some of its own employees during much of the 1950s. But Luce was impressed with Walter Reuther’s leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW), which he insisted marked a major turning point in labor history. Everything about the union movement, he decided, was suddenly “new.” The UAW had reached a new agreement with the automobile industry on a new “guaranteed wage” for workers while abandoning some of the more radical proposals the CIO had once promoted. “New Affluence, Unity for Labor,” Life announced in a 1955 cover story. A “new era of peace” had emerged out of the labor wars of the 1930s and 1940s with the reuniting of the AFL and CIO in 1955. Life even profiled men it had once reviled: the “new kind of unionists,” labor’s newly responsible “wealth of leadership.”7
Abundance was the key not just to business and wages but also to technology; and because Luce was suddenly fascinated by technological progress, Life reveled in the achievements of American scientists and engineers. “The advances have come with an overwhelming rush,” Life reported in a “major series on the frontiers of our achievement,” momentously titled “Man’s New World: How He Lives in It.” Americans had “been learning at a phenomenal rate,” benefiting from government subsidies and from research at university and corporate laboratories. Among the great discoveries was atomic power, “man’s great hope of harnessing fusion.” By 1955, Life announced, the atomic industry was “big business,” having developed methods for powering submarines with nuclear energy and creating electricity for consumers in atomic-power plants—the foundation “for a new industrial age.” Equally dazzling was the birth of what Life called “the jet age,” with its promise of faster travel for citizens and its opportunities for improved military capacities in warfare. Life devoted an entire issue in 1955 to the “Air Age,” which argued that “the need and the will to master the world’s air has brought changes which are reshaping our economy, our cities and our global relationships.” But the progress so far, Life predicted, was paltry compared with the “true wonders” of the air age “not yet at hand” but “imminent.” Life reveled as well in the great medical discoveries of the 1950s: the discovery of the Salk and then the Sabin vaccines that effectively eliminated polio; an advance in the treatment of cancer that “seem[ed] close to bringing under control” this “dread enemy;” improvements in X-ray technology; new techniques in heart surgery; and new and more sophisticated weapons to fight bacterial infections and viruses.8
Life’s fascination with technology reached its highest point in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the magazine became, in effect, the “official” chronicler of the manned space program. To Life, as to many Americans, nothing personified the linkage between scientific progress and the greatness of America’s mission more than the goal of exploring outer space; and nothing excited Americans more than the idea of humans themselves doing the exploration. Almost as soon as the first seven Mercury astronauts were named (and overnight became extraordinary celebrities), Life moved in to buy exclusive rights to their stories for a total of five hundred thousand dollars. In the two-page advertisement announcing Life’s significant coup, the editors could hardly contain their excitement. “The Astronauts’ own stories will appear only in Life,” they wrote. “The lives that these seven men—and their wives—will lead between now and the day that one of them becomes the first American to orbit into outer space will in itself be one of the most absorbing, dramatic human stories of our time.” Luce himself played no direct role in his company’s commitment to the astronauts, but over time he too was drawn into their extraordinary magnetism and even began referring to them as “my boys.”9
But to Luce, and thus to Life, the best evidence of America in this new “age of abundance” was the middle-class home. One of the most important and most inspiring successes of the postwar years, he believed, was the rapid growth in home ownership, facilitated by the proliferation of suburbs and generous federal support. Partly in response to his enthusiasm, Life launched a series titled “Modern Living,” which focused almost entirely on the character of American homes. There were lavish features on opulent or innovative houses—a “push-button paradise” in Palm Springs, built by a wealthy manufacturer who called it a “mechanical dream house,” with swimming pool, tennis court, nine-hole putting green, and a “human Lazy Susan” of seven outdoor couches that revolved “slowly under the sun.” In other articles Life showcased the great variety of American home designs—a “cross-country roundup” of homes that illustrated regional styles—“rough timber and Texas Cordova stone” in the Southwest, “Scandinavian flavor” in the Midwest, redwood furniture in California, all of them crossing over and becoming national in their reach. There were stories on “pretty underpinnings for modern furniture,” a “bathroom built for two,” “stylish mixing of decor,” the “return of elegance” in home decor, “opulence in plain rooms,” and a “buyer’s guide for antiques.” A three-part series on housing in 1958 illustrated suburban growth across the country and focused on “ideas for better houses.” Later Life chose “six outstanding homes” as examples of “the country’s most livable houses in varying price ranges.” Perhaps the most bizarre article in “Modern Living” was a 1955 feature, “H-Bomb Hideaway,” which showed a newly designed bomb shelter inhabited by a smiling middle-class family of five, surrounded by canned foods. They were photographed in the three-thousand-dollar “luxury model” and were playing games, reading books, and sewing—a vision of doomsday domesticity almost indistinguishable from Life’s many other portrayals of suburban living.10
“Nobody Is Mad with Nobody,” Life happily reported in its July 4, 1955, issue. America was “up to its ears in domestic tranquility.” The country was “embroiled in no war, impeded by no major strikes, blessed with almost full employment,” and “delighted with itself.” As if to provide evidence of this remarkable moment, there were photographs of “delighted Vermonters at the Rutland fairground,” a field of high wheat in the Midwest captioned “Abundant Again,” a Junior Chamber of Commerce parade in Atlanta, a suburban den with multiple televisions, a convertible painted with dots to match the owners’ Dalmatian, and a taffy-pulling competition in Peabody, Massachusetts. “Spirits and Industry Are Expansive,” Life announced in another article featuring photographs of new cars, a performance by a symphony orchestra, and an automobile plant expansion in Flint, Michigan. In the 1950s, even more than in the past, Life was promoting what historians and intellectuals were beginning to call the “consensus,” the belief that almost all Americans shared a broad set of ideals and aspirations. Those shared aspirations, Life seemed to be saying, were affluence, consumerism, and middle-class values and lifestyles. The magazine celebrated overt—if mostly contentless—patriotism, stable nuclear families, and male “breadwinners.” It made occasional gestures to women’s work outside the home, as in the 1956 article “My Wife Works and I Like It,” which noted the role working women played in improving the family’s lifestyle. But much more common were celebrations of female domesticity. When Life veered away from the middle class, it often focused on affirmative stories of immigrants embracing the “American way of life,” or on marginal Americans entering the middle-class mainstream through hard work or philanthropy.11
The change in American life that had the biggest material impact on Time Inc. was the rapid growth of leisure and entertainment. Working hours for many Americans had been reduced; family incomes had risen. Fortune published an ambitious series in 1953–54 on “The Changing American Market,” and among its conclusions was that there had been a dramatic growth in leisure since the end of World War II and a booming search for entertainment. Or, as Fortune put it, there was “$30 Billion for Fun.” Life was an energetic chronicler of the growth of leisure activities, just as it was of other aspects of abundance. It gave lavish coverage to the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in 1955. It was fascinated by the emergence of Las Vegas as a magnet for gambling and sybaritic entertainment. But perhaps most of all, Life took note of the growing interest in sport and outdoor life. It began to run more major articles than in the past on skiing, duck hunting, Little League baseball, wilderness hiking and camping, horseracing, water sports, and even bowling. It celebrated the sports ordinary people played and the outdoor activities they pursued. But it also celebrated the sports people watched—in stadiums, in arenas, and on television.12
By the spring of 1953 Luce was once again in what Billings called “an empire-building mood,” which usually meant launching a new magazine. And even though Luce had never been very much interested in sports or wilderness activities himself, he began to imagine a “sporting magazine” that would capture what he believed was a growing market for leisure, and thus for sports. There was brief talk of buying up such existing magazines as Outdoor Life or Popular Science. But what Luce really wanted was “our own Sports Weekly.” Some of his colleagues were aghast at the idea, convinced that a sports magazine would degrade the Time Inc. brand by focusing on trivial and consumer-driven activities. Others worried that the costs would be prohibitive and that the audience would be too narrow. “Time Inc. is not a ‘sporting’ outfit,” Billings wrote contemptuously in his diary, noting that he was “really against a Sports Magazine” and saw it “only as a Luce whim.” (Luce’s deputy, Allen Grover, rarely disagreed openly with his boss—and did not do so on this issue—but he quietly agreed with Billings.) Other colleagues were similarly dubious about the project, and many of them told Luce bluntly that he was making a dangerous error. He was not impervious to these criticisms, and at times he wavered in his commitment. “I still don’t see any real deep conviction about the magazine among its sponsors,” Billings noted several months into the planning. But Luce did not give up.13
He enlisted the Life reporter Ernest Havemann, an avid sports fan, to supervise the planning of what was tentatively named “Sport.” But almost immediately the two men were at odds. In one of the first substantive meetings on the new magazine, Havemann proposed a magazine written mostly by Time Inc. staff, just like the company’s other publications. Luce strongly disagreed and insisted that outside writers should be the principal source of stories. This was partly because he wanted serious writers, and not sports fans, to shape the magazine; he feared that full-time sports writers would simply replicate the language to which sports fans were accustomed—“a style of writing at once labyrinthine and rococo,” one newspaper editor predicted. But Luce’s preference for outside writers was also partly because of his belief that using freelancers would be less expensive than building a staff, and Luce hoped to produce this magazine relatively cheaply. A few weeks into the planning Havemann wrote a bombshell memo, distributed widely among those working on the new magazine, in which he announced that he now believed that the project “was wrong and impractical” and that “he wanted out right away as head of the experimental department.” His undisclosed “research” had convinced him that there was no real market for a general magazine on sports. People interested in baseball would not want to read about golf. People who liked tennis would not want to read about football. The potential audience was too fragmented to create a large-enough base to support “Sport.” In the absence of Luce (who was in Rome with Clare), Billings enlisted Larsen to help him find a way out of the impasse Havemann had created. Both men shared Havemann’s skepticism, but they dared not give up until Luce himself did.14
Their solution was to enlist Sidney James, a Life editor with no particular background or knowledge of sports, to take over the project. He was a man of boundless energy and what Luce later described as vast “nerve and enthusiasm.” James breezily rejected the knotty problems of what he called “semantics and theory” that had plagued the project in its first months: the debates over whether the magazine should be directed at a mass audience (1,000,000 circulation or more) or, as Larsen tentatively suggested, a relatively small audience (around 350,000) that would, like The New Yorker, attract the affluent and elite readership that advertisers valued; and the debates over whether the magazine should cover sports alone or make itself into a magazine devoted to a larger conception of leisure and entertainment. James decided instantly that he liked the idea of a “100% sports weekly, either mass or class,” but he decided too that he should be elastic in what “sports” meant. More important, he started immediately to lay out pages and collect articles. He even coined what became one of the magazine’s most important promotional slogans: “The wonderful world of sport!” In less than a month he was ready to show layouts and covers to Billings and Larsen, who became sudden converts to the project. “I was duly impressed and exuded [sic],” Billings wrote. “Considering he … got it all up in about three weeks, it seemed pretty wonderful.”15
Luce returned from Italy a few weeks later. He looked at what James had produced with something close to incredulity. When Life was in development, there were many weeks, even months, of deep unhappiness with the project; Luce had not been entirely satisfied even when the first issue of Life went to press. But James, without even having produced a complete dummy, had made Luce an immediate and passionate supporter of the magazine. The best evidence of that was that Luce himself began to spend hours, even days, in the “experimental department” where the magazine was being developed. “Sometimes it seemed that we saw more of Luce than we did of our wives,” one member of James’s staff later said. “Some of us were assigned to escort him to sports events and explain the action and identify the players.” Over long lunches, Billings recorded, Luce “got on the why and wherefore of such a magazine—what’s its purpose? To make money? Sure. But here’s a big segment of human activity, anti-intellectual if you will, which Luce proposes to report in the intelligent adult style, also because it’s never been done before.” Luce’s most resonant and bewildering statement, at least to some of his colleagues, was, “I hope we can have a civilizing influence.” All of this seemed familiar to the many editors and writers who had worked with Luce in creating Fortune and Life—his high sense of purpose, his search for meaning, his long philosophical speculations. But this time something was missing: the Lucean brilliance that had always justified his frustrating meanderings. Luce was no less enthusiastic than he had been in the past. But whether because the subject remained alien to him, or because he was too long removed from the work of magazine production, he was no longer the driving force behind the new project. “Luce looked at spreads—this in, this out,” Billings described work on an early dummy. “But then he’d get stuck and go silent for five and ten minutes for lack of a good idea. His inspiration is running low and he is no longer the creative genius of magazine journalism.” Luce gradually reduced the amount of time he spent with the magazine, which left James to continue on his pragmatic path. Uncharacteristically Luce declined to write the prospectus for the magazine. James wrote it instead, and Luce—without much editing or questioning—announced that “it’s very good, all in the right direction.”16
The movement from the conception of the new magazine in June 1953 to the final commitment to publish it in December, less than six months later, was, at least by Time Inc.’s deliberate standards, remarkably fast. Through the first half of 1954, James and his colleagues, with Luce’s intermittent but gradually fading presence, created dummy after dummy, still trying to find the right balance between pictures and text, and between serious writing and the long tradition of colloquial sports reporting. But almost everyone working on the magazine believed that it was on the right track—that it had started out good and was getting steadily better. Throughout the development stage of the magazine, the working title was “Sport.” There was, however, already a magazine using that name, which had offered to sell itself to Time Inc. for $250,000, more than Luce was willing to pay. In May, with the publication date approaching, Harry Phillips, the Time Inc. publisher of the as-yet unnamed magazine, ran into a friend in a restaurant who offered an alternative. The friend owned the title of a defunct magazine, Sports Illustrated. Everyone involved was immediately enthusiastic, and the company purchased the name for five thousand dollars.
There continued to be naysayers within the organization. Havemann was a consistent critic, always insisting that the project was doomed no matter how much work and creativity was poured into it. Journalists in other organizations looked at the dummies and were dismayed at what they considered the pretensions of the project, which they predicted would alienate sports fans. Advertisers were skeptical, convinced that only “mugs” would have enough interest in sports to buy the magazine. Others wondered how any sports magazine could sustain interest through the year, especially in winter months when sports activities contracted. Traditional sports journalism was in many ways incompatible with the style and culture of Time Inc. But that was both its burden and its great advantage. Luce had always expected his company’s magazines to be pathbreaking, raising the bar of both quality and innovation. Time was the first “newsmagazine.” Fortune had aspired to be the handsomest and most literate business magazine ever published, and in many ways it had achieved its goal. Life had set out to be the greatest picture magazine ever created, with the best photographers and the most lavish formats, and it too largely succeeded. From the start Luce expected Sports Illustrated to be equally unprecedented. It would not be a “fan” magazine, filled with gossip, adulation, and over-the-top language. It would not concentrate on any one area of sport. It would not be a quasi-trade magazine like Sporting News, which was, in effect, the official newspaper of the baseball industry. It would not compete with the daily newspaper coverage of sports. It would not focus too much on what had happened in the previous week. It would, rather, be a magazine compatible with the Time Inc. tradition, not the tradition of the sports world. It would have a handsome and dignified format. It would publish extraordinary pictures. It would look at sports not just as fun but, Luce wrote, as something that was “deeply inherent … in the human spirit.” And it would bring what Time Inc. had brought to all its magazines: a set of opinions and prejudices that in fact worked much better for Sports Illustrated than it did for Luce’s other publications.
The powerful advertising executive Leo Burnett asked Luce to explain the “raison d’être” of Sports Illustrated, which was struggling to generate interest from advertisers. Luce responded, at considerable length, with a rationale that bewildered most sports journalists. “We have the H-Bomb and we have SPORTS ILLUSTRATED,” he wrote. Americans were living under a cloud of mortal danger, but they were also assuming “that peace is possible … that … you live and work as if it is, right now.” Peace, he said, was defined in part by “leisure … the pursuit of happiness,” and for most Americans that meant “something to do with Sport.” Sports reflected “the hopes of the American people in a very simple human way—in a way universally understood and richly appreciated.” But the magazine did not really aspire to universalism. Sports Illustrated, like all of Luce’s magazines, wanted to attract educated and literate readers—people who could be attracted to sophisticated writing on “things beyond their own personal routine—the Miracle Mile, The Conquest of Everest, in Hunting and Fishing in their own domain and all over the world…. And so what we got excited about was creating a magazine for those people.” In their dummies the Sports Illustrated editors cut out advertisements from The New Yorker (still the American magazine with the most affluent readership) to suggest something of the elevated tone of this new sports magazine.17
The first issue of Sports Illustrated was published on August 16, 1954, a few days after issues actually appeared on newsstands. It sold out quickly. And on the whole it was greeted warmly by the press and by its readers. On the cover was a dramatic picture of a nighttime baseball game in Milwaukee, with the Braves’ Eddie Mathews in midswing, framed by a vast crowd in the steeply overhanging stadium. Inside the editors introduced themselves as “a happily recognizable member of the Time Inc. family.” To make the connection even clearer, the opening page was framed by pictures of the inaugural issues of Time, Fortune, and Life:
Today the word “newsmagazine” is as generic as cellophane.
Today the name FORTUNE is the nationally accepted hallmark of business journalism.
Today LIFE’s weekly millions of copies are an accepted fact of American life.
It is our hope and our promise that in some tomorrow you will no longer think of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED as Time Inc’s newest baby, but as the accepted and essential weekly reporter of the Wonderful World of Sport.18
The first story in this first issue, “The Duel of the Four-Minute Men,” chronicled the classic rivalry between Roger Bannister and John Landy, the first two men to run a four-minute mile. It also illustrated how unconventional a sports magazine it intended to be. “The art of running the mile consists, in essence, of reaching the threshold of unconsciousness at the instant of breasting the tape,” the Sports Illustrated writer Paul O’Neil began:
It is not an easy process … for the body rebels against such agonizing usage and must be disciplined by the spirit and the mind…. Few events in sport offer so ultimate a test of human courage and human will and human ability to dare and endure for the simple sake of struggle.
This elegant and sophisticated language was a sign of what Sports Illustrated aspired to be, and often accomplished—a magazine that would elevate the world of sports from being “just a game” to being a powerful metaphor for the human condition.
The first issue ranged widely across the landscape of sports. It reported the first ascent of K2, the second-highest mountain in the world. It covered a dramatic prizefight. It offered a feature on baseball cards (complete with instructions on how to blow bubble gum), a lavishly photographed story on fly-fishing, another on foxhunting, a primer on poison ivy, and an essay on golf. But the most distinctive article in the first issue (and also the most self-serving) was an essay on the world of sport itself, with the trumpeting title, “The Golden Age Is Now.” It was, the staff writer Gerald Holland put it, “as if no other world existed…. For world-wide interest, for widespread participation, for thrilling triumphs of the human spirit, this is the greatest sports era in history.”19
Frank Deford, who began writing for Sports Illustrated in 1962 and became one of the magazine’s star writers for decades, described his own first reaction to the first issues when he was an adolescent athlete and fan. “It was a struggle to cozy up to Sports Illustrated,” he wrote years later:
[The magazine] often seemed ashamed of sports—except those swell activities engaged in by dukes and earls. One year one SI writer wrote 36 stories on yachting, while the magazine left baseball, football and basketball languishing on the sideline…. And yet, and yet…. Always within each issue there was something absolutely, well, lovely, there were intriguing paintings, stunning photographs of game action, and stories that actually read like stories, clever and engaging and whole…. Sports Illustrated was creating something altogether new, which was respectable sports journalism.
In its first year the magazine’s cover stories illustrated why it was so different from conventional sports reporting. Of the three most popular spectator sports, baseball received six covers, football three, and basketball only one. Horseracing, with seven covers, had the most. Mostly, the magazine ranged widely across its chosen fields: yachting, auto racing, bird-watching (twice), skiing, bullfighting, gymnastics, track and field, mountain climbing, ballooning, scuba diving, and dogs. And on February 21, 1955, the magazine ran a cover of a smiling young woman in an unrevealing swimsuit (part of a feature on sports fashion)—an augury of one of the magazine’s most popular and sometimes controversial features of later decades. Little wonder that advertisers, and some readers, had a difficult time deciding what Sports Illustrated was, and who it was for. But little wonder too that many readers were dazzled by the range of its stories and the power of its photographs (which were laid out in formats very much like those in Life, not surprisingly since most of the founding editors had started there).20
Luce took particular pride in the quality of the writers he could attract to Sports Illustrated, including some who had never been willing to write for Life and Fortune. The revered New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling submitted an elegant essay on Stillman’s Gymnasium in New York City, where many notable boxers were trained. Wallace Stegner wrote an elegy to Yosemite National Park. Budd Schulberg wrote a sympathetic story about an aging prizefighter who was finally making it big. John Steinbeck insisted he could not write for Sports Illustrated because “my interests are too scattered and too unorthodox.” But he wrote a long letter on his eclectic interest in sports that the magazine published anyway. And William Faulkner wrote an extraordinary (and predictably unorthodox) account of the 1955 Kentucky Derby.21
Most articles in Sports Illustrated were written by less visible staff writers, but the richness of the prose remained one of the magazine’s most distinctive features. Robert Creamer, for example, wrote a story on the magazine’s second “Sportsman of the Year,” the Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Johnny Podres. The article set out not just to describe a great baseball achievement but also to reveal the universality of sport. It was as much about Podres’s family of miners as about his achievement in pitching the Dodgers to victory over the Yankees in the 1955 World Series. The story profiled the grandfather, Barney, who “climbed out of the mines of czarist Russia and came to America,” raised a family, went into the mines of the Adirondacks, and “now … sits in his weather-beaten house in the company village of Witherbee, N.Y. ailing from ‘the silica,’ the miner’s disease, his great hands folded.” It described the father, Joe, who also worked in the mines, but who, having benefited from improved working conditions, played semipro baseball on weekends for years because he had “more time that is his own.” And then Johnny Podres, the son of this hardworking, inconspicuous family, “became the personification, the living realization of the forgotten ambitions of thousands and even millions of onlookers who had pitched curves against the sides of their own houses and evoked similar visions of glory, only to end up at the wheel of a truck or behind a desk in an office.”22
Sports Illustrated was much like Life in the initial disparity between its popularity among its readers and its limited appeal to advertisers. Circulation exceeded five hundred thousand in every issue in 1954, rose to six hundred thousand the following year, and climbed steadily through most of its history (to more than three million a week in 2009). It quickly established itself as by far the most famous and influential sports magazine ever published in the United States. Advertising, however, was painfully slow to catch up—particularly in relation to the enormous costs of publishing the magazine, which far exceeded the original estimates. Luce’s instinctive response to problems was to improve the editorial quality of his magazines, and there were constant reevaluations of both content and appearance. But he was also obliged to spend considerable time as well promoting the magazine and denying rumors that it might be shut down (something Luce never contemplated). Not until 1964, ten years after its first issue, did Sports Illustratedproduce its first profit. By then, its identity was firmly established. Although its subjects were sports, the outdoors, and other forms of leisure, its readership was comparable to such general interest magazines as Time and Life. And for Luce, at least, it was a gratifying achievement. It signified his own sense of the extraordinary American success story of a nation of abundance, social unity, and the “pursuit of happiness”—a pursuit that he believed Sports Illustrated reflected.
As Luce neared his sixtieth birthday, all of his lifelong idiosyncrasies and habits grew, if anything, more pronounced. A friend who attended a dinner party with Luce in Paris in 1956 gave an account of his demeanor that mirrored descriptions of him from many other people: “Physically he does look like an old man—his head triangular, large high brow, bald on top with puffs of white hair at each side; heavy straight dark bushy eyebrows; blue eyes and plastic [-rimmed] glasses, narrow chin, a face concentrated, released occasionally into a rather elfish, quizzical expression.” He was dressed expensively, but—as was usually the case—somewhat sloppily. He had, his chronicler noted, “a rambling, desultory manner of speaking on politics … it lacked magnetism though evidenced sincerity…. He often did not finish sentences or abandoned them with impatience and started over again.” He was intimidatingly serious, without much humor, a difficult partner in conversation because “he does not let one escape with a frivolity or evasion.” But he left no one unaware of his power, his status as a “great man.”23
Other friends and colleagues, all of whom were fascinated by Luce, reveled in gossiping about this unusual man. High-ranking figures in Time Inc. devoted much—and often all—their time in serving his needs: arranging his travels, acting as intermediaries between him and Clare, buying the gifts for friends that Luce himself never remembered to get, and occasionally helping to facilitate his personal and romantic relationships. For someone who had managed his own life without help through much of his childhood and adolescence, he was often strangely helpless in managing his adulthood. Those who served him understood his preoccupation with ideas, projects, and missions, and his impatience with the quotidian affairs of life. They stepped in, often without his knowing it, to protect him from his own distractedness.24
Distraction was, in fact, among his most prominent characteristics (as his fragmented conversation suggested). He was often coldly silent around others, but he was also at times unstoppably garrulous, talking interminably about whatever was on his mind and rarely allowing others to interrupt his herky-jerky flow of words. He was inattentive to money, and in stores or restaurants often paid too little (which greatly embarrassed waiters and salesmen) or far too much. He was, and had been for years, fantastically rich, and it was not only the extravagant Clare who was determined to live in great luxury. When Luce traveled he almost always stayed in the largest suite in the most expensive hotel in whatever place he was visiting. But he did this as a mark of status, not really because he himself particularly enjoyed the elegance of his surroundings. Within hours of his arrival his suite was often in amazing disarray—with papers, books, clothes, and food scattered on tables, chairs, sofas, beds, and floors. Even in his own homes, in which he slept (as he had for years) apart from Clare, his bedroom in an otherwise lavishly decorated apartment or house was often almost monastically spartan.25
Like many famous and powerful people, Luce had many friends but few real friendships. Most of the people he encountered were intimidated by his presence, unable to interact with him as an equal. But Luce’s relative friendlessness was also a product of his personality. He was brusque and impatient, uninterested in small talk or gossip, always pressing for serious conversations even with people who were in no mood for such intensity. Nor was he willing to reveal very much about himself to others. He once said that he did not have a very high regard for “feelings,” that they were “secondary” to thought. “I actually don’t think he let anyone—but anyone—know him,” a longtime friend conceded after many years of conversation and correspondence. He was, she said, “the loneliest man I’ve ever known.” Luce recognized the absence of intimacy in his life, and he tried to fill the void with a series of intense, if never wholly open, friendships with women. His affair with Jean Dalrymple in the late 1940s had been one such effort to achieve real intimacy, but the relationship did not last. He had a longer and more important friendship with a woman he met by chance in Switzerland in 1946.26
Mary Bancroft was an intelligent, witty, combative woman from a distinguished but broken family, who spent much of her life in failed relationships—two marriages that ended in divorce, and affairs with such celebrated figures as the psychiatrist Carl Jung and the future CIA director Allen Dulles. Unbeknownst to Luce and most others who knew her, she had also served as an effective American spy in Europe during World War II. She met Luce by chance in 1947 at a dinner for visiting publishers in Zurich, where she was then living. Bancroft was an avid Democrat and liberal, and when introduced to Luce, she said, “So there you are, Public Enemy Number One.” (“I loathed ‘Timese,’” she later explained, and “thought that reading Time was actually reading a form of advertising, rather than what I regarded as journalism.”) But she was nevertheless fascinated by Luce, and only when learning of his likely presence had she agreed to come to the dinner. Luce was clearly intrigued by her as well. “Is that any way to talk to a man who invented the American century?” he flirtatiously asked that evening, and then insisted that she sit next to him at dinner. On “that very first evening,” she recalled years later, “I know I felt that here at last was someone I could say anything to … and wouldn’t be hurt in any way as a result.” They met several times again before he returned to New York, and they sustained an intense intellectual and at times emotional relationship that lasted for more than thirteen years.27
Their friendship was not an easy one. During much of their relationship Bancroft was simultaneously involved in her affair with Dulles (who repeatedly asked her, “Have you turned your friendship with Henry Luce to any practical advantage yet?” and who frowned when she told him no). Bancroft and Luce communicated primarily through letters, and in them they bantered and sometimes fought—over issues of politics and over their own personal problems and crises. They disagreed furiously at times about public figures whom he admired and she loathed: Douglas MacArthur, Richard Nixon, and most of all Whittaker Chambers, whom Bancroft attacked almost obsessively in long, convoluted letters that Harry apparently chose not to answer (although his side of the correspondence has not survived except in a few fragments).* When they were actually together, which was not often at first since they were so frequently on opposite sides of the Atlantic, they met in restaurants or hotels (where Bancroft always insisted that Luce book a sitting room for their conversations). They had long conversations that were, on the whole, less searingly personal than their letters were. When Bancroft moved back to the United States, and eventually to New York, their meetings increased but remained intermittent.28
It was never a sexual relationship. Luce was already involved with Jean Dalrymple when they met. After that relationship ended he carried on a series of other sexual affairs (most of them relatively casual and brief) while continuing his friendship with Bancroft. “I feel no physical attraction between us!” she wrote Luce in 1951. “Every single man with whom I have, or ever have had, a friendship has been, I know, attracted to me and I am convinced that you are not.” But neither was their relationship a purely intellectual one. Luce wrote her with deep affection (“Bless you—and may you never die;” “à Dieu, dear heart;” “I am taking to the boat (via England) an immense treasure—your letters…. Some part of the boat trip … will be devoted to serious study of this course in … the wisdom of love.”) Her letters to him, he told her, were “minor masterpieces,” and he thanked her for being “a bringer of happiness without effort or price or art.” He also taunted her at times: “I was … amused to find you lined up with the conventional goody-goodies. Mary Bancroft a part of the Eleanor Roosevelt claque—ha!” He once asked her “why you are so relaxed about communism” (and received no answer), and he reprimanded her for taking up the causes of “all my ill-wishers.” And yet he reveled in her thoughts: “One thing you and I have in common is that we know the sheer wonder of human existence, the utter amazingness of it.” And he wrote of her “spirit … so wonderfully compounded of the eager and the compassionate…. You see things wonderfully, and your heart beats like four giant motors.”29
To Luce, Bancroft was an engaging, provocative sparring partner, and at times a warm and intimate friend. But the relationship looked different to her than it did to him. He wanted warmth and support, fused with intellectual excitement. She wanted more—including somehow the ability to “save” him. Most of all that meant saving him from Clare, who to Bancroft was a source of both fascination and loathing. “It is perfectly extraordinary,” she wrote in 1957, “to see this man, who is so tough, so able, so powerful, absolutely shattered by that woman.” She read obsessively about Clare, accumulated a large collection of newspaper and magazine clippings about her, and gossiped about her with the Time Inc. executives she came to know (most of whom disliked Clare as much as she did). She wrote to Luce more often than she wanted—she seemed unable to stop herself—urging him to end the marriage. “Harry told me that he didn’t think anyone had any idea how destructive [Clare] was,” she wrote in her diary. “How preoccupied with herself, how never a day goes by that he doesn’t have to do some ‘errand’ for her.” Her response to Harry’s frequent complaints about the marriage was to try to persuade him that he did not understand Clare, that her threats and apparent dependence on him were attempts to keep her in the marriage, that she wanted to stay with him because of the wealth and visibility he provided her, not because she loved him. “She doesn’t want to give this up and will fight like a tiger whenever it seems endangered,” she argued. She wondered how Harry could “endure her innate vulgarity,” how he failed to see that “she’s a razor sharp knife.” He was, she wrote, “absolutely insane if he for one second imagines that he is going to turn her into a wife or anything else except what she is…. It is beyond me to know why he thinks Clare is dependent on him.” What was the “worst thing he could imagine happening,” she asked him once. Killing herself, he replied. “I told him I didn’t think she would kill herself,” but he should “even stop being afraid of that. If she was going to kill herself, he couldn’t stop her.”30
Although Bancroft insisted that her interest in Clare was for Harry’s sake, not her own—that she wasn’t trying to free him to love her—there were times when her motives were not so clear. Her feelings toward Harry were sometimes more intense than she let on, as a diary entry suggested when they were in Paris together in 1950. She came to drop off a letter at the Hotel Ritz, where he was staying. Rather than leave it with the desk, she went to his room and, noticing the door ajar, stood there watching him for a long time and “wondering as I stood before that door … why he even bothered with me at all…. And I decided then it had something to do with truth—that I would always tell him the truth.” Several years later she wrote him that “I still love you very, very, very dearly—but I ain’t in love with you any more.” Some of Luce’s friends and colleagues tried at times to find out whether Bancroft might marry him if he left his wife. “He’s afraid to go to bed with me,” she told Allen Grover. “If you order me to marry him—that I might be able to pull off someday…. But he’s not going to bed with me.” She was often exasperated with him for the same reason other people were. She bridled at the limits of their friendship, and the lack of explanation for it. “WHAT IS THERE ABOUT ME THAT YOU WISH YOU HAD?” she shouted in frustration in one of her letters. She was usually the driving force in their friendship, the one who wrote the most letters, the one who arranged most of their meetings (sometimes calling his office five or more times a day to try to schedule a dinner or a drink). She was frustrated by his reticence (“He just can’t be simple and open and straight about what he means,” she complained). But she never pushed him to reveal his secrets.
“I am in bad trouble—really bad trouble—inside myself, and you’ve got to help me,” she wrote Harry in 1955, a point when her relationship with Luce had become more important to her than she had previously revealed. “I have got to demolish the overexaggerated idea of me and my perceptions…. I’ve been playing with dynamite and I want—by telling you all this—to take out the fuse…. It is a fact that I walk around in your unconscious.” She reproached him for what she considered his aloofness. “We have a bank full of unused assets. You pay no attention…. But that account is overdrawn.”31
The imbalance in the relationship—Luce’s platonic and mostly passionless affection for Bancroft, her growing preoccupation with, and unrequited commitment to, him—gradually eroded their friendship. They continued to see each other, although less frequently after 1956. In 1959 he returned to her all the letters that had passed between them, which augured the break they both knew would come. She wrote him wistfully, “What a picture it all is, Harry—not only of our friendship—but of the times—our ‘times.’” In 1960 they parted amicably for good. Bancroft, no longer with any illusions, told him that she had become interested in someone else. Luce was well ahead of her—already deep in what became one of the most important relationships of his life.32
“For four years,” Allen Grover observed in 1957, Harry had “dodged the issue” of his marriage. He could see Clare in Rome, in an attractive and interesting setting, and could then escape to New York for however long he wished to be there. “But now she is home,” Grover lamented, “he can’t get away from her.” What made Clare’s presence so difficult for him was that Harry had his own new romance—not one of the many sexual flings that they both had frequently entered but a genuine love that he believed equaled, and perhaps surpassed, the few real passions of his earlier life.33
Luce had long been friendly with Lord Beaverbrook, the powerful and imposing press baron of England, who was also a significant British political figure (even though he was Canadian-born). Luce visited him periodically in London, in the English countryside, in New York, and in various Mediterranean resorts. For more than a decade he had seen but barely noticed Beaverbrook’s young granddaughter, Jeanne Campbell, the child of Beaverbrook’s daughter and the Duke of Argyll. Their marriage had dissolved not long after Jeanne was born, and both of her parents remarried. Jeanne followed neither of her parents and grew up in her grandfather’s home. By the time she was in her late teens, after boarding school and a brief time studying acting, she was serving as her grandfather’s secretary and assistant, and traveling with him wherever he went. Her relationship with him was stormy, largely because of what he considered her promiscuity, including a brief affair that especially infuriated Beaverbrook—with Oswald Mosley, who had been the leader of the British Union of Fascists (known as Blackshirts) before World War II. In 1956, when she was twenty-seven, she left her grandfather’s home to try life on her own.34
With the help of her grandfather’s money and influence, she found an apartment in New York and a clerical job at Time Inc. During a vacation on the French Riviera with her grandfather, she encountered Luce—who was visiting Beaverbrook—for the first time as an adult. Jeanne was by now a tall, striking woman with untamed curly hair. Luce, thirty-one years her senior, was secretly attracted to her immediately, as he confided to Mary Bancroft on his return to New York. A few weeks later he walked into Jeanne’s office in the Time-Life Building and invited her to dinner. He invited her again the next night—both times alone in Luce’s apartment. (Clare was still in Rome.) Campbell later recalled the strange magnetism of this “shy, distant, gruff” man, whom to her surprise she began to find both “handsome and magnetic.” She was nervous at first, not sure why Luce was interested in her.35
But Harry was relentless, for a time sending her so many roses that she worried her apartment looked like a funeral home; writing letters that, at first, Jeanne was too scared to read or answer; inviting her again and again to dinner, during which they had increasingly intimate conversations. It was not long before he told her he was in love with her, and not long after that they began a sexual relationship. Luce arranged a better job for her at Time Inc., as a researcher for Life. But Jeanne’s affair with Harry did not remain a secret for long within the company. Finding her position in the company awkward, she finally quit. She had never much liked the job in any case, and, as she herself later admitted, “wasn’t very good at it.”36
It was, for the most part, a secret relationship. They almost always met in Jeanne’s apartment. Most of the time she would make dinner. (Having grown up with chefs and servants, she had to teach herself how to cook. “I became pretty good at it, especially French cuisine,” she remembered later.) In many settings Luce was oblivious to what he ate. But with Jeanne, she recalled, he “loved food, liked to talk about it and hear how it was prepared.” It was not just food he liked to talk about. Among her many attractions to Luce was her eagerness to listen as he talked “about everything—his family, his travels, his marriage, his ideas.” Jeanne was less voluble than he was, but she had a talent that eluded most people Luce knew: She made him laugh. (Many people knew Harry for years and never heard laughter from him.)
Jeanne was restless sometimes, eager to go out to a restaurant or a movie. But Harry—who had shown no inhibitions about being seen in public with Jean Dalrymple—was now extremely cautious. Every now and then they would venture out together briefly, but Jeanne remembered how uncomfortable he was, “always worried about who would see him with me.” Having been through a traumatic, emotional conflict with Clare a decade earlier, he was perhaps more aware of the potential costs of this new relationship. But slowly an understanding began to grow between them that this was not just an affair but a long-term, perhaps permanent, union. Luce stopped sending roses and began buying her jewelry, furs, and other expensive gifts. Jeanne told her grandfather about Harry. (She later gave radically conflicting accounts of his reaction, from “he gave us his blessing” to “he was outraged.”) It was, she said, as if he “knew that we would eventually marry.” Luce himself, she recalled, spoke frequently of “when you are my wife.” Still, it was not an easy relationship. It was defined—as almost all his relationships were—by his desires and his needs. Jeanne rebelled at times and could be tart and wounding. She was impatient with his caution and “promises which weren’t fulfilled” of ending his marriage. During a trip they took together to Paris (where he felt more comfortable being in public with her), she replied to a complaint about what Luce considered her provocative wardrobe, “Why not? I’m your mistress after all.” But despite her occasional pressure on him to make a decision, Harry continued with his dual life, never allowing himself to be put in a position that would require him to choose.37
At the same time that Harry was building his relationship with Jeanne, he was—willingly or not—rebuilding his relationship with Clare. In 1957 they began thinking about selling their Connecticut house in Ridgefield, which they had largely abandoned during Clare’s absence in Rome and Harry’s secret romantic life in New York. (In fact they kept it for another five years, after an ill-fated attempt to turn it into a research center for the study of the history of Time Inc.) But at the same time they bought a sprawling modern house in Phoenix, near the famous Arizona Biltmore. Their new home had great expanses of glass overlooking the hotel’s golf course. It was part of an enclave of homes of enormously wealthy people, many of them retired. Clare, restless and for the first time in many years without an active professional career, began spending more and more time there—with long breaks while she pursued her newest passion, scuba diving. Harry, in the meantime, saw Clare’s life in Phoenix as an opportunity for him comparable to her life in Rome. He could insulate himself from the conflict between his relationships—free to see Jeanne in New York, able to spend time with Clare far away from her competition. Despite his frequent complaints about Clare—to Mary Bancroft, to Jeanne, even to some of his professional colleagues—he was not ready to leave her. They seemed to the many visitors they invited to their Arizona home to be happier together than they had been for some time.38
Early in 1958, en route to Phoenix from New York, a friend of Clare’s who was flying in the same plane as Harry passed him in the aisle and was shocked by how ashen and slack faced he looked. He shook off her efforts to help and seemed quickly to recover. But a few days later he developed what he thought was a bad cold and spent much of the day in bed. The next morning, February 5, he awoke late. Clare brought him some soup and found him sitting up in bed. “I’m dying,” he told her. A houseguest watched him being carried to the ambulance. “I can still remember being outside in the garden when the stretcher came out carrying Harry,” she recalled later, “looking so ill, so unlike the powerful Henry Robinson Luce the whole world knew.” As he was wheeled into the emergency room, he joked darkly to Clare, “Life goes to a party.”39
Luce had suffered a heart attack, serious but not fatal. He spent three weeks in the hospital, refused most visitors other than family, and made sure that news of his illness did not become public, fearful that the truth would destabilize Time Inc.’s stock price. Clare and the family retainers told the press that Harry was recovering from pneumonia. With the help of rest and anticoagulant drugs (which he took for the rest of his life), he gradually regained his strength and passed the time of his recovery playing Scrabble and especially bridge, with the same ferocious intensity that he and Clare had always competed. Luce, characteristically, invited the famous bridge expert Charles Goren to join their games (an ordeal for Goren because Harry, terrified of making mistakes, was a very slow player). Goren’s reward was his picture on the cover of Time later that year.40
The period of Luce’s illness coincided with a moment of great anxiety in the United States. Only a few months before Luce’s heart attack, the Soviet Union had launched its first satellite, Sputnik I, followed by a series of other successful satellite launches through the first months of 1958. To many Americans, watching the stumbling, halting path of America’s own space program, the Soviet achievement appeared to be a sign of Russia’s growing power and America’s relative decline. The “Sputnik crisis,” as it was widely named, was followed by an almost equally traumatic event for many Americans: the 1959 visit of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, whose truculent manner and swaggering personality was a chilling reminder of the stakes in the Cold War. Time, for example, wrote of Khrushchev as “the embodiment of the elemental challenge” of Soviet Communism, the “naked drive for world power no less sustained than that of the late Joseph Stalin.” Six months later, in May 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, its pilot—Francis Gary Powers—captured by the Russians and put on display before the world, a planned Eisenhower-Khrushchev summit conference in Paris summarily and humiliatingly canceled by the Kremlin only days before it was to convene.41
For more than two years beginning in the late 1950s, there were widespread efforts to determine why America appeared to be “falling behind.” In fact the United States, far from falling behind the Soviet Union, was still greatly surpassing it in wealth, science and technology, and military strength. The precipitants of the anxiety—Sputnik, Khrushchev’s visit, the U-2—were, in reality, symbolic and ephemeral events, or, in the case of the “space race,” the reflection of an inadequate investment in rocketry by the Eisenhower administration. But in the eyes of many Americans, Soviet achievements were by definition evidence of American failure; and the blame, many critics claimed, lay less with the government than with an insufficient commitment to the future of the nation by ordinary citizens. The “success” of the Soviet Union, Walter Lippmann wrote in late 1959, was a result of its ability to have created “a purposeful society in which all the main energies of the people are directed and dedicated to its purposes.” Americans, in contrast, “do not have great purposes which they are united in wanting to achieve…. We talk about ourselves these days as if we were a completed society, one which has achieved its purposes and has no further great business to transact.” Americans were becoming too soft and materialistic, other critics argued. What the country needed, they insisted, was a sense of “national purpose,” a bold and widely shared vision of what the United States should be. Few people embraced this view more enthusiastically than Luce, who now joined and, as always, hoped to lead the earnest search for the country’s new goals.42
Trying to change the world was nothing new for Luce. Like other sons and daughters of missionaries, he never stopped thinking about how to make the nation live up to the Providential righteousness of America’s destiny (a vision embedded in generations of American Presbyterian history). For years he had tried to define and promote America’s mission in his magazines and speeches (most notably, in his famous “American Century” essay) and in his occasional intrusions into politics. But Luce also exhorted (and often funded) others to study important national and international issues and provide answers to the endless questions with which he wrestled. He was a great champion of committees and commissions and believed that putting smart and eminent people together (he was drawn especially to what he called “philosophers and thinkers”) was always a good way to solve a problem. In 1946 he recruited Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, to form a Commission on Freedom of the Press. Its report disappointed him (“philosophically uninteresting”) but did not deter his interest in future inquiries. He eagerly joined (and helped to finance) the Fund for the Republic, another group of “eminent thinkers” gathered to answer big questions: “What is a truly free society? How can such a society be maintained?” He immersed himself in the work of the Rockefeller Brothers Study Group, which gathered “experts” to consider American defense policy. He helped organize an international Conference on Industrial Development in 1957, which focused on the relationship between economic growth and free labor. Luce pushed the group to consider “the responsibility of my country—America’s responsibility for the economic well-being of the world.”43
He was active as well in the Committee for Cultural Freedom, which proposed a “Free World Academy” (never created) to train people to “defend freedom.” (Norman Thomas, head of the American Socialist Party and one of the founders of the committee, resigned when Luce began to exercise leadership of the group; Luce, he believed, was turning the inquiry into Cold War propaganda. His dismay would likely have been even greater had he known that the committee was secretly funded by the CIA, a fact probably unknown to Luce as well.) Despite Thomas’s ill will, Luce developed an interest in socialism, noted its similarities to some of his own beliefs, and proposed an inquiry into “the notes of warning, still sounded by Thomas—specifically warnings against complacency over current U.S. prosperity.” He unsuccessfully invited Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota to form a committee to define what Humphrey liked to call “quantitative liberalism,” which Luce said contained “both much meaning and a lot of befuddlement.” Luce was often rightly accused of bias and dogmatism, but he was also an intellectual omnivore, who devoured ideas from many sources and who sought out “interesting thinkers” on issue after issue.44
The growing interest in a “national purpose” was a natural cause for Luce to embrace. He asked Max Ways, now Time’s London bureau chief and a man Luce considered a “serious thinker,” to return to New York in 1958 to evaluate the magazines’ role in this new mission. Ways went further and wrote a book of his own, Beyond Survival, arguing for a more robust national commitment to the great goals the United States must embrace. Luce wrote an introduction to it calling for “the government and people of the United States to arrive at some convictions … about what they are doing in the world.” Luce had, he said, come to realize that the “most commonly shared opinion” in the nation was that the United States “lacks a clear sense of purpose in world activities.”45
Ways’s book, published in 1959, encouraged Luce to go further. He began summoning meetings in the Time-Life Building to discuss “an idea for bringing into sharper focus the current ground swell of interest in the National Purpose” and taking the lead in launching a “national conversation.” He invited philosophers, historians, sociologists, theologians, and many others to attend lunches, dinners, and daylong meetings. He considered creating a “Life contest” for “uncovering big thoughts from humble minds.” And he charged his own staff, and many others, to come up with “‘original’ statements on new basic principles.” Those principles might be few—“two, or three, or four,” Luce told his somewhat puzzled staff—“but certainly principles we must stand for and must be involved in our judgment—and our judgment in turn, we hope, working always on knowledge and more knowledge and understanding of what goes on in this extraordinary world.” The search for a national purpose, he said, would be an “‘adventure’ on a colossal scale.” It would be “dangerous,” a “formidable task,” for which the American people must be “nerved.” That could be achieved only by strong leadership—not just from political figures but also intellectual leaders, like Luce himself and like the big thinkers and influential men who were his usual companions in his search for “answers.” Americans, he complained, “had tried to escape from leadership…. Here we are at the beginning of a really possible golden age of western culture, and you still want to believe that tending to wealth alone will give culture and a decent standard of living to all men on earth.”46
As the clamor for a definition of “national purpose” grew in Eisenhower’s last years in office, the president attracted increasing criticism for what seemed his own inadequate embrace of the challenge. In response, early in 1960 he summoned a President’s Commission on National Goals that he charged with sounding “a call for greatness to a resolute people.” Its report, issued in November shortly after the 1960 presidential election and titled Goals for Americans, was a pale restatement of long-standing Cold War convictions: that Americans should “preserve and enlarge our own liberties, to meet a deadly menace, and to extend the area of freedom through the world.” Americans should make democracy in the United States “more effective” and should make individual lives “freer and more rewarding.” The public response was tepid, and at times scornful. It was, the historian Stephen Graubard wrote, a “dreary piece” with no real substance. Even Life, which seldom criticized Eisenhower, noted its “generally indifferent and partly hostile press.”47
By early 1960 Luce had settled on a plan of his own that was in many ways strikingly similar to Eisenhower’s. He too would assemble a group of “big thinkers,” just as Eisenhower had tried to do. And he would commission a series of “big essays” on the national purpose to be published in Life (and copublished by the New York Times) over several months. The idea had emerged from a series of private meetings Luce had arranged with “brainy people” such as Dean Rusk, soon to be secretary of state, and James Conant, former president of Harvard. Their conclusion was “to get six or seven men of light and leading to state positively what the ‘national purpose’ of the U.S. is or ought to be.” Here, Luce deviated sharply from Eisenhower. He did not attempt to create a consensual report, which he predicted would be as bland and uninteresting as the president’s. But essays by individuals, he predicted, would lead to “various ways by which many thousands of people may participate in the discussion.” The “six or seven” essayists soon grew to ten (all men), and they were indeed distinguished thinkers and leaders drawn from what was by then known as the establishment: John K. Jessup, chief editorial writer for Life and the overseer of the project; Adlai Stevenson, two-time Democratic candidate for president; Archibald MacLeish, poet, playwright, and former Luce employee; David Sarnoff, founder and chairman of NBC; Billy Graham, the most famous evangelist in America; John Gardner, philanthropist and educational leader; Clinton Rossiter, eminent political scientist; Albert Wohlstetter, project director at the Rand Corporation; James Reston, New York Times editorial writer; and the columnist Walter Lippmann.48
“More than anything else,” Luce wrote in his foreword to the book that followed the magazine and newspaper publication of the essays, “the people of America are asking for a clear sense of National Purpose…. From all over the land, there is evidence that this is what Americans are worrying about.” The ten earnest essays that emerged from Luce’s “National Purpose” project were far more interesting than the Eisenhower-commissioned study of the same subject, if only because they were by individual authors whose views were not always the same.
Not surprisingly the most common definition of a “national purpose” in the Luce-inspired essays was “freedom”—freedom as defined by the Declaration of Independence (“the pursuit of Happiness”) and freedom as defined by the past century of American experience (“the right of men to choose their own ideas and pursuits, to be free from the arbitrary intervention of governments, to ‘do what they like with their own’”). The “National Purpose” writers struggled to find a more robust and communal vision of freedom, something that would not only ensure individual happiness but would also enlist the broad public behind urgent national goals. Some called for a greater sense of shared morality, based in the founding documents of the Republic or in religious faith. “We must recapture our moral strength and our faith in God,” Billy Graham wrote. Others called for greater “discipline,” “hard work,” “seriousness,” and “sacrifice.” But what would such individual commitments mean? One answer was practical: paying higher taxes to fund the Cold War or to meet urgent social needs. Another was moral energy. To some of the writers there was something unattractively self-indulgent about rampant consumerism, or what Archibald MacLeish described as “the flatulence and fat of an overfed people whose children prepare at the milk-shake counter for coronary occlusions in middle age.” The people, as much as the government, needed a far more serious commitment to “large goals.” To Clinton Rossiter the great challenge was “the steadily widening gap between the richness of our private lives and the poverty of our public services,” an idea likely inspired by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s popular 1958 book, The Affluent Society.
Running through almost all the essays, however, was the question that had inspired the entire National Purpose project in the first place: Was America “winning” the Cold War? Few writers were as blunt as David Sarnoff, whose vision of a national purpose was “a Program for a Political Offensive Against World Communism.” But almost all shared at least some part of Sarnoff’s fearful vision. “For the first time in American experience,” Walter Lippmann wrote, “we are confronted with a rival power which denies the theory and the practice of our society, and has forced upon us a competition for the leadership of the world.” Stevenson called for “recovering the public image of a great America” and for the “certain knowledge all round the world” that challenging the allure of Communism “and nothing less had been for years the public policy of the United States.” MacLeish urged an expansion of America’s confrontation with Communism from Europe to Africa, Latin America, and Asia. “The most important implication of our great prosperity,” Albert Wohlstetter argued, “is that we can afford larger efforts … for protecting the political independence and self-development of the noncommunist world.”
Only James Reston seriously challenged the premises of the National Purpose project. The solution to the nation’s problems, he insisted, did not lie in the character or behavior of the people. “Most of the great political crises of the American past,” he wrote, “have been resolved by the will power or obstinacy of their leaders.” Americans had accepted the sacrifices their government had asked: high taxation, military conscription, policing the world. “These are not the acts of a slack and decadent people. There is nothing in the record of free peoples to compare with it.”49
Judged by its impact on its own time, the National Purpose project would have to be considered a success. The essays had a broad readership, in Life, in the New York Times, and in the subsequent book. They attracted much comment and considerable critical praise. The National Education Association, the Brookings Institution, and dozens of other organizations embraced the project and helped disseminate it. The book was circulated widely in schools and universities and remained a prominent and respected text into at least the mid-1960s. After the 1960 political conventions, both candidates—Nixon and Kennedy—contributed essays to the project, which, although too late for inclusion in the book, were published in Life and other venues. But it would be hard to argue that the project achieved its ostensible purpose as “a summons, of some urgency, to national debate.” Nor have the essays survived as texts important to later generations. Taken together they were more confirming than alarming—thoughtful and intelligent statements of a broadly accepted set of conventional assumptions about American life at a particular moment. But for Luce, at least, they served his purpose: challenging what he had come to consider the complacency of his age, helping to push others to think more boldly about, if not a national “purpose,” at least a national agenda.50
Luce’s own agenda was changing too. His personal loyalty to Eisenhower remained unaltered, and neither he nor his magazines ever expressed any significant disillusionment with what many critics considered the president’s flaccid leadership. But by 1960 Luce was clearly envisioning a more dynamic future than the Eisenhower administration had ever pursued. He was quietly breaking with the policies of the 1950s while remaining supportive of the president himself.
Luce differed with Eisenhower perhaps most notably on the issue of race. Eisenhower was a reluctant and halfhearted supporter of civil rights for African Americans, convinced that the law was an inadequate tool for producing racial justice and that only a change in the “hearts of men” (by which he meant white people) would lead to true equality, which to him was a relatively long-term goal. Luce, on the other hand, had been an outspoken supporter of civil rights for decades—beginning with Time’s attacks on lynching in the South in the 1920s and 1930s, and continuing with Life’s growing effort to portray African–American life with sensitivity and respect in the 1940s and 1950s. For a 1938 photographic essay, “Negroes,” Life commissioned dramatic pictures by some of the magazine’s best photographers, pictures that challenged stereotypes of “the bale-heaving stevedore … or the crapshooter.” Instead, Life announced, “the white man will … be surprised at the achievements of the Negro in America.” Five years later Luce circulated a memo to his staff stating that “TIME is unshakably committed to a pro-Civil Rights policy and pro-square deal policy for Negroes as for every kind of American.” He was particularly pleased by the gratitude he received from the Harlem community for Life’s 1949 story, “Life Goes to a Ball in Harlem.”51
By the late 1950s Luce’s views—and those of his magazines—had evolved into active support for desegregation, to the distress of the recently retired Billings, now living in South Carolina, who was much less sympathetic to the cause of civil rights. “It seems to me,” Luce replied curtly to Billings’s dismay, that “we have done a pretty good job on this most difficult of U.S. questions.” Luce applauded the 1954 Brown decision; and in 1956, at his urging, Life ran a series of articles on African–American life that provided a tough and at times harrowing picture of the poverty and injustice facing black men and women. In 1957, when federal courts demanded that Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, admit its first black students, the attempts to enforce the ruling produced such violence that Eisenhower finally had no choice but to send federal troops into the city to restore calm. Luce personally oversaw an ominous cover photograph in Life of paratroopers in Little Rock, accompanied by a harsh editorial that questioned Eisenhower’s commitment to his own action. There was, Life declared, “room for doubt as to whether [Eisenhower] himself believes in the law he is enforcing” and had “resisted all public and private cries for drastic action.” The president’s reluctant and legalistic explanation for intervention in the crisis created an “inference that the president equates the Fourteenth Amendment with the Eighteenth (Prohibition), a disagreeable thing which has to be done even though it may be unwise.” What the president appeared not to recognize, the editorial claimed, was the great progress African Americans had made on their own since the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. They now had every right to expect “a living and progressive law, adjusting itself to changed realities, [which] must now include desegregation as part of [their] citizenship.” Time simultaneously ran a cover story on Little Rock with harrowing accounts of the “racists” and “goons” who were helping create violence. In the meantime, at a meeting with his editors, Luce took note of the many criticisms Time and Life were receiving from the South—including a not-insignificant number of canceled subscriptions. He said that the magazines should keep after the story and that they should do it “big and good.” In response Edward Thompson, Life’s managing editor, began an ambitious effort to examine racial discrimination in the North. Over the next five years the resources devoted to covering the civil rights movement steadily grew. Reporters, photographers, and stringers were occasionally beaten and otherwise injured, as were journalists from the many other organizations working in the South. Life began commissioning articles from prominent African Americans—among them the black-power advocate Stokely Carmichael and the great if controversial scholar W. E. B. DuBois. Luce was occasionally distressed by what he considered the extremism of some civil rights activists, and he was not even always wholly admiring of Martin Luther King, Jr. But he almost always supported his more liberal editors as they pressed harder and harder against what Thompson called the “great moral issue of our time.”52
Luce’s commitment to the civil rights movement was, like his engagement with the “National Purpose” project, a sign of his increasing engagement with the liberal activism that was coming to be embodied by the image and rhetoric of John F. Kennedy. And it came as something of a surprise to many readers of his magazines, and many of his own friends, that Luce was an admirer, if not necessarily a supporter, of the young senator. Luce had urged his editors to put Kennedy on the cover of Time in 1957 as he began his ascent. The story his editors wrote was as gushing as anything the magazine had written since Wendell Willkie:
[Kennedy] is an authentic war hero and a Pulitzer-prizewinning author (for his best-selling Profiles in Courage). He is an athlete (during World War II his swimming skill saved his life and those of his PT-boat mates); yet his intellectual qualifications are such that his photographer wife Jacqueline remarks, in a symbolic manner of speaking: “If I were drawing him, I’d draw a tiny body and an enormous head.” Kennedy is recognized as the Senate library’s best customer, reads six to eight books a week, mostly on American history. No stem-winding orator (“Those guys who can make the rafters ring with hokum, well, I guess that’s O.K., but it keeps me from being an effective political speaker”), Kennedy instead imparts a remarkable quality of shy, sensemaking sincerity. He is certainly the only member of the U.S. Congress who could—as he did—make a speech with his shirttail hanging out and get gallery ahs instead of aws.53
This was not the first evidence of Luce’s admiration for Kennedy. In 1940 Luce had written an introduction to Why England Slept, a book drawn from Kennedy’s recently completed senior thesis at Harvard in which he traced the failure of British leadership in the late 1930s to avert what became World War II. Joseph Kennedy, the future president’s father and in 1940 the American ambassador to Great Britain, was a friendly acquaintance of Luce’s, and it was he who had proposed that Luce write the introduction. Luce had asked to see the manuscript. He later recalled that “I was very impressed by it. I was impressed by the scholarly work.” In the introduction itself Luce wrote: “I cannot recall a single man of my college generation who could have written such an adultbook on such a vitally important subject during his Senior year at college…. If John Kennedy is characteristic of the younger generation—and I believe he is—many of us would be happy to have the destinies of this Republic handed over to his generation at once.”54
By 1960 Luce was in something of a quandary. In every election since at least 1940, he had been an impassioned supporter of the Republican candidate for president, or a passionate opponent of the Democratic candidate, or both. But the Kennedy-Nixon race was a clear exception. Luce was certainly not opposed to Nixon. He entertained the Nixons at his home in Phoenix in 1958 and in his New York apartment in 1959. He wrote fan letters to the vice president, praising him for various speeches and articles that he claimed to have admired. And in the summer of 1960 Luce praised Nixon’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention, beginning his letter with: “In a few short months it will be ‘Dear Mr. President,’ so we hope and pray.” But Luce was clearly also attracted to Kennedy. He sent flowers and notes to the ailing senator during his periodic hospitalizations in the mid-1950s. The two men had occasional lunches together in Washington in 1959 and early 1960, and they carried on an intermittent but mutually admiring correspondence. Kennedy’s visit to the Time-Life Building in August 1960 was a notable event in the company’s history. Many candidates had paid visits to the Time-Life headquarters over the years, but none produced so remarkable a response. Inside the building, employees lined the hallways as he passed; outside, large throngs crowded the streets waiting for a glimpse of the candidate (whom Luce uncharacteristically escorted to the door and into the crowd). Like many people in 1960, Luce was impressed by Kennedy’s glamour, sophistication, poise, and ability to engage with intellectual issues. He was particularly impressed with Kennedy’s voracious reading, and once expressed astonishment that the candidate, in the midst of a campaign, had read a new biography of McKinley that Luce had also just finished. (Charming and impressing smart people was one of Kennedy’s most notable talents; Nixon had few such skills.) Luce was also attracted by Kennedy’s well-educated view of American foreign policy and his strong commitment to anti-Communism and the Cold War—a stance that Luce sometimes considered stronger than Nixon’s. (Kennedy’s seeming toughness was particularly important to Luce because he had never forgotten, or fully forgiven, what he considered Joseph Kennedy’s weakness in giving up on England in 1940.)55
Luce’s magazines swung back and forth in their enthusiasms, reflecting not only the long-standing political divisions among the editorial staffs, but also Luce’s own uncertainty about whom he preferred. After the Democratic convention Life praised the party’s platform for “urging us all to look forward again—instead of backward, upward or around.” In the past it had gone without saying that the Luce magazines would endorse the Republican candidate. But in 1960 Luce was bombarded with questions about whether or not he would do so again—and for a time he was uncertain of his answer. When the New York Times wrote in early August that Luce had expressed a “personal preference” for Nixon, Luce denied the story the next day. The Wall Street Journal reported that Luce was toying with “the surprising notion of backing Kennedy.” Luce did little to dampen the speculation, replying in Life that “we have applauded both candidates for saying that world policy—and U. S. purpose—makes up the paramount issue.” The sudden illness of Otto Fuerbringer, Time’s managing editor and a staunch Republican, led in late summer to the temporary editorship of Thomas Griffith, a Democrat who was committed to rigorously fair and nonpartisan coverage (a significant departure from earlier Time election years). That made it easier for the magazine to reflect Luce’s own admiration for Kennedy as well as for Nixon.56
On July 15, 1960, the night of Kennedy’s acceptance speech in Los Angeles, Luce was at home in New York when Joseph Kennedy called and asked to stop by to see him.* Luce eagerly agreed. Kennedy arrived at about seven o’clock at Luce’s Waldorf apartment and joined Luce and his son Hank for a lobster dinner. Over coffee they began a conversation about the magazines’ attitude toward Jack. Luce later recalled saying that “of course Jack will have to be left of center,” since that was what the Democratic Party required. “We won’t hold that against him.” But, he added, if Jack were to show “any signs of weakness … toward the anti-Communist cause, or … any weakness in defending and advancing the cause of the free world, why then we’ll certainly be against him.” Joe replied, “Well, there’s no chance of that; you know that.” When they gathered in front of the television to watch Kennedy’s speech, the candidate’s father interrupted frequently, often with obscene remarks about politicians who had not supported his son. He was particularly vitriolic in his characterization of Adlai Stevenson. Luce remembered the acceptance speech without great enthusiasm, but with “no particular criticisms of it.” (He kept his lukewarm response to himself.) When Joe Kennedy got up to leave, he stopped at the door and said, “I want to thank you for all that you’ve done for Jack.” Luce was “a little taken aback” by the comment and wondered “did we do too much” since he had never openly supported Jack Kennedy. But they were both aware that the Luce publications had treated Kennedy well—much better than they had treated any Democrat in many decades. And Luce could not disguise his fascination with John Kennedy, whom—shortly after his dinner with Joe—he privately described as “one of America’s great success stories … a stirring prospect … a tough fellow, but educated, with a good and even beautiful mind.” Several years later Luce recalled the evening with Joe: “It was a memorable moment in my life.”57
Luce did, in fact, consider endorsing Kennedy that fall. There were long conversations with his senior staff, whose opinions were divided; and there were some editors, occasionally including Luce, who believed that Kennedy was in fact the more reliable leader in confronting the Communist threat. Luce wrote a private memo about a month before the election in which he said that “a lot of good” would come from a Kennedy victory. “It will shake up the country and perhaps bring on a great new burst of the old American dynamism.” But in the end, and perhaps inevitably, Life endorsed Nixon, although in a guarded way that seemed designed to reduce the impact on Kennedy. Luce was never fully satisfied that Nixon’s positions on foreign policy were as strong as Kennedy’s, and he suggested as much in the late and somewhat tepid Life endorsement of Nixon days before the election. It praised Nixon’s domestic policy but was silent on his foreign-policy positions.
Having encouraged Billy Graham to write a piece for Life about his admiration for Nixon, Luce ultimately pulled the story after talking with Kennedy about it. (Graham was relieved, fearful that publication would have politicized him.) When Kennedy finally won the close presidential election, Luce wrote Nixon expressing deep disappointment at his defeat. But he wrote Kennedy as well, saying that “we didn’t find it difficult to find respectful and complimentary things to say about the President-elect.” And soon after, he wrote to a friend: “We find it difficult to do anything but cheer the 35th president of the U. S…. At the moment there is a kind of good excitement in the air—reminding some of us old fellows of our boyhood hero, T. R.”58
Luce’s enthusiasm for Kennedy did not diminish once the election was over. He and Clare traveled to Washington for the inauguration, sat in the president’s box for the swearing in, and attended a private dinner that night at which the new president was a guest. When Kennedy’s Why England Slept was republished in 1961, Luce wrote an update to his 1940 introduction:
Imagine that as a young man in college you wrote a book of judgment on the behavior of a contemporary empire…. Imagine that 20 years later when you are still young, you become President of the United States at a time when America faces grim possibilities of destruction and surrender…. Imagine, then, that you re-read the book you wrote in college and find that you would not be embarrassed by having it exposed again; this surely would be an extraordinary experience. Perhaps nothing like it ever happened before in the lives of all the leaders of men.59
Luce’s relationship with Kennedy was never as intimate or rewarding as his friendship with Eisenhower, who had been a regular correspondent and who included Luce frequently in the president’s famous “stag dinners” and other events. Kennedy was more aloof and, at times, less conciliatory. His tough White House staff, sometimes known as the “Irish mafia” (or what Luce once called “the whole blinking Clan—including selected O’Learys, O’Briens, etc.”), could react furiously and even vindictively if they did not like the Luce magazines’ coverage of the president, as they frequently did not. Kennedy himself could be waspishly critical as well. Luce in turn was not always happy with Kennedy’s policies. He opposed the president’s tentative efforts to improve relations with China (efforts that produced no significant results). He was dismayed by the ill-begotten Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, not because of the decision to invade but because it so conspicuously failed. Gen. Maxwell Taylor, former Army Chief of Staff and soon to be “military representative” to President Kennedy, came to New York with a seventeen-point rebuttal to the Time account of the Bay of Pigs; Luce disputed all his criticisms, and Taylor left without rancor. But complaints from the White House did not stop, in part because Kennedy himself was, as Luce put it, a “regular and careful” reader of Time, convinced of its influence and importance, and thus highly sensitive to even minor criticisms. Luce was particularly irritated by a long critical analysis of Time’s coverage of Kennedy from Theodore Sorensen, the president’s special assistant. It was, Luce said, as if “some schoolboy … had written an analysis for the White House which was cited by Mr. Sorensen.” And he was annoyed as well by the barbed and slightly condescending congratulatory message that the president sent to the fortieth anniversary dinner of Time in the spring of 1963 (which, to Luce’s great disappointment, Kennedy failed to attend). After kind words about Luce the president’s message turned to the magazine itself:
Time … has instructed, entertained, confused, and infuriated its readers for nearly half a century…. I am bound to think that Time sometimes does its best to contract the political horizons of its audience…. I hope I am not wrong in occasionally detecting these days in Time those more mature qualities appropriate to an institution entering its forties.60
Luce shrugged off his disputes with the Kennedy White House and remained, on the whole, an admirer of the President, who—despite his occasional testiness—continued to cultivate Luce through letters and occasional invitations to the White House. Kennedy, Luce believed, echoed his own long-standing commitment to a more energetic pursuit of America’s mission and purpose. Kennedy, like Luce, wanted a more robust and flexible military capacity that would give the United States the ability to pursue its goals without relying on nuclear weapons. And Kennedy, like Luce, called constantly for “action,” for “getting the country moving again,” for setting great goals. Luce loved Kennedy’s space program, as its avid coverage in Life made clear. He greatly admired the president’s Berlin Wall speech, with its ringing denunciation of Communism. (He was less pleased by the conciliatory speech at American University a few weeks earlier, in which Kennedy called for better relations with the Soviet Union.) Luce was especially impressed by Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis (perhaps in part because of Kennedy’s flattering summons to Luce, in the midst of the crisis, to come to the White House and offer advice, a meeting that was probably also designed to influence Time’s coverage). Kennedy asked Luce if he supported an invasion—the favored course for most of the president’s military advisers, and at the time apparently the president’s own inclination. Luce supported a blockade instead, which was the option Kennedy ultimately chose. The successful resolution of the crisis was, Luce later wrote, “a high point” in American foreign policy.61
Luce was leading an editorial meeting in a private dining room in the Time-Life Building on November 22, 1963, when he heard the news of the assassination of President Kennedy. The editors dispersed immediately, leaving Luce behind, slumped over the table, his head in his hands. But he soon joined the epic effort to cover this extraordinary and terrible event—which included Life’s discovery, purchase, and partial publication of the famous Abraham Zapruder film, the home movie shot by a bystander in Dallas that became the most important recording of the assassination and the basis of myriad conspiracy theories. There was a vigorous debate over whether Time should violate its consistent policy of never putting a dead person on the cover of the magazine. Luce ordered a picture of Lyndon Johnson instead, a decision that produced much criticism. Equally controversial was Luce’s insistence that the publisher’s letter in the front of Time take note of Kennedy’s “special feeling” for the magazine, a decision that also angered some readers, one of whom accused the magazine of deciding “to eulogize itself rather than the late President.” But on the whole the Time and Life coverage of the assassination was extraordinarily thorough, visually powerful, and sensationally popular—so much so that the company quickly sold out the postassassination issues even after almost doubling the print run. A few weeks later Life issued a “special memorial edition” that combined two issues of Life coverage into one massive magazine (with no advertising). It sold nearly three million copies.62
On the day after Thanksgiving, Jacqueline Kennedy called Theodore White—Luce’s old protégé, sometime antagonist, and once-again Time Inc. correspondent—and asked him to come see her in the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport. White drove up from New York through a storm in a rented limousine (frantic because he was leaving behind his aging mother who had just suffered a heart attack) and sat late into the night listening to Mrs. Kennedy’s concerns about how her husband would be remembered. She worried that “history was something that bitter old men wrote.” She wanted to get her own story out first. After a long and emotional description of her experience in Dallas, she told White that she could not stop thinking about “this line from a musical comedy.” At night in the White House, she said, she and her husband sometimes lay in bed listening to the melancholy Lerner and Loew song “Camelot.” The line she remembered was “almost an obsession,” she said: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.” And she gave special emphasis to the sentence, “There will never be another Camelot again.” White dictated a story to his Life editor from the Kennedys’ kitchen telephone at 2:00 a.m., and the “Camelot” theme became an iconic one that suffuses the public memory of John Kennedy to this day.63
Luce was not an emotional man, and ordinarily he would have recoiled from the treacly sentiments that ran through the “Camelot” interview in Life. But he was not immune to the deep sense of loss that permeated American public culture in the weeks after Kennedy’s death. His view of Kennedy was, in fact, mostly consistent with the image that Theodore White’s article had unleashed. Luce’s relationship with Kennedy had been intermittent and not always warm; but he found himself nevertheless deeply shaken by the death of what he called “this memorable figure, this young man … [this] great and courteous person” whom he had known and admired for more than twenty years. “For my part,” he said later, “it was a great privilege to know him for himself and to have had the privilege of knowing him when he was President of the United States…. There is no question that he made a tremendous contribution to the intangible attitude of the American people—toward government, toward life, toward the things that mattered.”64
*Luce’s contributions to their correspondence remained in Bancroft’s possession into the 1970s, when she apparently lent them to the writer W. A. Swanberg, who was writing a biography of Luce at the time. Swanberg took notes from the letters, which survive in his papers at Columbia, but the original letters seem to have vanished. Elizabeth Bancroft may have destroyed them at some point, or directed Swanberg to do so, but there is no available evidence to support any theory of their disappearance.
*Joseph Kennedy had left Los Angeles early to avoid allowing his own controversial reputation to draw attention away from his son.