What Luce called the “harrowing tragedy” of Brit Hadden’s death may have been the most important event in Harry’s life. It robbed him of a partner and friend with whom he had been inextricably entwined for more than fifteen years, and without whom he would almost certainly not have found himself at the head of a thriving company. It also left him in virtually sole control of Time Inc. Luce had at times yearned for such independence during the last, difficult years of his relationship with Hadden. But now he was frightened that he might not be able to hold the company together. His first concern, therefore, was to keep things as they were—to preserve the system and the editorial product that Hadden had mainly created. He asked John S. Martin, Hadden’s cousin, to take over as managing editor of Time. Martin idolized Brit. Luce certainly knew that in giving him control of the magazine he was committing himself to Hadden’s philosophy and style as the model for at least the immediate future. He confided occasionally to his wife, his sister, his father, and even to his board of directors that he was not certain he could sustain the company alone, that he had relied on Hadden’s energy and imagination even more than he had realized, and that without it he feared the company would flounder. But for the most part Luce kept his anxiety to himself and tried publicly to reassure his colleagues and staff that he could maintain stability and continued success.1
It did not take long before he began to believe in the image he was struggling to create. The occasionally timorous Luce of the 1920s, who—although never openly admitting it—often saw himself as the slightly junior partner to Hadden and who exuded practical efficiency more than broad vision, slowly became the proud and even imperious leader whose powerful ideas and convictions became his own, and his company’s, missions. Although he returned, in effect, to his customary position as business manager of the company, he never again conceded full editorial control to anyone else. He had many titles at different periods of his career: president, publisher, chairman of the board. But the one title Luce consistently held was Editor-in-Chief.
In the decades after Hadden’s death, Luce rarely spoke of his former partner. At first, no doubt, he felt the need to establish himself without Brit, to create confidence among his colleagues that he was a worthy leader of Time Inc. His strategy worked. Over time, fewer and fewer people in the company had ever heard of Hadden, and those who remembered him learned to act as if they had forgotten. Luce paid modest tribute to Hadden from time to time. He contributed to the construction of a new building for the Yale Daily News in New Haven, which was named for Brit. He supported Hadden’s cousin, Noel Busch, in the writing of a short biography of Hadden. But mostly, he simply moved on, seeing nothing to gain from dwelling on his former dependence on his longtime friend.
But what if Hadden had lived? One could imagine several scenarios, none of them remotely similar to Time Inc.’s subsequent history. Harry and Brit, having reached an impasse in their troubled relationship, might have gone their own ways—with Brit most likely retaining Time and Harry breaking away; or with the bored and restless Hadden leaving the company to Luce, who—with Hadden still in the background—would likely have had a much more difficult task in establishing his own authority (given Hadden’s stockholdings). Or they might have stayed together, with Hadden still the editorial leader of the company and Luce still the manager of its business affairs. Had that been the outcome, much would have depended on Brit’s ability to adjust to changing times. His death in 1929 came just before the end of the great prosperity of the 1920s and, for Harry and Brit’s generation, the fading of the age of cynicism and irreverence. Could Hadden have left behind his exuberant iconoclasm? Could Time Inc. have flourished during the Great Depression with Hadden’s raffish, Mencken-like outlook at the helm? Brit represented the disillusioned, skeptical, flippant culture of the “Jazz age.” Luce, on the other hand, was a serious, earnest, questing exception to his generation’s style; and his sense of purpose, even of mission, may have been better suited to the more sober 1930s than Hadden’s ironic temperament might have been. The only certainty, however, was that the history of the company—and of Luce’s life—would have been profoundly different had Hadden survived.
Among Luce’s first acts as the solitary leader of the company was to acquire Hadden’s stock. Hadden’s hastily composed will left his entire estate to his half brother, Crowell Hadden, with instructions that he use the income to support his mother and stepfather throughout their lifetimes. He also directed that Crowell should “hold my stock in Time Inc. and not sell the same until after the expiration of forty-nine years after my death.”2
Neither Luce nor Crowell Hadden seemed to take this last command very seriously. No record survives of the negotiations between Luce and the Hadden estate, but there is little to suggest that they were in any way hostile. In hindsight the Hadden family would have done better to keep the stock, which appreciated dramatically over the following decade and more. But no one at the time could have predicted the magnitude of the company’s future success. And so selling seemed to make sense for both parties. Crowell wanted to diversify the estate to provide more security for his family, while at the same time retaining a healthy share of Time stock. Luce wanted to give himself more control over the company and to launch a stock-purchase plan for his employees. Brit had owned a total of 3,361 shares of Time stock, about the same as Luce. In September 1929 the estate sold just over 2,800 of them to a syndicate Luce had created, which consisted of the executive officers of the company. The stock had never traded on the open market, so Luce consulted with several investment bankers for advice on its value. They valued the stock at the astonishing price of $360 a share. (Two years later it passed $1,000 a share.) Luce himself, already the largest stockholder, took out a loan and bought more than 600 additional shares for himself. Roy Larsen bought 550 shares and became—as he remained for many years—the second largest stockholder. The rest went to nine other officers and directors of the company. The Hadden estate received more than a million dollars in return.3
The importance of the purchase was not so much that Luce increased his own holdings, which were already substantial. The real value to him was that the deal eliminated the Hadden family’s ability to exercise control over the company or to transfer it to someone else. With much of Hadden’s very large share of the stock now dispersed, Luce now stood alone as the controlling stockholder. It was also important to him that ownership of so much of the stock lay within Time Inc.—not just because it reduced the circle of outside investors who might intervene in the company’s affairs but also because it tied his colleagues more firmly to the company and thus gave them an additional incentive to work for its success and profitability. In short, the settlement gave Luce almost unlimited power to shape the future of the company as he wished—a power he used almost immediately to launch a new project that Hadden had tried to thwart.
Late in 1928, well before Hadden’s death, Luce began planning for a new business magazine. He did so slowly and somewhat secretly because of Hadden’s conspicuous lack of enthusiasm for the idea. Time was at a crucial point of development, Hadden argued, and should not yet have to compete for attention with a new project. Luce privately called Hadden’s objections “specious” and bemoaned the “great spirit of stalling” that enveloped his proposal. But he did not give up. Work on the project took place within a new Experimental Department. Luce created it in part to insulate what he was doing from his censorious partner. He assigned the Time business writer Parker Lloyd-Smith—whom Luce described later as “brilliant” and someone with whom he had recently become “very simpatico”—and a talented researcher, Florence Horn, to work on the new magazine. He placed them in a small, remote room (almost as if he were trying to hide them). Luce’s relations with Hadden were by now so tense that the two partners often communicated with each other through proxies. Hadden told Harry Davison that he thought Luce’s project “should be abandoned.” Luce replied, also through the board of directors, asking them to postpone a decision until he could explore the possibility further.
After Hadden’s death Luce put off the project again while he worked to stabilize the shaken company. But the planning continued, and Luce finally brought a formal proposal to the board in May 1929, now claiming that Hadden would have approved of it had he lived. The venture was a gamble, Luce conceded, with perhaps a “50-50 chance” of success. But Time was enjoying “remarkable and unexpected prosperity” and “it would seem querulous to worry.” The board approved, although not without reservations, and Luce began moving toward a late-1929 publication.4
Hadden and Luce had launched Time by describing it as the world’s first newsmagazine; and while that title was open to dispute (the rival Literary Digest could make some claim to it), their boast was certainly plausible. In its format, style, and outlook, Timewas—and for many years remained—a singular magazine. Not until Newsweek began publication in 1930 was there anything like it. Luce and the new business magazine’s other founders insisted that it, too, was a pathbreaking publication—the first to examine business in real depth and with real detachment. “Publishers,” they claimed in a prospectus, “have almost entirely overlooked the Vogue of Business.” It would be the first real “record of Modern Industrial Civilization.”5
But it was not the first American business magazine—not even the first effort to look at business in a broad social context. For several decades publishers had been trying to serve the world of business with a broad array of magazines. Most of them were specialized, industry-specific publications largely unknown to the general reading public. But there were also a few business-oriented journals that aspired to be more than trade magazines. One of them was World’s Work—a monthly magazine with a 1930 circulation of about one hundred thousand—which had been chronicling American business since the 1870s. With its broad-ranging inquiries into the culture of the business world, it could make a fair claim to being not only a precursor to, but also a model for what became, Fortune. In a single issue in 1929, for example, World’s Work examined the economics of managing the White House; the arcane field of book collecting; controversies over chain stores; and the character of the Harvard Business School. World’s Work was also, like Fortune, a magazine with literary aspirations. It attempted to attract talented journalists and writers and sought to make its stories broadly interesting to a wide readership. But World’s Work was also an unapologetic cheerleader for business. It expressed unqualified admiration for big corporations and the “captains of finance and industry.” And it trumpeted undiminished optimism about the state of the economy—including the “Greatest of Bull Markets”—that made it highly vulnerable to the crashing fortunes and reputations of corporations and their leaders once the Great Depression began. It failed rapidly in the early 1930s. It was absorbed in 1932 by another magazine and was merged a few years later with Time’s former rival, the floundering Literary Digest, which itself ceased publication in 1937.6
The heady economic climate of the late 1920s inspired other publishers to launch new business magazines, including the short-lived Magazine of Business, which, like Fortune, claimed to be committed to a broad portrayal of the capitalist world aimed at a wide readership. In many ways, however, it epitomized the kind of business journalism for which Luce and the other founders of Fortune often expressed contempt. Luce’s colleague Eric Hodgins might well have had the Magazine of Business in mind when he once described business reporting in the 1920s as “simply pap…. If they weren’t written from handouts [from corporation publicists], they might just as well have been.” The Magazine of Business was, indeed, a willing promoter of its corporate constituency. Launched in 1927, it was clearly failing by mid-1929, even before the stock market crash. In August it was absorbed by a new and more important periodical published by McGraw-Hill: Business Week—a magazine inspired in part by Time and once proposed to Luce, who rejected it in favor of Fortune.7
Luce’s idea for what became Fortune had come in part out of his own longtime and growing curiosity about the world of business and the people who led it—an unsurprising interest for someone who was himself a young businessman working in the booming economic climate of the late 1920s. Seldom in American history had there been more interest in and enthusiasm for the corporate world and its leaders, an enthusiasm epitomized by the laconic Calvin Coolidge’s claim that “the business of America is business.” Luce echoed Coolidge’s view. “Business is essentially our civilization…. Business is our life,” he said in a March 1929 speech.8
But Luce’s interest in business was also partly anthropological. Because corporations now exercised so much power in the world, Luce argued, it was important for Americans to understand how they worked. Corporate leaders in the past had tended to hide from public view, aided by what Luce called the “Stygian ignorance of business which has almost universally characterized the press.” Corporations, he said, needed to be held up to honest scrutiny. Luce denounced the common belief in the 1920s that “anything faintly resembling an honest analysis of business was regarded as vulgar or Communistic or both,” that “something called private business as then organized was the God-given order of the universe.” He worried that most writing about business was uncritical, even adulatory. This slavish adulation of the “tycoons,” as Time had famously named corporate titans, could not continue, in part because of a fundamental change in the nature of business management. Corporate leaders, Luce insisted, were no longer mainly the visionary founders of their companies; the “tycoon” was becoming “less and less the owner and more and more the semi-detached or, at any rate, detachable manager.” That meant that corporate leaders were more likely to play multiple roles in society, at times using their generalized expertise as strategists and managers in areas outside business altogether. “Many more tycoons … will emerge as public characters,” Luce accurately predicted. “Being well-known they will be repositories of public trust … they will constantly be called upon for advice and even for positions in local and national government.” They would, in short, be even more influential than the single-minded founders of great companies in the late nineteenth century had been. And so the press would now have to watch. Given the dramatic collapse of the American economy, and of the stature of business that began just as the new magazine was being launched, this idea of looking at business from the outside proved to be especially critical to the magazine’s success.9
Most of all, however, the creation of a new magazine gave Luce a vehicle to establish a voice for himself within the company. He was proud of Time, to be sure, but it it had never really been his magazine—not only because Hadden had dominated its early years but also because its rigid format and inflexible system limited the ability of any one person, even its owner, to shape its content. The new business magazine, by contrast, would allow Luce to design a publication for his own boundless curiosity and ambition. Providing news to busy, uninformed people—the principal goal of Time—was a worthy but no longer a wholly satisfying purpose. Luce wanted as well to communicate big ideas, to tackle important questions, and to establish great goals for the world of business and for the nation. At first, he considered calling the new magazine “Power.” But in the end, that seemed to him an inadequate name for what he envisioned. He settled instead—partly in response to a suggestion from Lila—on the title Fortune, which Luce liked because the name referred not just to wealth, but also to such ideas as “chance,” “fate,” and “destiny.”10
Luce’s almost passionate commitment to Fortune—his “real love among his magazines,” Peter Drucker, briefly a Time Inc. writer, once observed—began to pour out of him once he threw himself into the planning. Among his first decisions was to emphasize design—to make Fortune “a beautiful magazine, if possible the most beautiful in the world.” It was certainly among the most elaborately and lavishly designed publications of its time. Luce hired “one of the finest typographers and art directors in the country,” Thomas Maitland Cleland, who revived an elegant eighteenth-century typeface, Baskerville, for the magazine. Luce also chose unusually expensive paper that would not have the shiny look of conventional coated stock but could still accommodate high-quality photographs. He commissioned eminent artists and designers—among them Rockwell Kent, Diego Rivera, Charles Sheeler, and Fernand Léger—to create elegant, complex covers. (The first issue bore a striking black-and-bronze image by Cleland of an almost abstract “wheel of fortune,” symbolizing not just the magazine’s title but industry and progress more broadly.) Fortune’s aesthetic represented, among other things, Luce’s own new attraction to modern art and design. Only one printer in the country could handle Fortune’s exacting demands, the Osborne Chromatic Gravure Company in New Jersey. It was necessary to print each side of each page in a separate run. Covers sometimes had to go through seven different print runs to handle the complex coloring. Fortune was not only expensive to print. It was also, unsurprisingly, expensive to buy—one dollar an issue, an astonishing price in an era when most magazines sold for five or ten cents, but one that Luce correctly predicted would give Fortune a kind of status that would attract the affluent readership he was targeting—“those active, intelligent and influential individuals who have a relatively large stake in U.S. Industry and Commerce.”11
“And now the question,” Luce wrote in a crude early prospectus. “What’s going to be in this magazine?” Luce, Lloyd-Smith, and the few others who worked on the creation of Fortune spent days, even months, proposing and testing story ideas. Luce himself used his few idle hours—sitting in hotel lobbies, riding on trains—listing potential topics on scraps of borrowed stationery: “the Rothschilds,” “Inheritance—the Family Business,” the “Biggest Farmers in the World,” “Total value of art works in the U.S.,” “Sleep—how many hours,” the “Power Trust,” “Sewage,” “Why Jews in clothing business?” According to another early prospectus Fortune would be “not simply a magazine to look at or through.” Like Time it would be “a magazine to read from cover-to-cover.”12
Fortune did not set out to be a cheerleader for businessmen. But it did intend to elevate the importance of business in the minds of its readers. “Accurately, vividly and concretely to describe Modern Business is the greatest journalistic assignment in history,” Luce’s prospectus announced. Even years later Fortune described itself as “a magazine with a mission. That mission is to assist in the successful development of American Business Enterprise at home and abroad.” But the real story of business, Luce insisted, was not simply industry and financial markets. It was “the daily activity of millions of men throughout the country and throughout the world.” Fortune would look beyond the obvious stories of great corporations and their leaders and search for opportunities to illuminate the workings of economic life. In a sense, therefore, Fortune’s charge was nearly without limits. It would be “the log-book, the critical history, the … record of Twentieth Century industrial civilization.” It would also, Luce insisted, be without ideological boundaries. “Not always flattering will be these descriptions,” the prospectus announced (in high Time style), for Fortune “is neither puffer or booster. Both of ships and of men, Fortune will attempt to write critically, appraisingly … with unbridled curiosity.” Reading Fortune, moreover, “may be one of the keenest pleasures in the life of every subscriber.”13
As the publication date approached in late 1929, there was something close to euphoria about the rapid progress Fortune was making toward profitability, even before a single issue had been printed. Larsen reported to Luce in early November that there were now thirty thousand subscribers and that nearly eight hundred pages of advertising had been sold, with more than eighty pages already committed to the first issue alone. The magazine, he accurately predicted, would “break even for the year 1930.” The rapid deterioration of the American economy after the October 1929 stock market crash only slightly dampened Luce’s optimism. “We will go ahead and publish,” he told the board, “but we shall be realistic…. We shall recognize that this slump may last as long as one year.” Luce never wavered in his commitment to proceed, and he even persuaded himself that the emerging Depression might be a good thing for the magazine, whose first issue was published in February 1930. “We didn’t want Fortune thought of as stock market fluff,” he later recalled. “In starting out in a slump we had a more solid base.”14
Fortune was indeed not stock market fluff. Although it went through several distinct phases in its first decade, it remained true to many of its initial goals. It was almost certainly, as Luce had hoped, the most beautiful broad-circulation magazine in America. It was also a true writer’s magazine. Although its language sometimes mimicked Time’s, there was no consistent effort to impose a single literary style on Fortune. That was one reason that it attracted so many distinguished staff writers in its first years: James Agee, Archibald MacLeish, Dwight Macdonald, among many others. Another reason was the relatively high salaries Luce offered in the midst of an economic crisis. (“We have absolutely nothing now but what I earn here,” MacLeish, who missed his poetry but on the whole rather liked writing for the magazine, wrote his family in a low moment, “and … it has meant that I have written nothing [except for Fortune] for a year. Which I cannot endure.”) Fortune was also distinguished by its commitment to photography, so much so that in its early years it promoted itself to a large degree by showcasing a woman who would become its most famous staff photographer, Margaret Bourke-White.15
Bourke-White came to the attention of Fortune by chance. She had been among the first American photographers to show an interest in industrial design. A series of striking pictures she took in Cleveland between 1928 and 1930—including a particularly impressive set of images of the Otis Steel Company—established her reputation as, in Luce’s words, the “greatest of industrial photographers.” (“It seems to me,” Bourke-White wrote at the time, “that huge machinery, steel girders, locomotives, etc., are so extremely beautiful because they were never meant to be beautiful. They are an expression of something that has come about in a perfectly natural way.”) Luce wired her in Cleveland and invited her to come to see him. Within a few weeks Fortune had hired her on unusual terms. She would work half-time for the magazine at the substantial salary of one thousand dollars a month and would have the remaining weeks to work on her own. Few photographers had achieved widespread fame by 1929; Bourke-White herself was still largely unknown. But Luce saw in her an opportunity to provide a new kind of star power to Fortune, and he began publicizing her association with the magazine as if she were already famous. Promotional literature in the months before publication contained full-page photographs—such as a picture of a steel mill that “imprisons the glow of molten metal”—credited to “The Photographer: Margaret Bourke-White of Fortune’s staff, now touring the U.S.” She was, she later said, impressed by Luce’s sophisticated understanding of what photographs could do and his curiosity about “what the average man is interested in. As though he was a sort of super-average man.” She remembered Luce telling her that “the camera would be as an interpreter, recording what modern industrial civilization is, how it looks, how it meshes.” It was almost “miraculous,” she later said, that a magazine could so perfectly capture her own ambitious hopes—“I with my dream of portraying industry in photographs, and they with their new magazine designed to hold just such photographs.”16
Time Inc. was not accustomed to hiring women for high-profile positions. Talented women abounded in the company, but almost never did they emerge from the virtually all-female research and clerical staffs, which—while indispensable to the magazines—were rarely considered pools from which to draw writers and editors. Bourke-White was among the first women to break that mold, and she was able to do so only because the company had never before hired professional photographers and could, despite her growing fame, consider her in some way outside the core editorial activities of the magazines. Perhaps as a result of her anomalous position, she and her editors were almost always in conflict—about money, about the quality of her photographs, about her “inappropriate” work for other publications. Her reputation with the editorial staff was, one editor wrote, someone who caused “troubles and headaches wherever she operates.” And yet through the early years of Fortune (and later Life), she provided some of the most memorable and important images the magazines ever published, and she became in many ways more renowned (and more marketable) than any other editorial employee.17
Among the qualities that made Bourke-White so valuable to Fortune was that her own photographic aesthetic coincided with—and also helped to shape—an important aspect of the magazine: Luce’s own fascination with and admiration for what was coming to be known as the “machine age.” Just as Bourke-White had found herself drawn to the physical structures of modernity in Cleveland, so Luce, and his Fortune staff, were enthralled by the new social aesthetic that the modern industrial world was creating. Their enthusiasm for the beauty and power of technology was visible in the first issue of Fortune, in which Bourke-White provided photographs of the Swift Meatpacking Plant in Chicago. A factory that was, in essence, a slaughterhouse would seem an unlikely example of the new machine age. But Bourke-White’s pictures revealed the state-of-the-art technology of the slaughterhouses with few glimpses of the carnage. Her opening photograph—accompanying an elaborate and clinical diagram of a hog’s various cuts of meat—provided an almost abstract image of a vast herd of hog backs, nearly unrecognizable as living animals. Even the more conventional photographs of pigs moving through the plant emphasized the orderly, almost mechanical process. The text of the article, by Parker Lloyd-Smith, was similarly dispassionate in its description of the efficiency, and even the beauty, of the grisly process. The hogs that arrived at the Swift plant were, Lloyd-Smith wrote, “beautifully assembled mechanisms…. By countless individual acts of destruction, Swift & Company paradoxically increases the value of products which are the result of countless individual acts of creation.”18
Fortune’s admiring portrait of Swift had a special meaning, because Swift was the meatpacking giant that twenty-four years earlier had been a target of Upton Sinclair’s sensational novel The Jungle. Sinclair had used the meatpacking industry as a symbol of the greedy, rapacious, and chaotic character of American industry. He was particularly effective in providing revolting depictions of the slaughterhouses, and especially accounts of how sausages were made:
There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit uncounted billions of consumption germs. There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it … a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats…. the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together.
The book created a popular sensation and led directly to the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which imposed new sanitary standards on the industry.
Fortune’s very different portrait of Swift deliberately reflected the broad, “modern” changes in meatpacking that Sinclair had helped create. The choice of Swift as the first article in the first issue of Fortune was also designed more broadly to contrast the character of modern industries from the unregulated, inefficient factories of a generation earlier. And it was also a deliberate effort to draw a contrast between the hostile muckraking of the Progressive Era and the more professionalized journalism of Luce’s world. Fortune’s Swift was no longer a “jungle” but a model of modern, progressive technology:
Here is a mechanical saw which grinds through the shoulder; there is a draw knife like a curved adz which scoops out the loin. Hundreds of white-sleeved arms swing back and forth. Hundreds of funnels gulp the morsels the knives flip aside. Some gulp lean trimmings; these will make sausage. Some gulp fats; these will make lard. Down one chute go the hams … down another go the shoulders.
In its clean, modern, clinical language, Lloyd-Smith seemed purposely to contrast his description with the censorious, emotional language of The Jungle.19
Fortune continued to feature striking examples of industrial design and productive efficiency throughout the 1930s: a story about the creation of an “ideal factory … in which the employees would work under optimum conditions as regards their five senses;” an article on the industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, praising “this new, artistic generation … fixed not on the past … but strictly on the present…. modern aestheticism must embrace the machine with all its innuendos;” a utopian essay on functionalism in home design (“Machines for Living”) by Lewis Mumford; a dramatic full-page Margaret Bourke-White photograph of the Chrysler Building under construction as it awaited its “sheathing in Nirosta Steel.” In an unsigned editorial in May 1933, Fortune attacked the antimodern claims of H. L. Mencken that the machine age was destroying the “sense of the continent” and its literature. In an era of aviation and industrial transformation, the Fortune editorial replied, “the sense of America, the sense of the continent revives. And as always in the civilization of industrialism it revives not by a return to an earlier and simpler life but by a further complication.”
Fortune’s enthusiasm for the machine-age aesthetic was also visible in its fascination with serious artists who chose modern industrialism as their subjects. One example was a full-page painting by Charles Sheeler of the Ford Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. Sheeler was renowned for his use of industrial scenes as timeless art, and the magazine embraced the ideology behind his style. “An artist, observing a factory, usually finds in it some symbol of industrial grandeur, oppression, or monotony,” the caption explained. “Charles Sheeler, whose calm and meticulous Fordscape appears on this page, has another approach. He looks at the Ford plant as it is; enjoys its patterns, shades, and movements; and its careless deductions.” Another was a 1931 article on a lesser-known artist, the sculptor Max Kalish, who came to Fortune’s attention because of his focus on “linemen and steel workers and iron forgers and electric workers.” His sculpture was a “reproach” to much American art. For it proved “that there exists in America the material for a primary and unspoiled [industrial] art.” Fortune, in short, was part of the broad effort of its age (and now of Luce) to legitimize modernism, to reward those who contributed to the rationalization of industry and commerce, and to celebrate the sleek new aesthetic that accompanied it.20
One of the few stories Luce himself actually reported and wrote in the first year of the magazine was an especially powerful example of his fascination with the machine age. He had accompanied Bourke-White to South Bend, Indiana, in early 1930 to chronicle the life of an important industrial city. A year earlier the sociologists Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd had published Middletown—a classic study of the supposedly typical community of Muncie, Indiana, in the 1920s. It was almost certainly a model for Luce’s story of neighboring South Bend. “We shall seek to discover,” Luce wrote in language similar to that of the Lynds,
both how much and what kind of industrial productivity is required these days for the human reproductivity of South Bend. To understand the life which calls forth the babies in South Bend is to understand why all the babies in all the United States are born. For South Bend is the perfect microcosm, the living example, the photographable average.
But Luce’s real purpose was not dispassionate investigation. The article was, rather, a celebration of the power of the machine age, enhanced by Bourke-White’s muscular photographs. “Cosmic, titanic, great, majestic…. Enter now the clang of steel, the roar of furnaces, the toots of financiers, and the honks of salesmen, the great Modern or Automotive Age,” Luce wrote almost breathlessly. “What now is South Bend, what now is the perfect microcosm of the golden age of the Industrial Era?”21
Fortune’s approach to business fluctuated over time, reflecting the changing character of the economy, the shifting ideas of the staff, the new politics of the Depression years, and the inclinations of Luce himself (whose views were ultimately decisive). He was, of course, himself a successful businessman, but his admiration for his peers was not unqualified. Time Inc. had succeeded, Luce believed, because it was innovative, flexible, and as self-consciously modern as the gleaming Chrysler Building in New York City into which it would soon move. The companies and corporate executives Luce admired were those similarly committed to a modern, progressive approach to business. The industrial world, he believed, was moving into a new era—no longer the province of ruthless and reckless robber barons, but increasingly a world dominated by rational, well-educated executives who were transforming modern corporations. Fortune would reveal and celebrate this new world. Herbert Hoover had once typified the kind of progressive leader Luce generally admired. Luce became disillusioned with him because of the president’s apparent abandonment of the progressive spirit of the “new age.” Evidence of his disdain was a harsh essay in Fortune in September 1932, whose title was drawn from an infamous statement by Hoover—“No One Has Starved”—with the scathing subtitle, “which isn’t true.”22
The Swift story was the first of a genre that would come to characterize almost every issue of Fortune: portraits of corporations and industries. Such articles were not always admiring. The editors sometimes chose companies they considered “behind the times” and compared them unfavorably with the modern model that Luce admired. A June 1930 article on the notoriously unstable cotton textile industry, for example, was unsparing in its description of the industry’s failings: “The country’s fourth largest industry is at the mercy of two forces—labor and a woman’s vanity. Together they keep it without leadership and without stability.” But far more often in Fortune’s first years, the stories focused on the progressive power of American capitalism. The great General Motors Corporation, famous for the efficient new organization that its president, Alfred P. Sloan, had imposed on it in the early 1920s, was a Fortune favorite: “Having ambition where the ordinary man has discontent,” the magazine wrote in April 1930, “their only common characteristic is energy. Not bigger wheels but faster.” In profiling AT&T, the world’s largest corporation, Fortune noted that “its primary allegiance belongs to the people who buy its service instead of the people who buy its stock.” (The company’s CEO, much revered by Fortune, was fond of saying that the “captains of industry” must now be replaced by “statesmen of industry.”) Luce was especially impressed with the companies that were moving aggressively to restructure themselves to survive the Great Depression, for example, the financial company Transamerica, which recognized that “the era of easy trading profits had come to its end” and had instead “reorganized itself with an eye to the new world.” To Luce such stories of American innovation and success were a challenge to the eroding reputation of business in the first years of the Great Depression.23
Fortune’s modestly restrained enthusiasm for corporations and business leaders did not protect it from the scorn of those who believed that the Depression had torn away the mask of capitalism and destroyed the credibility of the corporate world. “Fortune says, Long live the tycoon!” the Nation wrote dismissively in 1931, charging that “glorified success stories about tycoons and their profit-producing enterprises are consciously designed to encourage the purchase of securities in these undertakings.” But Luce was far from a cheerleader for “tycoons.” He believed that business leaders, and those who celebrated the business world, were woefully ignorant of the new shape of industry. They had an obligation to accept “the radical principle … that all business is invested in the public interest.” Looking back on the early years of Fortune more than a decade later, Luce recalled his sense that there was “something particularly improper in people strutting around on the basis of their (or their husband’s) business status, yet refusing to admit a drawing-room bowing acquaintance with the realities of industry and commerce.” Fortune’s “crusading point,” he bluntly insisted, “was in effect this: ‘God damn you, Mrs. Richbitch, we won’t have you chittering archly and snobbishly about Bethlehem Common [stock] unless you damn well have a look at the open hearths and slagpiles—yes, and the workers’ houses of Bethlehem, Pa.’” 24
The undercurrent of skepticism about capitalism among many of his editors and writers, and at times in Luce himself, was only scarcely visible in the first few years of Fortune’s life. But it gradually became more pronounced through a combination of chance and circumstance. By the summer of 1930, Luce had become concerned that Parker Lloyd-Smith—whose creative and literary brilliance he continued to admire—was not succeeding at the day-to-day management of the magazine, which had become erratic, even at times chaotic. Fortune, Luce concluded, needed a reliable associate editor. He settled on Ralph Ingersoll, the managing editor of The New Yorker, who was renowned for his organized efficiency. Lloyd-Smith was offended at first, but he soon found Ingersoll a cooperative and even indispensable partner. A little over a year after Ingersoll’s arrival, however, Lloyd-Smith jumped naked to his death from the small hotel room where he lived alone. The startling and unexplained suicide thrust Ingersoll into the managing editorship of the magazine. He was less charismatic and less likable than Lloyd-Smith had been, but far more efficient; and with Luce’s support he set out to reorganize the staff so as to deepen the magazine’s engagement with the economy generally.
By the end of 1931 hope for a quick recovery from the Depression was fading. And beginning in 1933 the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and the energy and occasional radicalism of the New Deal—combined with the increasing influence of the Left generally in American culture—made criticism of business, and of capitalism itself, far more pervasive than in all but a few periods of American life. It also became a part of the character of Fortune. Ingersoll was certainly not a radical, and he was far too protective of his own career to put very much distance between himself and Luce. But Ingersoll tolerated and at times even actively encouraged the left-leaning inclinations of much of his staff. Luce inadvertently hastened the move to the left by urging Ingersoll to reorganize the editorial process in 1933 in a way that gave writers even more control over their work than they had in the past. Ingersoll, who considered Fortune as much a “writer’s” magazine as The New Yorker, eagerly agreed. He was especially deferential to the poet and essayist Archibald MacLeish, who was trying to make Fortune into both a more intellectual and a more critical magazine than it had been at first. “Where the old Fortune … was to have concerned itself with business for business’ sake,” MacLeish later wrote, “the new Fortune would report the world of business as an expression—a peculiarly enlightening expression—of the Republic, of the changing world.” The magazine was never as overtly partisan as journals of opinion such as the Nation or The New Republic, but in the mid-1930s it was often strikingly iconoclastic in its approach to the capitalist world it had set out at first to celebrate.25
The Fortune writer Eric Hodgins (who later became managing editor of the magazine) described it as “the most brilliant magazine staff ever to exist in America.” Whether or not that was true, it was certainly one of the most adventurous. Few of the writers had any previous experience in either business or journalism. (It was, Luce said, “easier to turn poets into business journalists than to turn bookkeepers into writers.”) They were hired for their literary skills, their intelligence, and their connections to one another, just as the original Time writers had generally come not from journalism but from successful academic lives in universities like Harvard and Yale. Luce hired Dwight Macdonald because another Time Inc. writer, Wilder Hobson, had known him at Yale. MacLeish had a previous relationship with Luce, also in part through their shared ties to Yale and Hotchkiss. James Agee came to Fortune through the efforts of his friend Macdonald. Russell Davenport, an aspiring poet who began his long career at Time Inc. as a Fortunewriter, knew Luce through Skull and Bones, and his presence also opened the door for his brother, John. They were a close-knit group, and they chose to interpret “business” as anything related to the economy, which opened up most of the world to them—especially in light of the freedom Luce seemed to have given them. Not many writers embraced what the Fortune writer John Chamberlain later called his own “antibusiness radicalism,” but there was a political affinity among many of the Fortune staff (not least among the female researchers, whose influence was profound if largely unacknowledged) for some of the great causes of the Left. They joined together to raise money for the antifascist forces in the Spanish civil war. Many of them were “ardent liberals,” Macdonald later wrote, and identified openly with the most progressive initiatives of the New Deal. “Almost invariably,” Ingersoll recalled, “wherever we touched on labor problems, we came out more sympathetic with labor than with management.”26
Unsurprisingly these political inclinations found their way into the magazine—not consistently, but often enough to alarm some of Fortune’s powerful advertisers, subscribers, and friends. Eric Hodgins’s 1934 article “Arms and the Men” created a sensation with its strident indictment of European arms merchants, whose “axioms,” he wrote, are “(a) prolong war, (b) disturb peace…. Every time a burst shell fragment finds it way into the brain, the heart, or the intestines of a man in the front line … much of the profit, finds its way into the pocket of the armament maker.” (Ingersoll boasted to Luce that the story “will make FORTUNE internationally famous for the rest of its life.”) MacLeish published a devastating three-part portrait of the notorious industrialist Ivar Kreuger, who committed suicide amid revelations of—to use the title of MacLeish’s third article—“A $250,000,000 swindle.” MacLeish also wrote a powerful essay (later republished by Time Inc. as a book) on “Jews in America,” linking the Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany to anti-Semitism in America. Particularly startling was a September 1934 article, unsigned but written by Dwight Macdonald, on the American Communist Party, which, without defending or endorsing Communism, challenged the deep antipathy most Americans felt toward it:
The Reds may be “trouble makers,” and “fomenters of rebellion,” but they can make trouble and riots only when the capitalist system has done gross injustice to some social group. By leading the oppressed classes and making their grievances articulate, the Communists force the capitalist system to adjust its more glaring inequalities.
And despite Luce’s own early and growing doubts about the New Deal, Fortune openly celebrated Roosevelt’s apparent success, including a ringing endorsement of the ultimately failed National Recovery Administration:
If it is [NRA director Hugh Johnson’s] purpose to transplant the practice of democracy from the political field … to the industrial field … the result may be not only the salvation of American industry but the rejuvenation of the now decayed and outmoded ideal of democracy itself.27
Even one of the magazine’s most ostensibly neutral features—Luce’s idea for what became the much-heralded “Fortune Survey,” which mobilized the new techniques of public-opinion research and presented a portrait of popular views of economic and other issues—often seemed to skew its questions to support the New Deal and other progressive causes. The first surveys, for example, asked for opinions about wealth distribution, public services versus taxation, income and estate taxes, the dignity of labor, and the responsibility of government to assure every man a job. The polling sample—gathered by the pioneering pollster Elmo Roper—was not Fortune readers but the general public. The results, predictably, reflected the left-leaning attitudes of the electorate in this highly charged time of upheaval.28
But it was not always easy to hold liberal or radical views while writing for a business magazine that, for all its flirtations with the Left, remained committed to the ethos of the capitalist world. They soon began to run up against the limits of radicalism Luce was willing to tolerate. Two of the most talented writers at Fortune were also the most disaffected. Both Agee and Macdonald had come to Fortune because they needed the money. Like almost everyone on the editorial staff, they wrote the standard company and industry stories. But they were always a poor fit with the magazine’s culture, even in its most iconoclastic years. Agee described the spectrum of his feelings about Fortune as ranging from “a hard masochistic liking to direct nausea.” Macdonald later claimed that he wrote for Fortune “with no special interest in the subject” or in his published stories, which were “impossible for me to reread or even remember writing, a month later…. Never did I think of myself as a member of the team, a loyal, dedicated Fortunian.” Both began to chafe at what they considered the increasingly formulaic culture of the magazine.
Agee, taking advantage of Fortune’s growing interest in dysfunctional industries and regions, proposed a study of Southern sharecroppers, and in 1936 traveled to Alabama with the photographer Walker Evans to chronicle the lives of three families of white tenant farmers. The result was a remarkable series of photographs by Evans and a massive text by Agee—a sprawling, discursive expression of his own emotional response to the lives of the families he had visited. It reflected his simultaneously radical and antiprogressive belief in the “divinity of man,” and it argued that neither journalism nor politics could adequately convey the richness of individual lives. Fortune unsurprisingly declined to publish the enormous, idiosyncratic manuscript, and Agee spent the next four years trying to find a publisher for it. (It finally came out in 1940 as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and received scant, unenthusiastic critical attention. It sold about six hundred copies before being remaindered and forgotten—only to be revived in the 1960s and proclaimed a literary classic.)29
Agee’s disaffection was no secret to anyone. Macdonald’s restiveness remained mostly hidden. He argued with Luce occasionally, once accusing him of not having “enough social consciousness.” But mostly he kept his opinions to himself until he finally decided to rebel openly. He was assigned in 1936 to coauthor a four-part series on U.S. Steel with his fellow Fortune writer Robert Cantwell. The story sharply denounced the company’s harsh labor policy, “the most severely criticized and most uncompromisingly defended position ever taken by the Corporation.” And it concluded sourly that “three great social groups are affected by the Corporation: its stockholders, its customers, its employees…. It has in the past pleased no one of them.” But Macdonald was not content with criticism of the company’s performance alone. In the course of his work on the project, he had taken a strong dislike to Myron Taylor, U.S. Steel’s president; and he wrote scathingly in the last of the four articles that Taylor had come to head the giant corporation only because he “looked like a movie director’s idea of a big corporation CEO.” (Even years later, looking back on the story, he described Taylor as “that great ham character actor.”) He also, as he himself later claimed, included a deliberate provocation to Luce: an epigraph that read “‘Monopoly is the final stage of capitalism.’ V.I. Lenin.” Luce demanded that Macdonald rewrite the article. Macdonald refused—apparently no longer able to suppress his loathing of his work at Fortune—which he later expressed openly in an acerbic article about Luce and his magazine in the Nation.30
Luce had been mostly tolerant of the critical tone of Fortune despite his frequent grumbling about the complaints he received from his friends and colleagues in the business world. But his intervention in the U.S. Steel piece was a clear sign of change. In 1936 Luce began to harden the tone of Fortune—partly in response to the passions raised within the company by the Spanish civil war, which was, Luce later wrote, “fought in the Time-Life Building with some bitter consequences.” Many of the more left-leaning writers and editors departed. Macdonald resigned, openly defiant. His departure was the most wounding to Luce, who later recalled spending “more time trying to educate that young man than any other writer I’ve ever dealt with.” Agee moved out of Fortune at about the same time and became a book reviewer for Time. A few years later he left the company to write novels. MacLeish resigned in 1938 to accept a position at Harvard, unhappy with the direction the magazine was taking and disappointed in Luce.
The growing restiveness among the Fortune staff was driven as much by their unhappiness with Time as by the changing character of their own magazine. Macdonald wrote Luce not long before his resignation that “the chief difference between Time and the [liberal journal of opinion] Nation seems to be that the Nation is consciously left-wing … whereas Time is ostensibly impartial but actually (perhaps unconsciously) right-wing.” MacLeish, in his own last year with the company, frequently sent Luce tough if courteous criticisms of Time. He was particularly contemptuous of Laird Goldsborough, whom MacLeish, like many others, still accused of fascist inclinations. “I don’t think anyone here has ever thought Time was fascist in intention,” MacLeish wrote in 1936. But the magazine did have “a strong unconscious bias, particularly in labor stories and in foreign news relating to revolutionary developments.” MacLeish engaged in an increasingly acrimonious exchange with Goldsborough himself about Time’s coverage of the Spanish civil war and its often-unsubtle admiration for fascism, Franco, and Mussolini. Goldsborough, in turn, accused MacLeish of being in league with communists. Luce stood largely apart from the fray, which MacLeish correctly interpreted as his siding with Goldsborough. “I wish some things had gone differently with you,” he wrote Luce ruefully in a farewell letter. “You were meant to be a progressive—a pusher-over—a pryer-up. You were meant to make common cause with the people—all the people. You would have been very happy I think if you could have felt that the New Deal was your affair. Because it was your affair.”
The angst within Fortune was, in short, a fear that it would become more like Time. That concern grew when Ingersoll moved out of Fortune and into a management position in 1936. The shift created anxiety about his successor and also doubts about Ingersoll’s ability (or willingness) to resist Luce’s influence. (Ingersoll later left the company entirely to start his own short-lived newspaper, P.M.) Ingersoll’s departure from Fortune hastened the changing culture of the magazine. His immediate successor was Eric Hodgins, whose views were not unlike Ingersoll’s but who was weaker and more deferential to Luce. He was replaced less than a year later by Russell Davenport, who was considerably more conservative than either Ingersoll or Hodgins had been and who set out enthusiastically to change the magazine’s tone.31
The changes at Fortune were in part a result of Luce’s loss of patience with what he had come to consider the increasingly anticapitalist and pro–New Deal tone of the magazine. As early as 1933 Luce had told MacLeish that he “ought not to resent the millionaires in the audience, and should cheerfully remember that that happens to be the audience to which they were invited to lecture.” By late 1936 Luce was becoming concerned by the rising level of complaints from advertisers and by what he called the “considerable change in [Fortune’s] philosophy.” The trouble with Fortune, Luce once said, “is that it often forgets it is a Journalist and imagines itself like the Oxford Union … (Socialist these days, of course).”
He was also developing a “growing antipathy to Mr. Roosevelt and the New Deal,” despite some initial enthusiasm. Luce had arranged a meeting with the president in 1933, and he brought MacLeish—who was writing a Fortune profile of Roosevelt—along with him. As they left the White House, MacLeish later recalled, Luce said excitedly, “My God, what a man!” But by 1934 Luce was regularly criticizing the administration—both in speeches and in print. And by the end of 1935 he was becoming exasperated by the great enthusiasm for the New Deal among Fortune writers. He became determined to “get Fortune a little bit straightened out ideologically.” The magazine was, he later recalled, “going more and more socialistic in its attitude. And the question was how could we honestly ask businessmen to advertise in Fortune if our editorial policy had diverged so far from the general business community’s sentiment.” The result was what Luce called a “Respectus” in mid-1937, in which Luce charted a revised course for the magazine. “Fortune,” he announced, “can be either a great Communist magazine or a great Capitalist magazine,” and there was no doubt which choice Luce was making: Fortune would “have a platform with two planks.” One would be the “free and fearless journalism of inquiry.” The other would be “a bias in favor of private enterprise” and against “State-control…. Fortune views with alarm the weakness in private capitalism which invokes collectivism; and points with pride to those merits in private capitalism which argue against collectivism.”32
The new direction for Fortune was not just a result of Luce’s disagreements with his writers about capitalism. It was also a reflection of Luce’s own growing determination to impose a coherent ideology on the magazine—and on the company as a whole. Fortune had, in fact, never been an anticapitalist magazine. Most of its content always fit comfortably into Luce’s own sympathetic, if slightly skeptical, view of the business world; the iconoclastic stories from some of his more left-leaning writers were the exception. What Luce found increasingly troubling about Fortune was less its politics than its diversity of opinion. He had tolerated such diversity into the mid-1930s, but gradually, he had ceased to tolerate the wide range of views reflected in his magazines. Instead he had come to believe that the Time Inc. publications needed to reflect a shared sense of purpose—a purpose defined largely by him.
It was not easy to impose his own beliefs on a large and growing institution. For the rest of his life, Luce railed frequently about his inability to control the contents of the magazines, about the ways in which his writers and editors appeared to ignore his wishes. But he continued to try, and he succeeded often enough to ensure that the Time Inc. magazines would be distinctive in the world of journalism, that they would present not just the news, but the editor in chief’s own sense of what it meant.
The battle for control began almost immediately upon Luce’s presentation of his “Respectus.” Several staff members protested vehemently against it, not because it marked a turn away from the “socialist inclinations” of the past, but because of the very idea that the magazine should have a more-or-less official “purpose” at all. Fortune, they argued, should “not stoop to a profession of faith … we do not need a platform.” Seventeen female researchers signed a statement denouncing the “total disregard of facts” and the “deliberate bias” that was creeping into the magazine; the principle underlying Fortune, they insisted, had always been the honest pursuit of truth without “a pre-established editorial bias.” Davenport and Luce emphatically disagreed with them. Davenport had, in fact, accepted the managing editorship in 1937 precisely because, as he later wrote, it was necessary “to develop a policy that business men could accept … if Fortune’s reputation in the business world was to be saved.” Luce had a larger goal. He believed that the magazine should take a stand on the great issues of the day—a stand that would reflect Luce’s own political and ideological progress.33
Although Luce would eventually become best known, and most controversial, for his opinions on international affairs—and for his passionate views on China—his first active political interventions focused on the role of government in the economy. He was unhappy with the New Deal and what he considered its arrogant and dismissive attitude toward business. But he was not a reactionary. He was impatient with the rigidity and conservatism of many corporations and their leaders. Beginning tentatively in 1935, and with greater emphasis in the later years of the decade, he helped craft an economic policy for himself and for his magazines—a set of ideas similar to what some years later would come to be known as “corporate liberalism.” He began increasingly to argue that the dangerous path to “collectivism” could be averted only by a change in the character of private enterprise. He also came to believe that one of Fortune’s missions must be to explain and promote his views.
Corporate liberalism as Luce understood it had roots in the efforts of some corporations in the 1920s to create a benevolent environment for their workers, a system known at the time as “welfare capitalism.” The relatively few industries that embraced this concept had provided employees with previously rare benefits such as pension contributions, paid vacations, and most of all higher wages. Luce was a quiet champion of welfare capitalism in the late 1920s. But more than that, he was a harsh critic of what he considered the “defensive, suspicious, false” conservatism of many business leaders. “Toryism resists change,” he had said in 1928. “But business is the great innovator. Business discards the good for the better, the best for the once impossible…. And with business came liberalism. It remodeled thrones, rewrote constitutions, altered, adapted, renovated, recreated. And what could not be renovated, it removed.”
Although Luce disliked many New Deal policies, his principal complaints against Roosevelt were more personal. The president, he believed, was governing outside the rule of law; he had become an authoritarian leader who exercised power almost arbitrarily, and had used his position to make demagogic attacks on rival institutions, most notably business. As early as 1935, in an article titled “The Case Against Roosevelt” (which Luce, somewhat capriciously, assigned to the very pro-Roosevelt MacLeish), Fortunenoted the “personal character” of New Deal regulation, its apparent vindictiveness, its “feel of the human interferer.” The president, MacLeish wrote, “has opened a door through which a dictator could easily pass.” Such criticisms grew steadily over the next several years—in commissioned pieces in Fortune from such anti-Roosevelt figures as Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan (“This either is, or it is not, a government of laws rather than of men,” Vandenberg wrote, citing the New Deal’s “disregard for the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution”), and in Luce’s own public statements (“It is now Franklin Roosevelt’s task without delay to restore the long-term conditions of confidence which private capitalism requires,” he told a group of Ohio businessmen).34
Corporate liberalism, therefore, was simultaneously a plea for government to respect the “rule of law” and the prerogatives of business, and a call for the private sector to embrace an enlightened policy of social responsibility. As early as 1934, despite his unhappiness with the New Deal, Luce was—through Fortune—exhorting business to accept a series of progressive principles: “that a livelihood should be guaranteed to every man, … that there must be a dwelling for every man, woman and child, and that it must conform to some minimum standard of decency,” and that “there must be developed a widely understood pattern for the reward of talent” because the “greatest practical test of a nation’s devotion to liberty is the extent to which it maintains the open door of opportunity.”35
Luce’s commitment to enlightened business leadership as the key to a successful society was clearly at odds with the belief of many liberals, and virtually all socialists, that capitalism was a less reliable provider of justice than was the state. But Luce was not entirely hostile to government. Were the New Deal to fail, he predicted, the result would not (and should not) be “a return to laissez-faire capitalism.” The nation’s economy “can be established only by Business working with Government and Government working with Business, over a long period of years, toward a progressively higher standard of living derived from the incentives of private enterprise.”36
By 1939 Fortune’s idea of a rapprochement between government and business was far from that of the left-leaning liberals who had written for the magazine in the mid-1930s. By the end of the decade, Fortune reflected instead the emerging moderate Republican position of accepting some of the New Deal and rejecting a great deal more. Through a series of Fortune “Round Tables,” the first published in March 1939, the magazine presented the views of a carefully selected group of business leaders brought together to discuss important political issues, beginning with federal fiscal policy. “In general,” the panel agreed, “the social and labor reforms so far established should be retained … [and] public spending should indeed be used to counterbalance the business cycle.” But while government spending was not inevitably bad, it should be used to “increase productive opportunity rather than merely spend to create purchasing power.” Fortune’s editors summed up the Round Tables with considerable pride: “We have the satisfaction of having done a small bit in the herculean job of bringing business and government points of view into alignment.” A year later they boasted further about the new, progressive business spirit, which had changed not only political economy but culture.
In “The Culture of Democracy,” an essay in a special 1940 issue of Fortune on America, the editors argued that literature and art were no longer the property of Popular Front critics of capitalism. They were, rather, moving into a “dialectic” with the world of enlightened business, helping to create a stronger, more abundant, and more pluralistic America. The essay concluded with a passage from Walt Whitman, which expressed—in a way certainly unintended by Whitman himself—Fortune’s own optimistic vision of the new, enlightened capitalist age:
Fresh come, to a new world indeed, yet long prepared,
I see the genius of the modern, the child of the real and the ideal,
Clearing the ground for a broad humanity, the true America, heir of the past so grand,
To build a grander future.
Fortune had not given up its commitment to elevated language, as Whitman’s florid poem made clear. But it had made a decision about what the magazine stood for: no longer a broad, pluralistic look at the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism, but a vehicle for expressing the ideas and convictions that Luce had come to believe must be Fortune’s new mission.37