By the mid-1930s Luce had become—as he would remain for the rest of his life—a famous publishing titan, admired by some, reviled by others, but to almost everyone in his orbit an object of curiosity and fascination. “How could you work for Luce?” was a question serious writers such as Dwight Macdonald often encountered from friends and literary colleagues. And yet many important writers did flock to Time Inc. Some of them stayed for decades, attracted in part by the good pay but also in part by Luce’s own magnetism and energy.
He was still a very young man. (He turned thirty-seven in 1935.) He had good reason to feel satisfied with what he had achieved. Time itself was healthy, robust, and consistently profitable even during a deep Depression. The erratic performance of its managing editor, John Martin, who was dogged by alcoholism and apparent depression, troubled Luce. But the rise of the talented and reliable John Shaw Billings, who now edited National Affairs, and the continued if controversial competency of Foreign Affairs editor Laird Goldsborough kept Time on a stable track. Fortunewas admired, popular, and financially stable. In September 1931, Luce leased two floors in the prestigious Chrysler Building as if to announce Time Inc.’s transition from a presumptuous fledgling company to a publishing giant. “This was an extravagance,” he said of the move in a memo to the staff. “I believe we will not regret it because of the satisfaction to be derived from such a unique place to work.” Within a few years the company had expanded to all or part of eight floors.1
But success, however gratifying, did not create satisfaction. Luce was always searching for new challenges and new purposes. Early in 1932 he decided, almost abruptly, to change course, at least for a while. He made plans for a three-month trip around the world.
Luce had been an enthusiastic traveler as a boy and a young man. But since his return in 1921 from his year in England and Europe, he had done relatively little traveling and had left the country only twice—in 1927 and 1931—for brief trips to France with Lila. Now travel became again a central part of his life. To his father, who was “mystified as to the purposes of my trip,” Luce explained that it would be a “vacation—sheer idleness! … I’m going to leave behind an awful pile of mental baggage.” But Luce was as incapable of “sheer idleness” as he was of leaving behind his “mental baggage.” The trip was a product both of his own insatiable curiosity and his belief that he must educate himself to guide the future of his magazines and to play a larger role in the world.2
He did not want to travel alone, but he apparently never considered asking Lila to join him. The trip would likely be too arduous and too dangerous, he explained to her, and he had no intention of traveling with his two young boys, Hank and Peter, in tow. Instead he asked Leslie Severinghaus—the husband of his sister Emmavail and now a high-school English teacher in suburban Philadelphia—to accompany him. (“I’d rather have you with me than anyone else,” Severinghaus later recalled Harry saying.) The two men were not close, and Les was surprised—even if pleased—by the invitation to join his brother-in-law. Harry never explained his choice, but it is reasonable to assume that Les’s modest, self-effacing manner and his fluency in Chinese were among his attractions. (The earlier tension with Emmavail had eased, and she was now friendly with Lila—perhaps another reason for his choice.)3
After a cross-country trip by train and two hectic days of sightseeing in Seattle and Victoria, they boarded the Canadian Pacific steamship Empress of China on May 7 for the long voyage across the Pacific. Except for a short interlude in Hawaii, during which Luce raced frantically from one meeting with local dignitaries to another, they were at sea for just over two weeks. There were relatively few passengers in first class, and it did not take long for boredom to set in. Luce spent much of his time reading, exercised every day in the gym and the saltwater pool, and tried—not always successfully—to avoid the bridge games and idle social conversations with which most passengers filled the day. It was, he wrote Lila, “the dullest trip I have ever made,” leavened only by the presence on board of the missionary Leighton Stuart, president of Yenching University and a close associate of Harry’s father. Although Harry brought most shipboard conversations to an abrupt end as soon as he became bored (which was generally very quickly), he often sat up late into the night talking with Stuart and reconnecting himself with China.4
He spent six crowded days sightseeing in Japan—“very drab” with an “occasional bit of loveliness,” he described it. But he was already preoccupied with his impending return to China, which was the real purpose of the trip. In “a few lazy hours,” he said, he had formed a “workable notion of the simple (though, of course, fascinating) history of the Island Empire. But China! … Here we have to deal with the complete gigantic and elaborate symphonies of the human heart, its incomprehensible discords and its resolutions of breath-taking sublimity. Oh brave new world! … Oh China!” (Aldous Huxley’s newly published novel had been part of his shipboard reading.)5
Harry and Les rose before dawn—both of them too excited to sleep—to watch the Chinese shoreline come into view. Their first glimpse of the country was a nightmarish landscape of physical devastation, the product of recent Japanese air and gunboat attacks, which were among the first battles of a war that would continue for more than a decade. But once on shore they were whisked through customs and taken quickly to Shanghai, where Luce almost immediately began a busy series of meetings, visits, and social events—most of them carefully arranged in advance by the network of family friends and business acquaintances who had been paving the way for his arrival. Throughout his monthlong journey through China, Harry was at once reserved (rarely talking about himself) and almost aggressively inquisitive with guides, dinner companions, fellow journalists, and almost everyone else he met. (“The curiosity appetite of Harry is insatiable,” Severinghaus noted in the extensive journal he kept of their trip. “You should have heard him fire questions at the guide!”) Luce was tireless in exploring Beijing, a city he had not known during his childhood, and he organized sightseeing trips to shrines and mountains outside the city—on one of which he encountered an international commission that included U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson. He also visited Yenching University, for which his father had worked tirelessly for many years. It was, he wrote his parents, one of the “climaxes of the trip,” although in fact he found the campus drab and disappointing.6
But to Harry the most rewarding part of his time in China was visiting the sites of his childhood. At the mission compound in Wei Hsien, where his family had lived for most of his youth, he talked so rapidly and excitedly that Les could hardly understand him. But Luce could not help feeling downcast after a while as he discovered that almost everyone he had known there twenty years before was now gone. “The shell of our house and our compound hasn’t changed,” he wrote, “but the spirit is gone out of it.” He had a similar if fainter sense of loss when he visited the “sadly bedraggled” missionary compound in Tengchow, where he had been born (and from which his family had fled the Boxer Rebellion in 1900). Oddly enough, one of his warmest experiences was his return to the British boarding school at Chefoo, which he had so hated as a student. The real highlight of his trip, however, was a week at Iltus Huk, the seaside resort at which he had spent most of his childhood summers. “To be here is indescribable delight,” he wrote Lila. “Mountains, hills, ocean, sand (real silky sand), rocks, woods, grass—I think there never was such a place…. Such a satisfaction to know that all these years I haven’t been harboring a false illusion of first-love.” He spent his days swimming in the ocean, hiking, reading, and driving around the region in a car he had leased—“an idyllic holiday within a holiday…. Along with the tan, health seems to be zooming in every department. A tremendous appetite.”7
During the almost twenty years since he had left China, Luce had been only intermittently interested in what was happening there. He paid more attention to China than did most of his American contemporaries, to be sure. But his sense of connection had grown faint, beginning at Hotchkiss, where he struggled to escape the image of “foreign-ness” that had earned him the unwelcome nickname “Chink;” continuing at Yale, where he wanted nothing so much as to fit in to its powerful and wholly conventional culture of achievement; and persisting through the early years of Time, when he had relatively little influence over the contents of the magazine and struggled mostly to make it a financial success. Among the results of Hadden’s death had been a new freedom for Luce to embrace and advance causes of his own, and during his 1932 trip he revived and strengthened his identification with China.
Reacquainting himself with the important places of his own childhood was only the beginning of this new commitment. A more enduring result of his visit was his discovery of a “new China,” a China Luce believed to be struggling to its feet after centuries of oppression and backwardness and now joining the modern world. He had left China in 1912, in the midst of a revolution that had brought to an end four thousand years of empire. He returned in 1932 in the midst of a war with Japan and an emerging civil war between the Chinese Communists and the Kuomintang—the nationalist party created in 1936 by Sun Yat-sen and now led by the fiercely anti-Communist Chiang Kai-shek. Among the many Chinese leaders Luce met during his travels, perhaps the most important to him was T. V. Soong, the former minister of finance and a powerful banker of great wealth and even greater political connections. One Western journalist called him the “Pierpont Morgan of China.” Luce was strongly attracted to Soong, a sophisticated, worldly, Harvard-educated man only slightly older than Harry. Soong was also a Christian—the son of a Chinese Methodist missionary and Bible salesman. (One of his famous sisters had married Chiang Kai-shek and had been responsible for Chiang’s conversion to Christianity.) Privately Soong himself was deeply worried about the future of his nation, but he kept his pessimism to himself. Instead he excited Luce with alluring predictions of great economic and political progress in a united, democratic China. Luce had always believed in the power of great leaders to transform societies. Now the discovery of this new political and financial elite seemed to him to promise the fulfillment of his father’s dreams of drawing China into the modern, Western, Christian world.8
That Luce could leave China in 1932 with such confidence in the nation’s future was a measure of how selectively he processed his own experiences. Although he saw many signs of apparent progress and stability during his travels, he also saw areas devastated by the expanding conflict with Japan, the growing civil war, widespread poverty and famine, and a governing elite that, however urbane and Christian, was awash in corruption and incompetence—and itself deeply divided. (Soong, for example, saw Chiang’s preoccupation with fighting the Chinese Communists as a dangerous distraction from the more important conflict with Japan.) All this, Luce chose to believe, was simply the necessary price of China’s wrenching transition to modernity—a transition the United States should support whatever the cost.9
The next leg of Luce’s journey took him across the Soviet Union on the famous Trans-Siberian Railroad. He had traveled through China focusing on whatever buttressed his affection for the country, but his trip through Russia evoked what he described as a “violent dislike,” much of which had preceded his actual arrival in the country. Russia was, he said, a “100% proletarian” society, whose people were “sloppy and boorish,” with “an atrocious body odor.” Indeed, the “stink” of Russia was perhaps his single most vivid impression of the country—perhaps understandably, given that he spent six days in a crowded, unventilated train filled mostly with Russian farmers and workers. He and Les had booked “first-class” accommodations, but there was little deference to such distinctions on the Trans-Siberian. As the train filled up, passengers squeezed into every available space, including Harry’s supposedly private compartment (which he had refused to share with Les and which instead attracted a Russian woman and her five-year-old son, who used the compartment’s small washbasin as a urinal). “Everybody on the train is getting somewhat on everybody else’s nerves,” Severinghaus wrote in his diary. Suffering from a head cold, revolted by the heavy food served in a dining car crowded with “barefooted Russians, dirty, bearded, and smelling of toil,” so overpowered by the “stink and sourness” that he sometimes spent the night standing in the corridor to escape his fellow travelers, Luce began to think of Russia as a place outside the civilized world. The Russians, he wrote in a memo to his editors in New York, were “neither Oriental nor Occidental,” a people without “an indigenous civilization.” He referred to the Russians he encountered on the train and in Moscow as “natives,” and the Americans and Western Europeans as “whites.”
They spent a week in Moscow, doing a great deal of sightseeing and meeting with journalists and a few low-level Soviet officials. To the horror of his Intourist guide, they even visited a randomly chosen “typical Moscow apartment” identified for him by a fellow journalist. Moscow did little to change Luce’s grim views of the Russian people, but it did much to increase his alarm about Stalin’s regime. “The belt is being tightened,” he wrote from Moscow, “by the screws of Terror.” The journalists he met were “practically unanimous” in their loathing of the Soviet regime—and united as well in their contempt for the few Western journalists there, most notably Walter Duranty of the New York Times, who shamelessly continued to write optimistically about Stalin’s policies. “Duranty—you take him seriously in America?” a hardened French reporter dismissively asked Luce.
Approaching the border with Poland after two weeks in the Soviet Union, Luce sourly watched the last miles of the “scrabbly,” “drab” Russian landscape from another “stinky and dirty” train. Crossing into Poland was, he wrote, like entering “Paradise.” He was dazzled by the contrast—“a beautiful sunny day,” “the most beautiful railroad car in the world. Clean, glistening, all-steel, immaculate.” Waiters came by offering ice cream and cake, while Luce admired the “perfectly cylindrical haystacks” in the fields outside, the “contented cows,” the “buxom hausfraus positively stylish in black dresses trimmed with white lace…. Never in all my tens of thousands of miles of travel has a border seemed to signify so much.” Looking back on his time in Russia, he wrote, “I don’t think I learned or heard a single basic fact” that he did not already know from a recent Fortune article he had helped edit months before. And so Luce, the veteran traveler, came to the end of his long journey of education having absorbed many new images and many powerful impressions, but having interpreted them all through the lens of his already settled beliefs.10
Before returning home, Luce spent a few days in Western Europe with Lila and the boys, but he was already impatient to return to his company. The Great Depression (as it was now coming to be known) was heading toward its nadir. A critical presidential election was only months away. For now, at least, one of the biggest stories in the world was happening in the United States, and Luce was eager to be part of it. Time Inc. itself had so far largely escaped the impact of the Depression. Advertising dropped significantly in 1932, but far less than it did for most other publishers. And in 1933, both advertising and profits resumed their upward momentum. Luce was certainly aware of the momentousness of the crisis, and he periodically raised alarms within the company about “economic conditions,” at one point proposing—but never enacting—a salary freeze for all employees. From time to time he examined expense accounts for waste. But the reality of the Depression had very little impact on his personal life or on his company’s fortunes at the same time that the crisis became a powerful story that shaped the future of his magazines.11
Even without serious financial worries, Luce remained restless, tense, and unpredictable—“very fidgety … harassed and hard-hearted,” one of his editors noticed. To a large degree this took the form of what Billings called “nervous, strange … high pressure” intrusion into the writing and editing of the magazines. Luce was, of course, editor in chief of all Time Inc. publications, but the managing editors of Time and Fortune were mainly responsible for the contents of the magazines. Luce’s engagement was frequent enough to unsettle the routine of the editors and their staffs but not consistent enough to give him real control. In the fall of 1932, for example, Luce urged editors to highlight the accomplishments of the beleaguered Herbert Hoover, hoping to improve the president’s chances of reelection. Most of his editors, however, wanted Roosevelt to win, and they quietly ignored his suggestions. When Luce pushed to have Hoover on the cover of Time shortly before the election, Larsen took him aside and talked him out of it. More often Luce simply dabbled. He gave after-the-fact notes to editors and picked up individual pieces almost randomly and rewrote them. Sometimes he tore a story apart, then—unable to concentrate long enough to fix it—dumped the ruins on an editor’s desk and departed. Once he spent a morning cutting a few lines out of a small piece and then writing a memo to the staff about it, as if to make clear that he remained in charge. “I got fussing with it,” he wrote. “Fuss. Fuss. Fuss. I fussed for an hour. At the hour’s end, I had in 30 lines every single fact which was in the 50 lines.” Because he was so unpredictable his staff was often on edge. “Luce rarely expresses satisfaction,” Billings complained in his diary, “… a devil to please…. He never has any praise for anybody.”12
And yet Luce could also be encouraging and generous. His editors generally hung on his approval, however infrequently expressed, and reveled in his occasional compliments. “Luce was rather critical,” Billings noted in 1933. “I must get used to that…. But I am devoted to him—and would work my heart out for him.” Luce was a shrewd judge of quality and, however hard-driving he might be, moved gently when he had to change or dismiss struggling personnel. In the early 1930s he found himself with real competition for the first time when News-week* began publication. No one at Time was much impressed with the new magazine. (“Dull and stodgy,” Billings wrote. “This first issue doesn’t frighten us. Most of its writers … were fired from Time for incompetence.”) But Luce understood the potential danger and moved quickly to shake up his own editorial staff. John S. Martin’s deteriorating behavior had become increasingly disturbing, and, Luce believed, threatened the future of Time. He had always deplored but tolerated Martin’s conspicuous womanizing. But what made him finally lose patience was Martin’s increased drinking and frequent absences. (“He gets drunk and says the most outrageous things about Luce … a horrible mess,” Billings confided to his diary.) Luce finally eased Martin out as managing editor of Time in October 1933. He replaced him with Billings, who had already proved himself a brilliant if unflamboyant editor—perhaps the most talented ever to serve under Luce. Billings was from an aristocratic southern family, and maintained a large, historic (and expensive) family plantation—Redcliffe, in Aiken, South Carolina. He privately yearned at times for fame and visibility of his own. He longed to travel. He looked enviously at the glittering social world that Luce (and a few of his other Time Inc. colleagues) inhabited. But he rarely achieved, or even spoke of, any of these ambitions, and seemed slowly to abandon them (especially after the traumatic death in infancy of his only child). He gradually became what, at first, he had only appeared to be: a sober, somewhat reclusive man, deeply devoted to his wife and content to provide sure and steady editorial guidance to Time.13
Once Billings took over, Luce’s intrusions into the editorial life of Time became less frequent (although, to Billings, more unnerving when they did occur). Luce continued to take an active hand in Fortune, especially during its ideological tumult in the mid-1930s. But little by little he began thinking of new ventures. In March 1932, to the surprise of some of his colleagues, Luce bought an obscure magazine, Architectural Forum, which (having begun its life in the nineteenth century with the prosaic title Brickbuilder) had become a glossy but specialized trade journal for architects. Luce had recently developed an interest in architecture on his own and, as was often the case, assumed that anything that interested him would likely interest others. He had even toyed for a time with launching a new architectural magazine himself and had hired a recent Princeton graduate, C. D. Jackson (who was eventually to become a major figure in Time Inc.), to help him develop the idea. They produced a dummy issue, under the title Skyline, but never had enough confidence in it to proceed. Architectural Forum took its place. The magazine would, Luce wrote in his announcement of the purchase, chronicle “the several elements of the building world—architects, engineers, contractors, workmen, investors”—that were “at last integrating a great single industry.”
There could hardly have been a less promising moment to invest in a magazine devoted to the construction industry, which was hit harder than most economic sectors by the Great Depression. Time Inc’s own research—quoted in the dummy of Skyline—found the president of the American Institute of Architects warning architects to avoid New York City. Another architect asked, “We wonder if there will ever be a building again.” But Luce’s real interest was less in the economics of architecture than in its aesthetics and innovations, an outgrowth, perhaps, of Fortune’s interest in design. “We do not know when business will turn,” he wrote to some of his investors and employees. “We do know that great changes in the building art lie ahead…. We believe that the architect, as he has been in days past, will again be the decisive factor in the rate and character of building progress.” Luce liked the Forum because its longtime editor, Howard Myers, used it to showcase important young American and European designers. It was also unusual among trade journals in giving significant attention to the architecture and design of private homes. That gave the Forum a small but significant audience outside the professional world, among readers interested in home design, and made it a precursor of the soon-to-be robust market for what became known as shelter magazines. (Twenty years later Architectural Forum spun off its housing coverage into a second magazine directed at a wider audience, House and Home.)
Architectural Forum never became a fully integrated part of Time Inc. Myers stayed on as editor, and the magazine remained a largely autonomous organization, in its own building with its own staff and its own culture—although the merger helped the magazine’s circulation, which grew from under six thousand at the time of the purchase to forty thousand, still modest, by the end of the decade. Although it was never profitable, Luce resisted proposals to sell it, partly because it was a prestigious journal in a field he cared about, partly because he liked its content (the magazine once prudently ran a major story about one of Luce’s own homes, designed by Edward Durell Stone), and partly because he continued to hope, in vain, that it would erase its small losses and generate real income. It remained part of the company until 1963, when Luce finally closed down Architectural Forum and sold House and Home to McGraw-Hill.14
Luce also authorized a new publication developed by the Experimental Department (an office created originally by Luce himself to help him develop Fortune, but now a landing place for Martin after his removal from Time). Martin argued that the correspondence Time received from its readers could itself be the basis of a magazine, and in January 1934 he launched Letters—a slim publication distributed free at first to interested Time subscribers and later sold for a dollar a year. It attracted a modest 35,000 readers at its peak, had relatively little success with advertisers, and ceased publication in 1937.15
The company’s greatest new commitment of the early 1930s after Fortune was its excursion into broadcasting and film. Time had made a brief and tentative entry into radio in the mid-1920s, taking the news quizzes that Hadden and Luce had developed to entertain business groups and turning them into short promotional broadcasts. Later, Larsen launched a weekly ten-minute broadcast that summarized the contents of the most recent issue of Time. For it he coined the word “newscasting,” which also became the show’s title. The program appeared on a few dozen local stations and was sold to them much like other forms of advertising. But a much more significant experiment began in 1932 with the creation of The March of Time, a half-hour weekly radio news show that was broadcast over the CBS network.16
Both the idea for and the implementation of The March of Time radio show came largely from Larsen. What had begun for him as simply another way of publicizing the magazine gradually became something close to a creative passion—a belief that he was part of the invention of a new form of journalism. Luce never shared Larsen’s faith in the importance of nontextual journalism and remained skeptical both of the radio March of Time and the newsreel version that followed it. But he grudgingly supported the projects, both because of his confidence in Larsen and because he understood the publicity value of these efforts even if he failed to grasp their potential as powerful news media on their own.17
The March of Time broadcasts aptly conveyed their divided mission: to promote the magazine on the one hand, and to present news in the style of Time on the other. No listener could miss the connection between the radio show and magazine. “Whatever happens,” the show’s narrators concluded at the end of most broadcasts, “you can depend on one magazine to summarize for you at the end of the week all the news of all the world…. That publication is Time—the weekly newsmagazine. A new issue goes on all newsstands every Friday.”
The source of the program’s news was, of course, Time magazine itself, with all its strengths and all its idiosyncrasies—the distinctive language, the sometimes-overwrought dramatization, the heavy emphasis on personality and physical description. But The March of Time went well beyond the magazine in dramatizing the news by hiring actors to re-create real events in the world. Indeed, the broadcasts often consisted almost entirely of dramatized re-creations, without very much concern about literal accuracy. In one early episode, for example, the program offered a preposterous reenactment of an imagined conversation in New Delhi between the “nut-brown little Mahatma Gandhi” and some American women on tour. “Oh Mahatma,” one of the Americans gushed, “when are you coming to America? They’ll go wild about you there … simply wild.” The more serious re-creations portrayed meetings between heads of state or statements of President Hoover and later President Roosevelt (until the White House protested and the practice stopped). They had a stagy quality that seemed contrived even by the normal, somewhat stilted standards of 1930s radio drama. A twenty-three-piece orchestra added to the dramatic quality of the program, as did the narrators themselves (who were identified to listeners as the “Voice of Time”)—experienced announcers with grave, stentorian voices who concluded each segment of the program with the portentous trademark phrase: “Time marches on!” (a phrase borrowed from a Harold Arlen song that also served as theme music for the program).18
The radio March of Time was never profitable, but it gave a significant boost to the image and success of Time magazine. There are no reliable figures on the size of the program’s audience, but no one involved with it—its producers, Luce, the radio networks that broadcast it—doubted its broad appeal to listeners. When Time Inc. announced the cancellation of the show in 1932, an avalanche of letters demanding its continuation (combined with Larsen’s ardent support of the show) persuaded the unenthusiastic Luce to change his mind—and, perhaps more significantly, CBS to provide financial support to keep the program going. It remained on the air, with a short suspension at the end of the 1930s, until 1945.19
Although Luce never took much interest in radio, he was, at least briefly, more attracted to the idea of producing a newsreel, an idea first proposed to him by Larsen. The March of Time newsreel, Luce believed, could provide a more serious account of world events than did such existing newsreels as Fox Movietone News, Pathé, and Hearst—all of them weekly, all of them, in Luce’s view, “juvenile—and stupid juvenile,” providing nothing (as the Christian Science Monitor described them in 1935) but the “bare bones ‘This happened here’ kind of thing.” Time Inc.’s newsreels would be monthly, would “get behind the news,” would show “what has led up to a given event,” and would have a “dramatic coherence,” Luce wrote as the newsreel venture gathered steam. While radio was important, he told his staff in an internal memo, “the greatest supplement to the invention of language itself for the purpose of communication of news-fact is the photograph. And the most potent development of the photograph is the so-called moving pictures.” The cinematic March of Time, therefore, would be “an instrument of significant journalism,” in effect a newsmagazine on film.20
Despite Luce’s initial enthusiasm for newsreels, he played only a slightly larger role in their production than he had with the radio broadcasts. The March of Time was largely Larsen’s project, and he in turn recruited a talented young filmmaker, Louis de Rochemont, who became and remained the principal creator of the newsreels for nearly a decade. De Rochemont had begun making films as a high-school student in Worcester, Massachusetts, served as an unofficial wartime cameraman during World War I, and then did stints with the Hearst, Pathé, and Fox Movietone newsreels. Frustrated with what he considered the stale, formulaic content of commercial films, he left in 1933 to work independently, making unorthodox films of his own that relied heavily on dramatic re-creations of events. He noted the similarity between his films and the radio March of Time, and he approached Larsen in the spring of 1934 with a proposal to join forces with Time Inc. “It was love at first sight,” Larsen recalled decades later. De Rochemont was not only skilled at making films, but also adept at uncovering existing film footage (from the Fox film library, among other places) that might be useful for the new series. After eight months of experimentation, the first March of Time newsreel opened in theaters across the country on February 1, 1935, after an intensive publicity campaign. It was an almost immediate success. Critics were, with a few exceptions, enthusiastic. “It has been left to Time,” Alistair Cooke, then the BBC film critic, wrote, “and now ‘The March of Time,’ to combine for the first time in journalism, intelligence, energy, and aloofness.” More important, The March of Time was, as Variety put it, “box office.” Within a few weeks, it was being screened in more than four hundred theaters in 168 cities. At the end of its first year, it was in five thousand American theaters and in more than seven hundred in Great Britain. The crude audience estimates of the time claimed that within a year more than twenty million Americans saw each edition of The March of Time every month. “The March of Time is now established in the world,” the company boasted in an in-house book celebrating the films’ success. “It is a chapter in the history of pictorial journalism … a new gallery of American faces … the faces of the U.S.” Time Inc.’s competitors likewise recognized this new format as a revolution in newsreel production. After “the March of Time came along” a Paramount filmmaker wrote, “the entire industry hunted around for the real purpose and medium of the newsreel,” and there were soon dozens of imitators, both in the United States and abroad, attempting to capture the energy and popularity of the Time Inc. Films. The newsreel even received a special Academy Award in 1936, through the intervention of Luce’s friend, the Hollywood producer David O. Selznick.21
“Harry and I were agreed,” Larsen wrote at the launch of the project, “that before we even consider it, we must be sure that there is a lot of money to be made in it.” But by the time The March of Time premiered, it was already clear to everyone that there was, as Luce told his directors in 1934, “little assurance as to its financial success.” In fact, like the radio shows, the films never made a profit. But also like the radio shows, Luce and Larsen came to believe, the publicity the newsreels provided boosted sales of the magazines enough to justify the expense. It undoubtedly helped that Luce was more intrigued with the newsreels—“the most daring venture we ever made,” he once said—than he had been with the radio show. In part this may have reflected his unspoken rivalry with William Randolph Hearst, the controversial newspaper magnate whom Luce regarded with a combination of envy, contempt, and awe. Luce considered Hearst’s newsreels to be his principal competition, even though his Time Inc. colleagues denounced them for “the most stultifying self-imposed censorship ever known to journalism.” Unlike Fox and Pathé, the Hearst films expressed strong political beliefs—most significantly Hearst’s own militant anticommunism and anti-Stalinism. The March of Time was never as overtly polemical as the Hearst films (and never provoked the clamor and organized boycotts from the Popular Front that Hearst encountered), but Luce wanted his newsreels, like his magazines, to have a distinct point of view.22
There were tensions with Hearst, and even some initial efforts by his company to block the distribution of The March of Time. But relations between the two companies improved in early 1935, especially after Fortune ran a prudent and disingenuous story on the Hearst empire that deliberately understated the serious financial problems it was facing. (“Hearst … means $220,000,000: 28 newspapers, 13 magazines, 8 radio stations, 2 cinema companies, $41,000,000 worth of New York real estate, 14,000 shares of Homestake [a legendary gold mine in South Dakota], and 2,000,000 acres of land,” the Fortune writers wrote admiringly, overlooking the mountains of debt that shadowed the Hearst empire.)23
Luce occasionally appeared in the editing room toward the end of initial production, prodding, criticizing, offering suggestions. “Why do you like it? Just what do you like about it?” he challenged his colleagues time and again. But for the most part he left the project to Larsen and de Rochemont. He attended the glittering premiere at the Capitol Theater in New York in February 1935, and for some months after that arranged dinner parties for friends and colleagues, interrupted by chauffeur-driven trips to a local theater to view the latest March of Time (but not the feature films that it accompanied), with the party returning to Luce’s home for dessert. Little by little, however, he also came somehow to resent the newsreels. They were, he believed, superficial providers of news, and yet their enormous reach and reputation far exceeded that of the magazines themselves. He complained of encounters with strangers, in the United States and abroad, who associated Time Inc. more with The March of Time than with the magazines. (His lack of enthusiasm for his own newsreels may have contributed to his relative indifference toward television decades later.)24
Despite its high level of autonomy within the Time Inc. organization—even Larsen drifted away from daily contact with the films after the first few months—The March of Time reflected the culture of the company in many ways: in the stylized language of its superheated narration (deeply identified with the clipped, oratorical voice of the announcer Westbrook Van Voorhis); in its broad and somewhat unorthodox choice of topics; and perhaps most of all in its cultural and political attitudes.
The March of Time proudly announced in its opening credits that it was “a new kind of pictorial journalism,” and in fact it did set out to differentiate itself from other newsreels both in its format and in its choice of material. Most other newsreels consisted of many short clips of visually interesting material: world crises, sports events, ship launchings, beauty pageants—“a series of catastrophes followed by a fashion show,” one humorist quipped. The March of Time presented only a few stories in each of its monthly episodes, few of them shorter than five minutes, some as long as fifteen or twenty. De Rochemont was exceptionally talented at acquiring film footage from other companies, both in the United States and abroad, and from the growing number of independent photographers who were shooting film all over the world; so the newsreels, in fact, had more “real” material than did the radio show. But de Rochemont did not shy away from reenactments. Some of them were literal reenactments of actual events by the very people who had been involved in them (senators, governors, movie stars, and others doing on camera what they had previously done in other settings). Others were true dramatizations, using professional actors, sets, and extras. Everything in The March of Time, original or reenacted, reached its audience shaped not only through visual images, but also by the powerful narration and the almost unceasing musical sound track that self-consciously imposed an emotional tone on every scene. The pictures rarely spoke for themselves.
The films had their share of fluff: a breathlessly admiring feature on summer theater in New England featuring “the coming stars of stage and screen;” a worried story about hunting and the need to restrict shooting to allow the duck population to replenish; a piece on the sale of dogs filled with images of children cuddling small puppies; and an ominous account of the spread of Dutch Elm disease and other insect-borne plagues, with a militarylike description of “the nation’s crucial battle against bugs.” But The March of Time also dealt with more serious subjects, and as early as its first episodes in 1935 paid particular attention to the growing threats of war in Europe and Asia.25
The films, like the magazines, had one cultural standard that they used consistently to interpret and explain events: the progressive outlook of the Anglo-American world, reflecting Luce’s own consistent views. Almost everything carried in The March of Timeeither displayed that world or made invidious comparisons with it. One example was an otherwise pointless piece about Lake Tana in Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile. “High in the mountains of northeast Africa,” the narration boomed over shots of the landscape, “fed in the rainy season by the drainage of a vast plateau, lies a lake seldom visited by white men but of vital importance to one great white nation.” The importance of the lake, in short, was that it irrigated cotton fields that were important to the British textile industry. An enthusiastic 1936 story on Palestine celebrated the “thriving Jewish settlements” that refugees from Europe were building there—“a miracle in the desert” that yesterday (in the hands of the Arabs) had been nothing but “a world of sand and cactus where jackals roamed.” Not surprisingly given Luce’s well-known interests, the films gave particular attention to China. It was a difficult subject, because China in the mid-1930s was simultaneously in the midst of an aggressive effort to “modernize” the nation while facing a growing invasion from the Japanese. Luce’s preference, unsurprisingly, was to emphasize progress. As a result, the films offered a relentlessly optimistic picture of Chiang Kai-shek’s success in bringing the once-backward nation into the modern, progressive, Western world. Over upbeat scenes of new buildings, museums, schools, and swimming pools, the film’s announcer declared that “a new generation acquires a deepening sense of national unity, and a newborn happiness spreads through the land … and in mid-summer 1937, China’s transition to a progressive, reorganized nation is in full swing.” The Japanese, in contrast, were the backward alternative to the people of China—a combination of mindless automatons slavishly committed to the state, and smirking savages bent on violence and destruction. It was a portrait that augured the harshly racist American demonization of Japan during World War II.26
Among the most ambitious stories of the early March of Time—and the one most revealing of its techniques and standards—was a January 1938 film titled “Inside Nazi Germany.” The film was not, in the beginning, a reflection of any strong interest in Germany by the filmmakers. Prior to 1938 de Rochemont had paid relatively little attention to the Nazis, except to display those Americans who were promoting measures to keep the United States out of any future war. The German story was, rather, the result of the availability of rare film from within Nazi Germany itself, shot by a freelance photographer, Julien Bryan. On assignment from The March of Time, he shot twenty thousand feet of what he claimed was “uncensored material.” In fact Bryan’s film was largely unremarkable. Whether because of restrictions on what he could shoot, or because he was himself cautious about what he filmed, he brought back footage that was of high photographic quality but of little real interest: images of middle-class Germans living ordinary, prosperous lives; footage of German youth groups and public-works laborers that were almost indistinguishable from American images of Civilian Conservation Corps camps or Works Progress Administration projects.
De Rochemont and his staff were undeterred. Determined to present a shocking image of a brutal state, they used Bryan’s idyllic images as a kind of foil to set up their real message. The “air of prosperity” in Berlin, the “plain cheerful people” moving through cities or working on farms, portrayed what was, in fact, a Potemkin village hiding an evil regime. Germans were living normal lives on the surface but in fact they were part of a society “with one mind, one will, one goal—expansion,” a nation in which, “for the good Nazi, not even God stands above Hitler.” The upbeat music of the opening scenes quickly turned dark and ominous. The narration acquired a doomsday tone, with descriptions that were hyperbolic even for a regime whose crimes would seem almost impossible to exaggerate. “From the time the German child is old enough to understand anything,” the announcer proclaimed, “he ceases to be an individual and is taught that he was born to die for the fatherland. Scarcely out of kindergarten, the child must take the place allotted to him in the great Nazi scheme and from then on think and act as he is told.” To supplement the banal live footage, de Rochemont staged dramatizations—thugs painting anti-Semitic graffiti on buildings, police rounding up Jews, loyal Nazis saluting one another in their kitchens—creating the ominous visual images that Bryan had failed to provide. Much of the dramatized footage was shot in Hoboken, New Jersey, because its large German neighborhoods had a credible visual similarity to bourgeois Germany. John Martin, the former Time editor now (briefly) assigned to the newsreels, wrote the film’s final words: “Nazi Germany faces her destiny with one of the great war machines in history. And the inevitable destiny of the great war machines of the past has been to destroy the peace of the world, its people, and the governments of their time.”27
The film was predictably controversial—with German officials in the United States and small groups of German Americans attacking it as biased and inaccurate propaganda, and with anti-Nazi critics arguing that the film had not been anti-Nazi enough. Some distributors complained the film was simply too controversial, that it would alienate movie audiences. Jack Warner, the head of the Warner Brothers studio, argued that the film was “pro-Nazi” and refused to distribute it in his theaters. (Warner dismissed the anti-Nazi narration and argued that viewers were influenced only by what they saw, not by what they heard—an argument Luce disdainfully countered with a sarcastic reference to Warner’s role in creating the first sound movies.) A few more thoughtful critics, drawn to comment on the film by the strong response it received, expressed concern that the manipulation of images and words to express an opinion—however justified—was a dangerous exercise of a power that could easily be misused.
The most ardent critics of the film, and of The March of Time generally, were the intellectuals and critics of the Popular Front—the broad coalition of the antifascist Left launched in 1935 by the American Communist Party. They did not object to the criticism of Nazi Germany. Their critique was more fundamental: that The March of Time, with its “chromium-bright polish,” was, like the rest of Time Inc., simply doing the work of Wall Street and the capitalist world of which it was a part. The films displayed a “trend toward militarism and reaction” and were “doing exactly what Hollywood is doing: avoiding or distorting reality.” The power of The March of Time was, however, unmistakable, and Popular Front filmmakers responded not just with criticism, but by creating a newsreel of their own, The World Today, which in its brief life adopted many of Time Inc.’s editorial and filmmaking techniques to present what they considered newsworthy events: most notably a sympathetic portrayal of a rent strike in Queens.28
“Inside Nazi Germany,” despite its occasional critics, was one of the most successful and most watched of all of Time Inc.’s films. Theaters that did not normally show The March of Time leaped at the opportunity to screen it when Warner and other theaters banned it. It was also, on the whole, one of the most highly praised of all Time Inc. productions. “March of Time,” a British critic wrote, had “won the field for the elementary principles of public discussion,” and had strengthened the possibility of “a revitalized citizenship and of a democracy at long last in contact with itself.” The New Republic, a frequent critic of Luce publications, grudgingly admitted that “it is heartening to see good young blood making a field-day of the creaky superstitions of the movie trade.”29
“Inside Nazi Germany” was not an artistic or technical breakthrough. The March of Time had long ago learned how to shape material to convey a powerful message, whatever the visual images at its disposal, even if on less explosive topics. But this particular story was significant in other ways, for it marked a decisive step by The March of Time (a step paralleled by the rest of the growing Luce empire) away from its earlier vaguely pacifist and isolationist leanings and toward a more aggressive effort to mobilize the nation in opposition to the rise of fascism. For much of the rest of its relatively short life, The March of Time was increasingly, and ultimately almost exclusively, a chronicler of aggression and war, and a champion of America’s growing leadership in the world.30
Luce’s restlessness in the mid-1930s ultimately extended to his family life. He had a stable, comfortable, but increasingly conventional marriage, dominated by the demands of running a household and raising two young boys to whom he was only erratically attentive. Luce was endlessly immersed in the affairs of his company, working late into the evening and on weekends. Lila—who had tried to show an interest in the magazines early in their marriage—became increasingly remote from Harry’s work. She and the boys decamped frequently to rented houses in Connecticut or New Jersey, or to nearby resorts. Harry as often as not failed to join them or arrived trailing business associates with whom he spent much of his time working. In New York, Harry was out almost every night, often without Lila, even though she liked social events more than he did. Real bonds of affection remained between them. Lila was devoted to Harry, but she was also somewhat in awe of him. (Friends occasionally commented on how much more animated and interesting she was when she was not with her husband—“most pleasant,” Billings once noted, “bubbling and bouncing around rather ecstatically.”) Harry, for his part, was tolerant of but generally bored with her preoccupation with decorating and fashion, and with the frequent presence of her wealthy mother, who reinforced Lila’s more trivial interests. The passion of their courtship and their early years of marriage had obscured some of the profound differences between them. But now that the passion had faded, their relationship was driven more and more by routine. In 1934 Harry and Lila agreed to move the family to New Jersey so that the boys could enter a country day school. (Lila, who had attended school in New York as a girl, was favorably disposed toward city schools, but Harry clung to an image—largely unrelated to his own peripatetic experience as a child—of his sons growing up in a small, stable, sylvan community.) They found an imposing property in Gladstone and began to build a large house (designed to resemble the French châteaus that Lila loved) on a hill overlooking the pristine New Jersey countryside. There was nothing to suggest that the marriage was in jeopardy. Indeed, it might have survived indefinitely had it not been for Harry’s unplanned meeting with a woman who would change his, and his family’s, life: Clare Boothe Brokaw.31
Clare Boothe was born in New York City on March 10, 1903, into a family clinging precariously—and not wholly successfully—to middle-class respectability. Her mother, Ann Clare Snyder, was the daughter of an immigrant butcher whom she later described, falsely, as the son of an impoverished Austrian nobleman. As a young woman Ann Snyder was an unsuccessful actress and dancer, and she never wholly lost her taste for the fast, itinerant life of the show-business world. Clare’s father, William Boothe, was an off-and-on businessman and a professional musician who periodically changed his name to escape his creditors. William was already married to the first of his three legal wives when his relationship with Ann began in 1901; he never married her. They lived together in Tennessee for several years (then using the name “Murphy”) while Boothe embarked on a failed career as a violin teacher. Ann left him in 1912 and returned to New York with Clare and Clare’s younger brother, David, and she sustained herself for several years through relationships with wealthy (and sometimes married) men. Joel Jacobs, a successful, unmarried businessman, took a special interest in the family and provided them with enough financial support to allow Ann to send her children to a series of elite boarding schools, which Clare mostly hated. “I never drew a happy breath in my entire childhood,” Clare later wrote in a fragment of an unfinished and unpublished memoir.32
Shortly after World War I Ann began a relationship with Elmer Austin, a successful and sophisticated surgeon whom she married in 1921, after vacillating for more than a year between the wealthier Jacobs and the more “respectable” (non-Jewish) Austin. The marriage secured Clare’s access to the world of wealth and privilege in New York, where she stood out for her beauty, her glamour, and her seemingly self-confident charm. In 1923 Clare married George Tuttle Brokaw, a socially prominent heir to a clothing fortune who was twenty-three years her senior. Their daughter, Ann, was born the following year. But the marriage was a disaster from the start. Brokaw was a boorish drunk with few interests beyond riding, golf, and gambling. Clare was a restless, ambitious young woman who felt stifled by her husband’s dull, self-indulgent routine. They divorced in 1929, after a settlement that left Clare and her daughter financially secure. No longer content simply to seek a good marriage, Clare began looking for a career.33
For four years she did editorial work on several magazines, most notably Condé Nast’s glamorous Vanity Fair, where Clare became managing editor in 1933. But a year later, bridling at the anonymity of editorial work, she left the magazine to become a playwright, an ambition shaped in part by her brief career as a child actress years before. Just as Joel Jacobs had smoothed her mother’s path to stability during Clare’s childhood, so she herself relied on Bernard Baruch—with whom she had a long-term and not wholly discreet affair—to help Clare along the path to her own career.34
Luce was certainly aware of Clare Brokaw for several years before he met her, both because of her social prominence and her somewhat anomalous success as a woman in publishing. Lila was aware of her too. (“Who should appear in our very hotel here—much to my amusement,” she wrote Harry’s mother and sisters from Salzburg in 1932, “—but one C. Brokaw! And what a stupid face she has got!”) Clare, of course, was very aware of Harry—as everyone in publishing was by then—and had even written a short tribute to him in Vanity Fair several years earlier, despite her private belief that he sounded like a “dreary man.” They met for the first time at a dinner party in 1934, when Luce sat down with her abruptly, talked shop briefly, and then stood up brusquely and left. They had a similarly brief encounter a few months later, which ended equally brusquely. Clare considered him “extremely rude.” “He picked my brains and left me flat,” she later recalled. But their third meeting was different.35
On December 9, 1934, the prominent hostess Elsa Maxwell invited Harry and Lila to a “Turkish ball” at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Starlight Roof Garden. It was in honor of the opening of Cole Porter’s Broadway musical Anything Goes and included a performance of songs from the show. At one point in the evening, Clare noticed Harry walking across the room carrying two glasses of champagne back to his table. “Oh Mr. Luce,” she said flirtatiously as he passed, “you’re no doubt bringing me that champagne.” As the lights dimmed Harry sat down and began an intense conversation with Clare. When the lights came up, they were still talking. After a while he rejoined Lila briefly, told her cryptically that he had “been asked to stay,” and suggested that she go home without him. Always obliging, Lila agreed. He and Clare continued talking. When the party ended Harry asked her to come with him to the hotel lobby. According to Clare’s possibly embellished later accounts, he said to her: “I’ve read about it happening. But it has just happened to me. The French call it a coup de foudre. I think I must tell you—you are the one woman in my life.” Clare was stunned and somewhat incredulous (but also, certainly, intrigued), and they ended the evening by agreeing to meet at her apartment several days later—a meeting Clare must have imagined might never take place. But Harry remained besotted, and when he called on Clare again, he was if anything even more insistent in his declarations of love.36
Thus began the most agonizing period in Luce’s life. Since childhood he had struggled with the competing demands of ambition and virtue, a struggle rooted in his family, his education, and his faith. At every juncture—succeeding as a prep-school student, becoming a university leader, founding a company that in his view helped enlighten and enrich society—he believed he was reconciling these two goals. His passion for Clare was certainly compatible with ambition; she was, he realized, one of the most famous, glamorous, and accomplished women in New York and someone who would dramatically enhance his own celebrity. But leaving his wife and children was utterly incompatible with everything he had understood to be virtue throughout his life. At the same time that he was trying to persuade Clare to commit herself to him, a relatively easy task as it turned out, he was torturing himself with questions about the morality of his actions. Did he have the “Christian right” to take this step? What would his parents and his sisters think? How would this affect Lila and the boys? He took friends and colleagues aside and, uncharacteristically, poured out his anguish. “Harry … couldn’t work, had to walk around the block,” Billings commented. He had “been through hell for weeks.” Archibald MacLeish (one of his confidants) said that Luce was “shaken, overwhelmed, infatuated.” But in the end he returned to what he convinced himself was the decisive factor: his own sudden and largely unfamiliar passion. “Love is all there is,” MacLeish recalled his saying. “I haven’t any choice … because I love Clare.” Or as Ralph Ingersoll more cynically observed years later, “Any other course was beyond his capacity. Thinking, as Harry always did, in the most grandiose of terms, his new emotion was one of the Great Loves of All Time—possibly The Greatest.”37
In the year between their fateful encounter at the Turkish ball and their quiet yet controversial wedding, Luce sought both to assure Clare of his all-encompassing love and to persuade Lila not to think ill of him. During their many separations, he wrote love letters to Clare that were almost uncannily similar in language and tone to the letters he had written to Lila during their courtship of more than a decade before. He created a pet name for Clare (“Mike”) just as he had for Lila (“Tod”). He revived the exaggerated language of love he had developed during his earlier courtship, perhaps because in both cases he was unable to express his emotions except by relying on conventional, and sometimes banal, description. “Enchantress of our Twenty Thousand Days,” he called Clare. “After so many years the big really incredible dream came true,” he wrote. He was “hopelessly in love.” He seemed in many of his letters more struck by her beauty than by anything else: “Darling, darling, I love you…. And no matter how often I may observe your face, I shall never catch the lighting trick by which it shifts from brilliant theatrical beauty to the heart-shattering beauty of tender and companionable affection.”
Clare, in contrast, wrote more provocatively, and presciently:
I, you see, have everything to gain by having you—I lose what? A tedious liberty? … The burden of independence, the loneliness of self sufficiency, that is all I lose. Precious little in exchange for love (with all its rigors) and companionship, with its joys…. But you—my little minister, you will lose a whole peaceful agreeable way of life.
And unlike Harry, she was willing to analyze herself with at least some honesty:
I am capricious, deceitful, moody, impetuous, and utterly relentless in demanding patience and perfection in others…. Altogether you might say that I am a fine subject for a psychological novelist but a very trying creature for a wife.
While Harry was writing Clare, he was also writing to Lila insisting that she would remain an important, if absent, part of his life. “Darlingest,” he wrote early in 1935, “(Because that word meant you and only you for so many years, let me keep it for you only.) They were years, too, which, in the short arc of life were, will always be, so important to us both…. Someday I shall try to put in writing what I have tried to tell you these weeks—my love and, weak though the work, my deep, my very deep appreciation for all that you have been willing to go through.” A few weeks later he wrote again:
A good many years ago I undertook the responsibility of being, in a way, the gardener of your heart’s estate…. If it seems unthinkable to you that I could “walk out” on so important an undertaking, it is also true that I cannot construct any “defense” or “justification” for an action that is so unkind…. I can only pray that, if I did not turn out to be the magic that might have made roses blossom even in a desert—that anyway, somehow, I need not be only your blight and your unhappiness.
At the same time he was trying to explain to his family the reasons for what he feared would be, to them, an unthinkable decision. As expected, his mother and sisters responded with shock and some horror to the news, not only because of the divorce itself but also because of their sense of Clare as an ambitious and immoral woman. They rallied around Lila and listened to her own embittered descriptions of Clare (“an opportunistic woman … hateful…. She blinded him with her glamor”). His sister Beth was similarly alarmed, disdainful of Clare (“a coarse and dishonest woman”). She even wrote Clare to warn of the “tragic” impact of a divorce on the family. His father, as usual, was more understanding, concerned primarily about what would happen if his son’s second marriage failed as well (something that Harry’s mother considered highly likely). “At times I’d find him listless or blue as if he were sick,” Billings wrote. He considered Clare “a yellow-headed bitch who is spending his money like water,” and he viewed the divorce as “a disgusting piece of business.” Harry continued bleakly on his chosen course, absorbing the blows, making no effort to counter them, and consoling himself with ever-increasing expectations of the happiness he would find with Clare.38
As they awaited his divorce and remarriage, both Harry and Clare alternated between striving to stay apart and contriving to find ways to meet. After Harry’s declaration of love, Clare began traveling frantically in an effort to avoid scandal and gossip: to Florida, Bermuda, Cuba, South Carolina, France, Germany. Harry—sometimes discreetly, sometimes brazenly—followed her almost everywhere but stayed, usually, for only a few days. He was, of course, a busy man. But his reluctance to remain with Clare (and perhaps her reluctance to remain with him as well) was also a product of his guilt. Perhaps that was why his first sexual efforts with her were unsuccessful. (Clare, with characteristic indiscretion, told others of Harry’s insistence that he had rarely had a similar problem with Lila, that, as Clare described it, “he simply did it and then rolled over and thought about Time.”) During a brief, prewedding “honeymoon” in Charleston, South Carolina, in August 1935, they finally had their first successful sexual experience, and when they left Luce wrote her a somewhat stilted and slightly dolorous letter about their parting at the Washington, D.C., airport, from which they took separate planes back to New York:
They tramp across a street, her arm in his, to a bleak cafeteria. They tramp back. He watches her go up the gang-plank into the Douglass…. She looks out of the little window. He stands beneath the wing. They signal goodbye … the goodbye of those who know they are forever committed. But it was their first and they were strange to the possibility of being separate.39
After months of negotiations with Lila, alternately friendly and hostile, Luce finally agreed to a substantial settlement. Lila received the newly completed home in Gladstone, New Jersey; the contents of their rented home in New York; and two million dollars, roughly a third of Luce’s net wealth. Lila traveled to Reno, Nevada, to finalize the divorce. During those same weeks Clare hid away on the South Carolina estate of her former lover, Bernard Baruch, and wrote her first play. It was a devastating, perhaps even vindictive, portrait of a dysfunctional marriage, clearly based on her own years with George Brokaw. Abide With Me, as she titled it, opened on Broadway on November 21, 1935, received almost uniformly savage reviews (including a tortuously edited one in Time that managed only to be somewhat less hostile than the others), and closed after thirty-six performances. Harry and Clare were married, seemingly unpropitiously, two days after the disastrous opening, in a private service at the First Congregational Church in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. It was attended only by Clare’s immediate family and Harry’s younger brother, Sheldon.40
Luce’s marriage to Clare changed his life in many ways, but among the most important was a greatly increased visibility. After years of professional fame but relatively personal obscurity, Luce became a bona fide celebrity—a man of certifiable power married to a woman of enormous public interest. Everywhere they went they were noticed and watched. Newspapers and magazines chronicled their social lives, their travels, their public statements, their homes, their clothes. (“Ma came down for me in the car and saw Henry and Clare Luce on 43d St,” Billings wrote about his mother-in-law in the spring of 1936, “a sight that thoroughly excited her.”) And now that Luce was a focus of public scrutiny, his chroniclers felt free to publicize their grievances toward him as well. Nowhere were the costs of celebrity more visible to Luce than in a famously withering profile of him in The New Yorker less than a year after his second marriage—a profile that emerged out of, and greatly inflamed, a long-running feud between the two publishing organizations.41
Time Inc. and The New Yorker were in many ways fundamentally different. Time and Fortune were newsmagazines; The New Yorker’s sensibility was largely literary. Time aspired to reach a broad national audience; The New Yorker was self-consciously elite—not, it claimed, “for the old lady from Dubuque.” Luce prided himself on his magazines’ recognition of the importance, and even the virtues, of commerce (“Business is the focus of our national energies,” he had written in the prospectus for Fortune). The New Yorker staff was equally proud of its supposed isolation from the world of commerce, leaving business matters to professional managers whom the writers claimed to despise. But there were also striking similarities, which very likely accounted for much of the rivalry between the two organizations. Both were the products of the generation that came of age after World War I, and both were the creation of bright and ambitious young men (Hadden and Luce at Time Inc., Harold Ross at The New Yorker). Both magazines reflected the skeptical culture of the young writers and intellectuals of the 1920s and their Mencken-influenced iconoclasm. (“Everyone was in [the Mencken group’s] spell,” Roy Larsen later recalled of the early Time; the same was true of many New Yorkerwriters and editors.)
Time, and to a lesser degree Fortune, reveled in skewering public figures with tart (and often invented) language. The New Yorker was no less censorious, and in fact built much of its reputation on its famous profiles, which were also often condescending and deflating. Both magazines were brash and opinionated in their early years, and both were largely apolitical but culturally conservative. And while The New Yorker prided itself on the quality of its writing and scorned the formulaic “Timese” of its rival, its own language—although less consistent than Time’s—displayed some of the same self-conscious cleverness. It had its own affinity for inverted sentence structure (“Particularly dire are the equinoctial storms that sweep the open-air gardens of Greenwich Village tea rooms this season”); its own use of vivid physical descriptions designed to deflate the pompous and powerful (“a rather heavy-set reddish person … a young face, despite two very long white fronds of mustachios, blue at the ends on account of having been inadvertently dipped into the inkwell so often”). Dwight Macdonald, the former Fortune editor whose disdain for the Luce publications was no secret, had a similar aversion to The New Yorker. In their different ways, he believed, both were creatures of the world of wealth and privilege, without any serious convictions. Fortune, he had long argued, was simply a tool of the capitalist elite. The New Yorker, in turn, was the “humor magazine of ‘our ruling class.’” The renowned Columbia historian Jacques Barzun—a frequent contributor to Life, who once appeared on the cover of Time—expressed his own exasperation with the two magazines. A case could be made, he said, that “the liberal New Yorker”was a “match” for “the conservative Time,” both exhibiting “the same attitude—derisive, suspicious, faintly hostile.” Ingersoll later wrote of The New Yorker in the Partisan Review, which he then edited, “Its editors confine their attention to trivia. Interlarded with the advertisements are various ‘departments,’ devoted to practical advice on the great problem of upper-class life: how to get through the day without dying of boredom.”42
The 1936 New Yorker profile of Luce was an indirect result of the inherent competition between these two organizations, but it was more directly a result of the personal rivalry created by Ralph Ingersoll’s movement from managing editor of The New Yorker to managing editor of Fortune. Harold Ross, the brilliant but disorganized founding editor of The New Yorker, had discovered Ingersoll in the first months of the magazine’s life and had soon come to see him as indispensable—an obsessively hardworking dynamo who brought order to the once-chaotic office during the day and became a hard-drinking companion of the rest of the staff at their favorite bars late into the night. But Ingersoll’s relationship with Ross soon deteriorated, a result of what New Yorker writer James Thurber described as Ross’s “almost pathological cycle of admiration and disillusionment.” The once-intimate friends gradually became embittered enemies. Ross was the self-educated, upwardly mobile son of a Utah grocer with a deep-seated resentment of the wealthy and well born, the very people to whom his magazine so effectively catered. He had particular contempt for the owners of his magazine, but he came as well to resent Ingersoll’s own aristocratic, Hotchkiss and Yale background, which Ingersoll displayed every week in his lightly regarded pieces on what later would be known as Ivy League football. (Ingersoll “talked to people like Cornelius Vanderbilt,” Ross once complained.) Ingersoll in turn came to despise Ross as an erratic and malicious man who treated him, and others, shabbily. Both were people of large egos who did not overlook or forget slights.43
Although Ingersoll left The New Yorker behind when he moved to Fortune in 1929, his simultaneous fascination with and resentment of his former magazine lingered for years. In 1934 he proposed a profile of The New Yorker for Fortune, and even toyed briefly with doing it collaboratively with the New Yorker writers themselves (who declined the invitation, despite Ingersoll’s assurances that the piece would be “a labor of love”). The profile, which appeared in August 1934 and which Ingersoll wrote himself, was superficially friendly but—as Ingersoll certainly knew—certain to infuriate the New Yorker staff.44
“Harold Ross’s father was not a Mormon,” it began, with a barbed reminder of the editor’s far-from-cosmopolitan childhood. “But his uncle joined the Church to get trade for his Salt Lake City grocery store. When Harold was fourteen he went to work in this store and, before he became sensitive about his eccentricities, he used to talk about his career there.” And so it continued through seventeen pages of text, photographs, and New Yorker cartoons. Ingersoll knew the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of his former colleagues well, and skillfully assaulted them all. Ross, he wrote, was “furious” and “mad” and “had neither the wit nor the ability to write himself.” James Thurber was a “blotter-and-telephone book scribbler.” The cartoonist Peter Arno was “tall, handsome, arrogant … disagreeable,” and “his wit has lost its tang.” Wolcott Gibbs, he observed, “hates everybody and everything, takes an adolescent pride in it.” As Ingersoll well knew, the New Yorker writers disdained business and took pride in their purely literary commitment to the magazine. He slyly described the magazine as “a good publishing property,” whose “fundamental success is based on the simple mathematics that a merchant can, at $550 a New Yorker page, call his advertisement to the attention of some 62,000 active and literate inhabitants of the metropolitan area.” Although he wrote positively, if somewhat condescendingly, of the literary quality of the magazine, he was mostly interested in puncturing its writers’ pretense that they were engaged in an intellectual enterprise rather than a business. “The New Yorker is fifteen cents’ worth of commercialized temperate, distillate of bitter wit and frustrated humor,” he wrote. “It has nothing to apologize for as a money-maker. It ran more pages of advertising than—hold your breath—the Saturday Evening Post itself.” He calculatedly infuriated the most prominent members of the staff by publishing their salaries—forty thousand dollars for Ross, eleven to twelve thousand for his most eminent writers. (They all claimed that they were paid much less than reported. Shortly after the Fortune piece appeared, E. B. White wrote sarcastically in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” “The editor of Fortune makes $30-a-week and carfare.”)
Although the profile was Ingersoll’s project, Luce paid the consequences. Ross decided almost immediately that The New Yorker should take revenge, but he bided his time. Two years later he published a savage profile of Luce by the wickedly clever Wolcott Gibbs. In many ways it paralleled Ingersoll’s portrait of The New Yorker—offering the same barbed profiles of Time writers and executives, the same indiscreet publication of the salaries of editors and writers, the same condescending praise for the magazine’s success combined with barely disguised contempt for the content of the magazine. Gibbs described “strange, inverted Timestyle” as “gibbersish,” the product of “Hadden’s impish contempt for his readers, his impatience with the English language.” To prove his point Gibbs wrote the entire article in a hyperactive version of Time’s own language, as in his brilliant quip, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.” Luce was an “ambitious, gimlet-eyed Baby Tycoon…. Prone he to wave aside pleasantries, social preliminaries, to get at once to the matter in hand.” Of Luce’s relationship with Hadden, Gibbs wrote invidiously:
Strongly contrasted from the outset of their venture were Hadden, Luce. Hadden, handsome, black-haired, eccentric, irritated his partner by playing baseball with the office boys, by making jokes, by lack of respect for autocratic business. Conformist Luce disapproved of heavy drinking, played a hard, sensible game of tennis, said once “I have no use for a man who lies in bed after nine o’clock in the morning.”
And of Luce’s future:
Certainly to be taken with seriousness is Luce at thirty-eight, his fellowman already informed up to his ears, the shadow of his enterprise long across the land, his future plans impossible to contemplate. Where it all will end, knows God!45
The Gibbs profile of Luce was mostly accurate and far from wholly negative. Just as the Fortune piece greatly boosted the visibility of The New Yorker, so the profile of Luce certified him as a major public figure and a man of extraordinary power and achievement. It probably did the company, and Luce himself, more good than harm. A man of less intensity and seriousness might have treated it as the brilliant joke it partly was, but Luce—who read the piece in galleys several weeks before it appeared—viewed it only as a savage attack. Perhaps unwisely he asked to meet with Ross and Gibbs and St. Clair McKelway (another New Yorker writer, who had worked on the profile with Gibbs) before publication—a decision he later bitterly regretted. Gibbs lost his nerve and failed to attend, but Luce, Ingersoll, Ross, and McKelway met for dinner, followed by a long night of drinking that ended at 3 in the morning. (“Oh, that terrible night,” he recalled years later. “I should never have gone over. Ingersoll dragged me there.”) Accounts differ as to who was drunk and who, if anyone, remained sober. But it is clear that Ingersoll and McKelway drank heavily and had to be separated at least once to avoid fisticuffs. Luce and Ross talked at length, neither giving an inch to the other. Luce complained of inaccuracies. Ross replied that getting the facts wrong “is part of the parody of Time.” “God damn it Ross,” Ingersoll remembered Luce saying, with the residual stammer that still reappeared at moments of stress or excitement, “this whole God damn piece is ma- ma - malicious.” Ross replied: “You’ve put your finger on it, Luce. I believe in malice.” A few days later Ross followed up with a five-page letter, which greatly intensified the feud. “I was astonished to realize the other night,” he wrote,
that you are apparently unconscious of the notorious reputation Time and Fortune have for crassness in description, for cruelty and scandal-mongering and insult. I say frankly but really in a not unfriendly spirit, that you are in a hell of a position to ask anything…. You are generally regarded as being mean as hell and frequently scurrilous.
He signed it with a bitter reference to the description of him in the Fortune profile two years earlier: “Harold Wallace Ross—Small man … furious … mad … no taste.” Luce wrote back curtly and coldly,
I only regret that Mr. Gibbs did not publish all he knew so that I might learn at once how mean and poisonous a person I am…. Having located a poison more or less at large in society, he may perhaps like to help mitigate it. And this, I assure you, he can do if he will take any current copy of TIME and red-pencil every example of “cruelty, scandal-mongering and insult”—and send it to me.46
It is hard not to see in this feud something more than a rivalry between two magazines. It also appears to have been very personal, even if neither of the parties fully realized it. There was something about Luce that irritated people like Ross and Gibbs. Perhaps it was Luce’s image of stolid, humorless propriety (an image his passionate relationship with Clare may have belied, but that did not change how he was perceived by the public). Perhaps it was his grim seriousness as he wrestled with the “great questions of the world,” the kinds of questions that Ross (and most other New Yorker writers of the time) largely ignored. There was also something in this rivalry that resembled Luce’s tortured relationship with Hadden (whose personality Gibbs mischievously compared, unflatteringly, to Luce’s in the New Yorker profile). Ross, like Hadden, was iconoclastic, charismatic, brilliant, slightly crazy, and—at least on the surface—rarely serious, the kind of person Luce found discomfiting. Ross, like Hadden, fought against becoming an august and worldly figure. Luce, in contrast, embraced and carefully nurtured his fame and his power. The battle with Ross, transitory and frivolous as it may have been, provided a snapshot of the kind of person Luce was, and was not, as he entered a new period in his life.
*The hyphen disappeared in 1937.