I recently read a biography of Henry Luce. He was the co-founder of Time magazine and founded Life, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, and other prime American media properties. He co-founded Time with a Yale classmate who died young.
The book, Henry Luce: His Time, Life, and Fortune, probably doesn’t do justice to its subject, but Luce is so interesting I found myself hungry to know more. The author of this volume clearly disagreed, to some extent, with Luce’s conservatism. I think the writer, John Kobler, saw Luce as a retrograde businessman with a genius for publications.
Luce grew up as a missionary kid in China. His father was a Presbyterian with a vision for a Christian university in China. As a child, Luce grew up with a powerful sense of the value of American culture and, as he called it, the American proposition which was a mixture of “courage, private initiative, responsibility, honesty, and independence from government aid and interference.” His country had a destiny to fulfill in providence and had “a constitutional dependency on God.”
His first prospectus for Time (in the early 1920’s) contained the following “catalogue of prejudices”:
- A belief that the world is round and an admiration of the statesman’s view of all the world.
- A general distrust of the present tendency toward increasing interference by government.
- A prejudice against the rising cost of government.
- Faith in the things which money cannot buy.
- A respect for the old, particularly in manners.
- An interest in the new, particularly in ideas.
Luce was especially repulsed by the philosophy Oliver Wendell Holmes espoused when he suggested men had little more significance than “baboons or grains of sand” or that truth is defined by the nation with the ability to “lick all the others.” He rejected Holmes’ cynical “materialism, militarism, relativism, and agnosticism” and he worked hard to see that his publications promoted a different set of values. One of the interesting things about the book is to see Luce trying to control the content put out by his media empire while at the same time respecting the right of his writers to call things as they saw them. While he was a Republican, most of the writers he hired were Democrats. Perhaps, it was true then as it is now that journalism draws the more liberal minded.
Growing up in China formed him in ways other than ideology. He ate substandard food so many years that even when he became wealthy, he had little interest or enjoyment in eating. He looked at food as fuel necessary for life and ate whatever was brought to him. He also maintained an interest in global events. Having grown up on the other side of the world kept him well aware that the United States was not the only theater for news.
It is also fascinating to consider his personal and spiritual life. Luce grew up with a strong family all of whom sacrificed a great deal to promote the gospel in China. He kept that faith all of his life, working to the glory of God, giving every ounce of energy to personal industry and excellence. Yet, he casually divorced his wife in order to marry the beautiful and talented Clare Booth. She later became a committed Catholic and never won him away from his devout Presbyterianism.
They shared a great love of America and worked hard in the fight against Communism. The chapter about Clare’s work as the American ambassador to Italy is particularly interesting. She worked to kill American contracts for companies that had a majority of workers affiliated with the Communist party. Both Henry and Clare engaged their work with seriousness about results as well as intent.
Something else is interesting about the book. By reading, you learn that Luce was able to generate great publishing successes by thinking deeply about what the magazines would be about. As an example, he insisted that Sports Illustrated couldn’t be a reality until the team had a handle on the philosophical foundation for their coverage of sports. What is the philosophy of leisure? Luce wanted to know. He was incredibly curious about everything. The author presents his constant peppering of people with questions as an annoying personality characteristic, but his desire to be informed appears laudable.
Luce seems to be a bit of a forgotten man for those of us living in the 21st century. I’d love to hear from those who are aware of an authoritative treatment of his life.