Weinberg, Steve, The Christian Science Monitor
Alan Brinkley looks beyond the stereotypes to create a more nuanced portrait of magazine publisher Henry Luce.
So many books focused on the years 1900-2000 use the words
"American Century" in the title or subtitle that I have become
suspicious of them. It is an ethnocentric and sometimes downright
xenophobic phrase, suggesting the United States of America is,
appropriately or not, the center of the universe.
But a biography of magazine publisher Henry Luce (1898-1967) can
legitimately employ the cliched phrase. Why? Because Luce either
coined it or, at minimum, made it a familiar part of the English
language through the magazines he published - especially Time,
Fortune, Life, and Sports Illustrated.
As a biographer myself, I am also suspicious of biographies that
recount the lives of famous folks already chronicled multiple times.
Why, I wondered, would Columbia University history professor Alan
Brinkley spend years on a Luce biography when W.A. Swanberg and other
skilled professionals had already told the Luce saga?
Brinkley answers that question in his preface to The Publisher:
Henry Luce and His American Century, as he discloses that
Swanberg's interpretation of Luce, published during 1972, seemed
crabbed and therefore ultimately open to debate.
To Swanberg and other chroniclers of Luce's life, what seemed
important, according to Brinkley, "was his arrogance, his dogmatism
and his reactionary, highly opinionated politics - all of which
found reflection in his magazines." The stereotype of Luce held
that he had become a cold warrior who hated the Soviet version of
Communism and campaigned against the Communist takeover of China.
Luce blindly supported capitalism and the Republican Party, despite
their flaws, the stereotype continued.
All true to some extent, Brinkley posits, "but Luce was other
things as well." As a publisher, he and partner Briton Hadden
pretty much invented the weekly news magazine, giving birth to Time
in 1923 shortly after both men had graduated from Yale University.
Then Luce invented the modern business magazine with the debut of
Fortune, the modern photojournalism magazine with the debut of Life,
and the modern sports magazine with the debut of Sports Illustrated.
Furthermore, Luce demonstrated an open mind on numerous crucial
issues other than China, the Soviet Union, Communism, capitalism, and
Republican Party politics. In fact, Luce used his increasingly
influential magazines to promote civil rights, especially for
The biography is pretty much relentlessly chronological, but that
standard structure does not suggest that it is boring. Brinkley is a
first-rate stylist, which helps sustain interest. Even better, he is
a first-rate researcher, digging into the Luce and Time Incorporated
archives to unearth fascinating details about Luce's unusual
childhood, unusual family situation, competitive years at Yale, and
remarkable success within the magazine world by age 25. Furthermore,
Brinkley demonstrates that the apparent curmudgeon had a lively love
life involving multiple extraordinary women, including his second
wife, Clare Boothe Luce, who achieved celebrity status as a writer,
actress, elected politician, and diplomat. …