DAVID MCKEAN: Good evening. I’m David McKean, the CEO of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Foundation, and on behalf of my Foundation colleagues, and the Library’s Director, Tom Putnam, I would like to thank all of you for coming this evening. I would also like to express particular thanks to the friends and institutions that make these forums possible: The Bank of America, the lead sponsor of the Kennedy Library Forum series, as well as Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, The Boston Foundation, along with our media sponsors, The Boston Globe, WBUR, and New England Cable News Network.
As we all know, the Internet is having a profound impact on the media today. And it is more often than not driven by young entrepreneurs who are in their 20s. But nearly a century ago in 1923, two young entrepreneurs, only 24 years old, named Briton Hadden and Henry Luce revolutionized media by starting a news magazine. They thought about calling it Facts but ultimately decided to call their magazine Time. The magazine sorted the news into categories -- national affairs, foreign affairs, the arts -- and this had never been done before. As Luce later observed, “The one great thing was simplification, simplification by organization, simplification by condensation and also simplification by just being damn, well, simple.”
After Hadden died at the age of 31, Luce took over the magazine by himself and would go on to start Fortune magazine in 1930 and Life magazine in 1936.
Collectively, these publications shaped how Americans viewed themselves and how they viewed the world over the next several decades.
We welcome back to our stage this evening Alan Brinkley who spoke here years ago on the presidencies of Harry Truman and John Kennedy during our series reflecting on our presidencies of the 20th century. He has recently turned his historian’s eye to one of the most powerful and controversial figures of the mid- 20th century in his recently released biography The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century.
Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, in his review of the book writes that Alan Brinkley has, “a gift for restoring missing dimensions to figures who have been flattened into caricature.” And Jonathan Yardley, writing in the Washington Post says, “How fortunate we are that Luce is now the subject of a monumental, magisterial biography, the finest ever written about an American journalist, a book that secures Luce’s large, if problematic, place in history.”
Alan Brinkley is the Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University, specializing in the history of 20th century America. Previously, he served as University Provost and chair of the Department of History. His other books include, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the Great Depression, which won the 1983 National Book Award. He is also the author of The Unfinished Nation: The Concise History of the American People; The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War; Liberalism and Its Discontents; and finally, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
On a personal note, let me just say that Alan was a professor of mine a few decades ago at Harvard College. I remember I took his lecture course during the second semester of my junior year. The course was incredibly popular. Hundreds of students signed up. On the very first day, Alan seemed a little overwhelmed by the huge number of students that had crammed into the lecture hall, and he started off by suggesting that maybe a good many of the men in the lecture hall might have come in hopes that Prof. Brinkley was actually Christie Brinkley, [laughter] who had just been on the cover of Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit issue.
But the truth is Alan is not only a superb writer and historian, he is a wonderful teacher. He was the recipient of the Joseph R. Levenson Memorial Teaching Prize at Harvard and the Great Teacher Award at Columbia University. He taught previously at MIT, Princeton, and the City University of New York Graduate School.
We are also honored to welcome to our stage for the first time today as moderator Jill Lepore. Jill is the David Woods Kemper Professor of American History and chair of the History and Literature Program at Harvard University. Her books include The Name of War, which won the Bancroft Prize; New York Burning, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Blindspot, an historical fiction that she co-wrote with her colleague and friend, Brandeis historian Jane Kamensky.
She received her Ph.D. from Yale and her B.A. from Tufts. She is a writer at The New Yorker where she has chronicled the rivalry between Time’s Henry Luce and The New Yorker’s Harold Ross. In her article she calls Alan Brinkley’s book on Luce, “wonderfully insightful and judicious … [the] biography is more than the story of a life; it’s a political history of modernity.”
Finally, just let me note that the book is available in the museum store, and Alan will be signing copies at the conclusion of the forum. Please join me in welcoming Alan Brinkley and Jill Lepore. [Applause]
JILL LEPORE: Thanks very much. Thanks everyone for being here this evening. Thanks for those lovely introductions. I’m going to ask Alan a series of questions. We are just going to have an informal conversation, and there will be plenty of time towards the end of the evening for you all to ask questions as well. So please keep notes.
I just wanted to begin by asking you what drew you to this subject. Why Luce?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, first of all, thank you Jill for joining me here today. It is really a pleasure to be communicating with you. I don’t have a very good answer to that question. I think partly I was drawn to Luce because I grew up in a family of journalists, although I think that wasn’t the first thing in my mind when I was thinking about Luce. I had a feeling that I wanted to write a biography, and I didn’t want to write a biography of a president, and I didn’t want to write a biography of anybody I knew in journalism. And I felt that Luce not only was an extraordinary publisher, but also an extraordinary figure in the middle years of the 20th century, and his life intersected so many areas of 20th century history. And so that is partly what drew me to it; it was the possibility of writing a biography that would actually be more than a biography. And whether I succeeded or not, I don't know but I certainly enjoyed doing it.
JILL LEPORE: Well, it is very much more than a biography. That is one of the most striking things about the book. Luce is so central to so many different parts of American culture and letters and especially politics. So I think you very much did succeed at that. Can you tell us, though, a little bit about -- in undertaking the research for the project -- was there a moment in the archives where the shape of the biography became clear to you? Where what you wanted to say about Luce’s life as a whole?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, actually, I worked on the book in what may be -- for many biographers -- a strange way. I started at the beginning … not in writing but in doing research. But I started—one of the things that drew me to the project, actually, was when I was invited to -- and you need to be invited to go into Time, Inc. archives -- I went first to a series of letters that Luce wrote as a child and young man to his parents.
His father was a missionary in China, and he grew up in China. But at a very young age he moved away from his family. There were no schools where he lived, so he moved first to a boarding school in China but far away from where his parents lived. And then, at the age of 13, he left China all together, leaving his family behind and ended up a year later at Hotchkiss. So for most of his life, after the age of about ten, he was on his own. But it was a very close family nevertheless, which is very typical of missionary families. They had these epistolary lives in which they just wrote letters all the time, back and forth.
And I felt as though I was watching this young, very interesting young boy and man grow up and grow up in a very unusual way.
So it was a fascinating way to get started. And, you know, at that point, I didn’t have any idea what the rest of the book would look like. But I just plotted along over the years and figured it out. So I knew enough about Luce to know the broad outlines of his life and to know that he had had a lot of influence and to know, in particular, the magazines because I had grown up with them and my parents had grown up with them. And I remember my parents, when I was very young, reading Time magazine, I wouldn’t say religiously, but certainly often and also often being infuriated by it, which is a common story, particularly of liberal Democrats reading Time magazine.
Life magazine was the first magazine I ever subscribed to. And, of course, like most teenage boys in my generation, I also got Sports Illustrated, which was a Luce magazine as well. So I was drawn to it in all sorts of ways but not in a coherent way probably.
JILL LEPORE: So you began by researching his childhood. Is there a time in his life when you felt, or when Luce, writing, reflecting on his own life, felt or talked about a moment when Luce became Luce?
ALAN BRINKLEY: He didn’t reflect very much. He wasn’t a reflective person. And I think the turning point in his life—there were probably two turning points in his life and they both involve the same person, Brit Hadden. One turning point in his life was meeting Briton Hadden at Hotchkiss and becoming his friend and his colleague. And then they went to Yale together and they were friends and partners and rivals on the Yale Daily News and fellow Skull and Bones members. And then, shortly after they graduated, they ended up together at The Baltimore News, where they started thinking seriously about starting a magazine. And after working in Baltimore for eight or nine months, they moved up to New York and they started trying to raise money. And they created this magazine, and I don’t think either of them could have done it without the other. Hadden was the creative genius, I think, behind Time magazine. But Luce was the one who did all the work and raised the money and organized the office and hired the staff. And he also edited and wrote, but he was the one who created the business and Hadden is the one who primarily created the magazine. That was the turning point in his life, I think, that Hadden drew him into the Baltimore News, where they were both working, and then together they decided to start this magazine.
The other turning point in his life came less than ten years later when Brit Hadden died in 1929 of a strep infection. He had been sort of going awry for a year or so and living very recklessly, drinking a lot, staying out all night, disappearing from the office for days and weeks at a time and, ultimately, ending up with a strep infection that in the age before antibiotics could not be treated. So he died in 1929 just before his thirtieth birthday. And that was the second, big turning point, because they were at odds with each other by this point. Luce wanted to start a business magazine. Hadden didn’t want him to. Even though he wanted there to be a business magazine, he didn’t want Harry to be the one creating it. And I don't know what would have happened if he had lived, whether they would have stayed together or not. But after his death, Luce was the undisputed head of Time, Inc. and remained that way until he retired in 1964.
So those were, I think, the principal turning points of his life. There are others but I think those were the most important ones.
JILL LEPORE: You write so wonderfully about their relationship and about the energy around the founding of the magazine, of Time in particular. But I wonder, sort of stepping back from your role as a biographer and setting aside their own personal ambitions and characters and drive, what are the forces behind the founding of that magazine?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, I think the forces behind the magazine, as opposed to just the people behind the magazine, what made the magazine succeed, I think, was that they started this magazine maybe without fully understanding why it would be successful. But somehow they just sensed it. They were launching this magazine at a point in American history when there was a rapidly growing middle class with a national viewpoint, and that was something new in American history.
Even in the earliest 20th century, most people lived in cities and towns that didn’t have very much communication outside of their own communities. But starting, especially during World War I, but accelerating after the War, the idea of there being a national news source became very powerful. And Time was, in many ways, the first, national news source for Americans, the first comprehensive treatment of the news that was available to people all over the United States. And, in fact, within a very short time, people in every state in the Union were getting subscriptions to Time magazine.
So I think the idea of Time magazine, the idea of creating what was, in fact, a digest of the news for people who didn’t have very much access to news, people who were, as advertising always said -- “A magazine that was written for busy people”—and so it was meant to be something you could read in a hour from cover to cover and you would learn all the news of the world in an hour a week.
Now, somewhat an exaggeration that Time could create a venue that would produce all of the news. But it gave the impact, it gave people the sense they were learning a lot about a lot of different places, which they were, even if in a fairly simple and condensed form. So I think it was a combination of the changing culture of middle class America and the absence of responses to it from journalists. And Luce and Hadden sort of filled that gap, and Time magazine became a staple of the way people learned the news for decades. So I think what really made it successful was the changing character of the time.
Of course, Time, today is almost disappearing. We can almost pinch it. You can feel your fingernails through it, it’s so thin. And it’s because we are going through another transition at least as revolutionary as the one when Time was created. And the news magazines just don’t know how to respond. Newsweek is teetering on the brink.
JILL LEPORE: Let’s get to that. We’re historians, so we need to move chronologically. We are still in the 1930s here I think, or the 1940s. Time was, of course, famously excellent at promoting itself, but also got a lot of guff. And I was curious to hear how you balanced that and how you wrote about the magazine and how you read the magazine, standing in some ways in Luce’s shoes and wanting to represent Luce’s life, and see the magazine through Luce’s life, and see the magazine through his eyes, and chronicle its accomplishments, and measure its influence -- and yet, not be swept away working there inside Time, Inc. archives by the magazine’s own shtick.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, of course, I did want to understand Luce and feel that I could understand what he was thinking and seeing. But I looked at the magazines in a different way. I didn’t really think about the magazines primarily as the product of Henry Luce. I thought of them as a powerful and very idiosyncratic set of magazines that somehow hit a nerve in the culture and became so spectacularly successful. So a lot of what I was trying to do in writing this book was not just understand Luce, but try and understand why Time magazine and Fortune, in its own sort of odd way, and especially Life -- what was it that made them so extraordinarily popular and so influential? So it was a combination of trying to understand Luce and trying to understand the magazines, which were the product not just of Luce, of course, but of many people, all the people who were beholden to Luce in very important ways.
JILL LEPORE: What was the peak of Luce’s influence in journalism and publishing?
ALAN BRINKLEY: I think World War II was the point at which Time, Inc. was at its greatest. And it was at its greatest in part because, of course, people wanted news more than at any other time, at least in Luce’s life. And nobody covered the news more extensively than Time, Inc. They had the largest group of reporters and correspondents and writers of any news organization, probably in the world, maybe with the exception of Reuters. And that didn’t last for very long, but during World War II they were by far and away the most read magazines, even much more read than any newspapers, about the war. And they made the war the focus of all of their magazines. And they were incredibly successful. They even produced thinned down copies of Time and Life, which they would send out to the troops in hundreds of thousands. And they would be passed around.
So probably more people were reading the magazines during World War II than at any other time, and I think they probably had more influence during World War II than at any other time. Although you could argue that there was more of a consensus around the war than there was at any other time in Luce’s career. And there were many periods in which Luce took a starkly different position than even many of his own colleagues in the magazine and even quite different than much of the public. So he could be a brilliant creator of consensual thinking about World War II, but also a very powerful promoter of unpopular ideas.
JILL LEPORE: Such as?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Such as going to war with Communist China, which was a very unpopular idea in the United States during the war and after the war. And Luce was one of the most avid champions of America going in and defeating the Communist regime and restoring Chiang Kai-Shek to power. And he continued with that view long after the war and long after the Chinese Revolution, including hoping that the Korean War would lead to an American war in China which would overthrow Mao and bring back Chiang Kai-Shek. And then a few years later when the French were leaving Vietnam, Luce was hoping -- and he was very friendly with Eisenhower and trying to persuade Eisenhower -- not just to stabilize South Vietnam but to drive the Communists out of Vietnam. And he hoped in driving them out of North Vietnam, they would create a war with China and, once again, give the opportunity for Chiang Kai-Shek to be restored. So he could be a very single-minded person on issues that were of importance to him, even though there wasn’t very much support for them among the mainstream.
JILL LEPORE: And you write, actually, to some degree about how his views about China were frozen in time, that he was not flexible about them, that they didn’t sort of move forward as circumstances changed, that his knowledge of China was somewhat limited. And yet his influence was, of course, vast. I was wondering if you thought, as you were working on those years of Luce’s life in particular … I love the opening of the book where you have Luce being interviewed near the end of his life and somewhat baffled by the criticism he has been subject to and how controversial his political positions have become over the course of the 1960s.
But maybe comparing Luce with other people you have written about -- I’m thinking in particular of Father Coughlin, who was influential but occupies a very different position, not politically but I mean in terms of his relationship to the centers of power -- how you understood the difference between them. Did you come up with a different understanding of power and political power in journalism?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, this was my first book, which is now in its 27th year of existence, so it is not fresh in my mind. And I don’t recall in writing about Luce thinking a lot about Coughlin and Huey Long, although they were contemporaries of Luce. But I think Coughlin was, in a way like Luce, one of the most influential figures, not in spreading news but in spreading ideas. And he was a Catholic priest in Detroit, who started a radio show in Detroit to combat the Ku Klux Klan and then gradually became a national radio figure with a program on CBS that was hugely popular, and not just among Catholics but, of course, Catholics especially. And then over time he became a kind of racist demagogue, an anti-Semite with a sort of sympathy for Fascism and even the Nazi regime.
But he was a great communicator just as Luce was but in a different and much more odious way. And Huey Long, who was the other subject of the same book, was one of the first politicians to make heavy use of the radio alongside of Roosevelt. So I guess I’m attracted to people, maybe without thinking about it, people who are significant communicators since I’ve written about so many of them. And, you know, I think they are of a piece in a way of this communications revolution that Luce was a part of; that these radio figures, in this new medium of radio, were also shaping the communications in new ways as well.
JILL LEPORE: How do you answer people who might say that Luce, given how much of the news media at the time he had a hand in, simply had too much influence?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, you know, fairly soon after Time was launched, Newsweek was launched. It was seven, eight years later, and newspapers were changing. I don’t think he had a monopoly on the news for very many people, but I think Time magazine, I think if you were to criticize Time magazine -- there are many ways to criticize Time magazine: the very idiosyncratic language of Time magazine is much ridiculed, especially in your magazine [chuckle] -- but I think the thing that made Time most controversial was the, I think, fairly gratuitous insertion of opinions into the way the news was presented.
And this started with at the very beginning, before Luce or Hadden had any strong political views. They didn’t even really know what parties they belonged to.
They didn’t know whether they were Republicans or Democrats or who they would vote for. But they were smart kids from Yale, and they had a lot of opinions and they just threw them into the magazine whether people liked them or not, and a lot of it was really kind of ridiculous.
Out of that sort of random opinion insertion that characterized Time in its first years, gradually it came to be a magazine that had positions, consistent positions over time, and especially after Hadden was gone because Hadden himself was not an ideologue and not really much interested in politics. But Luce had very strong opinions as time went on [chuckle]. It is hard to talk about Time magazine and time itself in the same sentence.
So by the 1930s Luce was shaping, not always successfully, but trying to shape the magazine around his own views of how the government should deal with the Depression, but most of all how the Roosevelt administration should be dealing with the world. And as the world became more and more dangerous during the 1930s, Luce became more and more engaged with international relations and with how the United States would deal with the world. And Luce was never satisfied with the way Franklin Roosevelt was dealing with the world. In fact, he loathed Roosevelt, and said shortly after Roosevelt’s death that, “It is my duty to go on hating him.” So they hated each other. Roosevelt was just as petty and hostile to Luce as Luce was towards him.
But I think that was one of the things that made the magazines hard for a lot of people to take. And it didn’t stop with the war and with Roosevelt’s death, and it didn’t stop with the Cold War. Of course, the Cold War extended beyond his lifetime, but it didn’t stop during the heyday of the Cold War. Even in the fifties he was just, you know, crossing a line, I think, over and over again in trying to promote candidates who he liked: Wendell Wilkie in 1940, not Tom Dewey so much, and Eisenhower.
And about Eisenhower one of his colleagues, Tom Griffith, once said to him that, “It’s been traditional at Time magazine to sort of twist the news a bit around the time of election. But now it is a four-year job.” And during the entirety of Eisenhower’s presidency there was just idolization coming out of Time magazine all the time and in Life as well.
So I don't know how much influence he actually had. I know the candidate he worked for hardest, Wendell Wilkie, was defeated pretty handily by Franklin Roosevelt. He never got support for his position on China. So most of the big issues that he had strong views about, he just never made any real traction on them. But I do think it was a violation of what I consider the norms of journalism, for his opinions to be so powerful around the issues that he cared about.
JILL LEPORE: So what was it when you were a kid and reading Sports Illustrated and your parents were occasionally getting huffy about the contents of Time magazine in the 1960s and the last years of Luce’s life, what was it about the magazine then that was outrageous to liberal Democrats of your parents generation?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, I’ve been engaged with this book, not actually writing the book for as many years as I have been talking about it. But I’ve been giving talks about Luce to groups for many, many years now. And there has never been a time -- and you will have an opportunity to take your turn -- there has never been a time that somebody hasn’t stood up and talked about how they and their parents would be so infuriated by Time magazine that they would open it up and read a few pages, and throw it away, and promise that they would just never again let it in the house. Of course, they always did. They kept getting it.
And I think my father, who was a journalist himself, always read Time. He kind of liked it. He thought it was lively and liked to be lively and a little bit sort of skeptical. So he sort of liked the tone of Time, even though he didn’t pay attention to the politics of Time. My mother, who was one of these down to the depth of her heart liberals, and absolutely rigid on who was good and who was bad, thought Luce was almost always bad. But she read the magazines, too.
It was hard to put them down. They were addictive even if you didn’t like them and 20, 30 million people read these magazines pretty consistently over a long period of time. There had to be something there, even people who didn’t really like their politics.
JILL LEPORE: So what was that hardest part of Luce’s life to write about?
ALAN BRINKLEY: I think the hardest part was the last part of his life, partly because as time went on he became more and more aloof from the day-to-day running of the company. And he started being a kind of do-gooder. He formed commissions and he joined not-for-profits. And he did a lot of things that were worthy but not very interesting. That period of his life was salvaged for me by the horrible state of his marriage [laughter], which enabled me to write about it with some interest.
JILL LEPORE: Most people, most subjects of most biographies make that easy on most people at some stage of their life. I’m sorry. Go ahead.
ALAN BRINKLEY: But starting in the late fifties, he just started drawing away from the day-to-day life of the company and doing all these other things but also fighting constantly with Claire, Claire Booth Luce, his wife. And they had an extraordinary correspondence during these periods, which as I say, made the last part of the book a lot more interesting if I had just been writing about his career. And their lives together were just something else, including experimenting with LSD together in 1960.
JILL LEPORE: And writing about it?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, Luce only did it once, didn’t like it. Claire did it a lot, apparently, and kept a diary about it. And the record of Luce’s one LSD trip— and LSD, by the way, in 1960 was thought to be an acceptable and useful psychiatric tool. And so they took LSD in the hands of psychiatrists and doctors who thought that LSD would be therapeutic. And the doctor who was overseeing his LSD trip kept a transcript of his conversations during this LSD trip. And it was as if he was sitting in the Union Lead Club having a conversation with somebody. He was talking about Lion Trilling’s biography of Matthew Arnold. [Laughter]
JILL LEPORE: [Laughter] I can picture you so excited to go read the transcript and then …
ALAN BRINKLEY: Claire would keep coming over and saying, “How do you feel? What do you see?” “Nothing.” Finally at the end he said that he saw some lights and they were really quite dazzling. But he never did it again. It is so characteristic of him.
JILL LEPORE: Were there ambitions that Luce had that he didn’t realize?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, he had enormous ambitions so that he couldn’t possibly have lived up to them. You know, his greatest ambition was to see and be part of the process by which China would become part of the modern western world. And that was really the mission of missionaries in China, not just to turn people into Christians -- which they failed miserably in doing in China -- but also to teach the Chinese to be part of the modern western world. And it just didn’t happen. And, of course, Communism in his eyes was the antithesis of what he hoped would happen, even though Communism over time has actually created China into something like a modern western capitalist society, although, of course, well after his death.
JILL LEPORE: So now, again, asking you to be a historian rather than a biographer, I’m thinking about Luce’s legacy as a publisher, as a leading figure in journalism in the 20th century. Do you have the top five accomplishments?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Top five accomplishments?
JILL LEPORE: Lasting legacies, things that Luce did that are with us still.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, of course, there are some of his magazines that are still being published, although they would not be recognizable to Luce. No, I can’t say that there is a legacy that is of great meaning to us today. I think you could argue that these young people who started this extraordinary communications world are a kind of model for thinking about how to develop a media for a particular time in history.
But I don’t think Luce is very helpful in thinking about the future of journalism and the future of publishing. But, you know, we’re both historians and we don’t always assume that the things that we write about are of immediate relevance to our own time. History isn’t just about what is relevant to our time; it is also what is relevant to other people’s time. And even in the relative short time between Luce’s life and ours, I think his influence and his importance has diminished but that doesn’t make him less interesting to me. And so I think that the historian in me is trying to understand the time in which Luce lived through his magazines, and not so much trying to think how his magazines through our lives.
JILL LEPORE: So let me come at that question from another direction, which is a question about dis-juncture. You talked about the magazines, those that still exist today, being essentially unrecognizable from Luce’s lifetime. Why? In what way?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, of course, Life is gone. Life was closed down in 1972 not because it wasn’t still sensationally popular, but because it was too expensive to print and the advertising dollars were going away. Time magazine, I think, flourished well into the eighties and maybe even into the nineties. But starting in the nineties it ceased gradually from being a news magazine to becoming an opinion magazine or a feature magazine with very lavish illustrations, sort of like Life. And, you know, I don’t have great criticisms of Time magazine today. I don’t think people would really want Time magazine to be what it was like in the 1950s. But it is not as influential a magazine as it once was and it doesn’t look anything like the magazine.
Fortune started to change even while Luce was running the company. The great days of Fortune magazine were its first days when they saw Fortune not as a business magazine, as we now understand it, but as a magazine that was a kind of history of capitalism. And it was a sensationally interesting magazine, written by some of the great writers of its time, almost none of them business writers, all of them who sort of learned about business on the job and were fascinated by the newness of what they were discovering. And for maybe five or six years, Fortune magazine was probably the most interesting magazine in the United States, with the possible exception of the New Yorker. And then Luce began to get frustrated because it was getting too far to the left, not surprisingly because Dwight MacDonald was on the staff, and Ralph Ingersoll was the editor; James Agee was a writer, Archibald Macleish; all these liberals were writing for Fortune, and some of them actually loathing the magazine and writing in a sort of … undermining what was supposed to be the purpose of the magazine, which was not just to understand business but to respect business.
He pushed all of them out in about 1935-36. And by the end of the thirties he had transformed Fortune into a much more conventional business magazine, and it was profitable but no longer so interesting. And it continued, of course. It is still published, although on the brink, probably. Business Week has already been sold to Bloomberg and I don't know how long Time, Inc. will keep Fortune going.
I think these magazines just don’t have the clout that they once had. They don’t have the purpose that they once had. It doesn’t mean they aren’t good magazines. It just means they aren’t the magazines that Luce had. They don’t have the same kind of influence. They certainly don’t have the same kind of circulation. They certainly don’t have the level of profitability that they had from the thirties into the sixties.
JILL LEPORE: So there is a great deal of mournfulness out there about that, about the decline of the national news magazine and the kind of shared national culture, that moment in the American century that you chronicle, when Luce’s influence was at its peak, when the circulation figures were in the 20 to 30 million. Taking the long view of American publishing history, though, isn’t it the case that that was an aberration and that we are now experiencing something … that the confusion and disintegration is a source of continuity?
ALAN BRINKLEY: I think that is absolutely right, that the Luce magazines, along with other things, flourished during a period when middle class people at least could believe in a sort of unified conception of American life and culture, a sort of consensual view of America. And that idea of consensus, at least in historical literature, was at its peak in the 1950s, in the years after the war. And those magazines were chronicles of the consensus in the middle class.
Even before Life died, it was no longer that. But the mid-sixties Life magazine was, itself, a fractured and fractious magazine, trying to chronicle the dissolution of what once seemed at least to be a consensual nation. And, of course, in our time, communications are so broken down into little pieces and promoted in so many different ways that there is nothing like those magazines today, at least in their reach, in their sense of being able to present a vision of what America looks like as a whole.
I don’t think that is going to come back any time soon. I don’t think that the country is unified in the way many people once thought it was. The fact is that America was never really very unified. But perhaps more so in the middle of the twentieth century than in any other time. And that time is gone and the magazines are going with it. And what will replace them I don't know.
JILL LEPORE: Well, I think we will open up the floor to questions. There are microphones here for people to line up.
QUESTION: I have a question, which is about the Kennedys. I was very interested in reading The Making of a President that Joseph Kennedy had dinner with Luce the night that JFK accepted the Democratic nomination. And I was curious about that relationship and also curious about Luce’s relationship to John F. Kennedy, given that we are in the Kennedy Library, particularly because Kennedy had wanted to be a journalist.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, Kennedy, John Kennedy was a journalist for a short time, although I don’t think he ever wanted to be a journalist. But Joe Kennedy was -- I wouldn’t say a friend of Luce’s, but in the way famous people are, they were sort of friends. And so there are two, sort of extraordinary moments I think, in the relationship between Joe Kennedy and Henry Luce.
One was this evening in 1960 when Joe Kennedy came to Luce’s apartment to have dinner and watch his son, John Kennedy, give his acceptance speech at the Los Angeles convention. And he had flown back to New York because he didn’t want to be there because he was such a controversial person, and he worried that he would cause trouble for Jack. So he came and sat in Luce’s living room and watched the speech on television, kibitzing all the way and making nasty comments about politicians that he didn’t like and constantly flattering Luce.
And this dinner, to which he had invited himself, Joe Kennedy, was not a dinner of friendship. This was a dinner of trying to insure good coverage in the magazine for his son.
Then there is another, even more interesting I would say, in the relationship between the two. This comes from David Halberstam’s book, The Powers that Be. I’m not 100% sure that it is true, even though I have great respect for David Halberstam. He was a good friend of mine. But he did everything out of interviews and it is not … somehow I’m just not sure I believe it, but it is a great story, anyway.
He was sitting next to Luce at some convention. It might have been ’64 -- I think it was earlier, though. Maybe it was 1960. It might have been even ’56. And he was lamenting the fact that his own oldest son, Luce’s oldest son, just wasn’t doing so well in the world and didn’t know what he wanted to be and what he wanted to do. And Joe Kennedy said to Luce, “Well, I know what to do. It’s easy. Just buy him a Congressional seat.” [Laughter] And for those who know the history of his first, Jack’s first congressional race, you can see that he knew how to do it. Luce was shocked, appalled and, of course, didn’t have a clue how to do it, and it never happened.
And there were other links between Joe Kennedy and Luce. Joe persuaded Luce to write an introduction to Jack Kennedy’s book, which was his senior thesis at Harvard, Why England Slept. And then he wrote an even more effusive introduction to the book when it was re-published after he was elected president. And it isn’t clear who he voted for in 1960 because he was a great admirer of Jack Kennedy, the only Democrat he ever really did admire. Johnson he liked, too, actually.
QUESTION: Did Luce support in his magazine the McCarthy investigations? And if he did so, did this support fuel the fires?
ALAN BRINKLEY: I’m sorry. What was the last part?
QUESTION: The McCarthy investigations.
ALAN BRINKLEY: The McCarthy investigations?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, Luce did not like McCarthy, and not because he wasn’t an anti-Communist. He was at times a very fervent one. But he really disliked McCarthy, and I think it was more a kind of cultural dislike. McCarthy was not from his part of the world. And they ran a cover story on McCarthy in 1952 with McCarthy’s picture on the cover. And you know how Time always had nouns preceding names? Well, in this case it was “Demagogue McCarthy,” which was on the cover of the magazine. And it was pretty harsh. And McCarthy tried to steer his investigations into Time, Inc. and force Luce to fire a lot of people who he thought were Communists or Communist sympathizers, which he didn’t do very much. So I wouldn’t say that he was a champion of civil liberties but he certainly was not a champion of Joe McCarthy.
QUESTION: I remember reading Time as a child. And he was always promoting the war, that we should drop bombs, atomic bombs. And I wonder how much influence did he have to prevent the war?
ALAN BRINKLEY: No. I think you are in error about that, because Luce actually was a strong opponent of the atomic bombs.
QUESTION: Was he?! Then I remembered wrong.
ALAN BRINKLEY: And he didn’t know that there was such a thing as an atomic bomb when Hiroshima was bombed, but he spent the time between Hiroshima and Nagasaki trying to persuade the government and the Catholic Church not to drop another one. So I mean he was not opposed to wars, but he was opposed to atomic bombs.
QUESTION: I thought he wanted us to go to war with Russia.
ALAN BRINKLEY: He might have considered going to war with Russia but not with atomic weapons.
QUESTION: Okay. As I say, I was a child. Bad memory.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Yes.
QUESTION: I’m intrigued by what you said about not being quite sure what his legacy is. And I wonder about his impact on historiography, we might find one in every textbook that crosses my desk from publishers. There is reference to the post-war American century. And this idea that this sort of massive consensus might have been something promoted largely by journalists. It certainly didn’t exist … I do civil rights history and civil liberty history. And to what extent have historians been influenced by journalists is something that I look at in my research on historiography. And I wonder if you could comment on maybe, perhaps, finding some of his significance in his impact on how historians have examined the 20th century.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, I think the thing that people, historians certainly, and many other people remember most about Luce is the American century. And the American century means a number of things. It’s the title of a famous essay that he wrote in Life magazine in February 1941, which was designed to encourage Americans to accelerate the process by which the United States would join the war. But it was also an essay about what America’s role in the world would be after the war. And it was an extraordinary portrait of what America should be in the world and was hugely unpopular on the left. But, in fact, his picture of an American century was in many ways very close to what actually was America’s role in the world after World War II—less successful but the effort certainly was there.
So the American century essay and the idea of an American century that surrounded it was something much larger than Luce himself. It was an idea of America that was bubbling up out of the war from many sources. But I certainly agree that Luce was an important figure in that process. And if Luce had not existed, I think the future of America’s role in the world would have been much the same. But it certainly helped to have such a powerful piece of writing to help it along.
JILL LEPORE: I think your question was, too, maybe that the story that Time magazine told about America is the story that historians tell about America in the 1950s. That they swallowed the whole consensus idea. That the magazine existed, in fact, to promote but was not, in fact, describing … Am I stating your question correctly?
QUESTION: I write about the alternative press throughout the 20th century and about civil rights and civil liberties. And the consensus I think, to a certain extent, is something that historians like because it is that sort of grand synthesis, that grand narrative. And it is convenient that he, among others, was able to present this. And I wonder if we have been married to it too much in our looking at the 20th century.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, I think there were lots of different way in which the consensus was presented. Time had its way. Newsweek had a somewhat different way, and there were other forces that also contributed to the idea of consensus, including historians. And I think the idea of the consensus, which was very powerful in the fifties in particular … I mean people accepted the idea of a consensus even if they didn’t like it. They thought it existed. And I think that was an obstacle to the understanding of the diversity of ideas and people and problems and issues in America.
So, you know, you are writing about alternative journalism. It was pretty weak in the forties and fifties and sixties. In the sixties it started to become very powerful. In the forties and fifties it served small communities, or even some fairly large communities. It didn’t have the impact that it started to have in the sixties. And that unraveling of the consensus in the sixties is what shaped the world we live in today.
QUESTION: Thank you.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Do you think the Beatle song, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” was satirizing Henry Luce?
ALAN BRINKLEY: [Laughter] Not that I know of. And the Beatles have always denied that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was inspired by LSD. Whether they are telling the truth or not, I don't know.
JILL LEPORE: I think it was inspired by Lionel Trilling at the Union Club.
CHRIS LYDON: Alan, Chris Lydon. Welcome back to Boston.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Hi, Chris. How are you? Nice to see you
CHRIS LYDON: I think you are being too gentle with the dark side of Henry Luce. I wish I could remember the line … You know, the Norman Mailer letter, it was published in the New Yorker after Norman Mailer died. And basically he said - and much more stylishly than I will paraphrase it -- but basically he said something like he had come to think that Henry Luce and Time magazine were fundamentally the channel of the big lie about our society, despite the lively, cultural side of Time magazine that Arthur Schlesinger, among many others, celebrated.
Anyway, here’s my question. I think you maybe have tripped past the real point that everybody is kind of fishing for, which is his legacy. And I think when you say that JFK was maybe the only Democrat that he ever voted for for president, that JFK’s father was there with him holding hands on the night of the nomination … JFK in office came to see the Vietnam war as plausible, even conceivably embracing the idea of a war to liberate China. Maybe that’s the answer to the whole question, including how did a liberal, war-hardened, smart global president get hooked into the folly of that war? Maybe the answer is this huge sort of corporate and popular -- quasi popular -- but manipulated consensus that Henry Luce had been building maybe since his childhood, for an intervention in China? I would love Jill Lepore to take a crack at it, too.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, I will take the first crack and Jill can pick up after me. What you are saying is not entirely untrue. Time magazine was, well into the sixties, in part, a mouthpiece of Henry Luce and his views of the world. Now, by the sixties and by the time that the Vietnam War was beginning to accelerate -- and Luce strongly supported the Vietnam War, but was not a major figure in promoting it -- by the sixties Luce had kind of given up on China. He didn’t any longer believe that the United States would or could go in and overthrow the regime. It doesn’t mean that he didn’t want to see anti-Communist wars in other parts of the world -- and he certainly supported the Vietnam War -- but I don’t think the commitment to the Vietnam War had anything like his commitment of the restoration of a non-Communist China in the forties and fifties.
Now, the larger question you asked is was Time really the big lie? Well, Time did have a viewpoint, and it was not always consistent, and it was undermined often by people writing in Time who didn’t agree with Luce. He couldn’t read every piece that went into the magazine in advance. But, yes, there was an outlook in Time magazine that was consistent, if not always visible. And, you know, looking back at the Vietnam War, you could certainly see Time magazine as one of the big forces that helped to legitimize it. So, if that is the big lie, it did exist.
But, you know, I’ve been talking about Luce a lot, lately, obviously. And this issue comes up all the time: “Why are you so nice to Henry Luce?” And I don’t feel as though, at least in my book, that I’m all that nice to Henry Luce. But, you know, he’s a complicated person and it is not easy to portray him simply as someone who was an ideologue. He was also a person of great curiosity. And his magazines were filled with ideas and people with whom he didn’t agree, just not people and ideas that didn’t agree with the things that he cared about the most.
QUESTION: Would you speak a little bit about the independent influence of Clair Booth Luce on Time, and particularly in terms of the support in relationship to the Chiang Kai-Shek regime? And I wonder if the great period of time that Madame Chiang Kai-Shek spent in the United States during the war and afterwards was influential with that?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, I don’t think that Claire Booth Luce was an enormous influence upon China policy. She certainly was supportive of the China policy that Luce was promoting. The trip of Chiang Kai-Shek during the war was a trip that Luce helped to organize, and she was a very difficult person to orchestrate. She was sort of like one of these rock divas who cancel concerts at
the last minute. She would be in her hotel room and start to scream at her maids saying, “You haven’t done my hair right. I can’t go out on the stage today.” So it was a tough tour. But Luce adored her. Henry Luce adored here, not in any romantic way but just as a figure in history. And she was very popular in the United States during the war. And she gave these huge speeches in these huge rallies in the Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall.
Clair was sort of mesmerized by her but they weren’t close, I wouldn’t say. And I she didn’t have an independent relationship with her. Her relationship with her was entirely with her husband, with Harry.
I’m sorry. You wanted to say something.
JILL LEPORE: I was going to jump back to Chris’ question, which I thought was great. And I’m quite sympathetic with the Norman Mailer position. I’m even more sympathetic with Harold Ross’ position about Henry Luce, which I think he thought that the voice of Time magazine was, in fact, insidious. But for Ross, who was the editor, the founding editor of the New Yorker and a great rival of Luce’s, the big lie wasn’t the political message -- although that troubled Ross to some degree -- it was the bruising of the language, the battering of the English language and, in particular, the contempt for the American reader that Ross considered to be the editorial voice of Time magazine, which was the trawling of news stories in the newspapers and digesting and condensing them.
And for me, reading the exchange between Ross and Luce in the 1920s, there are ways in which you can see, you can trace the origins of something rather important, which is a very significant transformation in journalistic prose in American letters in the 20th century.
CHRIS LYDON: Can I just throw in a quick line.
JILL LEPORE: Yes.
CHRIS LYDON: I’m really fascinated also by the questions about the Kennedy connection. Specifically, imagine John F. Kennedy in a second term without the influence of his father or fending off the influence of Henry Luce and the passion, the old, inherited passion about another war in Asia, it could have been a different world, no?
ALAN BRINKLEY: I don’t think so. I don’t think he had that kind of influence on Kennedy. And Joe Kennedy, of course, was out of the picture by the end of 1961 because of his stroke. So, no, to whatever degree John Kennedy is responsible for the Vietnam War, he did himself along with people in his administration. There is a lot of debate, of course, if he would have pulled out of Vietnam after his re-election. There are some very good historians who believe that he, in fact, would have. I don’t think it is possible to answer that question.
But Luce was such an icon of journalism -- and not necessarily in a good way -- for so long that people attribute to him powers that I think, in fact, he didn’t have. Not that he had no power, but I think that the power was significant by degree.
And I agree with Jill about the language. I think the Time-eze is occasionally effective buy mostly appalling. And that was Hadden, primarily, who thought that The Iliad could be turned into -- at least the translations of The Iliad that he had read -- could be models of journalistic writing. And, of course, it turned into this ludicrous Time style that characterized the magazine for decades.
QUESTION: I’m interested in when the phenomenon of Man of the Year, Time’s Man of the Year, started and how that got started. And I can remember news stories led up to that for a month ahead of time, waiting for that issue to come out. And it’s a marvelous marketing ploy. But I’m wondering where that came from and who was responsible for that?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, the first issue of Time magazine had a portrait of Joe Cannon, the former Speaker of the House. And every issue of Time magazine until -- I don't know when, after Luce’s death -- every issue of Time magazine had the picture of a person on it, except for a few times, when once there was a Bassett Hound and a couple of time there were race horses. And so the idea of individuals as great forces in history and great forces in the news was a part of Time from the very beginning.
The Man of the Year started in, I forget exactly what year it was, but it was the year of the Lindberg flight and Lindberg was the first Man of the Year. I think it was 1928. So every year after that was a man or occasionally, very occasionally, a woman of the year. And that continues, still continues, even though Time doesn’t any more have portraits on the cover. There is still a Man of the Year.
QUESTION: Hi. Another Chris here. I’m Chris Daly. And like our host, I was a student of yours many years ago, Alan. And I can testify, you’re a great teacher and now, also, a wonderful writer. I really enjoyed you book. It is so spacious.
There is so much in it. There is so much to enjoy. I was thinking about one thing tonight, and I was really surprised by your attitude about his legacy.
And I wanted just to take a run at that from a totally different point of view from the other Chris. And that is it is easy to look back at Luce’s life, I think, from the end and see a person who was born right into the establishment, and went to Yale, and was in Skull and Bones, and then launched this enormously successful business, ends up with a tower at Rockefeller Center, the epitome of the establishment.
But another way to look at Luce was that he was really the poor relation among his swell friends at Hotchkiss and Yale, and a bit of a man on the make as a young person in his twenties. And when he and Hadden first got together, you know, what they really had was not much. And their most important tools were the scissors and the paste pot and their subscription to The New York Herald and The New York Times that really had reporting staffs, putting their spin and zip on things and repackaging it. They were, in a way, a lot like a news aggregator of today like a Huffington Post. And maybe one of the most important things about Henry Luce is the idea of, “Hey! Let’s start something. You don’t need a million dollars to launch something worthwhile.”
And I now educate young journalists. Every year I think, “What in the world are these people going to do because they can’t be employees of big organizations like Time, Inc. any more because they are all shrinking. But what is happening today is more of that, “Hey! Let’s start something.” And that is another side of Luce that is very easy to forget about. He looked very different at age 24 or 25 than he did at 65.
ALAN BRINKLEY: Oh, I agree. I mean Luce became the great man as he got older. But in the beginning of time, these were scrappy kids trying to do something new. And, yes, they were innovators, absolutely. And the innovations that went into the magazines, not jut Time but all of them, had a tremendous influence on the way other magazines saw for themselves. And even newspapers drew from the Time, Inc. magazines, drew ideas for how to present news and culture and other things.
You know, they weren’t the only people who were innovating in those years.
And so I wouldn’t want to say that Luce was the father of modern journalism, for example, but he was one of them. And I think that is a significant role for a person to play in history.
The reason that I demur about Luce having a tremendous importance to our time is that Luce was maybe the most important figure in reshaping media in the thirties and forties and fifties. But that media is slowly disappearing and something else is going to come along to take its place. Now, if Luce were a 23- year old kid today, he would be in a garage the way Bill Gates was 30 years ago, trying to work out how, if he still wanted to do news, to figure out some new way to present news to people apart from newspapers and dying news magazines.
JILL LEPORE: Perhaps we will take just one more question. And I just wanted to remind everyone that Professor Brinkley will be in the bookstore afterwards to sign books.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you both for being here. This has been a wonderful conversation and discussion for me. My question is I was curious about in Time’s heyday how powerful it was as an advertising tool, and what Luce’s relationship was with his corporate sponsors and how that influenced him? And, also, how the idea of consensus served advertisers at that time?
ALAN BRINKLEY: Well, Time had very good advertising revenues, but the real revenue was Life until the 1950s. And Luce was not uninterested in the business as well as in the magazine. He spent a lot of time on the business and it was important to him that they made significant profits. I will say about him that in the making of profits he saw cutting back as a bad strategy, and he believed that to make a magazine profitable, you have to invest more in it to make it better. That is what he also insisted upon.
So, for example, Life magazine was losing an enormous amount of money in its first year or two. And a lot of people in the company were saying, “You’ve got to cut back production. You’ve to go slim down the magazine; you are losing too much money. And then other people, including Luce himself saying, “This is going to be one of the great magazines of our time if we keep improving it.” And he was absolutely right, and it became the most lucrative magazine in the history of American magazines for 25 years.
Now, the consensus part of this is hard to describe easily. But I think Life magazine, even more than Time, was really the magazine of consensus in these middle years of the century, because they weren’t required to present news. I mean, they did present news from time to time, but they presented news that fit in with what they were trying to project. Time magazine was supposed to be covering all the news, including troubling news. There would be long periods in which Life was one, long celebration for weeks and months at a time. There were enormously powerful and popular stories all the time about the way people live in the new suburban, upper middle class world, housing and furniture … It was really a love story of high living.
And then there was this famous and beloved feature in Life magazine called Life goes to a party, which started in the Depression but kept going all through the forties and fifties. And, you know, they had parties of all kinds portrayed in the magazine. And they weren’t all lavish balls sponsored by Hollywood stars. You know, there were high school proms in the gym, and people in lodges having a party. But they were all portrayed in the same way, the way in which Americans enjoy their lives. And that is the sort of consensual part of the Luce magazines, this idea that America is such a great place, and Americans are such good people and, for the most part, Americans are really happy. That is sort of the message of Life magazine in those years.
There was a story in it once that seems to me to epitomize what life was like in that period. The title was, “Nobody is Mad at Nobody.” And this was a combination of Eisenhower (who, of course, Luce revered) and affluence and the absence of conflict, visible conflict, that Life celebrated for so long.
JILL LEPORE: Well, thank you very much. [Applause]
ALAN BRINKLEY: Thank you all for coming. [Applause]