Since becoming a professional writer in 2007 with The Word Guild, it has been fascinating to learn more about how the world of publishing actually works. Alan Brinkley produced an intriguing book The Publisher which explores the life of Henry Luce. As the founder of TIME, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated magazines, Luce, says Brinkley, is ‘arguably the most important publisher’ of the last hundred years. I remember ‘cutting my teeth’ as a child on TIME and Life magazines to which my parents subscribed.
Luce’s parents sacrificially devoted their lives as missionaries in China. Being sent to boarding school robbed Luce of a healthy family upbringing, leaving him feeling alone and driven to impress others. Luce described his boarding school experience as a ‘hanging torture’, commenting: “I well sympathize with prisoners wishing to commit suicide.” Many missionaries, in hindsight, have regretted sending their children to boarding schools. The high valuing of academic education has sometimes caused well-meaning parents and their children to lose those vital family connections.
Born in Penglai City in China, Luce first came to North America at age 15. Everything was strange and different to him. Luce had an insatiable curiosity to understand unfamiliar settings. The novelist John Hersey who worked for Luce said that “the most attractive thing about Luce was that he was relentlessly curious about absolutely everything; he was delighted to learn any fact that he had not known before.” This curiosity was at the heart of the inventiveness of the four magazines that he birthed.
Luce inherited his parent’s missionary zeal to connect with a foreign culture and make a helpful difference. North America for Luce was always a foreign culture that he strove to understand. He always felt like an outsider. No matter how hard he strived, he never really felt like he fit in. Brinkley describes Luce as a “fundamentally shy, lonely and somewhat awkward man with few true friends… (yet he) had the ability to connect publicly with millions of strangers”. In many ways, Luce was an emotional orphan. He once said that he did not have a high regard for ‘feelings’, that they were ‘secondary’ to thought. One colleague described Luce as ‘the loneliest man I’ve ever known.’
While at Yale, Luce worked endlessly seeking to be accepted by the other students. As a missionary’s child, he lacked the money and position of other Yale students. Instead he gained acceptance through his keen inquisitive mind, and his involvement in helping produce the Yale Daily News. In partnership with fellow Yale Editor Britton Hadden, Luce birthed an unlikely newsmagazine in 1923 called TIME. Seventy percent of TIME subscribers were younger business executives under age 46. Brinkley says that Luce’s magazines contributed to ‘the birth of a national mass culture to serve a new and rapidly expanding middle class.’
Sadly Luce’s career success was often at the cost of his family life. Divorcing his first wife, he turned to the glamorous Clare Boothe, having what Brinkley described as a marriage made in hell. Philip Seib said that they were ‘both intensely self-centered and exceptionally ambitious…a perfect formula for making each other miserable.”
Luce always believed that his magazines could make a positive difference and shape a better world. The image of the Good Samaritan was a strong motivator in Luce’s thinking. In 1954, Luce put Billy Graham on the front cover of TIME magazine, and invited Billy Graham and six other leaders to write essays in Life magazine on the theme of National Purpose. The late Billy Graham said in Life: “We must recapture our moral strength and our faith in God.” Luce re-explored his faith and became a regular attender at Madison Presbyterian Church. TIME became an active supporter of civil rights and desegregation, with TIME reporters occasionally being beaten and injured.
As Alan Brinkley put it, “Henry Luce –for all his many flaws and sometimes noxious biases – was an innovator, a visionary and a man of vast and daunting self-confidence.” In this time of great technological and cultural change, we can all learn from the relentless curiosity, inventiveness and missionary zeal of Publisher Henry Luce.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
– previously published in the Deep Cove Crier
-award-winning author of the book Battle for the Soul of Canada
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