When TIME magazine was the latest thing

THE ORIGINS OF TIME Inc.

By Christopher B. Daly

[Excerpted from Covering America]

In the winter of 1922–3, two young men set up shop in an unimposing office located at 9 East 40th Street in midtown Manhattan.[i] At the start, their most important piece of equipment was a pair of scissors, which they used to clip news articles out of the New York Times, the Tribune, and a stack of other newspapers. Then, drawing on bits of French, Latin, and jazzy lingo that they had picked up at Yale, they set about rewriting the two- and three-day-old news into fresh, bright articles that showed a definite flair for verbal catchiness. Working late into the night, importuning their Yale connections for funds, dragooning their friends to help with editorial chores, the two pals (Yale, class of 1920, Skull & Bones) were putting together a new magazine. In the process, they were also inventing a new kind of magazine, one that would reshape the landscape of journalism.

In fact, the greatest asset the two men had was one good idea. Harry Luce and Briton Hadden asked themselves this question: What if someone summarized news from around the country and the world, wrought each item into a concise, polished story with some history and context, added coverage of the arts and culture, and priced the whole thing at 15 cents? With such a magazine, people who were too busy to sit down with three or four newspapers every day could keep up (or at least feel that they were keeping up) on the important news. With such a magazine, the short bursts of information people were starting to get over their radios could be put into a bigger frame or recurring theme. With such a magazine, the two young Yalies could not only tell people what was happening in the news, but also what they should think about those events. After a late name-change, they decided to call the new magazine TIME. In case anyone didn’t get the idea, they initially gave it a subtitle: The Weekly News-Magazine.

The new venture was no sure thing. But if anyone could make it work, it was probably Harry Luce and Briton Hadden. They had connections that ran deep into the heart of the American Establishment; they had the youthful ability to ignore the high likelihood of failure; and they had good timing. The U.S. economy was roaring into high gear, gathering the momentum that would create one of the greatest bull markets in history, so it was a good time for asking people for money to invest in new ventures. And ask they did, focusing on their Yale classmates.

Henry Robinson Luce had been born in 1898 to American parents who were then serving as Presbyterian ministers in Tengchow, China. That particular happenstance would have consequences, as it turned out, years later when Luce became one of the most influential Americans shaping U.S. attitudes and policy toward China. It also sparked in Luce an intense feeling of pro-Americanism. More immediately, his birth to missionary parents meant that he occupied an awkward social position — part of the American Establishment but lacking the funds to afford full membership. His parents sent him home to Hotchkiss, a boarding school in Connecticut, and he had to work and struggle to keep up with the wealthier, more assured boys. He also had to battle a stutter that he had had since early childhood. At Hotchkiss, he met Hadden, the son of a New York City stockbroker. The two boys competed in the school’s journalism world and ended up running competing publications, beginning the rivalry that was always an element in their collaboration.[ii]

In 1916, the two friends, known as “Brit” and “Harry,” went off to Yale, where they resumed their rivalry over the editorship of the prestigious Yale Daily News (editor Hadden won again). Yale University had changed much since its founding in 1701 and had even changed since the days when Luce’s father had attended. No longer a training ground for the Protestant clergy, Yale was focusing its efforts on training the young men who would wield power — power in finance, in government, and in diplomacy. In 1898, the very year Luce and Hadden had been born, America had stepped onto the world stage by trouncing Spain in a war engineered by ambitious Establishment figures seeking a larger role. Now, part of the next generation — that part that went to schools like Hotchkiss and Yale — was preparing to take on that expanded role and see if they could measure up to the likes of Teddy Roosevelt.

When the United States entered the war in Europe in April 1917, Luce and Hadden were thrilled. In the columns of the Yale Daily News, they wrote editorials in favor of war and patriotism, then joined up for duty. In the summer of 1918, they were sent to Camp Jackson in South Carolina, and it was there that they first discussed the idea of a news magazine. To their regret, the war ended before they could get in it, and the two young men headed back to New Haven to resume their studies. As senior year approached, Luce was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He and Hadden were both tapped to join the Order of Skull and Bones — the secretive, elite club that includes three U.S. presidents (that we know of) as well as Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members, diplomats, senators, and business tycoons among its members.

After a trip to Europe and a year spent studying at Oxford, Luce returned home in 1921, broke and unsure what to do next. Briefly, he went to work in Chicago for the Daily News, where he served as a legman for columnist Ben Hecht.[1] Hadden went off to New York, where he worked as a cub reporter at the prestigious World, then in the hands of Joseph Pulitzer’s son Ralph and executive editor Herbert Bayard Swope.[2] Luce and Hadden then both went to work briefly for the News in Baltimore before deciding to place all their chips on their idea for a news magazine. Seeking their fortune, they headed for New York City.

To launch their new venture they would need to find investors willing to give two rookies a lot of money. Still fairly fresh out of Yale, they had plenty of connections; what they lacked was capital. In order to convince investors, they would need to be able to explain the idea behind their new magazine. They would need a prospectus. In that document, Luce and Hadden made a number of promises:

There will be no editorial page in Time.

No article will be written to prove any special case.

But the editors recognize that complete neutrality on public questions and important news is probably as undesirable as it is impossible, and are therefore ready to acknowledge certain prejudices which may in varying measure predetermine their opinions on the news.

A catalogue of these prejudices would include such phrases as:

1. A belief that the world is round and an admiration of the statesman’s “view of the world.”

2. A general distrust of the present tendency toward increasing interference by government.

3. A prejudice against the rising cost of government.

4. Faith in the things which money cannot buy.

5. A respect for the old, particularly in manners.

6. An interest in the new, particularly in ideas.

But this magazine is not founded to promulgate prejudices, liberal or conservative. “To keep men well-informed” — that, first and last, is the only axe this magazine has to grind.[iii]

They kept their word about having no editorial page, but they immediately began breaking the promise to keep articles from pleading any special cases. Almost every article that ever ran in Time made a case — usually the case that Harry Luce wanted the magazine to make. The rest of the list gave little foreshadowing of the many prejudices that the conservative, Christian, internationalist Luce would hold and promote. None of those views would have mattered much were it not for what happened next.

Equipped with their prospectus, they sought advisers and investors. One stop was to visit Melville Stone, the former head of The Associated Press, who assured Hadden and Luce that news entered the public domain very rapidly and didn’t legally belong to anybody within days of appearing in a newspaper.[3] Many people warned them that it was foolhardy to take on the established Literary Digest — including the advertising executive Bruce Barton, who warned Luce that he and Hadden would lose every nickel they put into it. As it happened, Luce and Hadden had very few nickels to throw into the pot. Luce figured they would need $100,000 to get Time off the ground, and he initially hoped to find 10 friends from Yale willing to kick in $10,000 each. They went to see a recent Yale graduate for financial advice and found out that they could simply award themselves 80 percent of the shares of stock in the new enterprise, even without putting in any money, just on the grounds that they were risking their time and effort. That single decision eventually made Luce a fortune. Soon, they found their other investors, beginning with a fellow Bonesman, Henry P. Davidson Jr., who had followed his father into the House of Morgan on Wall Street. Other friends led them to Mrs. William L. Harkness (who was married to a Rockefeller partner), who liked the looks of the two young men and announced, “You may put me down for $20,000.”[iv] When they got to $86,000, the two twenty-four-year-olds decided to plunge in.[v]

The first issue of Time was dated March 3, 1923. It was nearly the last. Circulation, which had been projected at 25,000 to start, amounted to just 9,000 copies. At that rate, they could not last long, even though expenses were minimal. The original staff consisted of Luce and Hadden; a circulation manager; four staff writers; and some part-timers, including Stephen Vincent Benet (book reviews) and Archibald MacLeish (education). Luce himself wrote the Religion section and a good deal of the Business as well. The new magazine offered readers a punchy, concise summary of the world’s doings in the space of twenty-eight pages. Slowly at first, business picked up. By the end of the year, circulation had reached 20,000 copies a week. On the other hand, they had lost $39,454.[vi] Over the course of 1924, circulation doubled, from 35,000 to 70,000, and the magazine generated an actual profit: $674.15. They were on their way.

From the start, the head wordsmith was Hadden, who labored over each item, putting his stamp on it. In editing Time each week, Hadden confronted a fundamental problem that is familiar to anyone who has ever worked on a rewrite desk: How to make information that is stale or dull sound fresh and important? There are essentially two answers to this problem: You can either do more reporting and advance the story somehow, or you can massage and polish the prose to make it sound punchy or cute or profound. Lacking a reporting staff at this stage (that would come later), Hadden went to work on punching up the copy, giving each article that special Time treatment. For this reason, no articles in Time carried bylines for decades; instead, everything was written (or re-written) by Hadden or one of the team of editors he trained. It became pretty easy to become rich working for Time, but it was awfully difficult to become famous under the magazine’s word-processing system.

The way they wrote became known as Timespeak or Timestyle. Unmistakable it was. Part of the reason was compression; Hadden was determined to pack as much news as possible into as small a space as possible. So, Time often read in the early years as if it consisted of a batch of telegrams. But there were other Hadden inventions that have no apparent explanation, at least none grounded in traditional English composition. One favorite was inverted syntax. Instead of the usual sentence structure, Hadden flipped things around.

“Forth from the White House followed by innumerable

attendants, Mr. and Mrs. Warren G. Harding set out…”

Another favorite device of Hadden’s was to invent adjectives that invoked Homeric epithets. Thus, the football running back Red Grange was “eel-hipped,” while the Indian leader was the “nut-brown Mahatma Gandhi.” Hadden also ransacked his thesaurus and his foreign-language dictionaries. From ancient Greek he introduced the word “kudos” to refer to honors, from Hindi he grabbed the term “pundit,” and from Japanese he imported the term “tycoon.” When those sources let him down, he simply started making up words and coining phrases. A favorite device was to fuse two existing words into a new one, especially if the final sound of the first word approximated the initial sound of the caboose. Thus, a person who acted in the cinema would become a “cinemactress,” and the people who worked at the magazine were called “Timeployees.” And for no apparent reason, Time usually insisted on publishing the middle names of the high and mighty, no matter how embarrassing. All of these verbal hijinks gave Time a distinctive voice. Punch sought Hadden, and punch got he.

Something was working. At the end of the first five years, circulation was headed for 300,000, annual revenue had topped $1 million, and Time now needed sixty-eight pages to summarize the week’s doings. The staff was expanding, salaries were rising, and people were starting to notice.[4]

Then, tragedy. The hard-working, hard-drinking Hadden developed an infection (Streptococcus viridans), which traveled through his bloodstream and into his heart.[5] He died on Feb. 27, 1929, at age 31 — “six years to the day after he put the first issue to press,” according to Time’s official history.[vii] Despite the rivalry between Luce and Hadden, Luce was devastated. But an urgent question arose: what about the future of the magazine and Hadden’s ownership stake? In his will, Hadden put a family member in charge of his estate, which consisted mainly of his 3,361 shares of stock in Time Inc. Luce was eager to buy as many as possible, and he prevailed on the Hadden family to sell to him. The estate decided to sell off 2,828.5 shares, at $360 per share. Using his existing stock as collateral, Luce borrowed enough to buy 625 of Hadden’s shares. Most of the rest were sold to other Time employees or members of the Time Inc. board of directors. As a result, Luce became the largest single stockholder, with 40 percent of the shares, giving him effective control over the company. In those days, shares of Time Inc. stock were rarely sold, but within two years, the value of a single share had reached $1,000 (just before a 20-to-1 split), making Luce a young multimillionaire.[viii]

With the passing of Hadden, who admired Mencken and Sinclair Lewis and who was something of an iconoclast, Time became more than ever a reflection of Harry Luce. One unmistakable difference involved Luce’s approach to politics. Whereas Hadden had held few fixed political positions, Luce had plenty, and they began to pervade the magazine. Often, they took the form of hero-worship. If Harry Luce decided that he admired the cut of a man, then Time readers would certainly find out about it. Luce operated on the premise that the great events of history were the accomplishments of Great Men, and he devoted Time to discovering and celebrating the Great Men of his own day. Among his favorite kinds of Great Men were business executives. Having discovered the word “tycoon,” Time practically wore it out. All through the 1920s, and well past the stock market crash, Time lavished praise on U.S. business leaders, admiring their profits and flattering them with cover portraits. Luce himself, as the partner most concerned with the magazine’s finances, identified with the titans of finance and industry. In 1929 alone, Time ran a record 16 covers featuring business tycoons, including such titans as J.P. Morgan and a comer from a new field — David Sarnoff of RCA. (“You cannot fool him about mousetraps,” Time exulted.) When the great Crash came, Luce was as surprised as anyone.

As Time began to prosper, Luce began flexing his muscles, seeking greater and greater influence in affairs of state. As he did so, the valentines to businessmen began to give way to more and more portraits of prime ministers, generals, diplomats, and dictators. Among these men, Luce gravitated to a type of man he found particularly great. To begin with, Luce was an instinctive and inveterate anti-communist. As a capitalist and a Christian, he loathed the godlessness and forced collectivization of Stalin’s Soviet Union. But Luce was an anti-communist of a particular stripe, which showed in his open and persistent admiration for strong leaders and heads of fascist governments. During the 1930s, Time praised men like Italy’s Mussolini (“all-powerful… virile, vigorous”) and Spain’s Franco — who each appeared on Time’s cover eight times.[ix]

There was one case of hero worship, however, that lasted longer than any other and had more consequences. That was Luce’s absolute devotion to Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of China’s Nationalist movement. As early as 1928, Time was already gushing:

The Conqueror of China, Marshal Chiang Kai-shek, who was chosen President last fortnight, assembled last week an all star Cabinet in which every name is packed with potency…. Austere President Chiang, though modest and democratic, is above all prudent.[x]

From there, it only got worse. Throughout the 1930s, Time consistently portrayed Chiang as the indispensable hero of the Chinese people, the only man capable of turning aside the Japanese invasion and preventing communism in Luce’s beloved China. American readers of Time had every reason to think that the Generalissimo would prevail and no reason to think that Chiang would ever have to flee to the island refuge of Taiwan in the face of a successful communist uprising led by Mao. So sure was Luce about Chiang that he regularly rejected and rewrote the dispatches sent to him by two young Time correspondents who would soon distinguish themselves as among the greatest reporters of their generation — John Hersey and Teddy White. They sent long files to New York that gave a pretty accurate picture of the true situation in China, but Luce stayed with Chiang to the bitter end.

Another feature of Timestyle was the magazine’s absolute certainty about all things, great and small. Time was judgmental from front to back. Neither Hadden nor Luce apparently felt the need to conform to any of the standard journalistic conventions such as getting “both sides” of a story, or citing people or documents as sources for reporting. Instead, Time (i.e., Luce) simply made up its mind and then informed readers what to think. Such an approach might be expected in the book reviews, or in the sports department, where the standards of factual reporting and fairness don’t usually apply. But in Time, the same assured judgment extended to politics as it did to opera. After Hadden’s death, for instance, Luce launched a series of articles on the Soviet Union, including a campaign aimed at getting U.S. businesses to boycott the communists. In the article headlined “All Against Russia,” Time told readers about “nameless and disgusting Bolshevik atrocities,” referred to the Soviet government as “perhaps the most criminal in the world,” and finally just fired away at Bolsheviks in general, calling them “unattractive animals which, like boa-constrictors and alligators, accept food, only to show their gratitude by swallowing their keepers.”[xi] All of those things might have been true, but what was remarkable about Time was its willingness to make its own pronouncements in its own voice and on its own authority. Once, Luce explained to a friend: “Listen, I don’t pretend that this is an objective magazine. It’s an editorial magazine from the first page to the last, and whatever comes out has to reflect my view, and that’s the way it is.”[xii] Or, as he famously put it, “Show me a man who thinks he’s objective, and I’ll show you a man who’s deceiving himself.”[6] Clearly, Luce was offering readers more than facts; he was selling his judgment.

One indicator of his success was the steady rise in annual revenues from circulation and advertising; another was the appearance of an imitator. In 1933, a former Time foreign editor, T.J.C Martyn, rounded up a group of investors and launched a rival called News-Week, observing that “some people feel Time is too inaccurate, too superficial, too flippant and imitative.”[7]

As publisher, Luce became quite the tycoon himself. In 1929, he started laying plans to branch out with a magazine devoted to business. The new magazine, originally titled Power, was in the planning stages before Hadden’s death in 1929. In a proposal he submitted to the directors of Time Inc., Luce sketched out his vision. “We conceive that the failure of business magazines to realize the dignity and the beauty, the smartness and excitement of modern industry, leaves a unique publishing opportunity,” he wrote, adding that the new magazine — now called Fortune — would be “beautiful” . . . “authoritative” . . . “brilliantly written” . . . “It will have Time’s bursting-with-fact, economical, objective merits, but the language will be smoother, more sophisticated . . . ”[xiii] To carry out his plans, Luce hired a brilliant young staff — most of whom had no particular background in business, including Dwight Macdonald, Archibald MacLeish,[8] and a twenty-four-year-old photographer named Margaret Bourke-White. Against long odds, this expensive new magazine devoted to celebrating the Swifts and Rothschilds and all their works, was making its debut just as the economy was collapsing but still turned out to be another success. Fortune offered readers a shining vision of capitalism’s ultimate promise — with never a discouraging word — and readers responded.

But the move that really made Luce was still to come. In 1936, he started planning for yet another new magazine. Even before settling on a name, he described his goal for the new visual showcase:

To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work — his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.[xiv]

The world’s existing newspapers and magazines printed plenty of good photos, Luce argued, but no one publication brought together in one place “the cream of all the world’s pictures,” edited to present a coherent story and printed on quality stock. The idea became known as Life.[9] The first edition appeared in November of 1936, featuring a cover photo by Bourke-White of the Fort Peck Dam, and it was an instant success. Luce (and his Chicago printers, Donnelly & Sons, using untested new paper and inks) literally could not print Life fast enough to meet the demand for the new weekly.

The popularity of Life very nearly broke Time Inc. Based on the pre-publication circulation estimates, Life had promised advertisers attractive initial rates, combined with an option to renew at that low starting rate. At the same time, the plan was predicated on buying a certain amount of high-quality paper from the Mead company, which could only produce so much. When sales of Life took off, executives at the magazine had to go out and buy paper on the spot market, paying far more than they had planned. And with ad revenue languishing, they almost didn’t make it. Were it not for the deep reserves generated by Time and Fortune, ultimately running to some $6 million, Life would have gone under. As it was, Life survived long enough to do two things. One was to develop the practice of photojournalism to a high art, bringing the photo-essay to a mass audience and showing people in a pre-television world what the news looked like and what ordinary life looked like.[xv] Life also became an enormous profit center for the collection of publications that became known as “the Luce press,” ultimately making Harry Luce much wealthier and much more powerful.[xvi]

It can be difficult now to grasp the reach and power of these magazines, but it helps to remember that in their day, there were no national newspapers, no CNN, no TV networks, and certainly no Internet. Collectively, the Lucepress became the successor to the Hearst press in terms of reach and the boss’s eagerness to shape politics. Just as democratic politicians derive power from voters, publishers derive power from readers. As the combined circulation of Time, Fortune, and Life rose, so did Luce’s influence. That large and growing audience was the real base of his power, just as it had been for Horace Greeley before him or Joseph Pulitzer. It was the reason that presidents from Roosevelt to Johnson feared Luce and courted him. (FDR loathed Luce and even composed hate mail but, thanks to his staff, never sent it.) What Luce chose to do with that power was what he had always done: advance his faith in God, the Republican Party, and the capitalist system. The blessings of all those causes, he believed, should belong not just to Americans but should flow to all the people of the world, from the most benighted peasant in China to the most radical trade unionist in France. In this, he broke ranks with many of his fellow U.S. conservatives. At a time when most conservatives — and a lot of other Americans — were staunchly isolationist or intent on putting America First, Luce was just as determined to get them to look far afield, to take up the burden of a great power, and (as his father, the missionary, had done) to spread the word.

[1] Hecht later co-wrote (with Charles MacArthur) a classic send-up of American journalism in the play Front Page, which became the basis for the great screen comedy His Girl Friday.

[2]Swope, winner of the first Pulitzer Prize for reporting, had a short but notable career in journalism. At the World in the 1920s, he invented the “Op-Ed” page as a forum for expressing opinions of outsiders. In 1928, he quit the World and left journalism. He spent the following decades as a celebrity and a public relations consultant — working for many of the country’s biggest corporations as well as the emerging media giants RCA, NBC, and CBS.

[3] The distinction is drawn between information, which is not subject to copyright, and the unique expression of that information that a rival magazine or newspaper might create, which is automatically protected by copyright law.

[4] To save money in the early days, Luce moved Time to Cleveland for two years, then — at Hadden’s insistence — moved the operation back to Manhattan. The printing of Time was done by R.R. Donnelley & Sons company of Chicago, the nation’s rail crossroads, to facilitate nationwide distribution.

[5] During the previous year, a Scottish scientist had discovered the antibiotic properties of a mold called Penicillium notatum, but it was not yet developed into a practical medical treatment for bacterial infections. On Hadden’s demise, see Wilner, The Man That Time Forgot, chap. 15.

[6] Swanberg, 142. Swanberg later quotes Luce this way: “I am a Protestant, a Republican and a free-enterpriser, which means I am biased in favor of God, Eisenhower and the stockholders of Time Inc. — and if anybody who objects doesn’t know this by now, why the hell are they still spending 35 cents for the magazine?”

[7] The magazine soon changed its name to Newsweek. Meanwhile, the magazine named Time was flourishing. At the 10-year mark, the parent company (Time Inc. officially dropped the comma from its corporate name that year) recorded more than $1 million in after-tax profits. Even so, Luce still saw no reason to hire his own staff of reporters, preferring to go on as always clipping articles out of newspapers and re-writing them. Time did not build much of a staff nor open many bureaus until the outbreak of war in Europe in the late 1930s. See Elson, 169.

[8] MacLeish left Luce’s employ in 1938 to become curator of the Nieman Fellowship program for journalists at Harvard and, later, the Librarian of Congress.

[9] Life was a far better choice than the original name, Dime. For one company to be publishing magazines called Time and Dime was a formula for disaster. Where would it end? Crime? Slime? Pantomime?

[i] This account is based on several essential sources: Alan Brinkley, The Publisher; W.A. Swanberg, Luce and His Empire; David Halberstam, The Powers That Be, chaps 2, 12, 17, 20, 28, 31 and 35; and the two-volume, authorized history of Time magazine by Robert T. Elson, Time Inc.: The Intimate History of a Publishing Enterprise. An important corrective to the literature about Luce is the biography of Hadden by Isaiah Wilner, aptly titled The Man Time Forgot.

[ii] See Brinkley, The Publisher, chap. 2 for insight into their Hotchkiss years.

[iii] Swanberg, 54.

[iv] Ibid., 55.

[v] See Elson, 14, for details on the incorporation of Time Inc. and allocation of the original 14,000 shares of stock.

[vi] Elson, 75.

[vii] Elson, 121.

[viii] Ibid., chap. 11. For the unofficial version, see Wilner, chap. 16. Also see Brinkley, 141–8.

[ix] Brinkley, chap. 5.

[x] Time, Oct. 28, 1928, 20.

[xi] Ibid, March 10, 1930.

[xii] Halberstam, 62.

[xiii] See Elson, 129–30.

[xiv] Elson, 278.

[xv] Tebell, 167–171.

[xvi] Halberstam, 64–9.