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Published: November 23, 2010
 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61

 
 

Best Business Books 2010: Biography and History

True Tales of Fortune


Alan Brinkley
The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century
(Knopf, 2010)

Warren Bennis
Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership
(Jossey-Bass, 2010)

Daniel Okrent
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
(Scribner, 2010)

Sarah Rose
For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History
(Viking, 2010) 


We read biography to better understand ourselves much as we read history to better understand our times. Four engaging new books admirably aid us with both those tasks. As so many things do these days, our review of the year’s best business-themed biographies and histories begins — and ends — in China.

One Man’s Life, Time, and Fortune

Editor and publisher Henry Luce (1898–1967) presided over the golden age of general-interest magazines. He was cofounder of Time in 1923 and, over the next three decades, created Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated. In The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, celebrated and prolific historian Alan Brinkley serves up both an insightful account of the creation of those magazines and a brilliant character study of the entrepreneur who created them.

Luce was a complex character, a “striver” who sought a central role for himself on the world’s stage, a man as ego-driven as he was pathetically insecure and lonely. Brinkley suggests that the crucible for the publisher’s many successes — and his chronic unhappiness — was his early life in his native China, where he absorbed his missionary father’s “seriousness, his ceaseless search for self-improvement, his energy, his ambition, his certainty of purpose.” Indeed, the leitmotif of this masterfully crafted biography is Luce’s lifelong search for the higher purpose that would define not only his own life, but the mission (clearly, he was his father’s son) of his magazines and, ultimately, that of America itself.

While growing up in China, Luce had dreamed longingly of his Edenic homeland across the Pacific, a country he would not visit until he was 14 and ready to enroll in Connecticut’s prestigious Hotchkiss School. He turned out to be more conventionally American in his values and beliefs than most of his fellow students at Hotchkiss (and later at Yale) who had been born and raised in the United States. Throughout his life, Luce would be his nation’s quintessential booster, whose cheerleading culminated in his influential essay “The American Century” published in Life in 1941, in which the central thesis was that the United States had a sacred duty to bring democracy, capitalism, Christianity, and modernity to the world. He argued that America was, as it should be, the only world power, and with that power came the responsibility to become “the Good Samaritan of the entire world [with a duty to feed] all the people of the world who...are hungry and destitute.”

Luce wanted America to start to fulfill that mission in China. Even more than his beloved magazines, or his countless lovers, China was the true passion of his life (“Oh brave new world...Oh China!” he wrote with characteristic pomposity and enthusiasm). He, his magazines, and his nation were all required, in his cocksure mind, to help the civilized, Christian Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists defeat the godless Communists led by the brutish Mao Tse-tung. When the U.S. “lost” China and Chiang retreated to Taiwan in 1949, Luce went ballistic, and he and his magazines became ferocious cold warriors.

Yet the conservative Luce did not fall into lockstep with Joe McCarthy and the right wing of the Republican Party. Although a prominent and virulent critic of the progressive policies of Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Luce was nonetheless a Teddy Roosevelt, Wendell Willkie, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Nixon moderate; he was not isolationist, and he believed in an active role for government. For example, in the 1950s, he and his magazines were in the vanguard in condemning racial segregation in the South and promoting equality across the nation.

 
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