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

 
 

Best Business Books 2010: Biography and History

Brinkley offers fascinating details about the creation of all Luce’s magazines, but s+b readers will be most interested in the history of Fortune, which he launched on the cusp of the Great Depression. Brinkley says that Fortune was Luce’s “real love among his magazines” (quoting Peter Drucker), and “among the most elaborately and lavishly designed publications of its time.” Luce believed that “business is essentially our civilization,” and thus deserved to be celebrated in a magazine staffed by the finest writers, photographers, and graphic designers of the age. Each issue was a work of art, printed on high-quality paper and selling for a dollar at a time when magazines typically sold for a nickel or dime.

Luce had intended for the magazine to reflect his personal philosophy of enlightened corporate social responsibility. But Depression-era deprivations encouraged the magazine’s writers and editors to move far beyond Luce’s constructive boosterism and to become objective critics of business. In 1934, they were exhorting businesses to pay their employees living wages offering at least “a minimum standard of decency” for them and their families.

For nearly 30 years, the staff produced a truly outstanding magazine; in my view, the old Fortune was the finest popular magazine ever produced in this country. Its first generation of writers and editors in the 1930s included such literary luminaries as James Agee, Archibald MacLeish, and Dwight Macdonald, to be succeeded in the 1950s by the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith, William H. Whyte, Daniel Bell, and Alvin Toffler (all of whom would move on to fame in other arenas). The magazine was the first to offer scientific public-opinion polls, the first to feature photographs as works of art (Margaret Bourke-White and Walker Evans were on staff), and the first to incorporate fine art to illustrate texts (Charles Sheeler’s paintings of factories).

Brinkley’s account of the launching, marketing, and financing of Luce’s magazines gives business readers much to chew on. Luce was a fine businessman despite not caring a whit about making money for himself. He was a superb judge of talent, and rewarded his star writers and photographers handsomely. Indeed, he took great care of all Time-Life employees, famously offering the most extravagant expense accounts in journalism. He was, however, an absentee manager, off traveling for months at a time, only to suddenly and arbitrarily intrude on the work of his editors (who for the most part respected him nonetheless, thanks to his insatiable curiosity, creativity, high standards, and generosity).

Many people loved Luce despite — or perhaps because of — his insecurity and emotional vulnerability. He often turned to his employees for the friendship missing in his messy private life. His extremely public second marriage, to prominent playwright and politician Clare Boothe Luce, was a three-decade arrangement made in Hades between two “intensely self-centered and exceptionally ambitious” people who didn’t sleep with each other, but chose to remain together to enhance their respective careers. Because Henry and Clare shared an addiction to pouring their souls out in long letters to just about anyone, Brinkley is able to document even the most embarrassing details of their complex and often unattractive personalities.

The worst thing that can be said of the unpredictable, volatile, moody, and contradictory Luce was that, much like Rupert Murdoch today, he used the news for his own purposes. He sought the power to shape national and world events, and although he was seldom successful in those efforts, he never gave up trying. But unlike Murdoch, Luce was basically interested in using his power for the public good, and sought to the very end to live a virtuous life that would make his missionary father proud. He didn’t always succeed, but every week for four decades, his magazines provided Americans with a common cultural touchstone that did much to bind them together as a nation.

 
 
 
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