TIME Magazine at 100
Henry Luce’s flagship has outlived the century it shaped, but for how much longer?
When it passed Week #5150 on March 3, TIME magazine became that rarest of species in the ever-obsolescent media age: a venerable centenarian. To be sure, it no longer marches on at the sprightly clip of its youth. Staggers on, according to some critics, would better describe the nonagenarian pace of its dotage. Slackened tempo notwithstanding, what a remarkable, unprecedented odyssey through the decades it has been.
Henry Luce’s TIME—and, during the century’s middle decades, also LIFE—dotted the landscape everywhere. If you are in your 60s or older, you grew up with TIME. Remember all those copies at hand in every newsstand rack, in every school library, in every doctor’s and dentist’s office, on seemingly every family coffee table? It became an ingrained habit, if you had a spare moment, to flip through these magazines. Half-consciously, you thumbed the pages until your eye rested on a news report or feature or book review that caught your eye. At the height of its prominence, it was nothing less than a guidebook to breaking events, a digest for social and political literacy, a compendium of “What Every Informed Person Needs to Know.” No other magazine before or since has ever matched the cachet of a TIME cover story. (Quiz question: Which headliner has received the most TIME covers? Answer: Richard Nixon, having topped out at 40, according to Statista. He is followed by Ronald Reagan at 37 and Donald Trump at 35. Hillary Clinton leads the women’s list with 23.)
America’s most famous magazine was launched on March 3, 1923. TIME—always full caps, as if it were shouting its claim to national attention—was the brainchild of two brash young men who entered the world on the cusp of the new century. Briton Hadden and Henry Robinson Luce were ambitious, indeed audacious 24-year-old WASPs who exemplified the brassy, bold, brazen temper of the Roaring Twenties. The pair’s spunk and vision were captured in a letter that Luce wrote in February 1923, just days before the magazine’s maiden issue: “After this week it’s head-on either to glory or perdition.” Glory it would soon be—all the more incredible when one remembers that the editors managed to raise just $86,000 before they launched their grand venture.
The dreaming started all the way back in Hadden and Luce’s schooldays. The pair met at Hotchkiss, an elite Connecticut preparatory school, and went to Yale College together, where they hatched a plan for something entirely new in American journalism: a weekly newsmagazine. The idea of the editors was that they would cover and comment on that week’s full range of important current events. Could a 32-page newsprint digest function as a Baedeker of all you needed to know every week? It was an arresting and irresistible notion—and a feat of self-advertising. Hadden and Luce sold it to a receptive public, making millions of citizens believe that a copy of TIME would keep a busy reader informed about everything of immediate significance in the world.
The tone and manner of TIME reflected its origins in the editors’ schoolboy relationship. The founders were friendly rivals as students who decided to combine their skills and become partners. Hadden was the wordsmith, Luce was the businessman and marketer. They were very much an odd couple: a Felix and Oscar—or perhaps a Jobs and Woz. Luce was earnest, staid and buttoned-up; Hadden was gregarious, fun-loving, and stylish.
They turned out to complement each other brilliantly. Hadden’s masterstroke in the early years of the magazine’s gestation was its famous, or notorious, Timestyle.
Whether you delighted in or deplored it, Timestyle became the magazine’s signature, even long after it mostly disappeared from its pages. During its heyday in the late 1920s and 1930s, Timestyle was distinguished by its cheeky, ever-quotable descriptive language (“beetle-browed Nixon,” “alluring cinemactress Garbo”), its inverted word order, its prominent and often satirical reference to newsmakers’ little-known middle names (“Joseph Paul DiMaggio”), and its reductive monikers in adjectival form (“Pundit Lippman,” “Tycoon Onassis”).
The best-known hallmark of Timestyle was modeled on the classics, namely its use of hyphenated compound noun phrases. Hadden was so smitten with The Iliad that he carried around a tattered old copy stuffed with notes for adjectival phrases that sooner or later would find their way into a TIME story about a newsmaker. From Homer’s “wine-dark sea” came “the flabby-chinned Hoover,” “the snaggle-toothed Roosevelt,” and “the Nazi-friendly Lindbergh.”
These editorial innovations were largely Hadden’s doing. Strongly influenced by H.L. Mencken, whom he hero-worshiped, Hadden sought to be clever, pungent, and provocative. The emphasis was on readability sprinkled with a high degree of insolence. The collegiate wise-guy prose was moderated somewhat by the late 1930s, partly in reaction to a withering New Yorker parody of Timestyle by Wolcott Gibbs published in November 1936. Written as a profile of Luce, it included the following malicious mockery of the publisher: “Yaleman Luce already has wistful eye on the White House… His future plans impossible to imagine, staggering to contemplate. Where it will end, knows God.”
Hadden’s tragic and unexpected death at the age of 31 in February 1929—he contracted a throat infection (which today would have been routinely handled with antibiotics) that led to blood poisoning—left Luce as the sole proprietor of TIME. It was Luce who introduced the magazine’s second game-changing innovation: group journalism, a collaborative form of work that in turn influenced the magazine’s house style.
By the mid-1930s, TIME no longer had any “reporters.” It had only “correspondents” and “contributors.” Bureaus at home and abroad were staffed with correspondents who gathered information for features and sent it back to New York, where a staffer (or two or several) would be assigned to write a draft. Meanwhile, other reporters would digest the week’s news from newspapers and magazines. Ultimately, the working draft would be circulated and rewritten, eventually landing on the managing editor’s desk for final approval—and, if he expressed interest, on the desk of Henry Robinson Luce as well.
This collaborative style extended to the design and production departments of the magazine. Typically, the cover depicted an easily understood title, a highlighted lettering of the magazine’s name, and a box announcing the featured event or celebrity of the week. For the maiden issue of March 3, 1923, that now-forgotten celebrity was “Uncle Joe” Cannon, the soon-to-retire speaker of the House. By the mid-1930s, photographs replaced illustrations, first in black and white, and by the 1940s in a four-color scheme that became the TIME brand, making it instantly recognizable among American magazines.
The organization of the magazine was a straightforward tripartite division: National News, International News, and Culture. Other departments were added over time: Business, Medicine, Sport, People. The Culture section was soon divided into Books and Cinema, both of which were staffed by talented authors. Already in the 1930s, it was well known that a positive or negative review in TIME could make or break a book or a film.
The Culture section remained untouched by group journalism, at least insofar as book and movie reviews were concerned. Luce had enough respect for (or fear of) the cultural establishment not to mandate that TIME reviewers collaborate and pool their impressions of works in the creative and performing arts. He also had enough good sense to realize that group journalism, if applied to cultural topics, might very well lead to judicial criticism that reflected the lowest common denominator.
All this meant that the Culture department operated differently from the “front of the book.” Not only did some reviewers deliver their own idiosyncratic evaluations, but their judgments also often skewed leftward, diverging considerably from Luce’s conservative political preferences. (Nonetheless, reviewers chafed at the mandatory anonymity policy, which applied to all contributors except the occasional columnist. Not until 1970 did reviewers’ bylines appear; in news and features, not until 1980.)
Luce assembled a stable of writers who would give the magazine its unique literary voice. Once the magazine was successful, Luce paid his writers well and never tried to muzzle or arm-twist them to accommodate his political and religious views. As a result, TIME was able to recruit—and, surprisingly, retain—many first-rate literary men and some of America’s best journalists: Archibald MacLeish, Stephen Vincent Benét, James Agee, Louis Kronenberger, Robert Fitzgerald, John O’Hara, Theodore H. White, John Hersey, John Kenneth Galbraith, Alfred Kazin, Robert Cantwell, Irving Howe, Laura Z. Hobson, Willi Schlamm, and Whittaker Chambers, among others. Although many of them began at TIME intending to stay only briefly until they wrote their successful novel or nonfiction book, some of them made their careers there—and were handsomely compensated by Luce and given wide editorial latitude.
Eventually, Fortune and LIFE joined TIME as the crown jewels of the Luce empire, which also came to include lesser-known offspring whose acquisition often reflected temporary Luce enthusiasms. For instance, in 1932 Luce purchased the trade journal Architectural Forum simply because he had developed an interest in the subject. He also ventured into other communication fields, scoring a coup in the mid-1930s with the “March of Time” newsreel series, which became a staple in American movie houses for three decades. His fourth and last major magazine was Sports Illustrated, founded in 1954, but it was Luce the businessman who was behind that. He had scant interest in the sports world.
TIME remained Luce’s flagship publication, reflecting its publisher’s prejudices, promoting his causes, serving his quest for power, and expressing his crusader’s idealism. A proselyte by temperament and conviction, this son of foreign Presbyterian missionaries—Luce’s first fifteen years, before Hotchkiss, were spent in a missionary compound in Tengchow, China, during the pre-Communist era—possessed a missionary belief in what was best for America: admiration for capitalism, big business and its leaders, a faith in America’s destiny, and a hatred of atheistic Communism.
TIME’s record on domestic political issues and international affairs was mixed. It condemned Joseph McCarthy as a “demagogue” and supported the founding of the United Nations and civil rights movement. Likewise, it castigated the Nazis and Hitler. Nonetheless, TIME did give voice to Luce’s admiration for strongmen, among them Mussolini and General Douglas MacArthur. The Duce (dis)graced the magazine’s cover no fewer than five times. Luce tended to develop political crushes, becoming a loyal booster of Wendell Willkie (his hapless white knight against the despised FDR), John Foster Dulles, and Dwight Eisenhower. Luce especially liked crusading secular saviors, noble titans whom he could imagine as standing tall against the forces of evil.
The biggest of Luce’s Big Men was Chiang Kai-shek. Luce’s infatuation with Chiang knew no bounds. Luce retained a lifelong warm spot for China and a deep concern about its future, which blinded him to Chiang’s limitations and, given TIME’s influence and Luce’s connections with Republican policymakers, distorted American policy in the Far East. Chiang appeared on TIME’s cover six times; Madame Chiang, three.
This notable blot notwithstanding, TIME acquitted itself with honor during World War II and its aftermath. It cheerleaded the Allies’ victory and correctly anticipated the impending faceoff with Stalin and the USSR. Luce conceived of the war in Wilsonian terms as a fight “to make the world safe for democracy.” Among the reasons for his hatred of FDR was the conviction that Roosevelt was timidly dragging his feet on entering the war, excessively concerned with his own political standing. Luce’s vision was most fully expressed in his widely quoted essay, “The American Century,” published in LIFE in February 1941, which argued almost a full year before Pearl Harbor that the U.S. should stand up against the Nazi-Bolshevik twin evils and intervene immediately to oppose the Axis powers.
It was a shrewd, if avowedly patriotic, gesture for TIME to produce a special mini-edition for the American soldier. Not only was the “wartime edition” a success, it also won young readers who became lifelong subscribers. The war also furnished new heroes for Luce to celebrate. Luce had been a Churchill fan for decades. After the war, especially following Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in 1946, he became Luce’s beau idéal: a principled conservative, an eloquent orator, a fierce anti-Communist, and a man of stature as a statesman and historian. In 1949, TIME awarded Churchill its highest accolade: Man of the Half Century.
With the kickoff issue of Sports Illustrated in August 1954, the Luce empire entered upon its Golden Age. TIME ascended to an historic peak of influence and profitability, reflecting American global dominance and channeling the decade’s fascination with corporate success and technological innovation. Page after page of the magazine was filled with ads for General Motors, Union Carbide, Bell Telephone, and U.S. Steel, among many other Fortune 500 corporations.
At the magazine’s 40th anniversary gala on May 17, 1963—held because Luce “didn’t want to wait ’til fifty,” suspecting (correctly) that he would not be around to witness it—a star-studded guest list of 1,668 celebrated the magazine’s glorious and glamorous history. Among the attendees were 284 guests who had adorned TIME covers, ranging from Lyndon Johnson, Thurgood Marshall, and Douglas MacArthur to Jonas Salk, Paul Tillich, George Balanchine, Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, and Vince Lombardi.
When Luce died in February 1967, he was widely and lavishly eulogized, with the editor of Look calling him “a journalistic genius.” No panegyrist’s encomium approached an alleged remark of the dearly departed himself. Luce had once observed, according to his biographer Alan Brinkley, that he was “smarter than Albert Einstein” because the physicist was just a “specialist” whereas Luce was a “generalist.” (Was Luce tripping when he said this? I wonder, half-seriously, for the most bizarre factoid in Brinkley’s biography is surely that, near his life’s close, Luce experimented with LSD. According to the diary of his psychiatrist, after dosing himself Luce sat down at his desk and calmly perused Lionel Trilling’s biography of Matthew Arnold.)
Whatever one makes of such stories, it is undeniable that Henry Luce exerted substantial influence on the American mind and temper. “The magazines which bear his stamp are an authentic part of life in America,” as President Lyndon Johnson memorialized him. And not just America. Joseph Epstein estimated a few months after Luce’s death that “at least 50 journals throughout the world … could trace their origins to TIME,” including Germany’s Spiegel and France’s Express. He could have added that London’s Picture Post and the Paris Match were knockoffs of LIFE. When Luce died, the empire’s Fantastic Four were selling more than 14 million copies weekly, with estimates of its audience at 200 million people around the globe.
TIME continued to sell into the early 1980s. Circulation was 4.6 million in 1983, and advertising revenue peaked in 1979. But these figures masked the underlying realities. TIME was living off its salad days. Following Luce’s death, covers featuring newsmakers increasingly gave way to cover “themes” that nodded to social issues of the moment: “The Pill,” “The Computer Moves In,” “The American Woman,” “Is God Dead?” TIME was no longer a shaper and influencer of events. It broke no major stories on Vietnam: its overall reporting on the Vietnam War was undistinguished. (Luce had strongly backed American involvement, perceiving it as still another Communist challenge that had to be faced down.) Critical reports filed by TIME correspondents on the scene in Vietnam were commonly revised by the Washington and New York bureau chiefs and inflected in a more positive direction.
TIME also missed out on the other landmark political story that broke soon after Luce’s death: Watergate. The magazine had strongly endorsed Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election, and it dismissed the Watergate scandal as nothing more than a political “caper.” Scooped repeatedly by the Washington Post and the New York Times, both of which gained readers and awards for their reporting on the scandal, TIME belatedly and reluctantly called for President Nixon’s resignation in a November 1973 editorial written by managing editor Henry Grunwald.
In the 1990s, TIME’s decline became obvious. Staff turnover even at the senior levels signaled the downturn. For example, the magazine went through three managing editors in less than a decade, something that never happened under Luce. In hindsight, the 75th anniversary soiree in Radio City Music Hall in New York City represented the last hurrah. Held on March 3, 1998, its all-star lineup included President Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Kofi Annan, Muhammed Ali, Bill Gates, Walter Cronkite, Steven Spielberg, Sophia Loren, Tom Hanks, Jodi Foster, Billy Graham, Tom Brokaw, John Glenn, Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, and Imelda Marcos.
Yet a night of partying could not alter the stark facts. The advent of CNN, cable television, and the internet had already begun to make TIME’s roundup of the news superfluous. Weekly reporting seemed like a quaint ride in a Model T in the age of 24-hour news, sound bites, and email. TIME had lost its raison d’être. As Grunwald described it, “The notion that people didn’t really know about an event until they read TIME was gone.”
TIME in the twenty-first century has struggled with industry-wide declines in print advertising and newsstand sales. It was sold for $190 million in cash in 2017, and in March 2020 it cut back its publishing schedule to twice a month. Somehow “TIME: The Biweekly News Magazine” does not quite ring with the old authority. Nor do gimmicks such as “Man of the Year” (now “Person of the Year”) generate much interest or sales in the age of TikTok and Twitter.
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Conjectures abound as to whether—or rather when—TIME will follow its erstwhile sibling rival Newsweek into oblivion. Circulation has shrunken to 1.6 million. Of America’s top 50 magazines, TIME ranks 26th, trailing such publications as American Rifleman and Eating Well and well behind its sister publication, People, which stands sixth.
Ironically, People may go down in publishing annals as the most visionary creation of all the TIME Inc. ventures. Inaugurated in March 1974, it most accurately anticipated the shape of things to come in the age of celebrity, infotainment, and the internet. Ironically, it is the sole triumph of the TIME empire with which Henry Luce had nothing to do. The man in the gray flannel suit who calmly contemplated Matthew Arnold while he was tripping died too soon to have to contemplate all those pages wasted on the pursuits of Madonna and Boy George, or Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner.
What would Henry Robinson Luce think, knows God.