Henry Robinson Luce was born one-hundred-and-twenty years ago, on April 3, 1898, in China to American Presbyterian missionaries. Apart from a visit to the United States in 1906, young Henry spent his first fourteen years living in China, a time of momentous upheavals. While attending Chefoo, a British preparatory school in northern China, the 1911 Revolution ended the rule of the Qing dynasty, leading to the creation of a Republic. As a result, Chinese servants working at the school demanded that the administration double their salaries and when this was refused, quit en masse. This forced the students to pitch in with Luce proudly writing to his parents “I have been a tea-server and a dish-washer! — noble pursuit!”
In 1912 the fourteen-year-old Luce departed China to attend school in England to get rid of his stammer. Although happy to finally be leaving Chefoo, he was also leaving the place of his birth, writing “I am now almost on the verge of another precipice; one was leaving home, another is the leaving of a homeland.” The journey took him through Asia and the Mediterranean, with lots of stops along the way. After a brief length of study and additional solitary travel around Europe, he arrived in the United States and enrolled in Hotchkiss, a preparatory boarding school in Connecticut.
As scholarship student, Luce had to work while attending Hotchkiss, in addition to his studies and various extracurricular activities. One of his classmates at the school was Briton Hadden; the two became literary rivals and later, business partners. At this time Luce had also began thinking about his career prospects, writing to his father in 1914
I know you have found your choice to be a missionary well-rewarded. I know, as Uncle Charlie said, that it is the most honorable calling in the world. But I feel that sixteen is hardly an age to choose for the many or few years of manhood. However, I don’t want you to think that I am aiming at rather paltry ambition, for the chances are 99 to 1 that I become a prof (!) in S.C.U. I have now no greater ambition than to be of use in the foreign field. It is to that end that, as far as I can see, I am traveling. But as God chose for you, so shall he choose for me.”
During the summer of 1916, immediately prior to his entrance to Yale University, Luce got a job at the newspaper the Springfield Republican, his first foray into journalism outside of school. Excited to finally be “a workman” Luce hurriedly tore open his first pay envelope, containing $5.34, in his eagerness tearing the five dollar bill. Luce began to see a journalistic career in his future, writing on the cusp of his freshman year:
When I finally decide to go into newspaper work, four years from now, I flatter myself that I shall know the business from the ground up – business and editorially. If I shall aim to be a great editorial writer, I shall not think of becoming such, without having lived among the world’s big and little problems, as a reporter. Of course this is by no means to criticize the necessary amount of theory and academic learning, because I want that. But more than anything I want the facts, as few men but a good reporter can get them.”
World War I briefly interrupted Luce’s studies. As a member of the ROTC he was sent to drill new recruits in South Carolina. The war ended before he had a chance to be deployed and Luce was discharged at the end of 1918 with a rank of Second Lieutenant.
Following his graduation in 1920, Luce studied history at Oxford University before embarking on a career path. Briefly working as a cub reporter at the Chicago Daily News and then the Baltimore News, Luce quit in 1922 and together with Briton Hadden moved to New York where the duo created the company Time Inc, publishing the first issue of their newly invented “news-magazine” TIME in 1923. The same year Luce married Lila Ross Hotz, the couple having two sons: Henry Luce III in 1925 and Peter Paul Luce in 1928.
Following Briton Hadden’s death in 1929, Luce became the sole head of Time Inc., launching additional ventures throughout the 1930s, including FORTUNE in 1930 , THE MARCH OF TIME radio series in 1931 (and short film series in 1935), and LIFE in 1936. He divorced Lila Hotz in 1935, marrying Clare Boothe Brokaw (1903-1987), a playwright, and former managing editor of Vanity Fair. Famous in her own right, the two became a power couple frequently appearing in the pages of the press.
With Luce’s greater visibility and the popularity of his magazines, the man in charge of Time Inc. was inundated with letters of complaint, praise, ideas, suggestions, requests for contributions and an opportunity to work for Luce. Responses to the myriad of letters sometimes required great tact and patience on the part of Luce and his senior staff.
An admitted workaholic, Luce spent a major portion of his time trying to ensure the success of his various publications but as he became more and more prominent in the 1930s, he was frequently invited to speak before professional, academic, and church groups. In addition his travels became more extensive with almost every year taking him to an international destination. In 1932 he traveled around the world, visiting China for the first time in 20 years and taking the Trans-Siberian Railroad on his way back to Europe. A growing interest in the political situation in Europe found him in Belgium in 1940, witnessing the initial Germany bombardment of Brussels. In 1941, together with Clare Boothe Luce, he traveled to the besieged city of Chungking, China to witness firsthand the Japanese war in Asia.
Once back in the United States, Luce, always an advocate for the land of his birth, redoubled his efforts in support of China, serving as one of the driving forces behind the unification of the various disparate aid groups into United China Relief, an organization which raised millions of dollars to assist China. Luce also joined in the lobbying efforts to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act
Luce also became an advocate for aid to Great Britain, which was in danger of being overwhelmed by Germany after defeat of France. As part of the Century Group, a consortium of prominent individuals, he lobbied President Roosevelt to assist Britain by providing it with old American destroyers.
Luce envisioned an expanded global role for the United States after the conclusion of the war and began to elaborate on that vision in a number of speeches he made in late 1940-early 1941. His ideas culminated in the article he wrote in LIFE, “The American Century.” Luce was now an international figure and increasingly came in contact with world leaders and dignitaries. Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa, wrote Luce:
With your great ventures TIME, FORTUNE and now LIFE I have a bowing acquaintance. You see we are everywhere beginning to sit up and listen when America speaks. Is it the new master’s voice? Perhaps there will be no masters in the New World to which you are looking. In that noblest passage in the greatest book in the world we shall all serve and have no masters — no Herrenvolk to lord it over the lesser tribes.”
Luce’s increased involvement in international affairs coincided with a similar effort within domestic politics. In 1940 he successfully worked for the nomination of Wendell Willkie on the Republican ticket only to see him utterly defeated by Roosevelt. By the 1940s the relationship between Luce and Roosevelt had become antagonistic, not helped by the fact that Clare Boothe Luce, elected to the U.S. Congress in 1941, was a persistent critic of the administration. Possibly looking to spite Luce, publishers, editors and other executives were forbidden from traveling to the front, preventing Luce from going anywhere except England until the death of FDR in 1945.
In 1943 Luce took a brief pause to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Time Inc. The previous two decades had been so hectic that Luce admitted that he had gotten out of habit of reminiscing:
I guess it is because we have all been terribly busy in the desperate present. And this perhaps illustrates the essence of journalism: to be everlastingly contemporary. Let the dead past bury its dead; let us live in the present, spend and be spent. If we stop to think, let it be of the future. We have no rearguards: we have only advance patrols, scouting parties, thrusting toward the promised land.”
With the end of the war Luce was once more free to travel, quickly making up for lost time. Allen Grover, Luce’s personal assistant and sometime traveling companion knew full well frenzied schedules these trips entailed, describing one such trip: “We saw everyone of any account politically in six countries, not to mention de Gaulle and the Pope. At the end Harry had gained six pounds and I had lost ten.”
In Munich, Luce ended up walking around the city with a German professor who kept repeating “Free enterprise! Free enterprise! Free enterprise! – that is the only hope.” Twenty years later, Ludwig Erhard, now Chancellor of West Germany, said that talking to Luce had encouraged him to press on with his ideas of a market economy.
Luce was an early proponent of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency in the 1952 presidential election and following Eisenhower’s victory, Clare Boothe Luce was appointed to serve as Ambassador to Italy. Luce followed his wife to Rome where he established an office, splitting his time between Europe and the United States between 1953-1956.
While shuffling between Italy and the United States Luce lunched his last big publishing venture: SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. In 1938 Luce had recommended its publisher, Stuart Scheftel, to cease publication that journal and was now able to buy the name for the newest addition to Time Inc.
Luce entered the 1960s with a hope for the future. Speaking before a group of Time Inc. staff after another of his round the world trips he encouraged the grumblers “I know there’s been some dissatisfaction, in the economic sense, with the Sixties so far — they are not so soaring. I have no doubt that the Sixties will be the Soaring Sixties. They may soar into tragedy, but certainly they will soar.”
A long time proponent of civil rights, Luce embraced the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960 writing in a memo to his senior staff “My conclusion is that in 1960 we should concentrate our editorial advocacy on Voting Rights. To prevent any citizen from voting comes as close as anything can to the violation of an Absolute in the democratic doctrine. … The ballot box is not a device whose efficacy has been revealed to us by Divine Revelation. But over the centuries, and as the result of the highest philosophy and of trial –and-error, the ballot box has become the Ark of the Covenant of Democracy and of Liberty itself as established through democratic procedures. It must not be profaned.”
In 1963 Luce celebrated the 40th anniversary of Time Inc. with a massive party attended by hundreds of prominent individuals and those who have graced the pages of its publications. The following year he retired, passing on his mantle to Hadley Donovan. For the next three years of his life Luce remained active, continuing to travel, make speeches, and keeping abreast of things happening at Time Inc. He died on February 28, 1967 in Phoenix, Arizona, one day following the 44th anniversary of the first issue of TIME coming off the presses in New York.
The Henry R. Luce papers, consisting of 202 boxes of various sizes, have now been processed and a finding aid will be available shortly. The collection includes personal family correspondence sent by Luce while studying in Chefoo, Hotchkiss, and Yale; Luce’s voluminous trip files; original drafts of speeches written for Wendell Willkie during the 1940 presidential campaign; a large set of photographs; a large volume of correspondence from publishers, members of the clergy, politicians, businessmen, editors, journalists, ambassadors, generals, missionaries, actors, artists, and university presidents, among others; and lots of other interesting materials documenting the middle of the 20th century.
[All images are from the Henry R. Luce Papers, MS 3014, New-York Historical Society.]