Lost to the Sands of Time

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The New York Sun

The remarkable book “The Man Time Forgot” by Isaiah Wilner (HarperCollins, 342 pages, $26.95), appears chiefly interested in setting the record straight on who should be credited with the creation of the world’s most successful news magazine. That would be Briton Hadden, the brilliant and mercurial editor who had the misfortune of, first, dying young, and, last, having an insecure and disloyal business partner in Henry Luce.

Mr. Wilner makes his case convincingly on the basis of archival evidence and the testimony of people who knew both men well; it’s a classic story of a professional rivalry that ended with the surviving partner (Luce) discounting the contributions of his dead colleague (Hadden).

All this is probably very important to Hadden’s family and any of his friends who may still be alive.And it is certainly a worthwhile footnote in the long history of the world’s largest publishing and news conglomerate. But what this reader found most interesting has less to do with settling personal scores and much more to do with the evident decline of a formerly great journalistic enterprise.

It’s a safe bet that neither Hadden nor Luce would recognize today’s Time magazine, which takes itself and the conventional wisdom it liberally dispenses ever so seriously. It’s certainly a far cry from the zingy and irreverent weekly they invented back in the 1920s, or the influential and agenda-setting instrument of power it became by the time it crested under Luce in the 1960s. Long gone are the puns and wordplay, the quirky internationalism, the Eastern Establishment politics, the playful contempt for the self-important, and above all, the optimism and faith in a bright American future. The jingoes and the blithe spirits have all been extinguished, replaced by people who have spent far too much time reading the Columbia Journalism Review. Mr. Wilner doesn’t address this change specifically, but his colorful references to the development of “Timestyle” prose speak powerfully to the theme:

Readers cherished the predictable comfort the epithets provided. When they opened Time, they felt a bit like children returning to a favorite storybook. Time’s epithets grew more extreme by the year; first Hadden took on the mayor of New York, then a few financiers, and finally several senators. Time dubbed Senator Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota ‘the duck-hunting dentist.’ James Thomas Heflin of Alabama, a rotund racist who occupied entire sessions of the Senate with invective against ‘the Catholic conspiracy,’ was known to Time readers as ‘Tom-Tom Heflin, who mortally hates and fears the Roman Pope.’ If Time stopped using an epithet, readers would beg to see it again, almost as if waving to Hadden, shouting that they understood the joke, they belonged to the elite circle of the young and urbane.

Whatever one makes of the politics of today’s Time magazine, it’s unlikely that its readers are doing much “cherishing” of anything therein. In fairness, the same could be said for much of the so-called mainstream press. The art of creating an intimate connection with the reader is not something that is easily taught in journalism school or anywhere else. It is an intuitive talent and one that Hadden and Luce possessed to an astounding degree. And the readers obviously responded, making Time and its progeny — Fortune, Sports Illustrated et al. — literally billions of dollars.

Like many extremely successful concepts, Hadden’s idea was relatively straightforward.The newspapers of his day provided too much information in a format that was too time consuming for the average busy person. Time would do the heavy lifting for its readers by synthesizing the week’s most important news in a highly readable narrative form with entertaining and amusing anecdotes and commentary. It was a stunning success almost from the beginning, and its value to its millions of readers only grew as most of the nation’s newspapers, especially in the heartland, grew ever more parochial and less interested in the wider world. Even today, an inquiring mind in Oklahoma City or Omaha, Neb., would be hard-pressed to get coherent news of the world from a local newspaper.This, more than any other factor, has probably kept the newsweeklies alive.

Mr. Wilner makes it quite clear that Hadden, far more than the sober Luce, was a magazine man first and a businessman by accident. He delighted in running articles critical of his advertisers, which would probably get him fired at some prominent publications today. He also planted fake letters to the editor to stir things up and was full of other editorial pranks that attracted attention and built the franchise. Most of it worked, and by the time he died of an apparent blood infection at age 30 he had created a journalistic template that would conquer the world.

Much of this book deals with the rather small and distasteful efforts by Luce to diminish the stature of his departed colleague.He reportedly blocked serious efforts to memorialize Hadden’s accomplishments in a book, and he failed to even mention his name when interviewed about the earliest days of their venture. It’s not a pretty picture to be sure, but, based on the evidence of this book, Hadden would likely be more exercised over the fate of his magazine than his place in publishing history.

The New York Sun

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