Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Isaiah Wilner's The Man Time Forgot: A Tale of Genius, Betrayal, and the Creation of Time Magazine (HarperCollins, 2006)

Nov 30, 2006 9:40 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Isaiah Wilner's The Man Time Forgot: A Tale of Genius, Betrayal, and the Creation of Time Magazine (HarperCollins, 2006)

Time magazine was founded in 1923 by journalism’s odd couple, Briton Hadden and Henry Luce. Rivals and friends, first at Hotchkiss, then at Yale (where they ran the Yale Daily News), the two 24-year-olds took Hadden’s idea of digesting a week’s news for the nation’s burgeoning upper-middle class and ran with it all the way to the bank, creating in the process a new form of journalism and a punchy prose style—“Timestyle”—that still exerts enormous influence on the way news is covered.

When Hadden, barely 31 years-old, died from a bacterial infection in 1929, his name immediately disappeared from Time’s masthead. For the next 40 years, Luce tried to insure that the world would associate Time only with him.

Isaiah Wilner, himself a former editor of the Yale Daily News, takes advantage of unprecedented access to Time’s files, including both founders’ personal papers, to bring Hadden back into the light. The result: a breezy, readable, if somewhat one-dimensional study of two smart, driven men and their complicated partnership.

The well-connected Hadden, the more charismatic of the two, apparently conceived his big idea while still in prep school. He and Luce, the missionary’s son, debated, shaped, and reshaped the idea. By the mid-1920s Time was a success, and more projects—including what became Life and Sports Illustrated—were in the works.

Through it all, says Wilner, Hadden “rushed about with his coat collar up, chewing gum, chain-smoking, and swinging his cane. When he talked, he often barked. When he liked a joke, his raucous laugh shot through the room as if fired from a machine gun. Writers called him ‘The Terrible-Tempered Mr. Bang’ because he growled and stamped his feet if they used a word he didn’t like, but it was all part of his act—a beautiful insane act that swept people up within his orbit and filled them with the magic of his grand persona.”

Luce, on the other hand, was “penetrating where Hadden was witty, analytical where Hadden was creative, organized and careful where Hadden was spontaneous and reckless.” It was Luce, for instance, who insisted that the magazine stop satirizing automobile mogul Walter Chrysler because, after all, Time needed the advertising revenue. The irreverent Hadden briefly edited a newsletter, puckish called Tide, that questioned the truthfulness of corporate advertising; Luce preferred a friendlier stance toward business—and later created mogul-friendly Fortune.

Wilner depicts the rivalrous friendship clearly, but doesn’t probe too deeply. Hadden ran himself ragged alternating between work and play, was an alcoholic and quite possibly (given Wilner’s evidence) manic-depressive, too. Wilner eschews psychological analysis, however, and doesn’t go beyond the simplest explanations of, say, why Luce was so determined to erase the memory of his late friend.

Of course, Luce succeeded in becoming a force in American culture and politics, and he controlled Time’s “master narrative” for a long time. Wilner’s vivid book provides a welcome, engaging corrective.

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