Inside, too, was a fascinating third guest who joined Josephine and me, at my invitation. He was a brilliant, creative, restless, sometimes stammering, ambitious, shy, powerful, self-conscious, lonely man with few real friends.
He was Henry R. Luce, co-founder of Time magazine, founder of Fortune, Life and Sports Illustrated, whose biography popped into my Kindle the night we had dinner in New York with its author, Alan Brinkley, historian and provost of Columbia and a colleague on the Century Foundation, which he chairs.
Alan should know something about reporting and writing; his father was David Brinkley, longtime anchor of NBC News. I was magnetically drawn — because of similar family backgrounds — to the third guest in our stateroom that Alan’s effortless writing and probing detail had so wonderfully sculpted.
“Harry” Luce was born in China in 1898 to a Presbyterian missionary, Henry Sr., who, straight out of Yale, felt the pull of a China mission career, compelled by the idealistic surge of the times to bring Christ and modernity to backward nations such as China.
My grandfather, Dr. T.W. Ayers, perhaps out of similar motives, sold his newspaper, The Anniston Republican, and took his family in 1901 to a Baptist mission station in the same Shandong Province as the Luce family.
Both young Harry Luce and young Harry Ayers, my father, were sent home to finish their education, and both became journalists. Here their careers, which were similar in overall worldview, differ in scale and in the intensity of their loyalties and hates.
China was always a real place to me. Dad had lived there briefly, Grandfather served 24 years there; my parents spoke fondly of “the Christian Generalissimo” Chiang Kai Shek and his beautiful, American-educated wife. They spoke darkly of Chiang’s enemies, the Dowager Empress and Mao Zedong.
So did Harry Luce and his family but, while Dad was only there for a couple of years, it was home for Harry Luce, an element of his DNA where his fondest childhood and adolescent memories were summer vacations at the same place in coastal southern China.
His love for China would color and cloud his judgment about what America could and should do for that ancient land undergoing the next-to-final act of a 100-year revolution.
His foreign background was a social barrier when he first came to America at 15 on a scholarship to the elite eastern prep school, Hotchkiss. He was awkward and clueless to the idiom of teenaged slang.
The man who would be his lifelong friend, competitor and indispensable partner in founding Time, Brit Hadden, was at home in 1920s teenage culture but admired the curiosity and independence of Luce, who at 14 had traveled Europe alone making notes, absorbing and remembering everything he saw.
After Yale, he and Brit held a series of reporting jobs while talking about the creation of a “newsmagazine” (their word), which they did, bringing out Time in 1922. They were both 24.
With Luce as business manager, Hadden as editor gave the magazine a style of jaunty skepticism and a unique language, “Timese.” Hadden’s dangerous social flamboyance caused a personal nova. He imploded and died in 1929.
After Hadden’s death, Luce created his most influential publication, Life. It both reflected and helped shape a culture of benign American community, wholesome, hopeful, enterprising and entertaining: Life would go to a party.
That culture is gone, along with Life, atomized by television, the Internet and a poisonous me-first political partisanship.
Luce’s Life was, however, influential in awakening America to mortal threats from Hitler’s Europe and Imperial Japan. In a February 1941 essay, he saw a gathering and projection of American values, economic and military power, which envisioned U.S. global leadership. The title was: The American Century.
By the time Eisenhower entered the White House as an embodiment of the culture Life defined, Luce had suffered his most painful personal loss, the loss of China by what he believed was the inaction of men he hated for life: Acheson, Truman and Roosevelt.
Luce’s blind spot, his devotion to China, kept him from hearing even his own great reporter Teddy White’s evidence of Chiang’s brutal, corrupt, dictatorial and inept leadership that in effect ceded the loyalty of the Chinese people to Mao.
His deafening loyalty to China led him to encourage more audacious over-extensions of American power in Vietnam and the futile hope that unleashing the Taiwanese mouse might draw us in to slay the Red lion and save China.
Luce’s role as statesman is a cautionary tale of the dangers that flow from the decoupling of loyalty from hard reality. In his personal life, his self-reliant insecurities led him on a search for intimacy through two extended affairs and two marriages, the final one to the glamorous and competitive Clare Booth Luce.
As the persistent fog rolled on outside our stateroom, I finished Alan’s book and pondered the evils of excessive, unquestioning loyalty and the deep, calm happiness of a long and good marriage.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.