Born: To Henry R. Luce, quizzical-browed, Midas-touched typoon, a new magazine on August 16, 1954, his fourth. Its name: Sports Illustrated.
The official history of Time Inc., Volume II, is scheduled for publication late this year, and it is promised that this volume will set down the full, inside story of how Henry Robinson Luce’s last magazine. Sports Illustrated, came into being seventeen years ago.
Having been present at the creation, I find myself speculating not so much about what will be told in the official version, as about what will be left out. I doubt, for instance, that the historians will have very much to say about the Luce editorial luncheons which began a year before publication of SI. This is a great pity because the luncheons showed Luce at a time when he was still, at fifty-five, in excellent health, when almost all his properties were flourishing, company profits were at an all-time high, and he himself was at the height of his powers.
Furthermore, the Sports Illustrated luncheons dealt in depth with a subject about which Luce was almost totally uninformed. He appeared to have given only passing attention to the sports stories in Time and Life. Now, because there was so much that was new to him, Luce took great delight in the luncheons. There seemed to be no end of things to be learned, and like all instinctively good reporters, Luce never made a pretense of knowing something with the mental reservation to have someone explain it to him later. He grasped at everything he did not understand and pursued and probed it on the spot until he had it made perfectly clear to him. It was this unflagging, frequently uninterruptible curiosity, sometimes superficially comic, that was his hallmark as the last of the great founding journalists, the quality that made him to his last day more curious and inquiring than most of his writers and editors.
Not all of the luncheon guests who were involved in the new magazine were knowledgeable sports fans, and many of us learned along with Luce, without having to appear as naive as he was willing to be. Thus, his contributions to the magazine may have been greater than anyone recognized at the time. At any rate, it is too bad there are not minutes to be studied now when Sports Illustrated appears to have a chance of being his most substantial financial success. In the absence of minutes, I feel that people like myself ought to set down what they can remember of the lunches against the day when someone comes to grips with the definitive Luce biography.
The forthcoming Volume II of the official history will also be forced, I fear, to omit mention of an exciting prologue to the drama of the lunches with Luce. There was, for instance, the matter of the first task force assigned to explore the possibilities of the new magazine. This small group, recruited from Life, was headed by Ernest Havemann, the ace of its writing staff. His conclusion, after several months of study, was eloquently negative. Among Havemann’s points, contained in a long, single-spaced memo, tendered with his resignation from the project and the company, was his opinion that there was not enough going on in sports to fill a weekly magazine all year. “What,” asked Havemann, “is there to write about in the wintertime? Sleds?” This was a question of some pertinence early in 1953 when nobody foresaw today’s great sporting boom with basketball, hockey, and professional football expanded throughout the country and solid sellouts all winter long.
At the time of the Havemann memo, Luce was in residence with the American ambassadress in Rome and was expected home in six weeks or so, confident that a paste-up dummy prepared by Havemann and his aides would await him. Now the men of the executive suite suddenly found themselves with nothing but Havemann’s damnably persuasive memo. The crisis was met by the drafting of Sidney L. James, an assistant managing editor of Life, who had a considerable reputation as a troubleshooter with a special enthusiasm for apparently lost causes.
Where Havemann’s view of the project had been dim, James saw the brightest prospect in modern magazine journalism. Sports, he proclaimed, were the wave of the future. Packing his papers and his secretary, he moved at once to the seventeenth floor, retaining Havemann’s small staff, recruiting spare talent from Time and Life editorial and layout rooms, and offering a tryout to almost every young man who stormed the offices as rumors spread that Time Inc. was hiring.
Along about here, I believe, the official history may well begin its story of SI. But I doubt that it will mention one most unusual young man who was taken on and given a chance to prove himself. He was tall and lean and soft-spoken when he spoke at all. On the morning he reported for duty, he was assigned to a remote office, and given a desk, a typewriter, a frayed newspaper clipping (“see what you can do with this”), but no chair. He seemed either too shy or too bewildered by the feverish activity around him to ask for one.
I remember seeing him standing at his desk, examining the clipping carefully, turning it over and over as if he were not sure which side he was expected to see what he could do something about. Occasionally, he would sit on the edge of the desk, but jump up at once as from a hot stove. It did not seem to occur to him to ask for a chair, and no one, not even James himself on his tours of the offices, appeared to notice that he did not have one. Finally, on the third day, he leaned over the typewriter from a standing position and typed a line slowly, consulting the tattered clipping between taps. When he had finished, he placed the typed page and the clipping on top of the typewriter, weighted them down with a box of paper clips, turned on his heel and walked out, and was not seen on the premises again.
Having observed his leave-taking, I made it a point to look at the result of his labors. The tired old clipping told of a horse which had jumped over the fence during a race and gone galloping around the infield of a local track. The typed rewrite read simply, “The horse jumped over the fucking fence.” The episode, as it spread around the offices, enlivened our labors, but it was quickly forgotten as we worked almost around the clock to meet the six-week deadline for our paste-up dummy.
I did not think of the young man without a chair again until 1969 when I came upon a picture spread in Life about Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., his SlaughterhouseFive, his play, and other triumphs. Something about Vonnegut’s face in Life haunted me. I held a finger over his mustachio, still was puzzled, finally sat down and wrote a letter to his home on Cape Cod and asked him if he, by any wild chance, had once worked for three days without a chair and had written a curt, clear, complete story about a racehorse for a nonexistent magazine. I had an answer by return mail. Our young man was indeed the now famed Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who, if he had been given a chair, might at this moment be writing horse racing for Sports Illustrated and piling up Time Inc. profit sharings, insofar as there are any these days. In his prompt reply to my note, Vonnegut gave no hint that he felt he had let opportunity pass him by in the old Time-Life Building.
Many another young man came and went along with Kurt Vonnegut as the Sid James team began to show results. Typewriters clattered day and night in every available corner of the seventeenth floor, and artists’ razor blades flew as dummy-type layouts filled the walls. There was never any doubt in James’s mind that the short deadline would be met. Writers made up stories out of their heads; others went on flying trips to get them. Outside writers, artists, and photographers were assigned at whatever fees it took to get them. Every sundown, waiters from the best Rockefeller Center restaurants wheeled in trays of hors d’oeuvres and great quantities of spirits, and these were followed by other teams from the kitchens who set up steam tables offering a choice of entrées and other tables laden with rich desserts. This high living claimed a few casualties who fancied the drinks more than the solid nourishment, but they were swiftly replaced, and the work went on at top speed as the paste-up dummy grew steadily fatter. With only hours to spare, it was ready and waiting when Luce returned from Rome. He was delighted with it, and after exhaustive questioning of James and his top aides, he gave the command, “Print it!” It was so done, filled with unpaid-for ads and mailed to advertisers and ad agencies everywhere.
At this point in his career, it was said that there were hundreds of Time Inc. employees who had never seen Luce. Not so our little band of pioneers. Sometimes it seemed that we saw more of Luce than we did of our wives. Some of us were assigned to escort him to sporting events and explain the action and identify the players. For others of us there began the era of the lunch.
There was one I shall never forget. I wince at the memory of it even today. It was held in a second-floor private dining room of the old building. Copies of the Sid James printed dummy were at every place, but Sid James himself was not there. Luce, impressed by James’s great save of the Havemann project, had ordered him to take a vacation at the Luce home in Charleston, South Carolina. A vacation was the last thing James wanted, but he could scarcely turn down such a signal honor.
In his place, at Luce’s right, sat Edward K. Thompson, Life’s managing editor, puffing on a big fat cigar with an air of assurance becoming his position as editorial chief of the company’s then biggest moneymaker. There were some Time editors there, and the men who were to rank high on the new sports magazine, as well as John Shaw Billings, Life’s first editor.
I had a place at the foot of the table. I was not exactly at ease. For one thing, the printed dummy was getting bad notices around the building. People on Time and Life professed to find it below their editorial standards and even the researchers and secretaries were against it, because, if published, it was sure to lose money at the start and thus would eat into their profit-sharing, then 10 percent of their annual wages. Adding to my uneasiness was the fear that some article I had written for the dummy would come up for comment. I was scarcely able to touch my food. Instead, I gulped coffee and an overzealous waiter kept filling my cup. Chain-smoking the while, I must have had eight or ten cups of coffee before I suddenly became aware I had to go to the bathroom.
I tried to put the matter out of my mind. I strained to hear what was being said at the head of the table. As I got it, Luce was saying that he had been interested in a story in the dummy about wrestling, signed by a college professor. It was supposed to be a satire, and the professor’s point was that when vast numbers of people agreed on anything (in this case that wrestling was 100 percent fake), the chances were that half of them were wrong. Thus, the professor reasoned, wrestling was probably more honest than most people said. I had rewritten all this, believing myself to be sharpening the satire. Instead, as Luce himself read aloud from the story, I was horrified to hear that I had lost the satire and made it appear that wrestling was mostly honest. In my dismay, I drained a cup of cold coffee.
I heard Thompson say to Luce, “The story is naïve.”
I heard Luce say to Thompson, “Why, I believed it.”
I turned to my neighbor, whom I had never seen before.
“Where’s the can in here?”
“That door right behind Luce.”
“I got to go. Would it be all right, do you think?”
My neighbor looked at me coldly. “No. You stay put until Luce gives the word to adjourn.”
“How long will that be, do you think?”
“Could be hours.”
“What am I going to do?”
“Hold it, pal.”
I tried to concentrate on the head of the table again. Luce had apparently gone on to something else, but I could not make out what he was saying. I saw John Shaw Billings slap his leg, throw back his head, and laugh heartily (I had heard he was noted for this). I looked wildly around the room. There was the door we had come through when we had entered. It was halfway across the room. There were the swinging doors into the kitchen. What if I were to get up, shout “I quit!” and run into the kitchen? Or say nothing and make for the entry door? Or rise with dignity, address Luce directly, something like “Back teeth are floating, sir, if you don’t mind?” and stride manfully for the can directly behind him? Abruptly.
I took off. My neighbor grabbed at my sleeve as I got up, but I shook him off and started for Luce and the blessed can. As I advanced I saw heads swivel and faces turn toward me in horror. It was plain that the luncheon guests, rising in importance as I pogoed along, considered that I had gone mad and was advancing on Luce as an assassin.
Somehow, the face of Luce impressed itself on my mind in an image that remains with me to this day. He could not have appeared more disinterested. He did not even look at me directly. But the others appeared to be frozen by the awful spectacle of my staggering progress toward my goal.
I returned to the room a new man, fearing neither man nor beast nor Luce nor Thompson. I smiled broadly as I walked back to my lowly seat, staring down the frowning faces of the editors, reached my chair safely, and prepared to give my full attention to whatever matter was by that time under discussion. I heard Luce say. “And then there are the many humble tasks of magazine-making, the little things that contribute so much to its character. I am often struck as I leaf through Reader’s Digest by the small items scattered through the book, reflecting, as they do, the infinite care that went into their writing and editing, each one the work of many hands with not a word wasted, every word precisely right.”
John Shaw Billings slapped his leg and nodded vigorously. Thompson lit another cigar. A Time man pulled a sheaf of paper from his inside coat pocket and made a small note. Two other editors exchanged whispers and nodded in unison with John Shaw Billings across the table.
Luce resumed, “I must get up to see my friends, the Wallaces. What is that town of theirs?”
Ed Thompson puffed on his fresh cigar as he turned to Luce, who waved the smoke away. “Pleasantville,” said Thompson. Pleasantville was indeed the post office address of the Digest according to its masthead page.
“No, no,” said Luce, “I don’t mean Pleasantville.”
John Shaw Billings half-rose from his chair, slapping his leg. “Mount Kisco!” he cried.
Luce frowned and shook his head.
Out of somewhere came a voice, “North White Plains!”
“No,” said Luce firmly.
Relaxed in my chair, I could sense a growing panic as voices shouted over each other, “Hawthorne! Thornwood! Bedford Village! Dobbs Ferry!”
Again and again Luce shook his head, his face darkening with irritation.
Suddenly they ran out of names.
I could hear my neighbor hiss, “I could swear it’s Pleasantville.”
I could not resist hissing back. “Hold it, pal.”
Luce’s fingers drummed the table. The sheer drama of the moment gripped me. Here, the editor in chief had sought a tiny morsel of information which his highly paid editors were unable to supply. Freed from my own crisis, I sensed great odds at stake here. Was it out of the question to imagine that careers were hanging in the balance? Would husbands be telling their wives tonight, “We sell the station wagon. Peter has got to come out of Gunnery. He’ll have to settle for high school here in Rye. We’re out of the Yacht Club, the boat goes for what we can get. And unless there’s something at Newsweek, the house is on the market as of now.”
Now there was complete silence. It was plain that Luce was not going to proceed until he got the name of the Westchester town he wanted.
As for myself, I felt no anxiety whatever. My principal investment at the moment was a Simmons Hide-a-Bed being purchased on time payments at Bloomingdale’s Department Store. Furthermore, I knew the town Luce wanted. I had spent a summer in a rented house near the Digest, and there was absolutely no doubt in my mind. During my bladder crisis. I would not have considered uttering a word. I also knew that to do so now would denigrate every editor at the table. If I had learned one lesson as an itinerant journalist it was this, “Never make the man ahead of you look bad.” But in my euphoria, brought back from the can. I could not resist. Loudly and firmly, I uttered my one word contribution to the luncheon:
Luce peered down the table. He beamed. “Right!” he cried, “Chappaqua!” He leaned over and whispered to Thompson. Thompson looked down the table to me. He whispered back to Luce, probably identifying me, for we had once worked together on the Milwaukee Journal.
Of course, I was right. The Digest was and still is in the limits of Chappaqua township. Somebody, I think, made up the name of Pleasantville as being more appropriate.
I felt I had committed the unforgivable sin. Happily, it was not held against me. As weeks passed, I established a reputation for being so inept in the art of journalistic politicking as to be a threat to no one. My ridiculous trip to the can while Luce was speaking reassured all my colleagues that I could safely be written off as a rival of any consequence.
So I continued on the guest list for the regular Luce luncheons. But I had learned my lesson. I drank no liquids of any kind, and I volunteered no answers, although Luce came to every luncheon equipped with questions large and small. One challenged the table to come up with article ideas for men of world importance. I did not stick my neck out. I heard one man suggest a piece on golf by Eisenhower. Another, in a bold ploy, said, “Harry, how about Churchill on polo?” Luce shook his head. “I was privileged to see my old friend Winston recently and he is not well. He’s still bright and alert, but I would not ask him to undertake such a commission.”
“How about Herbert Hoover on fishing? He’s a great fisherman.”
Luce smiled wryly. “No. Hoover doesn’t like me.” He paused and added brightly, “He likes my wife, but he doesn’t like me.”
Names flew thick and fast, but Luce was unimpressed. He let them run on, then suddenly held up a hand.
“Wait,” he said, “I’ve got it.”
He smiled faintly as hands slipped into inside coat pockets for copy paper and pencils. Editors leaned forward, tense, waiting for the magic decision, for it was clear that the subject was beyond further debate. Luce seemed to savor the scene. He let them wait, looking up and down the table, searching faces, apparently certain that he had a bigger bombshell than any one of his men suspected. He drew a cigarette from the pack at his plate. There was a rumor that he had only lately become informed of the cigarette scare. I reasoned that he had probably ordered exhaustive research on the subject and had come up with the least harmful brand. I took a piece of paper from my pocket, waited with ball-point poised.
The suspense was unbearable. Nobody drew a breath except me. With my wretched luck at these affairs I coughed. Nobody looked at me, but I saw lips tighten and jaw muscles twitch. At last Luce spoke:
There was a burst of admiring comment from those editors who addressed Luce as “Harry.” John Shaw Billings was not there, but if he had been, I am sure he would have slapped his leg. The others shook their heads in helpless admiration. Luce developed his theme as he tossed off orders.
“Draft a cable outlining the idea, make clear Khrushchev is to have complete freedom, article will lead the magazine, offer suggestions, place of sports modern world, importance of Olympics, invite comment on charge Russian athletes are paid employees of state.”
Pencils fairly flew. Luce went on:
“Say detailed letter follows. Have Washington bureau clear with State.”
This was all far beyond my depth. My ball-point still at the ready, I had written nothing. But looking at Luce puffing on his cigarette, I had an inspiration.
I wrote, “HRL smokes Winstons.”
Although Khrushchev was not heard from, it was probably this luncheon and its exercise in thinking big that led to the signing up of William Faulkner, Robert Frost, Catherine Drinker Bowen, John P. Marquand, William Saroyan, John O’Hara, and others of their stature to write about such subjects as horse racing, hockey, baseball, and golf. (Later on, President Kennedy and his brother Robert were contributors.)
The high mark of my lunches with Luce came just before publication in August, 1954. I was amazed when Sid James came into my office and said that we were having lunch with Luce alone—just the three of us.
It seems that Luce was quite pleased with a long, long story I had written for the first issue. It traced the history of sports back to the caveman and was crammed with odd facts that fascinated Luce and apparently made him curious about the author.
I made several trips to the men’s room to prepare myself for this private audience, moistened my lips with water, and remembering the crisis at my first luncheon, probably brought myself to the brink of dehydration.
Somehow, when we were seated at the table of a private dining room high in the RCA Building, I felt completely comfortable—this probably, as I look back, due to another, little-known talent of the editor in chief for putting people at ease if he wanted to. He asked me how I got into journalism, and I found myself saying that I had started on the St. Louis PostDispatch with Sid.
Luce smiled, “Well, there used to be a Yale tradition around here, but it’s turned into a Post-Dispatch tradition.” (Roy Alexander, then managing editor of Time, Otto Fuerbringer, then Alexander’s assistant, Larry Laybourne of the news bureau, Ernie Havemann, again writing for Life under contract, were all P-D men. Sid James had been the first.)
It was the best Luce luncheon I ever had. We talked of this and that over coffee, and Luce said, “Now let’s just gas.” He made a complimentary remark about my long history of sports.
I thanked him and said I regarded the assignment as the clutch, a story we simply had to have in the first issue.
Luce pounced on the word.
“Clutch, clutch? What’s that?” he demanded.
“Why, in baseball,” I said, “when a hitter is up with two out and the winning run is on third base, he is said to be in the clutch. In other words, he’s simply got to come through with a hit, to get that winning run home.”
Luce seemed astonished by this information.
We gassed on, and he mentioned a story that had appeared in that morning’s New York Times. I am not positive, but I think it had something to do with the quality of current literature. Luce disagreed with the argument of the Times man, and finally said, “If I were managing editor of Life, I’d have an editorial on that subject next week.” He shrugged his shoulders and stopped there, indicating that since he was not Life's managing editor, he was powerless to do anything about it.
He must have mentioned his concern elsewhere, because next week in Life there was the editorial reciting precisely the points he had made.
This was my first chance to observe how Luce could reveal his preferences without making a great point of it. I saw him exhibit his technique in this area at another luncheon after the practice of getting big-name writers to cover big-time sporting events had been established as a regular policy.
Luce asked a text editor, “Who do we have doing the Kentucky Derby this year?” The editor replied confidently, “Why, I thought it would be interesting to see what [he mentioned a well-known Chicago writer] could do with it, Harry.”
The bushy Luce eyebrows raised ever so slightly.
“You’ve given him the assignment, have you?” asked Luce.
“Yes, I have, Harry,” the editor said, “and he’s agreed to take it on.” Luce lit a Winston, and said casually, “Well, I can’t imagine anything good coming of that.” He quickly went on to another subject.
He issued no order. None was necessary. A half hour after the luncheon, a letter canceling the assignment was on its way to Chicago, promising a check for the full amount agreed upon under separate cover.
For all the usually high level of enthusiasm at the luncheons, Sports Illustrated was not prospering. Profit-sharing at Time Inc. dropped from 10 to 5 percent because of it. Madison Avenue was not impressed, bracketing it in their budgets with cheappaper men’s magazines. Nobody foresaw today’s turnabout, when the big general-circulation magazines, with their millions of readers, would be in trouble and the limited-audience journals would be prospering.
Sports Illustrated started with 450,000 subscribers, drawn from the gold-plated Time-Life-Fortune mailing list. Those first readers bought the magazine sight unseen. The circulation was carefully controlled at this point, and the talk was of slow progress that would level off at a million.
This was the thinking when Luce brought another blockbuster to lunch one day long before the magazine was within sight of the planned magic million. He tossed his bomb out on the table and said he wanted everyone present to hazard a prediction as to how Sports Illustrated would appear when it had not onebut two-million circulation.
All eyes turned to Sid James. With his never-failing high spirits, James came up to each week’s deadline, no matter what near catastrophes had been averted along the way, with the exultant declaration over the late Sunday night drinks that we were sending to press the finest issue of Sports Illustrated up to that moment. If this were so, how were we to envisage for Luce a better magazine than the one on the stands? Luce nodded to the man on my right, throwing me into a panic, for it meant that I was next. Forgetting my lesson of long ago, I drained my coffee cup, which was promptly refilled by a hovering waiter. I heard the man on my right begin, “As Sid was saying when we were closing this issue . . .” He wandered off into a vague dissertation picturing the magazine with two-million subscribers as being essentially identical to our current one, except, of course, that it would have more of the same kind of stories and features as it grew fatter with ads than the New Yorker.
Luce nodded to me. I said, “My idea exactly. I couldn’t agree more. Writing will get better and better, of course, as contributors adapt to our style. As Sid was saying ...” I trailed off into incoherence, and Luce pointed to the man next in line.
This young man apparently had dreamed of finding himself confronted with just this opportunity. Probably he had not dared to imagine himself getting the rapt attention of Luce himself, but one could almost see him hunched over his typewriter late at night, writing and rewriting memos detailing his ideas for the sports magazine of the future. Perhaps he planned to send them to Sid James (Sid gave all such memos his close attention and forwarded some to Luce with full credit to the author). But that was channels. This was not, by miles.
The young man, once he had the floor, obviously decided to go for broke. He said flatly that the twomillion readers of the future would receive a magazine bearing almost no resemblance to the present product. As we grew, the man said, we would educate our readers to a new sporting world, instruct them, take them into places and behind scenes such as no sports chroniclers had ever done.
He went into great, exciting detail. Luce leaned forward, carried away by it all. Sid James smiled faintly, tapping the tablecloth lightly with his right forefinger.
Luce broke in now and then to ask a question. The young man fired back answers without a second’s hesitation. The others still to be heard from appeared flabbergasted by this display of audacity. In my mind, the young man had committed the greatest error since my now-legendary trip to the bathroom. Luce at last passed on to the next man, exchanging a meaningful glance with Sid James, but there were no further flights of fancy from the other speakers about the magazine of two million. The Sid James line prevailed.
As for the daring young man, he apparently did himself no real harm with James (who genuinely admired respectful spunk in channels) nor any spectacular good. But he had impressed Luce, and it was perhaps for this reason that he was, after a proper interval, given an office with cross ventilation (a plum, since the old building was not air-conditioned) and a secretary. Eventually, he saw that this was to be the limit of his reward, and maneuvered himself into a better-paying post in another division of the empire.
Meanwhile, Luce’s talk at the lunches began to reflect his growing knowledgeability about sports. He attended every sporting event he could. His guides included Sid James, Ed Thompson, Paul O’Neil (a top writer then on loan to Sports Illustrated from Time), Clay Felker, now editor of New York magazine, and Don Schanche, who was later managing editor of the Saturday Evening Post and Holiday.
Luce had a lot to learn. Sid James took him to a World Series game, and he started to leave during the seventh-inning stretch, believing the game to be over. At every event he witnessed, Luce admitted that mediocrity bored him, but that excellence excited him as much as it did any other fan.
Paul O’Neil escorted him to a fight card at Madison Square Garden. Luce sat glumly through the dull preliminaries, but when the main event came on, featuring Floyd Patterson, then only nineteen but already picked by Sports Illustrated as the next heavyweight champion, Luce began to show interest. Suddenly, he grasped O’Neil’s arm and demanded, “What’s a left hook?” O’Neil explained and demonstrated the punch, and for the balance of the twelveround fight, Luce was on the edge of his aisle seat at ringside, throwing left hooks until the final bell.
Ed Thompson took him to a college basketball game at the Garden. Late in the game, the team with a 13-point lead began freezing the ball. Luce wanted to know why.
“They’re protecting their lead,” Thompson said. “They’re holding on to the ball until the clock runs out.”
“That’s no good,” said Luce, “You can’t survive by hoarding. It’s like making money. Any small boy can save money, but you’ve got to spend money to make money. The team that’s ahead now is going to lose.” And it did.
Therein lies one key to Luce’s skill as a publisher. At the luncheon during which he called for ideas for a Sports Illustrated with two-million circulation, he was not making idle talk. He truly believed that the day of the two million would come, and he kept spending until his dying day to bring the day closer. By 1960, Time Inc. had lost $23 million on SI and was prepared to go on for as long as necessary. He believed in his last book completely. At a luncheon one day, he said, “We’re going to make it. We just need time and people.”
As has been told in countless places, Luce was a master at picking people and then maneuvering them like chessmen. Essentially a great competitor himself, he was always looking for the competitive spirit in others. He liked to throw two competitive men against each other.
When he brought Andre Laguerre, who had been chief of the Time-Life bureaus in Paris and London, to New York as assistant managing editor of Sports Illustrated, it was plain that such a competition was in progress. A man of Laguerre’s stature clearly was not to be assistant anything for long. Both competitors were masters at intramural maneuvering, but on May 19, 1960, the decision came by mimeograph to all hands. Luce appointed Laguerre managing editor of SI and Sid James its publisher, with high praise for both men (in Luce’s mind, a managing editor’s job at Time Inc. was superior to that of a publisher). Sometime later, James received his final reward, a vice presidency of the company with which he had started as a stringer in St. Louis some thirtyodd years before.
About two weeks before Luce died in Phoenix on February 28, 1967, he attended his last board of directors meeting in New York. He heard glowing accounts from all sides. Life’s circulation and ad revenue was up, ditto for Time; and the book division had doubled its sales to $16 million. Altogether, with investments of one kind and another, the company that Henry Luce and Britton Hadden had founded with $86,000 reported revenue of $503 million. Its net profit was $37,300,000. Now, four years after Luce’s death, the great Time Inc. pillars wobble. Life has eliminated its international editions entirely, and firings go on there and in other divisions of the company as well. Some investments have gone poorly, notably in MGM stock. Radio and television stations have been sold to McGraw-Hill with returns earmarked for CATV.
The future is dubious in many sectors save one. Henry Robinson Luce’s last book continues to thrive. Under Laguerre’s remarkably effective editorship, it reached Luce’s goal of two-million circulation on January 1, 1970. On January 1 of this year, it went to 2,150,000. It will go on gaining, if anything goes on. It is good that Sports Illustrated furnishes the brightest outlook among all the properties, for Luce was strictly a magazine man. He was for spending, but not for building a conglomerate with scores of entirely unrelated diversifications.
One point should be emphasized about Luce and the success of his last magazine. This success owed a great deal to his overall attitude toward it and his publishing philosophy in general—but not too much more. Sports Illustrated bears the marks of many hands. In the beginning, its most valuable asset was the enthusiasm and unshakable confidence of Sid James. It was under James that a staff was assembled almost overnight and actually trained on the job. A whole copy room was made up of girls who had never worked in any branch of journalism before. Under James, color for covers and inside pages had to be selected five to six weeks in advance. Under Laguerre, fast color came in and was so developed that today, sports action photographed in color on Sunday is in the magazine three days later. Under Laguerre, the writing staff was strengthened by recruiting some of the best young newspapermen from all over the country and spending the money to send teams of them all around the world.
Other ingredients were the great sporting booms and the expansion of professional baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, the tremendous growth of the professional golf circuit, and the finding of sports stories in places where no one had thought to look for them before. Finally, and frankly, Sports Illustrated became the great success it is as more and more people turned to its handsome pages eagerly and desperately because they could not bear to read—or long ponder—the dreadful tidings of the news on the front pages of newspapers, on radio and television—and, yes, in the newsmagazines.
What would Luce do if he were in his prime again in today’s world? Hard times alone would not bother him: he founded Fortune during the Depression and risked his every dollar to save Life from suffocation by premature success.
But what of the other troubles? Would the disintegration of his values, the calamities in the educational structure, and in what he knew as manners— would these and the scores of other frightening portents distress him to the point of despair? One of his surviving colleagues says yes, it would be too much for him. Others say no, he would have a go at it. Confident that solutions lay somewhere, and urged on by that insatiable curiosity of his, he would set out to find them—which, of course, would call for many a luncheon with Henry Robinson Luce in one of those plush private dining rooms atop the new Time-Life Building or, if the temple should totter, at one of those overpriced, overdecorated, and underserviced eateries downstairs. □