The Time of Their Lives

Sinclair Lewis on an early day cover of Time
Sinclair Lewis on an early day cover of Time

IT WAS AN IDEA, they thought, whose time had come. They were only boys, barely in their twenties, but considered themselves sophisticated and erudite young men, visionaries, perhaps, whose minds were in tune with the politics, news, society, and scandals the day, which happened to be the very early 1920s.

Harry and Bratch had graduated together from Yale. They were gifted writers. They regarded themselves as hard-nosed and first-rate journalists. They liked to drink a little. No. They liked to drink a lot. And both of them believed that a four-thousand-dollar-a-year at the Baltimore Sun was far beneath their intellectual dignity.

The money was, in reality, an insult. They could do better, and they knew it.

Henry Luce
Henry Luce

During a late evening after one drink too many had been poured and one drink too many thrown down numbed throats, they decided, without any malice aforethought, to go into business for themselves. Do the work. Make the money. Live the high life, maybe even the rich life, but more probably the poor life. Didn’t bother them. They would publish a new magazine. America needed a new magazine. The investment be damned. They didn’t worry about the investment. They barely had the money between them to buy another bottle.

The idea’s insane, they were told.

It’s foolhardy.

It was, said Harry, the gamble of our lives. He himself even called the venture a “crazy and half-romantic thing” that had ruined thousands before them.

What happens if you go broke? his friends asked.

Harry smiled.

He was already broke.

And Bratch?

He didn’t deal with money or numbers. He dealt with words, and he could write  them beautifully.

The magazine, they decided, would be called Facts, a simple name, a simple theme, a simple focus, and it would be published once a week.

They sat down and looked around an empty office.

No staff.

No secretaries.

No chaotic and frenzied confusion of a newsroom with deadlines hanging like guillotines above anyone’s head.

Briton Hadden
Briton Hadden

Just the two of them and an idea for a magazine called Facts, dedicated, Harry said, to creating articles on politics books, sport, scandal, science, and society. No story would be longer than two hundred words, and the publication, in the minds of Harry and Bratch, would target the illiterate upper classes, the busy businessman, and the tired debutante, providing them with fodder, at least once a week, for table conversations when no one could think of anything else to say.

They tinkered with designs and styles, with prose and language, with formats and the way stories should be written. Harry and Bratch looked at the morass of magazines and particularly newspaper in the streets and gutters of New York. Facts would be different.

They scorned the sensationalism of the Hearst newspapers, saying that Hearst was guilty of pandering to the ignorance of his working-class readers, the ones that the publisher privately referred to as “gum-chewers.”  And they disdained The New York Times, the most respected newspaper of the day. Harry was quick to say that the sea of grey type in the “great grey lady,” its columns devoid of photographs or any kind of illustrations, made the publication virtually unreadable.

No.

He and Bratch had a better idea. Facts would appeal to the smart set.

They were ridiculed.

Some called them mad.

And they kept searching for a fatal flew in their idea. According to Harry, they could not find one. All they needed were a fistful of dollars to get them out of the gate. Their goal was to find ten wealthy young men, secure a ten thousand dollar investment from each of them, and publish Facts with a bankroll of a hundred thousand dollars.

It seemed simple enough.

It wasn’t.

But they clawed and scratched and found a few thousand bucks here, another few thousand there, and toward the end of the year in 1922 they had scraped together enough money to launch, Harry said, “the world’s greatest magazine.”

People thought he was kidding.

He wasn’t.

He and Bratch hired a stenographer, a reporter who was an aspiring novelist and did everything from writing copy to fetching coffee. He was a valuable asset. He even persuaded his father to invest a thousand dollars into Facts. They hired a circulation director for forty dollars a week, a man who would patch together eight thousand subscribers even before the first issue hit the mails, and they were ready, Harry said, to make “a great leap into the unknown.”

The first issue would feature Speaker Joseph G. Cannon

Their reporting techniques were primitive to say the least. Harry and Bratch scissored out stories from other newspapers, a lot of them from “the great grey lady” herself and those rowdy, sometimes bawdy, columns dripping with sensationalism from pages produced by Hearst. They re-wrote the articles, cut them down to size in length, made them short, punchy, clear, and concise, and made sure each article carried the impact of a bullet.

They were ready.

Facts was never published.

Facts never appeared in public.

Harry decided that his “news-magazine” needed a better name. He thought about “What’s What,” or maybe “Destiny,” or possibly even “The Synthetic Review.” But nothing reached out and grabbed him.

He was riding home on a subway in the dark hours of New York when he glanced up and saw an advertisement that read: Time for a Change.

That’s it, he thought.

That’s it, he told Bratch.

“What’s it?” Bratch asked.

“I’ve got the name for our magazine,” Harry said.

“What is it?”

Time,” he said.

With Time, Henry “Harry” Luce and Briton “Bratch” Hadden revolutionized the magazine business. They revolutionized the news business. They influenced America and the world. They and Time became the stuff of legend.

That was then.

I recently visited with an issue of Time. I do every chance I get. It was a sad visit.

Few pages.

Little advertising.

The magazine was so thin that the back page was almost stuck to the front page.

Once upon a time, Time was influential.

And there was a time not long ago, when Time was important.

But now I worry that the time for Time has passed it by.

And there will soon come a time, when the time for Time is gone.

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