Sometime on the eve of the Roaring Twenties, two Yale seniors enter Skull and Bones.
The first is Henry Luce ’20. He approaches deliberately, his narrow blue eyes directed at the tomb in front of him. He is about to cook a meal for his fellow Bonesmen, during which he will share his sexual history, his thoughts on foreign affairs and his theory of the best route to amassing power and influence in American society. He’s smart, he’s successful, and he knows it.
Next to enter the tomb is Briton Hadden ’20: Chairman of the Yale Daily News, king of what is called the “Yale Democracy.” Youthful and endearingly sarcastic, he is looking forward to a conversation with Bonesmen in which he can flippantly mock their self-importance and pseudo intellectualism while still drawing on their insights for Monday’s editorial in the News. He hasn’t slept in days.
Jump forward 80 years to sometime on the eve of the millennium.
Luce, now dead, has made his eternal mark on time, quite literally. Not only was he the founder of Time Magazine, but he also launched Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Life. Many Americans credit him with inventing modern magazine journalism.
Hadden has much less to show for himself. Dead by 1930, young and burnt-out, he has his name on the Time Magazine masthead and a modest building at Yale named in his honor — the Briton Hadden Memorial Building, which houses the Yale Daily News.
Inside that building, Isaiah Wilner ’00 is sitting beneath a mysteriously grinning portrait of Hadden — a modern day Mona Lisa — wondering why no one knows anything about the man in the painting. He is especially curious since a plaque on the bottom floor of the building reads, “Briton Hadden: His Genius Created a New Form of Journalism.”
One day, Wilner asked himself a life-changing question.
“If Briton Hadden was such a genius,” Wilner wondered, “how come I’ve never heard of him?”
That question launched Wilner into a journey that continued this week, as he made the final stops on the tour for his debut book — “The Man Time Forgot: A Tale of Genius, Betrayal, and the Creation of Time Magazine.”
The book tells a story that has sent shock waves through the American journalism establishment since its release earlier this month, sparking both enthusiastic praise and dismissive criticism by proposing, among other not-so-small things, that Hadden was the true genius behind Time Magazine and therefore the true genius behind modern American journalism. And that Luce, from the day Hadden died, actively and successfully worked to suppress his dead partner’s memory until Hadden, who outshone Luce while living, became only a footnote in time.
Though Wilner spent six years researching and then resurrecting Hadden’s spirit in his 300-page biography, in some ways, Hadden was already back by 2000 — in the form of Wilner himself.
After all, as Wilner waved his arms energetically and stared at each member of the audience at a New Haven stop in his book tour last week, he said, “This is a story about my two favorite things: relationships and ideas.” Hadden, at least according to Wilner’s book, might have made the same statement in 1920.
Like Hadden, Wilner served as head of the News while at Yale, entered a career in New York journalism and is possessed by a love of possibilities, theories and people. Like Hadden, Wilner’s writing style is ridden with imagery. And also like Hadden, Wilner, on occasion, had a knack for getting himself into trouble.
“I identified with Hadden,” Wilner said. “He was the creative genius behind the thing. He was the one with the creative ideas.”
But Wilner is quick to point out, in his book and in interviews, that Hadden relied on Luce. They were complements — even if Hadden, with a “magical aura around him,” according to Wilner, was the “brighter light.”
“Theirs was a life long rivalry — Luce lost the YDN elections [for Chairman], but Hadden let him write half the editorials and felt that Luce was the man to help him achieve his dream,” Wilner said. “Luce was a brilliant scholarship boy who just had to get ahead: shy, awkward, but always improving, gaining confidence, learning from Hadden.”
When Wilner decided to research Hadden in history professor John Gaddis’ “Art of Biography” seminar, he handed in 25-page paper that, years later, became a book that was more than 800 pages before editing.
“Isaiah always struck me as someone who loved writing, did it well, and intended in some way to make it a career,” Gaddis said. “I always assumed … that Isaiah would eventually turn it into a book. The topic was too good to pass up, and the fact that no one else had written a biography of Hadden was a real opportunity.”
History professor John Merriman, another one of Wilner’s inspirations, used to eat hotdogs with him in the Pierson cafeteria and talk about ideas, the news and Yale. He came to know Wilner as someone who “embodied the life of the mind” and was very alert, even if he sometimes “looked wasted” since he had not slept the night before because he had been editing the News.
Wilner must have been alert. It took 80 generations of News editors and reporters before someone decided to explore who the mysterious Hadden was. William F. Buckley ’50, a former News chairman, grudgingly admitted that though he saw Hadden’s portrait, he never explored who Hadden was even though he knew — and admired — Luce. He said he enjoyed Wilner’s book, though he thinks he did not give enough credit to Luce’s legacy.
“It was bright and readable,” Buckley said. “But you have the sense that he started in with an afflatus and he sort of worked it in through the book. I think that’s recognizable even by people who were not familiar with the work of Henry Luce. The strength of Luce was not sufficiently acknowledged in the book.”
After all, Wilner is not one who hesitates before letting his inspirations take over. Michael Barbaro ’02, a former News editor in chief who reported for Wilner as a freshman before moving on to a post-graduation career at The New York Times, said he inspired those on the paper younger than him to believe in the mission of student journalism — it was Wilner’s “gift, beyond his writing abilities.” He also managed to sneak cigarettes into the editor’s office, Barbaro said.
And in a controversy that made the pages of The New York Times, Wilner’s tenure as editor was marred by a controversy during the 1999 aldermanic campaign. Near the end of his term as editor in chief, Wilner was removed temporarily from daily production of the paper for allegedly favoring one candidate — his roommate — over another in the News’s coverage of the race, which he directed.
“I was in all kinds of scrapes when I was in college, and I had a hell of a lot of fun when I was doing it,” Wilner said. “I won some, I lost fewer, and I lived to write a book.”
Walter Isaacson, the former managing editor of Time Magazine and now President of the Aspen Institute, described one such Wilner victory. “Almost on a whim,” Wilner said he sent Isaacson his 25-page seminar paper on Hadden, requesting that he open the Time archives. Isaacson did, thus unlocking the key to Hadden’s story.
“I also like writing biography myself, and there’s nothing I feel more strongly about than people should be open with their sources for people trying to write serious biography,” said Isaacson, who is now finishing a biography of Albert Einstein. “The guy was serious, and I knew they had some of the Time archives under lock and key. That seemed wrong, especially for a journalism enterprise like Time, Inc.”
Wilner said he was taken aback by the world he discovered inside the archives. He found, for example, a vault of childhood letters between Hadden and Luce, discovering that their precociousness surfaced at an early age.
Hadden often summoned his “mum” at night to dictate poetry for her to transcribe — he did not yet even know how to write. Luce, who was very religious, tended to preach to other children. And when the duo met at boarding school, they became instant friends — though Hadden, even then, edged out Luce to become editor of the Hotchkiss paper.
“I made an extreme effort to understand Luce from the perspective of Hadden and vice versa,” Wilner said. “How did this friendship come about and what was the quality of this friendship? How did it bring about this media revolution?”
A Wrinkle in Time
While in the archives, Wilner said he discovered something disturbing about the Time media revolution: It had been, in many ways, a lie.
As illustrated by a particularly vivid scene in Wilner’s book — the Time Magazine 40th Anniversary Gala in 1963 — in Wilner’s view, Luce deliberately slighted Hadden to the day Luce died.
“Packed into two rooms was a crowd of rare achievement,” Wilner wrote. “There were clergymen and generals, athletes and intellectuals, artists and politicians. There were opera singers and piano virtuosos, architects and cartoonists, a premier and a president. The greatest boxer of all time was there, and it didn’t matter if you thought he was Jack Dempsey or Joe Louis, since both arrived.”
Luce gave his final speech around midnight, but “at no point during the evening’s program did Luce utter the name of the one man who had made it possible for him to stand before the crowd,” Wilner wrote, referring, of course, to Hadden.
“He really owed that to his friend, and he let him down,” Wilner said. “If this person can’t even tell the truth about his own history, how can you trust him to tell the truth about the news? He had 38 years to get the story right.”
But Luce’s grandson H. Christopher Luce ’72 said although he hasn’t read the book, he takes offense to everything he has heard about Wilner’s reading of his grandfather’s persona and work. Christopher Luce said that Hadden, as Wilner discusses in the book but may not emphasize, “led a kind of risqué life” and said that if Hadden, as an alcoholic with a likely case of untreated bipolar disorder, “hadn’t died one way, he would have died another.”
“I don’t know what purpose the author was trying to achieve beyond maybe trying to make a name for himself,” the grandson said. “I happen to know the man [Luce]. He was a very confident person, and as we all know, he ran the company extremely well for the rest of his life … We do know what did happen. We don’t know what didn’t happen.”
He said he remembers his grandfather mentioning Hadden rarely and only in passing.
Lance Morrow, a renowned essayist who worked under Luce for several years and is now in the midst writing his official biography, said he read the book and disagreed with all of Wilner’s major conclusions, especially the notion set forth in the book that Luce betrayed Hadden on his death bed by defying his wishes regarding Time’s direction and stock.
“To conclude that Luce was some sort of imposter is simply to reach the wrong conclusion,” Morrow said. “What Wilner has done — and he’s done a lot of interesting research — is he has set up what I consider a rather immature Mozart and Salieri scenario … where Hadden was this brilliant poet, this authentic American, this native genius, and Luce this strange, surreptitious kind of character in the background.”
Yet John Huey, current editor-in-chief of Time Magazine, said he now admires not only Hadden and Luce, but Wilner too. On Thursday afternoon, he dined with the writer, found him to be a “bright, energetic, outspoken young man” and felt refreshed that someone of his generation was interested in exploring an old media company rather than Google.
Huey said he thinks Luce’s repression of Hadden’s role in the company might have been necessary to keep the workers inspired and the company afloat, but admitted that it is mostly Luce’s spirit that persists among writers and editors — he said there are two portraits of Luce hanging in the Time offices, but there are none of Hadden.
He considered Wilner’s book “a good read, and of course of particular interest to all of us over here,” even if it happened before his time and occasionally felt like ancient history.
“I thought it was sort of the style of a classic biographer, and for somebody of his youth and inexperience he did a good job of turning out a pretty clear, narrative biography,” Huey said. “I found myself self-speculating how they would have lived and how they would have worked it out.”
And when Wilner self-speculates about his future, as always, he has larger-than-life plans.
“I really dream of writing a big biography that will capture an entire era and speak to international themes,” he said.
On one hand, Wilner is about the details — Hadden’s athletic and quirky style of writing, vivid descriptions of Luce and Hadden editing all night in the News building during the World War I, the notebook Hadden carried with him that contained his ideas for future journalistic ventures.
But something about Wilner’s jet-black hair and emo glasses, his expressive style of speaking and writing and his easily lit-up eyes makes it clear to those who meet him that for Wilner, above all it is about the big picture.
“When I was writing the book, I think my writing was impacted by Hadden — his narrative storytelling, seeing the news in the mind’s eye,” Wilner said. “And that’s why I was attracted to history: getting people to envision what the events looked and felt like, all in the service of getting across a big idea, which, in this book, is the creation of the national media.”