Wilner: The legacy of Briton Hadden and Henry Luce

A painting looms over the top floor of the Yale Daily News building, a portrait of a young man in a green eyeshade who wears a pencil-thin mustache and a mysterious sideways smile. His bright eyes follow you wherever you walk. He commands the room.

The man pictured is Briton Hadden, the founding genius behind Time Incorporated. It was he who dreamed of the first newsmagazine and created it with the help of his childhood friend and rival, Henry Luce. Together they edited the Yale Daily News as members of the Board of 1920, launching Time just three years later.

The little magazine ran on a shoestring budget, but it soon became a favorite news source for the growing middle class, transforming the way we view the world by turning the news into a form of entertainment. Hadden also created the first radio quiz show, The Pop Question Game. He dreamed of Life and Sports Illustrated. He did it all in six years, between 1923 and 1929 — managing, too, to become a fixture of the New York speakeasies.

When Hadden died of a mysterious illness, just 31, Henry Luce and nearly 300 friends built the Briton Hadden Memorial building for the Yale Daily News. The Great Depression soon emptied many a Yale pocketbook, but this large but close circle completed its task three years later, in part by cutting back on a few frills. (The stub of stone that encircles the front window was actually supposed to climb higher, enclosing a garden.) The plaque in the lobby of the building features Hadden’s name and beneath that the words, “His genius created a new form of journalism.”

Ideas travel through the paper, drifting from one generation to the next, sometimes little more than wisps, then suddenly historical forces again. It was partly because of the Yale Daily News that Hadden created Time. He witnessed how elegant and useful a news digest could be during the Great War, when Yale needed news from around the globe more than ever and the paper published a front-page column of condensed news, composed in the early morning hours and typed directly onto the Linotype by a printer named John O’Donnell. Former President William Taft 1878, then teaching at the Law School, called it a must-read.

Hadden’s literary hero was Homer, as interpreted by John Berdan, an English teacher with razor-blue eyes, a quick wit and an acid tongue. Berdan invented Daily Themes, the course that taught generations of Yalies to write. On the first day of class Berdan told his students to forget everything they had learned and simply use their senses. Dozens of students packed his basement office on rainy afternoons, sitting cross-legged on the floor and breathing in the aroma of Latakia tobacco as the professor puffed out his scorn for Victorian literary conventions.

Berdan wanted students who wielded pens like knives, and he got one in Hadden. A ferocious competitor who tried to live like the heroes he admired in the Iliad, Hadden trimmed his sentences until they crackled with action. He wasted no words. When Berdan died, he was reading the galleys of a book about Hadden commissioned by Luce, both of whom took courage from the professor in the days when they were trying to get Time off the ground. It was said of Hadden: He had moxie.

Isaiah Wilner ’00 was Editor in Chief of the News from 1998 to 1999.

Comments