The Economist with all its wit and influence today can't match the verve and reach Time had in its glory days. Now there was a magazine with a world audience and writing that really sparkled. It could make the news read like a story and describe a person as vividly as a picture.
Sadly shrunken now, it boasts a storied past, recalled in loving detail by its old rival, The New Yorker. It's hard to see two such different magazines as rivals. But that's what they were, recalls Jill Lepore in her highly entertaining Untimely: What was at stake in the spat between Henry Luce and Harold Ross?
Ross, a miner's son who never finished high school, launched The New Yorker in 1925 as the magazine "not edited for the old lady in Dubuque".
Luce, a missionary's China-born son who went to Yale, started Time with his friend, Briton Hadden, in 1923 as a a magazine meant to "appeal to every man and woman in America".
Luce and Ross hated each other's guts.
Lepore writes about their rivalry and Time's style — Timestyle — with equal relish.
Hadden, not Luce, was Time’s first editor. This had been decided in a coin toss. Luce ran the business. The idea was that they’d rotate. They agreed, though, that the magazine had to have a language of its own: Timestyle. “You’re writing for straphangers,” a former professor of theirs advised them. "You’ve got to write staccato." Hadden marked up a translation of the Iliad, underscoring compound phrases, like "wine-dark sea". (A "sea as dark as wine" dragged.) No longer did events take place "in the nick of time" but "in time’s nick". Everything was epic…
Hadden liked to coin words, compounds like "news-magazine". He imported "tycoon", "pundit", and "kudos" into English. He filled a notebook with lists. Famed Phrases: "flabby-chinned". Forbidden Phrases: "erstwhile" (use "onetime" instead). Unpardonable Offences: failing to print someone’s nickname. He was fond of middle names, of inverted subject and predicate phrases, of occupations as titles: "famed poet William Shakespeare" and "Demagogue Hitler". (What next? one reader wanted to know. "Onetime evangelist Jesus Christ?")
Time made fun of The New Yorker's first issue:
Last week, Manhattanites found the first issue of The New Yorker on their club tables, their hotel stands, their back-alley kiosks; they ruffled its pages, found it to contain one extremely funny original joke.
Ross had his revenge when Luce started Fortune in 1930.
The New Yorker parodied Timestyle in a profile of Luce.
"Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind," wrote Wolcott Gibbs, a New Yorker editor and writer. He ended his profile with a hilarious send-up of the man and his magazine:
Certainly to be taken with seriousness is Luce at thirty-eight, his fellowman already informed up to his ears, the shadow of his enterprises long across the land, his future plans impossible to imagine, staggering to contemplate. Where it will all end, knows God!
The New Yorker not only made fun of Luce. Ross then personally rubbed salt into his wounds.
Ross sent Luce a proof. That night, they met in Ross’s apartment… "There’s not a single kind word about me in the whole Profile," Luce said. "That’s what you get for being a baby tycoon," Ross said. "Goddamn it, Ross, this whole goddamned piece is malicious, and you know it!" Ross paused. "You’ve put your finger on it, Luce. I believe in malice."
Guess who is having the last laugh?
Ross, I think.
The New Yorker today with writers like Malcolm Gladwell, Ken Auletta and Adam Gopnik and, of course, editor David Remnick is certainly more upmarket than Time ever was or wanted to be. Unfortunately, times are hard in the mass market these days, even for Time.