Q & A: Isaiah Wilner

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TIME magazine co-founder Briton Hadden at his desk, 1923

TIME has always been regarded as the brainchild of founder Henry Luce. But is it possible that Briton Hadden, the co-founder of TIME, who died in 1929 at the age of 31, was actually more influential in the creation of the magazine than Luce? That's the contention of Isaiah Wilner, 28, the author of the newly published The Man Time Forgot: A Tale of Genius, Betrayal, and the Creation of Time Magazine (HarperCollins). In writing his book, Wilner was given full access to Time Inc.'s voluminous archives. TIME's publishing reporter, Andrea Sachs, spoke with Wilner:

TIME: How did you decide to write this book?

Wilner: Back when I was at the Yale Daily News, I used to work every night beneath this portrait of Briton Hadden, and it was a very mysterious picture. He had almost a Mona Lisa smile. So I started wondering about who he was. I began reading his old editorials in the bound volumes of the Yale Daily News, and his style in those old papers sounded just like the early voice of TIME. It was very flip, brash, clever, a lot of short sentences. It was full of energy. That's when I started thinking much more seriously about the plaque in the building's lobby, which has Briton Hadden's name and the inscription: "His genius created a new form of journalism." I began to think, if this were the case, how come I'd never heard of him?

TIME: What did you find out about his role?

Wilner: I found that Briton Hadden was really the creative genius behind TIME. He came up with the idea in the early stages of his childhood, so the newsmagazine was really something that sprang from his soul. Then he selected Luce to be his partner, and encouraged him to become a journalist after Luce had been fired from his first journalism job. Hadden raised most of the money because he was really the big man at Yale and had the connections, and also was quite a salesman. He hired all of the writers, who were total unknowns, some of them his cousins, and they were the ones who really invented the style of narrative journalism. His greatest achievement was inventing TIME's style, which was really how TIME turned the news into a form of entertainment. The style was much more than epithets and nicknames and clever witticisms. It was really a form of helping people to envision the news in their mind's eye. And that was incredibly important before the age of television when the rising middle class was just gaining curiosity about the world around them, and needed a guide to take them out into the world and help them get informed.

TIME: So why do people regard TIME as the house that Luce built?

Wilner: The reason for this is that Luce betrayed Hadden. After Hadden died, Luce buried the role that he had played. Luce promised that he would publish a book about Hadden within a year of his death, but he didn't do that. He actually waited 20 years. When he finally did publish the book, it was full of factual inaccuracies. It buried the story that Hadden was the one who had come up with the idea. It left out this very important story of Hadden's will and how he had not wished for his stock in Time Inc. to be sold for 49 years. The reason Luce left that out is because by buying the stock and by distributing it to all of his closest employees and friends and allies, he was able to ensure permanent control over the company. It became the Luce organization. Nobody was able to challenge him. By the the beginning of WW II, if anybody wished to write about Hadden in the media at large, they could expect Luce to come down on them hard and damage their reputation. He had the power to make sure that this story was never told.

TIME: Why would Luce do this?

Wilner: Luce loved Hadden. They had an amazing friendship. Even while he was betraying Hadden for 38 years, Luce felt fondly towards him. But at the same time, I think Luce was intensely jealous of Hadden, and because Luce had a weak ego and an extremely well-developed sense of competitive instinct, he always wondered what Hadden had thought of him and he felt uneasy, that maybe Hadden didn't respect Luce as much as he should have. And he felt dwarfed by Hadden. It's very difficult to feel that way towards someone who has passed away. At the same time he knew that he had been influenced by Hadden deeply, and that he owed what he was doing —he, Henry Luce, this great public figure—to Hadden. In fact, he never would have been the Henry Luce that we know without Hadden. So I think Luce, as a great man, could not within himself recognize that. Furthermore, if he were to recognize it publicly, it would undercut his status as a media genius. And his status as a media genius was what allowed him to travel the world, delivering speeches for capitalism and democracy, and supporting Chiang Kai-shek. All of that was predicated on the fact that he had created TIME. That's why people respected him.

TIME: And what did Luce bring to the magazine?

Wilner: Luce was the business mind, and the company never would have survived without him, and Hadden knew that. In fact, he always said of Luce, he's a business genius. I think Hadden regarded Luce as a business genius because Hadden could be quite impractical. He would come up with 50 ideas. Some of them were just crazy. Luce would say, " No. We can't do that. We can't do this. " And then finally Hadden would come up with a good idea and Luce would approve it. So that's why I think of Luce as a great editor, not just in terms of editing articles but in editing ideas and in editing people.

TIME: Did Hadden realize what was going on at the end of his life?

Wilner: Absolutely. He was very uneasy with Luce. They were not on speaking terms for the most part during the last year of Hadden's life. Trust and loyalty were so important to Hadden. He was vulnerable. Despite being so charismatic and so popular, he had an inner feeling that he didn't really belong, that he was an eccentric person, and he always felt lonely within that no one could truly understand him. So Luce was somebody he was able to form a deep bond with because they had such a close intellectual connection which, for both Hadden and Luce, was the most important kind of connection. Each in their own way had rather awkward relationships with their friends. Luce was just quite awkward in public and always uncomfortable socially, especially because of his stutter. But Hadden had that sense of remove from people, that nobody truly got him. He was really a mystery. So the two of them were able to communicate on a higher level, and that's why I say that they were in love.