Wednesday, 12 October 2011

My "Time," "Life" (and "Fortune") in Luceland

Alan Brinkley’s complex and shrewdly documented “The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) reminds me enchantingly of my first serendipitous encounters with the Luce Empire. In my first teaching job at East Lansing, MI High, mesmerized by my college reading of Marshall McLuhan’s “The Mechanical Bride" (1951) I wanted to make my students critical consumers of the new medium of television.

When across the highway Michigan State opened its first UHF station WKAR-TV, they needed programs: so my teenagers provided them with “Everyman Is A Critic” a weekly hour long take on some aspect of teenage leisure. Including my tenth graders assigned to watch an original play,say, by Paddy Chayefsky and write a newspaper review for the next morning’s class. Or my twelfth graders assignment to watch Maurice Evans play “Macbeth”. Those successful assignments prompted me to write in 1954 for “Scholastic Teacher” my first national publication, ”Everyman in Saddle Shoes,” which described the successes and failures of such assignments.

That essay made a splash, which led to my being awarded a Ford Foundation Fellowship (1955-56) to try out my ideas in New York, then still the center of creative television. And when “Scholastic” heard about my award, they asked me to be Radio-TV Editor of “Scholastic Teacher” for the year. It turned out to be six years until in 1961 when I was appointed the first director of the new Institute of American Studies at the East/West Center of the University of Hawaii. “Variety”, the entertainer’s weekly Bible, couldn’t reach me in time. Our little family rented a flat in Flushing Meadows (where the World’s Fair was held), and I got in the New Yorker’s habit of reading the daily New York Times on the subway into Manhattan, where “Scholastic” had its offices across from the Main Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

One Thursday, late in September, I was surprised to read that there was a media education conference at the Washington Hilton on Saturday! Gotta be there.
As I entered the hotel ballroom I saw two men at the rear in a deep discussion. One was Dr. Ralph Bunche, the black ambassador to the UN. The other was an unknown. With the chutzpah only a Midwest prole could dare, I interrupted them with, "Hi! I’m Pat Hazard from East Lansing High, and I’ve got a For Foundation Fellowship to study how English teachers should deal with the new medium of television.”

There was a stunned silence, as these two celebs decided how to dump this rude rural oaf. Finally the unidentified man said, ”Well how’s it going, Mr. Hazard?” I went on, and on about my unsuccessful efforts to get an interview with Pat Weaver, the innovative head of NBC-TV. At each refusal, his secretary got chillier and chillier!” Finally, the mystery man in a surprisingly friendly voice, identified himself. “I’m Roy Larsen, the publisher of “Time” and I’m on the board of directors of the foundation who gave you your grant. How would you like an office at “Time” to expedite your research?”

GULP. It was my turn to be speechless. “Meet me at “Time” Monday morning at nine, sharp.” “Yes Sir”, I replied, walking off in a daze.

Monday,bright and early I was at the Time/Life/Fortune skyscraper at 45th and Sixth Avenue, showing them the ID card Mr. Larsen had given me. And before you could say “Henry R. Luce” I was in “my office” on the 36th floor, thinking what the fuck do I do now? My eye wandered, until across Sixth Avenue I saw the RCA Building. Hmm! !”Courage, Pat!” I phoned Weaver’s number only to hear once more his secretary’s by now freezing voice. “Mr. Hazard,” she moaned. “This is the beginning of the fall TV season and Mr. Weaver is very, very busy!”

“Yes Ma’m,” I replied with my caricature of a faux humility. “It’s the beginning of my fall fellowship and the sooner I ask for Mr. Weaver’s counsel, the more effective I can be: Just fifteen minutes, whenever.” And I gave her Time’s magic number, Judson 6-2525, and hung up. Ten minutes later, a “Time” secretary hollered, ”Is there a Patrick D. Hazard here today. NBC-TV wants him to meet Pat Weaver at 10 a.m.” “Here I am,” I squealed. And crossed Sixth Avenue.

What a surprise awaited me. He was on a Bongo Board. (New to me, it’s kind of a see saw for a single person!) He said it helped him think faster. Whatever. For two and a half hours he explained how he came up with new programming like “Today” and “Tonight” and “Wide,Wide World”. He was thrilled by the idea of English teachers assigning original teleplays like Rod Serling, Gore Vidal, and Horton Foote. He called Nancy Goldberg in PR, and she cooperated enthusiastically. He introduced me personally to Ed Stanley, director of Public Affairs, who was equally enthusiastic.

Weaver made it possible for me to watch directors like Arthur Penn rehearse a play. In short, Roy Larsen made my fellowship not only possible but productive. They sent me to Chicago to see how “Life” was printed. And I’ll never forget how he arranged for me and the son of the founder of "Der Spiegel, “Time's” clone in Germany, to watch the editor, the photo editor, and text editor put together an issue of “Life”. In short I found the commercial media talent more humanistic than my graduate school Humanities professors, who whined about the media but did nothing positive to improve our common situation.

The same idealism prevailed when I was appointed education adviser (1968-72) for Time-Life Films. I came to New York every Tuesday to mark next week’s “The Listener” so the BBC could tape programs we were theoretically interested in distributing. Then we (me and a few salesmen) would screen the black and white tapes recorded last week. If we liked its potential, we’d ask for a color tape. Sometimes, the boss Peter Roebuck, disagreed with us judges. One day I got an angry letter saying he wasn’t paying me a $1000 a month to look at crap like “Monty Python”! (Ouch! We started each Tuesday with “Monty” for mental health reasons.) Slyly, we made sure WTTW/Chicago got “Pythons” and they sparked a national fad for PBS.

Another fascinating aspect was summer seminars in London mingling with the talent we were peddling. For example, when we previewed the rushes of Jacob Bronowksi’s “The Ascent of Man”, he explained how he’d rather write about Math (his specialty) or William Blake (his love) than make TV. But the director of documentaries bullied him with the Jewish concept of social responsibility to get his assent. He had to learn how to “talk” on TV by sitting at the feet of BBC’s best filmmaker.

After his performance, I told him it reminded me of my favorite aphorism of William Blake: “He who would do me good must do it in minute particulars.” His eyes blazed. “Precisely, precisely.” Later, at a BBC party we palavered wee into the night with the likes of Stephen Hearst, Director of Radio 3, and Martin Esslin, who invented absurdist drama, two Viennese Jews who fled Hitler. When the federal Department of Education sent me to Europe to see why their commercial cultural TV was better than our PBS’s. The answer: Poets like Scotland’s Maurice Lindsay and Wales’ John Ormond did their documentaries—from the inside!

Brinkley’s book on Luce is more than a perceptive biography: It is the clearest description of how media were transformed in twentieth century culture I have yet read. And his highly personal explanations of Luce and his collaborators is exemplary in showing how people and media interact. Many significant American writers like Archibald Macleish, Dwight Macdonald, James Agee and Daniel Bell all cut their teeth on Luce media. Partisan Review eggheads tended to reject Luce media too patly.

This book is intellectually exciting in how it shows the complexity of creating newer media. My exhilarating but admittedly limited interaction with Luce media makes me believe that the American clerisy is more guilty than media innovators for the squalid median of their performance today. Our Ivies abandoned the public schools before World War II when the NCTE separated from defective MLA leadership. The corrupted cashocracy stems from these abandonments. I’ve never understood this fateful isolation as completely before reading Brinkley’s explanations.

Another version of this essay is published by Broad Street Review.

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