Commentary Magazine


Right Places, Right Times, by Hedley Donovan

In the opening sentence of his memoir, Hedley Donovan, editor-in-chief of Time Inc. from 1964 to 1979, tells us his life’s work has been “trying to manage the almost unmanageable: intellectuals.” This sounds rather hard-boiled; but then intellectuals have always been a touchy point for Time and its various spinoffs. Henry Luce, says Donovan, was “distressed that intellectuals and academics didn’t much esteem Time; many loathed it.” In his indignation, as in so much else, Luce intriguingly resembled that other great media mogul, William Randolph Hearst. Both saw themselves as unelected tribunes—Hearst of the common man, Luce of Middle America. Both, too, had an unmistakable genius—Hearst for concocting news, Luce for packaging it.

Still there were the intellectuals, and Luce craved their approval. His solution was to put them on his payroll: John Kenneth Galbraith, Daniel Bell, Dwight Macdonald, not to mention such gifted writers as James Agee, Whittaker Chambers, Robert Fitzgerald, and John Hersey. Once inside the gate, eggheads could expect a seigneurial summons to Luce’s office to chew over Big Ideas. The nation’s top communications company operated like a think-tank. “The most compelling aspect of my job,” Donovan writes, “was ‘policy.’ What should Time Inc. think?”

Donovan was, in most respects, Luce’s man. He too pledged his fealty “to the belief that our journalism should serve the public interest,” and he too worried about the “moral and aesthetic vulnerability attaching to the press” because it performs “its indispensable role in our political process ‘for money.’” Note the quotation marks encircling the last two words; note, too, the Arnoldian coupling of “moral” and “aesthetic.” For Donovan, the highbrow hex remained in force; nothing stings like the taunt of “Philistine!”

But Donovan squarely met at least one crucial question that Luce preferred to sidestep, namely, if everyone (even intellectuals) has a boss, who, then, ultimately rides herd on the bosses of Time Inc.? Luce, as tribune, fancied it was his readers; thus he called himself editor- in-chief—conjuring up folksy visions of a small-town newspaperman, with ink-stained fingers and a green eyeshade—rather than, say, president, though he was perched atop a tentacular empire and enjoyed chummy relations with heads of state. Donovan, who inherited Luce’s anomalous title along with his job in 1964, knew better: the bosses were, in fact, the investors, whose influence must be formalized. Donovan did this by adding more outsiders to the Board of Directors and, at the same time, spelling out the limits of their control. He also clarified his own obligations:

If any Time Inc. publication had done an injustice, I thought it was entirely reasonable for the aggrieved party to tell me about it and expect me to do something about it. I couldn’t always, but that’s where accountability starts: with the name, address, phone number of an individual empowered by his organization, and temperamentally disposed, to stand up and answer.

This marked a sharp break from the practiced avoidance of Luce, who foisted grim tasks onto others (he could not bring himself to fire employees) and who was not above softening copy, especially if it annoyed friends in the White House. Under Donovan, this changed—firmly but quietly; and so did Time, though not necessarily for the better. We sometimes have to squint past Donovan’s mild remarks to glimpse his impact, not because there is a shortage of evidence but because he reveres Luce and regards his own succession as “apostolic.” Few would disagree, however, that the Time of the 1960’s and 70’s evolved a new style. It shed the symptomatic cuteness and jokey argot. It became less cocksure. It also lost its pungency, its flamboyance, and its sweep.

There had been something daring about the infant Time; even its absurd neologisms (“cinemactress”) and crass locutions (“First Novelist”) were sly and knowing; some (“balding”) crept into general usage. Like those other monoliths created in the 1920’s, the New Yorker and Reader’s Digest, it genially invited parody. Donovan’s Time shifted toward the oracular neutrality that today is equated, for some reason, with fair-mindedness. Much of the difference was owing to individual writers and editors, but it was Donovan who set the tone.

But to be, well, fair-minded, Donovan ascended to the corner office at a moment when a fixed point of view seemed impossible for anyone to sustain; the nation was in the throes of an identity crisis. The traumas of the Luce era—the Depression and World War II—were, in retrospect, simple, made for patriotic copy. Donovan, no less sold than Luce on the American Dream, had to grapple with, among other things, Vietnam (“I don’t think there was a day in my first decade as editor-in-chief that Vietnam didn’t figure in my work”) and Watergate (“the biggest domestic news story since the Depression”).

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Aside from some leaden tips on management (unfortunately, they come in the first chapter), Right Places, Right Times is an absorbing book. Donovan is among the few powerful executives of his generation who write their own sentences; this automatically adds interest to his memoir, even when he addresses that potentially lethal subject, his irresistible rise to success. When he delves into the past, the autobiographer’s most tonic exercise, he becomes almost lyrical, notably in the early chapters, a hymn to a vanished age, pleasantly redolent of Booth Tarkington.

Donovan was born in 1914 into a cheerful, upper-middle-class, rock-ribbed Republican home. He had a paper route, went to (a Baptist) church, excelled in the classroom (skipping several grades), took a pretty girl to the prom. The Depression canceled his plans to attend college in the East, but he flourished on his hometown campus, the University of Minnesota (“it was a kind of Hard Times Golden Age”). His ambition was to become a BMOC, which he accomplished by running the student daily and importing big-shot lecturers. Then came three comfortable years at Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. He got a “very respectable” Second in history, played hockey, and returned as a confirmed Anglophile. In 1937, he landed a reporter’s job on the Washington Post, not yet a major daily, and his future was decided. He married, coasted through wartime duties editing a Navy intelligence sheet, then grasped the brass ring of Fortune and fame.

As the title of Donovan’s memoir suggests, his timing was perfect. He joined Fortune in 1945, the beginning of the postwar boom and of a golden age for American business. The toniest of the Luce publications, Fortune sang monthly praises to the nation’s corporations, and Donovan was an enthusiastic bard. Less skeptical than his colleague William H. Whyte, who would write The Organization Man, Donovan warmed up to the men in gray flannel suits. He admired their management techniques, their values, their profit margins. And he felt at home in the corporate corridors of Time Inc. His copy was slick (he trots out some paragraphs); he met his deadlines; he got along. He was, in yesterday’s phrase, executive material.

In 1953, he leapfrogged over older and more experienced men to assume the managing editorship of Fortune. Other writers feared such responsibility. Donovan relished it. He was equally adept at cropping photos and trimming budgets and he had an unenvious eye for fresh talent. None of this was lost on Luce, another fan of big business, who chose Donovan as his deputy in 1959. Nor was it lost on Donovan’s peers. He made few enemies and won the loyalty even of his rivals. He was always, it seemed, the consensus man for the job—if not the most brilliant, then the steadiest; if not the most seasoned, then the most energetic. It helped that he starred at the annual sales conference.

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Donovan focuses on wins rather than losses. He is curiously tightlipped, for instance, about a stint as “senior adviser” to Jimmy Carter during the latter’s bungled presidency. But he dwells gamely on his worst setback: Life. When Donovan took over as editor-in-chief, “The Big Red,” as ad salesmen called Life, was in the black, barely. It claimed the largest audience, by far, of Luce’s publications (seven million subscribers to Time’s two million), but it was losing ground to television, which brought more images, more immediately, into America’s living rooms. Donovan loyally propped up the magazine a year longer than he should have and finally gave up on it in 1972. Life later resurfaced as a monthly, but its true replacement, and Donovan’s brightest coup, was People, which sagely tied into TV rather than compete with it.

Donovan is not an introspective writer but he is a candid one, beginning with the title he has chosen for his book. Right Places, Right Times are the careerist’s words for serendipity. Donovan does not apologize for his success, or pretend he was not hungry for it. Born into a world that welcomed him, he did not blink when his chance came for a piece of the action. He went about his business calmly and expertly. He seems to have been a good boss—eager to promote, happy to share the glory, prepared to shoulder blame. Now and again his vanity shows; he brags about his excessive modesty and twice informs us that others thought he would make a good president—not of Time Inc. but of the United States. At least—like Luce and unlike Hearst—he had the good sense not to run.

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