COLD WAR OVERSEAS - FORTUNE MAGAZINE AT 70
provided the raw material for the lead article of the inaugural issue of
Fortune magazine, seventy
years ago in February 1930. Determined ‘to give business a
literature’, its editor, Henry R. Luce, fabricated a silken purse out
of the meat packers, Swift & Co.
twenty-five, Luce, had co-founded Time
in 1923. Six years later, he persuaded his board that ‘Business, the
smartest, most universal of all American occupations, has no medium of
expression except the financial pages of newspapers and the cheapest,
least distinguished of magazines. Unless we are prepared to believe that
America’s industrialists are chiefly concerned with … the stale
Get-Rich-Maxims of onetime errand boys, the subject matter of such a
magazine as Forbes must be
piddling and inexpressibly dull’. Fortune
would be his contribution to business as a civilisation.
and tedium were not the worst of it. Wall
Street Journal columnists were taking bribes to promote stocks. Luce
sought to hold the line ‘between the gentleman and the
money-grubber’, a distinction which was ever fluid, as the patrician
president of the Stock Exchange, Richard Whitney, demonstrated when he
confessed to swindling his clients.
prove that ‘Business is, essentially, our civilisation’, Luce wanted
‘as beautiful a magazine as exists in the United States’. He
succeeded. Fortune began as a
large format, 184-page book with colour processing, fine printing and a
stylish type face on art paper so heavy that it had to be hand sewn. The
New York Times described their
combination as ‘Sumptuous to the point of rivalling the pearly
succeed, Luce knew that Fortune would have to be ‘brilliantly written. [More sophisticated
than Time]’. So he employed
amateurs, not bookkeepers, often Yale poets, like himself. For Fortune’s managing editor, Luce recruited Ralph Ingersoll from the
New Yorker who brought with
him its spaciousness and polish. Regulars included Dwight Macdonald,
Archibald MacLeish and James Agee who contributed enduring insights on
‘The American Roadside’. R. Buckminster Fuller was a consultant. A
line describing a cotton field as ‘worn and warped like a wrecked
heel’ captures the intensity and evocativeness that these essayists
wrought. Luce was disconcerted, however, to discover that the finest
writing on business came from socialists and New Dealers. Indeed,
Ingersoll converted himself into a fellow traveller.
shifted investigative journalism away from the muck-raking of the 1900s
towards a discursive critique. For instance, it unravelled how Gillette
had achieved its 1930 dividend by representing dispatches as sales.
Although Fortune has never been as liberal as it was during the 1930s, it had
continued to criticise corporate malpractice. A two-part feature on
‘The Incredible Electrical Conspiracy’ in 1961 stands as an
indispensable reference for the operation of cartels. Today, Fortune
is clear-eyed about the accountancy that underpins the stock market
boom: ‘By inflating reported earnings and covering up the true cost of
an acquisition, they can make even a dog of a deal look brilliant’.
Last April, it ridiculed the valuation of intangibles such as
quality of the photographs and of their reproduction further
Captions could be drawn from Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy. More
potently, its photographers fused the image with the story, opening the
way to the photo-journalism of Life
magazine which Luce launched in 1936. His photographers and essayists
contributed to the ‘documentary expression’ prevalent through US
novels by Dos Passos or Steinbeck. During 1999, Fortune
reproduced photographs from its archives as a sign of respect, but also
as an admission that today’s glossy colour images are bland by
comparison with the chiaroscuro of its early decades.
Time at ten cents, Fortune’s
one-dollar cover price asserted Luce’s confidence in civilisation as a
business. Subscriptions grew from 34,000 in the first year to 96,000 by
1934 when the venture returned a profit. Circulation in 1939 reached
137,000. Despite the slump of 1938, Fortune
took in $1.5m. from the advertising on 80 of its 140 pages.
enriched the opening and closing sections with luxury products,
associating high-ticket items with high culture. Moreover, most ads were
illustrated with faux oil
paintings or drawings, some by museum artists. Luce hoped to marry mass
and high cultures as the genius of American exceptionalism. He expected
marketing to display ‘good taste’ but accepted that
advertising was art in overalls.
commercial application of industrial design was but one of Luce’s
enthusiasms for businesses’ using ‘the vehicles of the culture to
forward its own growth. The expressions of the culture have gained in
richness and variety … because the culture has found new outlets in
meeting directly the exigencies of business. Finally, the major vehicles
of the culture are businesses in themselves’. Hence, he saw radio and
the cinema as ‘the most characteristic mark of our culture’.
works also represented current events, with France at war portrayed in a
series of gouaches, and a portfolio of Ben Shahn’s paintings depicting
the home front.
in wartime dislodged the more arcane artistic features, such as the one
on Chinese ceramics which would have been at home in Apollo.
Meanwhile, the covers acquired abstract qualities when oil pipes
mimicked Leger’s Cubism. Inside, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams
maintained the art of photography. Articles on high culture now had more
of a financial slant, with stories about an orchestra in Detroit that
paid its own way, the bookkeeping that kept ballet companies aloft
despite a run of deficits, art on business calendars, and the art
was never an indulgence for Luce, but part of his conviction that the
twentieth century would prove to be ‘The American Century’, as he
argued in a 6000- word editorial in Life
in 1941. His ambition was not just to make business responsible for
ethics and aesthetics. The task was to elevate the ideals of American
business into a world civilisation. Hence, in 1950, Fortune
rejoiced that industrialists were matching their stream-lining with
purchases of twentieth-century art. Ten years later, an article enthused
over corporations splurging on Abstract Art, the banner under which the
US imperium declared its cultural independence from the School of Paris.
had made few concessions to those who gobbled data on the run. Its
manners could not have been more opposed to those at Time,
which served up all the news of the week in an hour’s reading, in
bites no longer than 400 words. A 10,000-word investigation of changes
in the structure of banking remained typical while two out of three
subscribers read all or part of its dozen articles. Even the monthly
round-up of business conditions meant another substantial read.
1960, however, Fortune
recognised that the promise of boundless leisure was illusory. Twenty
years later, Time ran a cover story on the ‘time famine’, our world of faster
food and news on the hour. In the interim, Fortune’s
contents page abstracted articles to help harried readers allocate their
scarcest resource - time. A major concession to rush came in 1978 when Fortune
became a fortnightly to keep up with the news. Henceforth, its writers
chased succinctness as stories became ‘briefer, some running only to
two pages’ allowing room, as the then editor confessed, for only ‘a
couple of articles with the breadth that was traditional’.
the 1980s, sales of The One-Minute
Manager were of a piece with the one-idea consultant, the one-notion
text and the one-book executive. The CEO at Sears complained at being
too busy to skim even the financial press, let alone to open a book. Fortune
has added pages with nibbles of data, like those from Time in the 1920s.
Henry R. Luce could see Fortune
today, would he disown his septuagenarian child as ‘piddling and
inexpressibly dull’? Or would he nowadays go along with Nestle’s
CEO, Helmut Maucher, who quipped in 1993 that he had ‘nothing against
culture and ethics, but we cannot live on that’?