Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Alvin, Henry Luce, and their times

“You don’t know what it was like to work for Henry Luce!” Alvin blurted, and ran from the room to fetch an old folder. Alvin, Betty, daughter Allison and I were in the Josephy family living room in Greenwich, looking at home movies which had been transferred to a VCR tape. The scene was Mexico in the mid fifties. The kids—teenager Diane and the younger Alvin, Allison, and Kathy—were cavorting for the camera in and around a gorgeous swimming pool. The camera occasionally switched to a pipe smoking Alvin, wearing a bathing suit, hunched over a typewriter set on a small table at the edge of the pool.

I knew that Alvin had been working for Time Magazine when he found the Nez Perce story, that he had been waiting in Los Angeles to go to Utah to do a story on that state when a telegram from Henry Luce, whose flight had been forced down in Boise, advised him to “forget Utah and do Idaho.” Alvin’s subsequent trip to Idaho included small plane hopping around that state, visits with dignitaries in Lewiston, and meeting the Nez Perce at Lapwai.

Later, in A Walk Toward Oregon, I would get the full story of his post WW II work for a Luce owned string of Southern California newspapers, their collapse and his time with friend Herb Chase, who bought seven of the 30 in the string, and, finally, and his move back East to take a job with Time.

He was to do a weekly “News in Pictures” feature and less frequent color specials with Time’s major departments—medicine, business, art, etc. He would be there throughout the 1950s, and, by Alvin’s own account, he was a promoter of American progress and development, lauding nuclear power, dam and levee building, intense forest cutting and management, and other things that contributed to a “World of Tomorrow” vision he had carried since seeing General Motors’ immense Futurama exhibit at the 1940 New York World’s Fair.

There were glitches at Time and with Luce. A big color special on the Crusades that Alvin and his photographers had spent months preparing was personally axed by Luce, who wanted no reminders of the Crusades, “Christendom’s greatest defeat.”At the time, Luce was campaigning editorially against the Mossadegh government in Iran, where the popularly elected Prime Minister was nationalizing the oil industry and generally taking an anti-Western stance. Luce, the son of Christian missionaries, wanted no reminders of Islam’s triumphs.

And he did not want a story on Southwest Indian art, or anything Indian. Luce was an assimilationist, who thought Indians should just get on with it and join the conquering main stream. Holdouts, in his mind, were “phonies,” and Time would not treat with them.

The great irony of course is that Time and Luce got Alvin to Idaho and the Nez Perce story, and although he worked on for another eight or nine years at Time, while gradually increasing his own interest in Indians and a different view of Western development, he would eventually break with the magazine and its views of Indians and America, take a job at American Heritage, and write books and magazine articles on Indians and a more sustainable view of man and the natural world.

At the home movies that night in Greenwich, we were still in Time mode, and the sight of Alvin typing away in his bathing suit had me in stitches. “Now there’s a workaholic!” I opined. Betty and Allison joined in, and Alvin ran from the room and retrieved the weathered folder, which held a 60 page report on the social and economic conditions in mid-fifties Mexico. The price of a month-long family vacation in Mexico was apparently this “background” report on conditions in the country, not for publication, but for Luce’s edification.

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