Luce Launches Magazine Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The emergence of Life marked not only the birth of another American magazine but also the creation of a new genre within the publishing industry, one that precipitated the enormous impact of photography combined with journalism.

Summary of Event

Henry R. Luce married Clare Boothe Brokaw on November 23, 1935; it was a second marriage for both. The couple returned from a ten-week honeymoon in Cuba in February, 1936, and the announcement of their intent to start a pictorial magazine soon followed. Henry Luce’s biographer, John Kobler, writing in 1968, identified Clare Luce as the source of the idea for the magazine, and scholars often point to a pattern for such a magazine she had sketched out for Condé Nast, the publisher of Vanity Fair, of which she had been editor. [kw]Luce Launches Life Magazine (Nov. 23, 1936) [kw]Life Magazine, Luce Launches (Nov. 23, 1936) [kw]Magazine, Luce Launches Life (Nov. 23, 1936) Magazines;Life Life (magazine) Time Inc.;Life [g]United States;Nov. 23, 1936: Luce Launches Life Magazine[09290] [c]Publishing and journalism;Nov. 23, 1936: Luce Launches Life Magazine[09290] [c]Photography;Nov. 23, 1936: Luce Launches Life Magazine[09290] Luce, Henry R. Luce, Clare Boothe Billings, John Shaw Longwell, Daniel Bourke-White, Margaret Eisenstaedt, Alfred

Clare Boothe Luce, who was thirty-three at the time of her marriage to Luce, had begun her career six years earlier at Vogue magazine and went on to write three relatively successful Broadway plays before involvement with World War II took her back into journalism and politics. Henry Luce had been cofounder with Briton Hadden of Time Incorporated and its lead periodical, the successful newsweekly Time, from its inception in 1923. In addition, in February of 1930, Luce had created a significant monthly magazine for American business called Fortune. In March of 1931 he inaugurated the radio news program The March of Time, and in April, 1932, he acquired and then remodeled into a professional exemplar the periodical Architectural Forum.

The title of the new pictorial magazine originally was to be Dime—its initial newsstand cost. Over the eight months of frantic preparation, a whole series of alternative working titles were tried, including Parade, Scene, Seen, and Pictures, while the subtitle remained most descriptive: The Show-Book of the World. By midsummer, a mock-up issue of the magazine had been produced. The decision was made to print the magazine on paper measuring ten and one-half inches by fourteen inches, making it somewhat larger than most other magazines of the day; when an issue appeared on the newsstands, its dimensions allowed it to stand out from the other displayed titles competing for the purchaser’s attention. By September, a trial mock-up had been created under the name Rehearsal. Throughout the preparatory period, the company had to deal with a large number of unknowns, including the location of presses capable of handling the projected print run, the availability of equipment permitting high-quality photographic reproduction on a large scale, and the feasibility of obtaining supplies of coated paper on which high-quality images could be sustained.

In describing his intended pictorial magazine, Luce had written, “To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; . . . to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed; thus to see, and to be shown, is now the will and new expectancy of half mankind.” The obvious title for the unnamed magazine thus emerged; if “to see life” was the objective, then the medium of the seeing would be called Life. Clare Boothe Luce had used this very designation in her original sketch for Condé Nast.

Another Life, a humor magazine, had existed since 1883, but it was fading rapidly under the impact of the national economic plight of the Great Depression and its own inability to keep pace with the times and with the competition of such rivals as The New Yorker. Luce and company purchased the title for $92,000 in August, and work on the first issue of the new Life followed immediately. Bearing the date Monday, November 23, 1936, the new weekly Life appeared on the newsstands on the preceding Thursday, November 19. A circulation of 250,000 had been guaranteed to potential advertisers, and the initial printing was of 466,000 copies. These sold out within hours of hitting the stands.

Every page of the inaugural issue had some kind of illustration of greater spatial proportion than text, with the exception of page 3, which featured an essay titled “Introduction to This First Issue of Life.” On the facing page 2 was a full-page photograph captioned “Life begins”—an infant just after birth in the hands of an attending physician. The first issue’s front cover depicted Fort Peck Dam, a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project being built in Montana. The cover photograph was taken by Margaret Bourke-White, Photographers;Margaret Bourke-White[Bourke White] whose work also illustrated the lead article on pages 9 through 17. Color was used in the photographs on eleven of the interior pages, although except for a four-page article illustrating the paintings of John Steuart Curry of Kansas, all the color was used in advertisements. Photography;Life (magazine)

Advertising occupied thirty-three full pages, including three of the covers, plus nine half-page ads and three quarter-page ads. Advertisements were sold at the rate of $1,500 for a full black-and-white page and $2,250 for color. The magazine itself sold for 10 cents. Total revenues for the first issue exceeded $110,000, but this was insufficient to cover printing costs. Loss of money was a regular venture through many years of Life’s publication.

Issues were affectionately known by the staff as the “Big Red.” Each had a red band at the bottom across the front cover (a feature eliminated with the issue of June 2, 1961). A bold red rectangle with the word “LIFE” in white lettering was set dramatically in the upper-left-hand corner. Only once was this recognition symbol absent: in the issue published April 16, 1937, when it would have interfered with the photo of a rooster’s comb. Once, too, the recognition symbol appeared in black—on the issue printed on November 29, 1963, after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Life was not intended as a war magazine, as its covers made evident. There was much more to see: Life paid special attention to women, who adorned at least one of every three covers, and the magazine’s pages included many illustrating fashion and the perennial interest in swimsuits. From its second issue, and for the sixteen years that followed, Life had a regular feature called “Movie of the Week,” and the magazine made stars’ careers by featuring photographs of them. The magazine’s greatest love affair was with Elizabeth Taylor, who appeared on its covers a record twelve times.

Yet Life’s first decade was dominated by the interactive forces of depression and war. As a result, it became widely known as a war magazine, and this development did not hinder its initial growth. By 1947, circulation had risen to 5,369,000 copies per week, the largest circulation of any magazine. Wartime issues (beginning October 11, 1943) went overseas without advertising. Time could be illustrated, but its success was dependent on its ability to create and use the language of mid-twentieth century America. Life, on the other hand, was intended to provide images of the midcentury world as seen through the eyes of the United States. Regular features of Life thus came to spawn other magazines, including its own international editions (from July 22, 1946) and the Spanish-language Life en Español (from January 5, 1953), as well as Sports Illustrated (from August 16, 1954) and People (from March 4, 1974). In addition, both as composites from issues and as creations from without, Life generated whole series of books—magazine journalism in hard covers.

Life could do essays with photographs, but its best pieces were the arresting illustrations with word captions. On the occasion of the celebration of photography’s sesquicentennial, Lance Morrow noted that photojournalism is not only “the first impression of history” but also, disturbingly, “history’s lasting visual impression.” In an article titled “What Is Photojournalism?” Wilson Hicks observed that “Life had been projected headlong into its own evolutionary state.” The magazine was the laboratory in which the intended art form was accomplished.

Early issues of Life show abuses of photographs that were cut to eliminate the unwanted or to fit some aesthetic notion of space. An awareness of the camera gradually emerged, so that what was actually taken—though the images were certainly affected by the photographer’s eye and bias—was precisely what appeared in the magazine. Life’s photographers provided an average of thirty-five thousand pictures for every ten thousand that were used, but the editorial selection of the approximately two hundred images used per issue—itself an aesthetic act—ensured that the selected images remained inviolate.


Henry Luce thought of Life as a new kind of magazine. The picture magazine had already appeared in varying degrees: The Illustrated London News originated in May, 1842, just after the invention of photography, but it was chiefly illustrated by drawings and engravings into the 1920’s. Harper’s Weekly had incorporated Civil War photographs by Mathew Brady, and Boston of the 1880’s had Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion. From the beginning of the new century, photography was exploited by major illustrated weeklies in Paris, Leipzig, and Berlin. Luce, however, was aiming for something more—a genre not yet created.

Luce had identified films and radio as the magazine’s most obvious competitors, but by the time Life emerged, television had already been invented. Rather than giving the public what it wanted, Luce elected to offer “what they must have lest they perish.” By perfecting the magazine’s craftsmanship, Luce thought his brainchild could compete with its electronic rivals. As late as 1965, George P. Hunt, then Life’s managing editor, could still observe: “Permanence is what photographs and paintings are. The TV set represents the fleeting moment. You can see the great photos in Life forever.”

Nevertheless, television was in part destructive of both Life and its photojournalistic competitors. Collier’s and Woman’s Home Companion both folded in December, 1956; the Saturday Evening Post was bought out by Time Inc. and eliminated in February, 1969; Look survived until October, 1971. From November 23, 1936, to December 29, 1972, 1,864 regular weekly issues of Life appeared. In addition were special editions, including “Israel’s Swift Victory” (1967), “The Kennedys” (1968), and “To the Moon and Back” and “Woodstock” (1970). From 1973 to 1977, Life produced only two issues per year, one “special” and a year-end “The Year in Pictures.” Life resumed publication as a monthly between 1978 and 2000 and also put out occasional special issues, remaining as a survivor of the golden age of photojournalism. It resumed a weekly format and as of 2005 was published every Friday and distributed in more than seventy American newspapers each week for a total circulation of twelve million. Magazines;Life Life (magazine) Time Inc.;Life

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doss, Erika Lee, ed. Looking at “Life” Magazine. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001. Collection of more than a dozen essays chronicles the magazine’s impact on American history. Especially interesting is the discussion of Life’s role in shaping American sentiment toward the Vietnam War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elson, Robert T. Time Inc.: The Intimate History of a Publishing Enterprise, 1923-1941. Edited by Duncan Norton-Taylor. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The World of Time Inc.: The Intimate History of a Publishing Enterprise, 1941-1960. Edited by Duncan Norton-Taylor. New York: Atheneum, 1973. These two volumes and their sequel, Curtis Prendergast’s The World of Time Inc.: The Intimate History of a Changing Enterprise, 1960-1980 (1986), constitute an official account. The authors had full access to the private papers of those involved in the Time Inc. publishing enterprise. The birth of Life is chronicled in the first volume, and its success is discussed in the second. The third volume deals with the magazine’s late-1970’s revival.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldberg, Vicki. Margaret Bourke-White: A Biography. New York: Harper, 1986. Informative biography of a principal Life photographic contributor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henle, Faye. Au Clare de Luce: Portrait of a Luminous Lady. New York: S. Daye, 1943. Early biography has the advantage of emphasizing Clare Boothe Luce’s own prior editorial success before Life was launched.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hicks, Wilson. Words and Pictures: An Introduction to Photojournalism. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1952. Written by an editor of Life, this book discusses the history and nature of pictorial journalism. Extensively illustrated with examples from Life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kobler, John. Luce: His Time, Life, and Fortune. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. Written immediately after the death of Luce. Contains valuable information about the creation of the magazines, including the role of Clare Boothe Luce’s memo on the format and character of Life. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Swanberg, W. A. Luce and His Empire. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972. A political assessment of Luce and the perspective appearing within his publications. Independent of the official history of the company, and thereby lacks sources of information pertinent especially to Life. Includes photographs and a thorough index of names.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Time Life Books. The Best of “Life.” Alexandria, Va.: Author, 1973. A selection of the magazine’s highlights, compiled after the demise of the weekly version. Captions alongside each selection and picture credits at the end.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______.“Life”: The First Fifty Years, 1936-1986. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986. An official commemorative, with illustrations of every cover, samples from every year, and brief interpretive essays on each decade. The finest all-around introduction to the magazine and its impact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______.“Life” Goes to the Movies. Alexandria, Va.: Author, 1975. Focuses on a social arena that Life regularly appreciated and exploited. Stars, studios, and behind-the-scenes aspects of Hollywood are illustrated and put into perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______.“Life”: One Hundred Events That Shook Our World. New York: Author, 2005. Presents some remarkable photographs from the magazine’s long history.

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Categories: History