Time has not been kind to Time magazine. You would not know it from reading Time’s press release trumpeting its recent centenary, but Time, once America’s foremost weekly newsmagazine, is a mere shadow of its former self. In fact, it is no longer even published weekly. Nor does it feature the unique Time-style text of inverted, Yoda-like sentences, punctuated by portmanteaus and neologisms. About the only traditional Time elements that survive are the red border and a focus on personality-driven news. The latter, in the form of its “Person of the Year” feature, supplies an annual reminder to the general public that Time still exists.
Time in its prime was different. During World War II, Time was much more than a retrospective on the past week’s news. Its One Rockefeller Plaza offices served as the first battlefield of what would later be called the Cold War. The Time Inc. employee at the center of the drama was rehabilitated ex-Soviet agent Whittaker Chambers.
Before he was a reluctant witness against Alger Hiss, Chambers was an eager witness against his former Soviet masters in the pages of Time. Hired in April 1939 as a book and movie reviewer for $100/week, Chambers would eventually write or edit every section of the magazine except Business. His first cover story was a review of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (1939) that somehow succeeded in making the book seem semi-intelligible to casual readers. But it was his review of John Ford’s screen adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) that caught the attention of Time cofounder, publisher, and editor-in-chief Henry Luce. Before long, Chambers was named one of Time’s seven senior editors and given the task of editing the 13 sections of the magazine known as the “Back-of-the-Book.”
It was an arduous assignment that forced Chambers to go days without sleep while subsisting on coffee and cigarettes. Chambers endured it because he realized that writing and editing book reviews gave him control over the closest thing Time had to an editorial page, a platform he used to challenge the slavishly pro-Soviet prevailing wisdom then in existence throughout the news media. This provoked endless battles that pitted Chambers against most of Time’s other writers and editors. “Every week that mortar goes off in the last five pages of Time,” mused a contemporary observer. Luckily for Chambers, he had Luce in his corner.
Chambers had less luck when it came to his health. Severe chest pains prompted an eight-month convalescence after which Chambers found himself editing Foreign News, a position for which he had long aspired. What was supposed to be a temporary assignment turned into a year-long stint as the most controversial editor in Time’s history.
From atop Foreign News, Chambers reversed the magazine’s coverage of the Soviet Union, articulating every week Stalin’s postwar designs for Eastern Europe. With the same weekly insistence, he identified the consequences of losing China to communism, consequences that remain today. Intelligence guided by experience led Chambers to rewrite the Walter Durantyesque dispatches submitted by many of Time’s foreign correspondents. Howls of protest followed, howls that could still be heard 40 years later when former Time writer/editor Dorothy Sterling wrote to the New York Times protesting President Reagan’s decision to posthumously award Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Disgruntled Time foreign correspondent Charles Wertenbaker channeled his frustration with Chambers into a more creative endeavor, the unintentionally hilarious novel The Death of Kings (1954).
Chambers’ poor health accomplished what his critics could not. After collapsing on a train during a morning commute, Chambers was taken off Foreign News and put in charge of writing and editing special features for Time and Life magazines.
Earning a princely $30,000/year, Chambers churned out essays on the History of Western Civilization for Life and poignant cover stories for Time. At a time when Time articles were published without bylines and written in a homogenized style, enthusiastic reader demand led Time to publicly acknowledge Chambers’ authorship of a cover story on singer Marian Anderson and the negro spiritual, the first such outing in the magazine’s history. Soon after, Time reprinted “The Ghosts on the Roof,” Chambers’ clever satire of the Soviet triumph over its fellow “allies” at the Yalta Conference, to demonstrate history’s vindication of Time’s Soviet coverage during the war.
“Faith for a Lenten Age” was the cover story of Time’s 25th anniversary edition in 1948. Its subject was theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Its author was Chambers.
Journalism comparable to Chambers’ cannot be found in Time’s 100th anniversary edition. And it probably never will be again.
Paul F. Petrick is an attorney and Time’s 2006 Person of the Year.
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