Fortune Magazine in the 1940s and 1950s

by andrew l. yarrow

andrew l. yarrow, a former New York Times reporter, is the author of a forthcoming book on the history and influence of Look magazine.

Published September 15, 2020


Long before the era of digital communications, tens of millions of Americans got much of their news, opinion and entertainment from lavishly printed magazines piled up at newsstands or delivered by mail. Today, Fortune magazine may largely be known for its annual Fortune 500 listing — America’s love affair with “biggest” lists never grows old. But in the mid-20th century, it was one of the most creative and thought-provoking publications in the United States. When Henry Luce, who had founded Time, Inc. in 1922, launched Fortune in 1930 at the cusp of the Depression, he wanted to hire and commission the best writers, publish meticulously reported, in-depth articles — and also to be America’s “undisputed most beautiful” magazine.

Luce usually got what he wanted — and this was no exception. In 1941, Fortune reproduced 26 of the 60 paintings in Jacob Lawrence’s brilliant “Great Migration” series about the mass movement of African-Americans from the South to northern cities. James Agee’s and photojournalist Walker Evans’s famous book about poor white sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), grew out of a 1936 assignment for Fortune. Poet Archibald MacLeish spent most of the 1930s at the magazine writing about subjects ranging from white-collar criminals to the woes of the working class.

The Art of the Deal

While other “business magazines” like Forbes mostly stuck to aspirational puff pieces about CEOs, Fortune’s ambitions were reflected in its writers, who included intellectual giants John Kenneth Galbraith, Daniel Bell, William H. Whyte Jr., Alfred Kazin, Hart Crane and Dwight Macdonald. In monthly issues that ran to 300 pages, it printed 6,000- to 8,000-word essays on the interplay between economics, social issues and politics. Its dazzling modernist covers featured paintings by (among others) Diego Rivera, Ben Shahn, Saul Steinberg, Reginald Marsh, Ludwig Bemelmans and Antonio Petruccelli.

Wait, there’s so much more. Fortune was also a pioneer in publishing public-opinion polls (by staffer Elmo Roper). In addition to Walker Evans, its photographers included Margaret Bourke-White and Ansel Adams. In its early days, the magazine even had a hand-sewn binding.

Although Luce was a liberal Republican, the quintessence of the Eastern Establishment and a cheerleader for postwar American business, he offered a platform to reformers who wrote eloquently about the darker sides of capitalism. As Galbraith said, Luce “believed that liberals, even socialists, if they could write, were better for reporting on business and economic affairs than conservatives, who were tedious or semiliterate or both.”

Economists Wanted

Luce, who had proclaimed the “American century” in 1941 and organized a secret “Q Department” to plan the postwar world and U.S. economies, also played a major role in bringing Keynesian economics into the mainstream. Policy proposals were published as 20,000-word supplements or stand-alone pamphlets.

Staff writer John Davenport wrote a long profile of “Baron Keynes of Tilton” in 1944, comparing the economist to Hamilton and Madison, and saying that his ideas would help prevent future depressions. Articles by Galbraith, Davenport and liberal business moguls like Ralph Flanders and William Benton not only promoted Keynesian fiscal management but also presented glowing predictions of postwar abundance.

Luce plainly never shared William Randolph Hearst’s cynicism about the intellectual and moral capacities of the American people. Fortune stoked interest in meaty subjects with special issues, long series and a cascade of books including USA: The Permanent Revolution (1951), The Changing American Market (1954), The Fabulous Future (1956), and Markets of the Sixties (1960).

And he never missed a chance to exclaim that the glass was at least half-full. In The Changing American Market, which cited a young Alan Greenspan as a consultant, the hyperbole was ramped up: “All history can show no more portentous economic phenomenon than today’s American market,” its first chapter began. “It is colossal.” At a time when many Depression-scarred Americans still worried about where their next meals were coming from, economics editor Sanford Parker and his colleagues “dispelled that fear,” according to Fortune writer Charles Silberman. “They demonstrated that sustained economic growth was possible — even probable — because of the changes overtaking the consumer market.”

Although Luce was a liberal Republican, the quintessence of the Eastern Establishment and a cheerleader for postwar American business, he offered a platform to reformers who wrote eloquently about the darker sides of capitalism.

The Fabulous Future, another spectacular exercise in economic optimism, was based on a year-long series of some 40 articles by the likes of Adlai Stevenson, AFL-CIO leader George Meany and RCA chief David Sarnoff. Stevenson wrote of “the most extraordinary growth any nation or civilization has ever experienced.” The predictions for the decade in Markets of the Sixties were extraordinarily bullish: America’s economy would boom for as far as the eye could see.

With a staff of about 60 to 70, Fortune even had its own in-house economics department that included Parker, Davenport, Silberman and Todd May. When May and Greenspan both applied for the same job around 1953, editor Hedley Donovan chose May, ending the future Federal Reserve chair’s hopes of becoming a journalist. The magazine’s Business Roundup section included lengthy articles detailing the prospects for the U.S. economy in analysis that hadn’t been offered before to a non-professional audience.

William “Holly” Whyte pioneered “business sociology,” exploring the effects of the changing economy on white-collar workers. He once described his and much other Fortune journalism as being less about what happened than about social change and what might or might not happen.

Nonetheless, Luce also wanted stories about America’s biggest corporations. In an effort to generate story ideas, editor Edgar Smith began compiling statistics on corporations in the early 1950s. When Smith suggested that readers might be interested in this data — compiled from annual reports, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s — Fortune published its first list of the nation’s 500 largest corporations in 1955. Finding this was a big hit with readers, the magazine assigned three researchers to spend part of each year compiling the Fortune 500.

Capitalism and Its Discontents

Despite the fact that Luce had redefined Fortune’s mission in 1948 as the active defense of the free enterprise system, it is noteworthy that several of the most incisive and influential postwar critiques of the U.S. economy were written by Fortune staff or veterans. Whyte, whose Fortune series became his best-selling book, The Organization Man (1956), argued that America’s supposed “rugged individualism” had given way to a collectivist ethos of obeisance to big corporations and other organizations. In The Affluent Society (1958), Galbraith described a country of “private affluence amid public squalor” and denounced the often dangerous acceptance of “conventional wisdom.” Bell, Fortune’s labor economist in the 1950s, wrote of the “exhaustion of political ideas” in The End of Ideology (1960). And he later introduced the concept of the “post-industrial society” and expanded on his analysis of the ascendance of technical elites.

Both Galbraith and Bell were social democrats who spent most of their post-Fortune careers as star professors at Harvard. Even managing editor Eric Hodgins poked fun at nascent postwar prosperity in a 1946 story on his troubles building a new house; he turned the article into the popular novel, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1946), which became a movie starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy in 1948.

None of this would have been possible, of course, if Luce hadn’t had a Midas touch. Fortune was highly profitable, selling 325,000 copies monthly by the late 1950s. Former staff members like Dan Seligman, who spent 47 years at the magazine, remembered it as “a wonderful place to work, with high morale, good intellectual standards and high pay.” Seligman, like Bell a former editor of the left-leaning New Leader, described his work at Fortune as being “like spending time on one academic project after another.”

It’s possible to get carried away on this subject, though. Fortune may have been a wonderful place to work, but only for white men, largely with Ivy League backgrounds. Women could rise no higher than researcher until the 1960s, although Carol Loomis — who coined the term “hedge fund” — later became an award-winning financial journalist (and confidant of Warren Buffett). Staff writer Charles Silberman wrote a fine book on civil rights in 1964 that can still be found online. But unlike a handful of mass-market magazines, including LookFortune had no black writers during the 1950s.

• • •

While staffers derided the shallowness of the Wall Street Journal, Business Week and Forbes, all three publications improved in the 1960s even as Fortune began to lose its creative edge. Circulation grew, but its writing and covers became more prosaic. And eventually, it suffered the blows that have laid glossy magazines low: competition from 24/7 news sources, the Balkanization of advertising, skyrocketing postal rates. But my, it was quite a ride.

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