Reading Henry Luce’s Mail

Henry Luce Stamp






1966, Manhattan. Michael Joyce and I were sharing a railroad flat in Spanish Harlem. Michael was going daytime to that Catholic college in Brooklyn and working full time as night manager of the City Squire Hotel midtown. I was going full time to night school at CCNY and working days as a mail boy at Time-Life, Inc., in Rockefeller Center, pay around a hundred bucks a week, which was plenty. Each floor in the Time-Life Building had a mail room and a mail boy. We wore gray uniform jackets (never laundered) that identified us as that floor’s servant.

Somehow I got the executive floor, where the ceilings were higher than on any other floor and the secretaries all wore miniskirts with no stockings. It was a quiet floor, busy but quiet, reserved sort of. The best looking secretaries worked there, young with long legs. Executive assistants they called themselves. They enjoyed having someone below them to order around. I didn’t mind. My private domain—the mail room—was bigger than any of their cubicles.

I had all the big wigs, including Hedley Donovan, the editor and chief of everything, along with the head of foreign correspondents, so that all their confidential wires came through me. I also had Mr. Luce himself, the Old Man. Not yet dead, he still came into his imperial, walnut-paneled office once a week or so, on his way to or from some formal function. His secretary—the only older woman on the floor—was always there, keeper and guard of the founder’s sanctum sanctorum.

Mr. Luce got a fair amount of corporate mail, all of which came to me. Much of it, most of it, had nothing to do with Mr. Luce himself, but was about one of his publications—Time or Life or Fortune or Sports Illustrated. Part of my job was to open all of his mail, read it, and redirect it. I thought of myself as his shield, deflecting the arrows of his enemies. And his enemies were legion and often ungrammatical. Some of the nastiest letters were about his wife Claire Booth Luce. Those I just tossed in the trash. Serious threats I forwarded to the legal department. The man was well hated.

Out of every hundred letters maybe five made it through to his secretary—kiss-ass notes or thoughtful observations, an invitation or two, if I thought the sender was worthy. I never met Mr. Luce, never saw him come or go. I think he had his own elevator. He died that winter.

Hedley Donovan demanded twenty fresh, sharpened pencils in the two cups on his desk every morning—ten black No. 2s and ten reds—all the same height. He would use them all in the course of a day, and I would retrieve, resharpen, and recycle them all to the lesser editors. But on some late afternoons when everything had quieted down, I would sit at my mail room work station and feed Mr. Donovan’s used pencils one by one down to the unused erasers into the electric sharpener. Just for the hell of it, thinking of miniskirts.

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