My grandfather's true story
What it’s really like to be an entrepreneur
My grandfather, Thomas J. C. Martyn founded Newsweek magazine in the 1930s. It was a herculean entrepreneurial effort. Tragically, he was cheated out of his creation, as his memoir explains. (Thus I am no “trust fund baby” and have built up my own businesses just like he did.)
After sitting in my dad’s closet for decades, his memoir of this feat is now published for readers to enjoy: Inside the Founding of Newsweek: How a Hot-tempered, One-legged R.A.F. Pilot Launched an American Media Giant.
Here’s the book description:
A former wartime pilot and Time magazineâ€™s first foreign editor, Thomas J. C. Martyn had a vision: to establish a weekly news magazine that would rival Time, which in the 1930s was the only magazine of its kind in the United States. Martyn succeeded so resoundingly that Newsweek has prospered for over 80 years, first as a stalwart of print media and now in the digital era, as well.Newsweek was Martyn’s brainchild, brought to life through his own perseverance and ingenuity.
So it came as a bitter blow when a series of rivalries and disputes led to his ousting from the Newsweek board just four years after its first edition.In the 1960s Martyn wrote this memoir, which his granddaughter Anne Martyn Alexander has recently brought to light.
He draws a vivid picture of his efforts to get Newsweek off the ground; his meetings with powerful men such as President Roosevelt and Henry Ford; and his own idiosyncrasies that may have played a part in the rift with the Newsweek board.
Like so many visionaries, Martyn was a charismatic yet difficult man to work with, and his often-feisty character comes through clearly in his memoir. This classic entrepreneur’s story reveals the struggles and triumphs of getting a national magazine off the ground during the depths of the Great Depression. One man’s pursuit of his dream meets the tumultuous era of the 1930s in a book which will entertain and engage Newsweek fans, entrepreneurs, and history buffs alike.
Enjoy reading the foreword below.
“Despite the fact that Martyn’s passion for news and writing eventually causes him to lose to a power-hungry board of fast-moving stakeholders, the warmth, passion, and refusal to give up on one’s dreams make this work a memorable and well-written read.”
When I was 16, I visited my grandfather, Thomas J. C. Martyn, at his home in southern Brazil for six weeks. On my return, I carried the manuscript of this memoir, which he wanted my father and me to get published. That was the first time I really became aware that my grandfather was the founder of Newsweek.
A huge formal oil portrait of him hung on the dining room wall in the house where I grew up; the actual man was rarely seen. In the painting, he was dressed in his military uniform, and he stared down on us with a steady gaze, an odd reminder of the man missing in my father’s life. Despite his constant presence above our dinner table, he was rarely spoken about and his remarkable accomplishment of founding Newsweek was never discussed.
My grandfather — ”known affectionately as Gpa (jee-pa), for that is how he signed his letters — was an Oxford-educated British citizen who became a pilot with the British Royal Flying Corps (later called the Royal Air Force) at age 18, as World War I began. He contributed several innovations to the military effort and lost a leg in a plane crash. As kids, my siblings and I thought his wooden leg to be quite exotic: on the few times we got a glimpse of it, we stared with fascination.
In 1923 he was invited to join the editorial board of Time magazine as its first foreign editor, and helped Henry Luce and Briton Hadden launch the publication. With his second wife Helen (my grandmother), he was drawn into the glittering party scene of the time, joining the orbit of business magnates, judges, blues singers, and other artists of the day including F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, and Thornton Wilder.
After leaving Time magazine, my grandfather worked for the New York Times. According to his memoir, this is when the idea of someday starting his own weekly news magazine began to form. As history proves, he correctly assessed that there was room for more than one such publication in the marketplace.
In 1932, he assembled a group of wealthy businessmen, including Paul Mellon and Nelson Rockefeller, and, as chairman of the board and the first business manager, launched Newsweek. The first issue was published February 17, 1933, a scant few months before President Roosevelt declared a three-day “bank holiday”, one of the lowest points of the Great Depression. One American worker in four was unemployed, businesses were failing at the rate of 230 a day, and newspapers were called “Hoover blankets” valued as much for their warmth as for their information. Tougher times in which to start an enterprise like Newsweek could not be imagined.
Despite the shaky financial times, my grandfather travelled around the country, seeking advertisers and testing the waters to see how his new magazine was being received. He met with businessmen and politicians, including Henry Ford, who offered to take him on a personal tour of the River Rouge plant; the president of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company; Harvey Firestone of Firestone Tire & Rubber Company; the president of the Packard Motor Company; and President Franklin D. Roosevelt — my grandfather declared himself “impressed, despite myself, with his impelling personality and captivated by his seductive charm of manner.”
In Inside the Founding of Newsweek, my grandfather lays out how he undertook the herculean task of launching a news magazine to challenge Time. In his often searing assessments of the people involved in this huge undertaking, he does not spare himself. He refers to his “excesses of temperament” and the fact that he was “at times too outspoken, caustic, and bad-tempered,” and confesses: “One of my many handicaps is having Celtic blood in my veins. When Celts are up they are very, very up, and when they are down, God help them.”
All the same, my grandfather seemed to have the respect of most of his team, being described by the head of the newspaper guild as “tough but just.” He writes “I thought that … the finest tribute ever paid me.” He pursued his vision with the fierceness and near round-the-clock hard work most every entrepreneur knows. He was optimistic, decisive, and totally dedicated. He tried to hire the best people he could, and stayed focused on data and analysis, not just gut feeling.
Despite all that he brought to the venture, my grandfather had a series of fallings-out with the board of directors. Eventually, a merger with Vincent Astor’s Today magazine was negotiated and he was removed from the board, paid off with “severance pay” of $10,000, and forced to sign a general release that deprived him of any future financial stake in the magazine he had created.
I have worked in business most of my career. I, too, have worked the insane hours, put everything at stake, hired, fired, sweated, hit walls, failed, re-emerged, and survived. Re-reading my grandfather’s memoir from the vantage point of middle age and 12 years as a business coach and consultant, the years and distance between us dissolved. I found many threads linking his entrepreneurial story and mine, such as his story about Starling Childs’ business planning tip, which he applied too late to his Newsweek endeavor. Childs, one of Newsweek‘s original investors, had made his fortune building utility plants. He told my grandfather that once he figured out what he thought a project or launch was going to cost and the amount of time it would take, he doubled the monetary figure and quadrupled the amount of time to get a more realistic projection. Childs’ calculations accurately reflected what it would take Newsweek to become successful. Before I became familiar with my grandfather’s story, I myself told my clients to double the amount of money and time they thought they needed to launch their business and with rare exception, it has proven to be true.
Other key entrepreneurial lessons in this memoir include the need for decisiveness even when information is insufficient (which it always is), the danger of giving jobs to investors, and the importance of written agreements.
Not long after his shocking dismissal from the Newsweek board, my grandfather went to South America on a new business venture, leaving behind his wife and two young children (my father and my aunt). He wanted them to join him, but according to my great aunt, “Argentina looked too uncertain to Helen [my grandmother] with two children.” Then World War II broke out and, with German submarines off coastal waters, it was not considered safe to travel. My grandmother went to live with her father, Howell Cheney, part of the Cheney silk magnates of Manchester, Connecticut. When her father remarried she moved into an apartment and got a job. So from the age of six my father was raised by an essentially single mother. A dutiful son, he kept in touch with his father through letters, seeing him occasionally when he returned to the State for visits, but I do not believe that he ever forgave him. His sister, my Aunt Laura, never did.
So great was the betrayal of being driven from the company my grandfather founded, the dream his entire career heretofore had been building up to, it seems to me that he literally left the continent. His attorney believed that the general release my grandfather was asked to sign “would be worth the paper it was written on,” which is to say it could not possibly be binding. Yet the attorney also held that there was no effective way for my grandfather to secure himself stock or a percentage of the corporation, because Vincent Astor and his partner Averell Harriman would “find means and ways of eliminating my interest or reducing it to a negligible amount.” My grandfather writes that he was the largest stockholder in Newsweek and that the general release was basically extorted from him. Yet in all of these dealings, he felt compelled by a higher duty than self-interest: “As the father of Newsweek, my first duty was to my magazine. I had to keep it alive at whatever cost to me.” And so he was forced to sign away any interest in what went on to become one of the greatest news publications in United States history.
Ultimately, what he desired more than a financial stake in the magazine was recognition in the form of his name on the masthead. In this account, he writes that “my bitterness and disappointment receded into the past and were eventually forgotten.” That may well have been true, but on his gravestone in the municipal cemetery of the small, rural town in southern Brazil where he lived in his final years, he chose to have the words “Founder of Newsweek” inscribed. That’s how proud he was of his accomplishment and that’s how significant it was in his life.
Practically strangers except for letters, my grandfather and I only spent time together in person three times. He came to visit my family in 1961 and we went on a family beach vacation, but being only two years old at the time, I don’t remember that trip. He also visited in 1968. The last time I saw him in person was in 1975, when my younger sister and I went to stay with him in southern Brazil for six weeks.
On my return home, I carried in my suitcase the manuscript that forms the basis for this book. Subsequent letters from my grandfather made it clear that he wanted my father and me to try to get it published. In 1977, he wrote to me saying that he intended to draft another important document on Newsweek, and that he would send it to me when he finished. He died two years later, his important document unsent.
Always the good son, my father kept his emotions to himself and never prevented me from writing to my grandfather. But my father had essentially been abandoned by him at the age of six, so he rarely spoke about my grandfather and, according to my mother, was very bitter about him. So my father was unlikely to do anything to advance my grandfather’s interests by getting his memoir published. As for me, at the time I was sixteen, preparing to go to Switzerland for a year on a student exchange program and then to college, and I did not give the manuscript much thought. It ended up on a shelf in my father’s closet. For 34 years it sat there, along with my father’s unresolved anger. My siblings and I rediscovered the manuscript after my father’s death; with the benefit of my life experience, I could see its inherent significance, which had escaped me before.
At that time my grandfather’s oil portrait was moved to my brother’s house. Now as an adult I studied it afresh and realized that my nose was strikingly similar to his and very unlike the noses of my father, mother, and siblings.
It struck me that I also inherited his entrepreneurial “gene,” which no one else in my family has, or, to be honest, wishes they had, as well as his fiery temperament. As an eight-year-old, I bought candy from the local grocery store and sold it at a profit to my mother and sister. I ran a foot massage business, rubbing my father’s feet for one cent a minute (or two cents a minute for “super first class” which included corn huskers lotion). I founded Anne’s Advertising Agency, which provided signage for my customers’ needs, primarily my father, who ordered signs about closing the chimney flue and other household directives.
I was also a blooming writer. My father gave me a used manual Royal typewriter from the insurance company where he worked, and as a pre-teen I produced four novels and assorted poetry, as well as The Weekly Newspage, which consisted of neighborhood, local and regional news, book reviews, quotes, jokes, recipes, sports, and biographies of historical figures such as Gandhi, Robert Frost, Roald Amundsen, and Benjamin Franklin. Going through old letters from my grandfather many years later, I realized that he was an official subscriber of The Weekly Newspage (one dollar for 20 issues), and I discovered an astounding and poignant letter regarding my journalistic effort, which clearly drew on his own experience in publishing.
May 13, 1970
Another The Weekly Newspage has come and has been, so to speak, devoured. It is getting better, and steady improvement is a big leaf in your crown of laurels. I know of nothing quite like it, and have never known anything like it. It is original, informative, and entertaining. Keep it that way.
Starting a publication, any well-intentioned publication, is an act of friendship. You make friends with a lot of people, many of whom you will never know. And they will not only make friends (sometimes critical friends) with you, but they will begin to rely on you as well as support you. The fundamental difference between you and them is that all of your public will get to know you.
So, whether you like it or not, your reputation becomes involved, if not at stake.
You are with every new issue contributing to a chapter in the annals of American Journalism. You are entitled to be proud of yourself. Have you ever thought of it that way?
As a child, I had no idea that in my own small way I was following in his footsteps and what that might have meant to him. In my grandfather’s letters to me over the years, he showed himself to be a delightful correspondent and a loving and supportive grandfather, despite being thousands of miles away. As his granddaughter, I didn’t have the history with him that my father did, and I was able to see my grandfather in a more balanced way. I wish we had been able to have a relationship from which I might have learned more about his amazing accomplishments, not only with Newsweek, but with his experience as Time magazine’s first foreign editor, and before that, his wartime experience as a pilot. Of course, I also wish my grandfather had had a stronger attorney at the time of his ouster from Newsweek, because perhaps he could have reached a much better outcome.
Nonetheless, until my grandfather’s memoir resurfaced when my father passed away, I rarely even thought to tell friends that my grandfather founded Newsweek. It was as if what he achieved and lost was a kind of open family secret. Since I carry in my genes both his entrepreneurial and his journalistic traits, I felt compelled to share the story he drafted. I hope that his side of the story, in all its fascinating detail, will help redeem his accomplishment and fill out the story of a great magazine’s history.
In addition to taking whatever lessons you may draw from these pages, I hope you enjoy the ride.
Anne Martyn Alexander