Magazine August 11, 2014, Issue

Clare in Bloom

Clare Boothe Luce in 1944 (AP Photo)
Price of Fame: The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce, by Sylvia Jukes Morris (Random House, 752 pp., $30)

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. In 1997, I reviewed the first volume of Sylvia Jukes Morris’s gargantuan biography of Clare Boothe Luce, Rage for Fame. Now I’m reviewing the second chunk.

The present volume begins with a backstory to bring new readers up to speed. Ann Clare Boothe was born in 1903, the illegitimate daughter of William Franklin Boothe, a failed violinist from the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Anna Clara Schneider, an ambitious daughter of German immigrants. They had another illegitimate child, David, born in 1902, but they never married each other.

When Clare was ten, her rapacious mother abruptly left her insignificant other, anglicized her name to Ann Snyder Boothe, took a millionaire lover, married a doctor, Albert Elmer Austin, and brought the millionaire into the family home for what sounds like a ménage à trois. She used the millionaire’s money to send Clare to Episcopal finishing schools and on cultural sojourns in Europe, advising her growing daughter, “Always marry for money.” At 20, Clare took this advice, married alcoholic millionaire George Tuttle Brokaw, gave birth to a daughter, and collected substantial alimony when she divorced Brokaw six years later.

Bored by motherhood, Clare convinced Condé Nast to hire her to write captions for Vogue and, soon thereafter, she became managing editor of his Vanity Fair. She had an affair with financier Bernard Baruch; wrote the Broadway hit The Women, the play without any men in it; married Time-magazine magnate Henry Luce; became a foreign correspondent in late-Thirties Europe; and in 1942 was elected to Congress from Fairfield, Conn., the same solid Republican seat previously held by her stepfather, Dr. Austin, proving that the family that stays together can do all sorts of things.

If the ascendancy of Clare Boothe Luce sounds like a high-rent version of  Moll Flanders, there’s a reason for it: That’s exactly what it was.

The present book begins with her arrival in the nation’s capital to take up her legislative duties. By then The Women had been made into a hit movie and the glamour attaching to her was palpable. Tourists would stop people on the street and ask directions to “the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and Clare Boothe Luce.” Reactions to her from the Roosevelt administration and its supporters were less gulpy: FDR called her “a sharp-tongued glamour girl of forty.” Interior Secretary Harold Ickes called her “good-looking but brittle.” Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter found her “decorative”: “All the style that money can buy and a slim figure can carry off, but no real charm, no beauty except big and attractive eyes (doll’s eyes that open and close), no give and take of spirit or mind. . . . [She] has unmitigated self-assurance. . . . I wholly distrust her motives.”

Nor did she fare well in the literary world, then as now left-wing. Leading critic Clifton Fadiman said that she was a “photographer’s delight” but that “no woman of the time had gone further with less mental equipment.” Her charge that FDR “lied us into war,” said a seething Quentin Reynolds, “was not the first time a person named Booth treacherously assaulted a president.” Most memorable was Dorothy Parker’s review of Europe in the Spring, Clare’s boastful, self-serving account of her Time-sponsored reportage as a foreign observer. A better title, said Parker, would be “All Clare on the Western Front.”

Early television-news star Eric Sevareid correctly analyzed the reaction to Clare that still applies today. “Most men do not like women in public life. They particularly dislike aggressive women, and when they must deal with a woman whose very appearance requires that she be treated as fragile femininity, but whose combative nature alternately requires that she be treated as a man — then they are truly unhappy.”

By this yardstick, Henry Luce was a truly unhappy man. He had left his wife and two sons to marry Clare, only to become impotent some two years into the marriage. As he explained it, he had put Clare on a pedestal, but, being the son of Presbyterian missionaries, could not bring himself to lust after women on pedestals. Desperate to prove that he could still dominate a woman sexually, he had an affair with Lady Jeanne Campbell, daughter of the Duke of Argyll and granddaughter of British press mogul Lord Beaverbrook. Not exactly a kitchen maid, but apparently less threatening than Clare.

Clare took care of things at her end, so to speak. As a journalist and later as a member of Congress on official jaunts to the European theater, she had affairs with Randolph Churchill, Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, and General Lucian K. Truscott Jr. It was a two-front war, so she also had an affair with MacArthur’s security chief for the Japanese theater, General Charles Willoughby.

To the post-war general public, Clare’s most spectacular act was her conversion to Catholicism after her daughter, Ann Brokaw, 20, was killed in a car wreck in January 1944. Henry Luce did not believe her protestations of grief, saying, “It must be guilt. She treated Ann abysmally.” At first she seemed to recover quickly, campaigning successfully for reelection, attending the 1944 GOP convention, and even playing the title role in Shaw’s Candida in a summer-stock production that opened amid distracting news flashes on August 6, 1945, making it seem as if Clare was trying to upstage the atomic bomb. But whether from grief or guilt, she plunged into a severe depression full of nightmares, barbiturates, and, it was rumored, secret drinking. Aware of her suffering, a worried Catholic priest who knew her from their war-orphans work phoned Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen and asked him to help her.

Sheen had begun his public life with a radio show called “The Catholic Hour” that drew 4 million listeners. Clare had never tuned in to his show but she knew who Sheen was: He had narrated a March of Time Luce newsreel on the story of the Vatican. A member of the faculty of the Catholic University of America, he now lived in Washington. Hearing of Clare’s distress, he called her and invited her to dinner at his book-strewn home on campus.

#page#Her instruction lasted an unusually long five months because she wanted to show him how well she could argue theological points. Impressed by his 8,000-book library and superb education at the Catholic University of Leuven, she threw herself into a study of moral philosophy and challenged him at every turn. Her competitiveness aroused, she took pains to perfect her sorites, the use of extended argument based on polysyllogisms. It paid off in the coin of her realm when Sheen later said: “Clare used sorites better than any other person I have ever met.”

But there was more competitiveness where that came from. Reasoning that if Sheen could convert people, she could, too, she decided to become the best convert-making convert since Clovis: He merely converted the Merovingian Franks, but she would convert the Presbyterian Luces. She kept at Henry until he agreed to go to Mass with her, and she wrote a nine-page letter to Pope Pius XII asking him to intercede for her and help get her husband to the font. “For he is longing in his heart — as I once did in mine — for the ineffable riches of Christ, the fullness of the Faith. He is not wholly aware of this.”

The next time Henry went to Europe on business, she arranged for him to meet Pope Pius, which ignited Henry’s mother, a former Presbyterian missionary who had converted the Chinese to Calvinism. Writes Morris: “She was glad that her missionary husband had not lived to see it. Her worst fear was that Henry was doomed to live in a Roman Catholic atmosphere [in which he would be] ‘open to every art of persuasion and flattery. . . . They will leave no stone unturned to capture your famous self, or to weaken your own Faith, for which they have not an iota of respect, contemptuously counting it as rank heresy.’”

Clare also mapped out a plan for the conversion of her brother. She proselytized everywhere, inspiring a cartoon of her cornering the pope, who says: “But my dear Signora, I have to remind you, I am already a Catholic.” Despite her efforts, however, something about it all did not ring true with many. The New York Times wrote that religion had given her “acquired warmth,” and screenwriter Lamar Trotti, noting how she dropped the names of monsignors, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals, said, “I got the impression that she’s not so much joined the church as affiliated with the hierarchy.”

Henry Luce never converted, but he made it to Rome when Eisenhower gave Clare the Italian embassy and they were announced as “the Ambassador and Mr. Luce.” He died at 67 of a heart attack and a steady degeneration of just about everything else — liver, kidneys, bladder, lungs. Besides money and five homes, his death supplied her with what is perhaps her most famous quip: “Widowhood is a fringe benefit of matrimony.”

There is much, much more to this exhausting door-stopper, and for good reason. Clare’s degree of self-love was such that she never threw away anything having to do with herself. She left all of her papers to the Library of Congress, a total of 460,000 items taking up over 319 linear feet — more than most presidents. When it takes 17 years to finish publishing a two-volume biography, you know a whole lotta reading is going on. Clare died in 1987, but she met biographer Sylvia Jukes Morris in 1980 and apparently (this isn’t clear) authorized her to write the work. They saw a lot of each other in those seven years, and I get the distinct feeling that Clare terrorized Morris into using every single thing in the archive.

Instead of biographer and subject, they remind me of that familiar high-school pair: the popular glamour girl and the eager handmaiden who trails behind her doing her bidding. Morris is maniacally exacting, e.g., “She and Henry left San Francisco on Friday, January 14, at 4:30 p.m.” (Which strongly suggests that Clare saved the ticket stubs.) She quotes extensively from every speech or lecture Clare ever gave until they all start sounding alike. Then she quotes the reactions of the critics and reporters who covered the speech originally. She describes in cloying fashion-magazine style what Clare wore in each of her personal appearances (“shimmering in a gold satin beaded dress and diamond necklace,” “wearing a black dress and double strand of pearls”), and even records her perfume (“Caron’s Fleur de Rocaille”).

In a chapter about Mexican composer Carlos Chávez, who wrote a symphony commissioned by Clare in honor of her dead daughter, she quotes what Chávez said about the symphony, what Clare said about the symphony, what the reviewers said about the symphony, and finally, unbearably, what the symphony said about itself: “The musical texture was not so much melodic as a perpetual contrast of instrumental timbres: mellow horn chords, the astringent wail of oboes . . . an extremely high, soft, broken octave phrase in the piccolo . . .” Believe it or not, there’s more of this.

She quotes Clare’s descriptions of her many nightmares (gobs of blood, silent screams, her face catching fire from a birthday cake); her descriptions of suffocating in her snorkeling gear (“Is this what death is like?”); and all the pretty things she sees underwater (the gossamer-filigree-tendril axis).

Describing a party given by Clare at her Hawaii estate, she gives the entire guest list of 40 names, from the Marquess and Marchioness of Bath to Gloria Steinem. Describing the outbuildings on Clare’s South Carolina estate, she writes: “The cottages were whitewashed brick in the Modernist style (for which Edward Durrell Stone had won the 1937 Silver Medal for Architectural Excellence) and had been extensively refurbished by Gladys Freeman.”

This is where your reviewer yelled SO WHAT!

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, Va. 22404.

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