Ice Queen

07.05.14

Clare Boothe Luce's Vapid Second Act

Sylvia Jukes Morris’s second installment of her Clare Boothe Luce biography lacks the zing of volume one. Luce got everything she wanted, but readers, alas, can’t say the same.

The first volume of Sylvia Jukes Morris’s Clare Boothe Luce biography, published 17 years ago, set the gossip-and-glamour bar high for its successor. Rage for Fame followed smart, beautiful, and calculating Clare Boothe as she married for money, achieved financial security through divorce, made her reputation as a magazine writer and editor, then hit the jackpot with a smash play, The Women, and a second marriage to Time founder Henry R. Luce, before turning her attention to politics and getting elected to Congress in 1942.

Price of Fame is not as much fun as its predecessor. Representative Luce toured European battlefields and was a horrified eyewitness at the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp. Ambassador Luce, one of the first American women appointed to a major diplomatic post, maneuvered against communist influence in Italy and played an important role in the 1953-4 negotiations over the final disposition of Trieste. The acidly witty playwright tossing off one-liners like “I’m a virgin—a frozen asset,” was replaced by the Republican Party partisan indulging in overwrought rhetoric: America in “the tragic era of Franklin Roosevelt,” Luce declared in 1944, was a nation of “hypochondriacs, introverts and psychotics.”

Drama-queen posturing aside, Luce’s achievements as a politician mostly merit Morris’s conscientious treatment, though perhaps not at the level of detail her access to Luce’s vast personal archives made possible. The reason Price of Fame ultimately becomes tiresome is our increasing awareness of how adrift the woman at its center is. For all her forcefully expressed opinions and very public conversion to Catholicism in 1946, Luce apparently had no focus to her life once she finally achieved the wealth and fame she so avidly pursued in her 20s and 30s.

There’s something peculiar and pathetic about a sitting U.S. representative taking the lead role in a summer-stock production of Candida, as Luce did in 1945. With Congress in recess, it seems she had to get back in the spotlight any way she could. The New Yorker’s editors spotlighted something essential when they headlined Dorothy Parker’s sardonic review of Luce’s bestselling volume of war reportage “All Clare on the Western Front”: Luce had to be the center of attention at all times.

At the same time, she had no real friends. Raised by her mother to manipulate men and compete with women, Luce was fundamentally cold. Lovers were chosen for their looks or status; admirers were welcomed so long as they remained entirely admiring. When she felt criticized or under-appreciated, she cut them off.

Luce took LSD, which may have contributed to her worsening spells of depression.

Narcissism, the need for an audience, and a willingness to use people are hardly uncommon traits in politicians, and it’s to Luce’s credit that she had enough empathy for others to be a staunch, early advocate of independence for European colonies abroad and full civil rights for African-Americans at home, positions not generally held by those who shared her hardline anticommunist views. Her feminism was ardent and lifelong; she avoided disagreements with other female public figures that could be portrayed as “catfights,” which can’t have been easy for someone with Luce’s fondness for zingy putdowns.

That weakness torpedoed her diplomatic career when she couldn’t resist a gratuitous personal crack about her principal opponent to her nomination as ambassador to Brazil on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She remained a Republican icon, but after 1959 party leaders confined loose cannon Luce to advisory boards and the campaign trail, where she could be counted on to wow the faithful with her hyperbole.

“From now on she would settle for celebrity rather than stardom, and pay the price in a steady loss of self-esteem,” writes Morris. Previously, Luce had been able to stave off “the dismals” (and minimize any time for introspection) with compulsive multitasking: writing screenplays and journalism during hiatuses in her political career, taking up painting and skin diving as hobbies (though she later wrote articles about the latter), collecting art, buying and redecorating houses and apartments in several states.

By 1959, those distractions weren’t sufficient. She took LSD, which may have contributed to her worsening spells of depression. Her marriage, already battered by infidelities on both sides, went into a near-terminal tailspin at the end of 1959, when Harry confessed to a three-year affair with a much younger woman and asked for a divorce. Clare, panicked about aging and losing the beauty she had always traded on, made three suicide attempts and a series of escalating emotional and financial demands that finally brought Harry to heel. Neither of them could imagine an identity wholly separate from their stature as a power couple.

In the years following Harry’s death in 1967, though she served the three subsequent presidents on the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, her frantic activity lessened, and she concentrated on securing her legacy. That’s where Morris enters, as the eager writer who finally secured Luce’s hesitant assent to be her official biographer in 1981. The epilogue charting their interactions paints a sad picture of an elderly woman who complained, “I haven’t any beaus,” and remained entitled enough to remark, “I don’t see much hope for a country where you can’t get live-in servants.”

Morris’s cool portrait is eminently fair, depicting Luce’s faults and fine points with equal detachment. But this detachment gives the biography a dutiful, going-through-the-motions tone. For all the glitter and power Clare Boothe Luce grasped in her life, two volumes proves to be more than we want to know about someone who was hollow at the core.