Clare Boothe Luce—Woman of the Century: A Son’s Tribute

Last November Clare and I flew to London for the 50th Anniversary revival of The Women at the Old Vic. Sitting in the Concorde, I wondered how many playwrights had ever witnessed a golden anniversary performance of their work.

The answer, of course, is that she was unique. But then, everything she did seemed to be unprecedented. In her time there were no footsteps to follow. When she was born, in 1903, there was no significant feminist movement, no women politicians, no list of distaff leaders and writers and thinkers. So she created her own women’s consciousness-raising group: it contained a beauty, a magazine editor, a wit, a raconteur, a dramatist, a war correspondent, a politician, a religious thinker, a nuclear arms expert, a presidential advisor, a wife, a mother, a needlepointist, a painter, a mosaicist, an art collector, a scuba diver. And they were all named Clare.

She founded this organization at the age of seven, when Clare Boothe became Mary Pickford’s understudy in a play called “Good Little Devil.” At the advanced age of ten she wrote a play of her own. And by the age of 17 she had left home to work in a factory, making paper flowers. She soon found other, better uses for paper. At 18, for instance, she was a suffragette, dropping leaflets from airplanes and urging women to make themselves heard in America.

In the course of time she knew everybody: the rich, the powerful, and the beautiful; the poor, the mean and the ugly, and they all remembered that they knew her. From those sixty years older than she to those sixty years younger, she knew people whose lives will have spanned two centuries. She knew the Newport Society arbitrators in the twenties, and the New York artists and writers in the thirties, the generals and admirals in the forties, the European politicians in the fifties, the American politicians in the sixties, the Honolulu Big Five in the seventies, the Reaganauts in the eighties and the children of young Washington journalists.

She had significant dialogue with Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Reagan, with Alcide de Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer, Chiang Kai-shek, Winston Churchill and Pope Pius XII, with George Bernard Shaw, Douglas MacArthur, Bernard Baruch, Howard Hughes and Louis B. Mayer. She never went to college.

Her professional career began after her marriage to George Brokaw ended. She met the publisher Conde Nast at a dinner party and asked him for a job on Vogue. He refused to take her seriously, thinking she was too gorgeous to be smart.

So she just showed up at the magazine offices, sat down at a desk and announced that she was going to write picture captions. Finally she was hired, but soon decided that fashion was too frivolous for her talents. She moved to Conde Nast stablemate Vanity Fair. There she displayed a phenomenal memory for detail and her unbridled imagination. She was not only a speed reader, she was a speed thinker. She devoured everything, the great novels and histories, the current magazines and newspapers. When she was named managing editor, it was no surprise. She shaped the publication in her own bright and irreverent image. Through the pages of Vanity Fair she introduced the American elite among other things to French Impressionist paintings. Most other periodicals of the period have vanished into reels of microfilm, of interest only to antiquarians and Ph.D. candidates. The old issues of Vanity Fair remain a delight to the eye and a refreshment to the mind.

And then came another publication, invented by her new husband Henry R. Luce, with significant input from Clare. Long before Life’s debut, she had conceived a magazine very much like it.

In 1940 she did a journalistic tour of free Western Europe. The result was Europe in the Spring, a book about the Continent in the first year of World War II. She later modestly dismissed her work as “a confused, hastily written eye-and-ear witness report.” Andre Maurois said that the book awakened “regrets, despair, but also enthusiasm and hopes. In a word, it is true.” In the closing pages of Europe in the Spring, Clare had this to say:

After two weeks at home I found out that nearly all the things that people felt and many of the things which happened in Europe just before and during the “phony” war are happening here today. What England and France have been and were until the invasion of the Low Countries, America is. We are on the same road they took to disaster . . .

There is a road for victims and a road for fellow travelers. There is, of course, the third road. It is narrow and straight and hard for the feet, and perhaps bloody. No one in Europe took it. At this time it looks as though no one here intends to take it. That is the road of a new democratic and Christian revolution. Its plan is simple: to march forward and conquer the world again, piece by piece, for all free and Christian people; to battle the flag of Nazism on every border wherever it flies in whatever hemisphere. . . We are the only nation of so-called Christians and so-called democrats strong enough to take that road now. And do you doubt for a moment if we took that road in the name of God that we would come to the end of it victorious?

“It is true,” Maurois had said. Those are the words Clare wanted next to anything she wrote or did. They adhered to the dispatches and articles she sent when she accompanied her husband to the Chinese front. And they could be applied to her speeches when in September 1942, she campaigned long and hard to be a congresswoman from Connecticut. Once again, her beauty was something of a drawback. One old gentleman, seeing her for the first time, exclaimed, “Why, she can even wear glasses!”

But once again she cut a new path. She beat the incumbent and took office. The same month, long before integration was even whispered about, she spoke about the rights of blacks. “Right here in America,” she said, “there is still far too great a gap between our professed ideal of a war for freedom, a people’s war, a war for democracy, and the way we practice what we preach.” Shortly afterward she warned her party that a policy of post-war isolation or attacks on labor’s “proper gains” and on social security would be fatal to Republicanism in the United States.

In her maiden speech to Congress, she made a few more headlines and entered the dictionaries. Vice- President Henry A. Wallace had proposed to grant freedom of U.S. airspace to the Soviet Union; she countered: “Much of what Mr. Wallace calls his global thinking, no matter how you slice it, is still globaloney.” And with considerable foresight, she predicted that America’s best interest lay in “post- War civilian, as well as military, control of the air.”

That was hardly the end of her phrasemaking. As the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention of 1944, she spoke of “G.I. Joe” and “G.I. Jim,” the soldier who had given his life in battle, and the veteran who would return to a bewildering civilian world. The speech was more successful than the candidacy of Thomas E. Dewey, but Clare, typically, defied the odds. She was reelected to the House of Representatives against the Roosevelt tide. When others settled down with their families at Christmas dinner that year, she went overseas as a member of the House Military Affairs Committee to share a meal with the American troops in Italy. On her return, she urged extended aid for Italian victims of the war.

Anyone around Washington who thought of Clare as merely decorative was swiftly disabused. She filled the legislative hopper with bills that included a study of the mounting refugee problem; a measure to insure workers equal pay for equal work, regardless of race, color or creed; a study of profit sharing in industry; and a resolution to control and reduce armaments and weapons, especially atomic weapons.

Because their parents disapproved of the marriage, Clare’s parents were spiritual rebels. But her grandfather Boothe had been a Baptist pastor, and thoughts of faith recur throughout her work, as the finale of Europe in the Spring illustrates. She herself said that her conversion to Roman Catholicism resulted “more than anything else from the war itself, and the need to find meaning in all of this torment.”

Find it she did, and her retirement from public life was brief. She still had much to say, much to contribute. She emerged to analyze her spiritual sentiments in a book, The Real Reason, then received an Oscar nomination in 1949 for her script for the movie Come to the Stable. In 1952, she made some 50 radio and TV appearances on behalf of the Republican candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

During that campaign I was doing some political reportage in rural Maryland. One local pol I talked to on the courthouse steps asked if I were related to Clare. I said yes. “She has to be one helluva tough customer,” he said. He was right, as I have since had many opportunities to observe.

By 1953, a poll revealed that she was, after Eleanor Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth, and Mamie Eisenhower, the most admired woman in the world.

President Eisenhower said to her, “Well, Clare, you have to be on the team . . . What about an embassy. . .such as Spain.” Clare exploded: “Never! Spain would never accept a woman.” Then what about Italy?  She thought it over: “Italy might.”

Italy did. But first there was one problem. She told Ike, “I don’t want to live overseas for four years without my husband. I’ve got to ask how much time he would be able to spend there.” Harry Luce was in Jakarta just then. She sent him a cable: “What do you think? I can’t do it and won’t do it without you.” He cabled back, “Will six months a year be enough? If it is, you must keep your personal rendezvous with history.” She was the first American woman to be envoy to a major power.

Clare made a spectacular entrance. In her maiden speech in Italy, just three weeks before a national election, she broke the unwritten rules of diplomacy. No platitudes for her. Instead, she warned Italian voters about “totalitarians of the right or left.” They listened to La Luce, as they learned to call her; they liked her and she returned the affection.

Looking back at her ambassadorship, Clare thought her greatest accomplishment was her major role in the peaceful partitioning of Trieste, after a great deal of loud threatening by Marshall Tito. It was, she I said, “the only major territorial issue, to my knowledge, settled short of a war in the last 200 years.” For all her involvement with the media, she became over the years more and more contemptuous of much of them. She once looked around New York City and commented, “We used to have 12 newspapers. Now there are three. Editors inveigh against monopoly, but the news industry is the most monopolist of all. Syndicate eats syndicate, chain eats chain. They’re making a frightful stew about the issue of government and a free press. But the real question is: Is the press free at all?”

By 1981, when the Republicans returned to Washington, so did Clare, this time as consultant to the National Security Council. She also resumed her membership on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Her hair was gray and her glasses a bit stronger, but her assertive voice and her iron self-assurance remained intact. She was an enthralling raconteur, with wonderful stories about the famous and the self-important. West Point made her the first woman recipient of the academy’s highest honor, the Sylvanus Thayer Award. Westminster College had her deliver a lecture in the series made famous by Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain declaration. And Ronald Reagan conferred upon her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Returning after the opening of The Women, last November, we bumped into Bud McFarlane in the Concorde Lounge in Heathrow. He spoke in a hushed whisper and Clare, ever the actress, mimicked him in equally hushed and greatly melancholy tones. It was the beginning of Iranscam- Contra. Two months later Clare’s close friend, Bill Casey, cancer-stricken, resigned. Clare’s honeymoon with the Reagan ad-ministration seemed to come to an end.

Two months after that my wife Nancy died. For Clare, Nancy had become a substitute for, an epiphany of, her daughter Ann, who had died a third of a century earlier. The next week Clare became seriously ill with what at first appeared to be hysterical depression.

In May, hearing of the illness, Richard Nixon wrote her saying, “As I see some of the mediocrities who are running for president these days, I only wish that the Clare Luce I knew in the fifties was around today! You would be a lead pipe cinch to become the first woman president.”

The French have a term for a man intimately involved in the history of his time: the homme engage. Clare was America’s great femme engagee. She sometimes bemoaned the fact that she had outlived her “warm personal enemies”—even Henry Wallace had written her a cordial letter not long before his death and she remembered him as “a very sweet gentleman.”

For the most part she was a fulfilled woman who refuted her favorite aphorism: “No good deed goes unpunished.” The proof was in her mail, full of letters from young people saying, “You’ve been my role model for years.” That, Clare admitted, was “the real satisfaction you get in life—the people who say you’ve changed their lives.”

A frequently quoted Clare epigram is “a great man is one sentence.” For example, “Washington was the father of his country.” “Lincoln freed the slaves.” Can her own criterion apply to her? How do we sum her up? Through her play writing? Her beauty? Her leadership? All of these need books, not a sentence. Let us settle then for this: She was the woman of the century.

Author

  • Henry Luce III

    Henry Luce III (1925-2005) was the stepson of Clare Boothe Luce.

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