In Memoriam

When I applied to Stanford University as an undergraduate, I had to write an essay about the person who had most influenced my life. In 1985 that answer was immediately clear to me: Clare Boothe Luce.

I first met Mrs. Luce when I was about 14. She came to dinner at our house; I helped serve the dinner, and then just sat and listened to the grown-ups. Mrs. Luce came to our house rather often. She always made sure to have a few words with me, but we never really talked “woman to woman” (so to speak) until my senior year in high school. I was interested in government service, especially the Foreign Service. I remember my mother coming home from a dinner party at Mrs. Luce’s apartment glowing with enthusiasm: I should spend more time with this wonderful woman; she would have such stories to tell me. So I let my mother arrange a meeting, despite my nervousness.

The afternoon I spent talking with Mrs. Luce at her apartment she told me things I will never forget. We spoke about life, we spoke about ourselves, and we spoke about women. She told me that life is full of choices; we must realize that as we go through life we continually make choices that close off some options and open up others. I had never positively faced the concept of closing off options; that seemed somehow like failure. But Mrs. Luce presented life as a challenge: she only warned me to be patient enough to make clear-minded choices.

But in her warnings, Mrs. Luce was not pessimistic. I was a career-oriented girl of 17 and Mrs. Luce began warning me of too firm an idea about my career. A U.S. Foreign Service officer serves at the pleasure of U.S. Government superiors; she is almost bound to be continually uprooting herself. Mrs. Luce spoke of her experiences working at the U.S. Embassy in Rome in the 1950s. She and her embassy staff in those years of rapid change were continually experiencing new challenges. Her stories made me more eager for a life of such adventure, while they also tempered my “romantic” view. Mrs. Luce served as an ambassador and walked away, while her professional staff faced decades of relocation.

Mrs. Luce seemed to have theories on everything. She soon shared her theory on women in the Foreign Service. By nature, she said firmly, women are born diplomats. And when she said that the world needed more women diplomats, my heart leapt. But she harked back to her earlier sentiment: life is making choices. The choice to be a career diplomat almost closes off the option to have a secure marriage and family. Moving every two years makes stability in family life very difficult. But Mrs. Luce was not trying to discourage me. She kept assuring me that if I had the enthusiasm and the stamina, I could do anything. But whatever I chose would also close off other options.

That afternoon talk with Mrs. Luce was the start of a precious, profound relationship. She would come over for dinner, and I would sit all evening and listen to her swift interchanges with the other guests. At the close of each evening we would sit on the couch together, holding hands, and talking. She was always so interested in what I was studying, what I was doing, and what I was thinking. And she never ran out of advice.

When I eventually went off to Stanford, we continued what she used to call “our exchange of ideas.” As a young mother, she had had an 18-year-old daughter, Ann, who went to Stanford; in the ’80s she had an 18-year-old “penpal.” “Auntie Clare” was continually sending me clippings, articles, and words of support; I was continually sending her notes of thanks and observations on life and, especially, life at Stanford. In her wonderful way, Mrs. Luce knew almost everyone at the Hoover Institution personally. She introduced me to a community of scholars that not only hired me to do research, but also showed me the scope and power of brilliant, active minds in several fields. Mrs. Luce took care of me.

Throughout our friendship, Mrs. Luce stressed the importance of history and of learning languages. Being constantly exposed in Washington to politics and government, I thought political science was the crucial subject. Gently, Mrs. Luce again expanded my vision. She showed me the virtues of being educated in the history of events and in the history of ideas. She expounded on the virtue of serious thought and thoughtful writing. And she believed firmly that a knowledge of languages and cultures is the key to communication. She was convinced that a solid understanding of Russia—of its history, its language, and its culture—is not only rare today, but will be invaluable in the near future. With her support, as well as that of my parents, I did not hesitate to declare myself a history major with a side concentration in the Russian language.

I still reread the articles she sent me; I often recreate the conversations we had. She had great faith in my mind, and she gave me the intellectual support an 18-year-old perfectionist needed in her first year at a university. But Mrs. Luce gave me more than the intellectual support of a career role model; she shared with me the love of a friend, the love of an “Auntie,” the love also of a serious Catholic and a model woman.

I saw her for the last time this past July. As a tribute to my parents, Mrs. Luce wanted to have a small and relaxed dinner party “just the way the Novaks do.” She asked me and my sister Jana to come along with my parents. The whole evening she was busy talking with her adult friends, and I was busy meeting other friends of Mrs. Luce. But just before we left, I sat with Mrs. Luce on her couch, holding hands and talking. She told me in a weak voice that she was thrilled that I would be studying British intellectual history at Cambridge for a year. She wanted me to learn how to think and to write properly; she knew I would. Then firmly, as she clasped my hand even tighter, she told me: “Trust in God. He’s the only one you really can trust.”

I miss Auntie Clare. Yet she is now, and always will be, with me.


  • Tanya M. Novak

    At the time this article was published, Tanya M. Novak was a student at Cambridge University.

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