Clare Boothe Luce
by Wilfrid Sheed
Dutton, 183 pp., $12.95
In 1952, six years after her conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, Clare Boothe Luce edited a remarkable anthology called Saints for Now, published by Sheed and Ward. The company of authors she persuaded to contribute to this volume reminds one of the Luces’ famous dinner parties, at which “Winnie” Churchill and “Bernie” Baruch were names as familiar as those of their household pets. Evelyn Waugh was called to perform on Empress Saint Helena, Rebecca West on St. Augustine, Vincent Sheehan on St. Francis of Assisi, D.B. Wyndham Lewis on Pope Pius VI, Whittaker Chambers on St. Benedict. But a still more striking aspect of the book is Mrs. Luce’s pious introduction. The saint for whom she expresses the greatest affection in these pages is that most self-effacing of all Catholic role models, St. Thérèse of Lisieux. “Hidden from the world in a Carmelite monastery,… Theresa seeks to become little and helpless and hidden, like the infant Divinity.”
The “little” Theresa, paragon of anonymity, patron saint of anticelebrity, is a curious choice for a woman who achieved a greater degree of fame than almost any other woman of her generation, and whose protean career (society hostess, satirical essayist, managing editor of Vanity Fair, popular playwright, war correspondent, congresswoman, ambassador to Italy) was struck by a plague of firsts. First woman to give the keynote address at a majority party convention, first woman member of the House Military Affairs Committee, first woman ambassador to a major nation, first woman to receive West Point’s highest honorary award. The proselytizer for St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s “little way” would eventually end up number two on the list of The American Woman You Most Admire, nosed out only by Eleanor Roosevelt; and number four on the list of The Ten Women You Admire Most in the World. And she would remain on the Best-Dressed List for several years. Even her conversion to the Church—an event most advocates of anonymity would not splash out to the media—was rendered as public as every other aspect of her life: Clare Luce felt compelled to state in McCall’s magazine her reasons for becoming a Catholic in a three-part essay that remains, to this day, one of the most popular reprints that magazine has to offer.
“Une force de la nature,” as the French would call her. Her facility and competitiveness seeped awesomely and abundantly into the athletic field, the drawing room. Her skill at swimming once led her to try out for the US Olympic team. She took up scuba diving at the age of fifty-four and descended more than fifty feet, publicizing that experience in a three-part article for Sports Illustrated. She wrote an introduction to a book called Backgammon To Win. Clare Boothe Luce was so skilled at all parlor games that one of the subtler ruses she is said to have employed during her thirty-two-year marriage to Henry Luce was to lose to him at Scrabble.
Such proficiencies have …