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No Fool

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 created the image of a woman made almost superhuman by ambition and talents; of a shrewd, icy climber accousined to the snippy bitches she described so well for the stage in The Women. Her previous portraitists have either been star-struck by her motley gifts (Faye Henle’s malicious but fawning Au Clare de Luce, Stephen Shadegg’s official but soapy hagiography) or have depicted her as a greedy arriviste (Helen Lawrenson’s wickedly biased recollections).* The Clare Luce presented in Wilfrid Sheed’s rambling, often witty, affectionate, extravagantly protective book is 80 percent angel and 20 percent Dragon Lady; and it occasionally manages to decant the private, complex human essence contained in the sacred monster Clare chose to strut out onto the public stage. It meanders along a chronological sequence of Clare Luce’s life but makes no pretense at being a biography. Yet it is more than a memoir or an essay. It is a meditation on a woman and her times; or, in the author’s own words, “a meditation on what a smart girl had to do to get ahead in the twentieth century.”

Sheed begins at the moment of his first meeting with Clare, on a summer evening of 1949 at the Luces’ house in Ridgefield, Connecticut. He is eighteen. He has been invited for the weekend but ends up staying for the better part of the summer. Clare has recently become a friend of Wilfrid’s remarkable parents, the publishers Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, through their mutual and passionate involvement in all things Catholic. Sheed’s first forty pages—ironic, winsomely self-deprecating—are the most charming in the book. They describe the awe of a young man raised in a family of frugal, high-minded Catholic intellectuals (“my parents refused to spend unnecessary money on themselves as long as there was one empty rice bowl in India”) suddenly faced with the opulence of millionaire media stars. After Clare has maternally checked on the propriety of his tie, young Wilfrid nervously sits through dinner parties that are like a “Pan American board meeting.” He is amazed by being able to ring for breakfast and see it delivered to his room with four newspapers, wonders why the famous beauty should be bothering with a “flotsam like me,” a polio-stricken adolescent who had little to offer his hostess save his precocious expertise in her most recent acquisition—the intricacies of Catholic theology.

The famous CBL monogram emblazons every towel and matchbook in the opulent house, Clare’s dressing room is exclusively hung with photographs of herself in every one of her public roles, and Wilfrid continues to brood on why this near stranger is offering him the most extravagant hospitality he’s ever received. The reader immediately senses that uniquely illusionist infatuation of a young man for an older woman which will prevent Sheed from drawing any precise or convincing portrait of her husband. Henry Luce. That interesting person is dismissed throughout in a preposterously flat pastiche of a half-deaf, stuttering millionaire who utters profundities such as “Man is a puzzle-solving animal.” “I never understood how she could have married such a bore,” Sheed complains with the indignation of the aspiring lover. Clare is “a theater person dragged into an old men’s club.” Sheed studies his hostess’s face during Mass, through which she sits “with that half-smile that could mean anything.” He decides, midway through his visit, that the public image of Clare Luce as pushy, calculating schemer is not the total truth. “She seemed soft and spectral, like an apparition, or a very understanding nun. Quiet, translucent, a very light presence…. If she was really a bitch, she was playing a very deep game.”

Could young Wilfrid have been the new convert’s Good Cause for the summer? Could her kindness be related to the main tragedy in her life—the fact that she had lost her only child five years before? According to the author, there was more to it than that. Clare seems to have had “the unique distinction of being interested in other people’s children…. I satisfied a deep passion in her, which was simply to instruct.” One more revelation, at the summer’s end, proves a secret capacity for altruism which will win Sheed’s loyalty for life. Every August 22, the birthday of her late daughter, Clare was in the habit of offering someone a surprise present. It could be accepted only on the condition that it never be mentioned to anyone. And at the end of his stay with the Luces, Sheed became the happy recipient of a brand new Oldsmobile. “That summer,” the author muses, “I was part of St. Thérèse’s ‘little way.’ ”

Behind success as phenomenal as Clare Luce’s there usually lurks a mom, and one of the accomplishments of this enigmatic volume is that Sheed traces with some vividness the enormous impact of Clare’s mother on her daughter’s career. Ann Boothe was a former chorus girl and the granddaughter of a stable owner in Hoboken, which was then, as Sheed notes, the “social equivalent of [owning] a trucking garage.” She had been abandoned by Clare’s father, an unsuccessful fiddler, shortly after her two children were born. Ann, Clare, and Clare’s older brother David lived in a near-tenement on Columbus Avenue where Clare remembers bathing in the kitchen sink to a smell of cabbage. The stage-struck, romantic mother tried to compensate for her own failed career by dragging her delectably pretty blond daughter to numerous screen tests which never yielded anything more substantial than a brief job as understudy to one of Mary Pickford’s more obscure roles.

In a striking reversal of later Victorian values which may have fueled Clare’s cyclonic invasion of male vocations, Ann Boothe continued grooming her daughter for success and stardom while giving little thought to the advancement of her son. (She’d even dress him up in Clare’s clothes on occasion, saying, “See—you’re a girl, you’re a girl.”) Fortunes rose when Clare’s mother married a well-heeled doctor and was able to take her on their first trip to Europe. On the way home, “through an adroit movement of deck chairs,” Mom placed Clare in the vicinity of Mrs. August Belmont. It was through this introduction that Clare eventually met the murderously violent millionaire drunkard with whom she was to spend six miserable years as a battered wife.

A woman is compromised the second she’s born.” “Men—you can’t let them out on a leash.” “The first man who can think of how he’s going to stay in love with his wife and another woman is going to get that prize they’re always talking about in Sweden.” Lines from Clare Luce’s film version of her play The Women. I was struck, during a recent viewing, by the author’s prophetic brand of man-wary feminism, and most particularly by her autobiographical stress on the unique trust-worthiness of mother-daughter love. “Never confide in a girl friend,” the protagonist’s mother advises, meaning “only trust me.” Clare’s love for her own mother was a particularly deep and passionate one; so much so that she tried to fulfill Ann Boothe’s high expectations by abiding at dangerous lengths with her mother’s advice to “hang in there gamely until [your husband drinks] himself to death.” For Clare had a few miscarriages during her marriage to George Brokaw. And notwithstanding his strong distaste for melodrama Sheed believes that they were probably caused by Brokaw’s physical violence.

Clare eventually received an alimony settlement of $26,000 a year for life, a handsome sum in 1929, which made possible her swift rise as one of New York’s leading literary hostesses. Running a salon in those days was only a step away from editing Vanity Fair, one of America’s most fashionable magazines.

Frank Crowninshield, Clare Boothe Brokaw’s boss at Vanity Fair, had immediately sensed the wit, cleverness, and formidable industriousness of this young divorcée whose formal education had consisted of three years at mediocre high schools. He described her as “a creature combining the various capacities of a superfortress, a battleship, and a tank.” Other survivors of Vanity Fair describe the ruses with which she’d cajole celebrities she’d never met into dining at her Beekman Place flat. (“Hello, this is Clare Boothe of Vanity Fair,” she’d say to Constance Bennett. “I’m having a little party for Maurice Chevalier and he suggested that I call you….” A few minutes later: “Hello, Mr. Chevalier? I’m giving a little party for Constance Bennett and she suggested I ask you….”) It was done with such assurance and style that John Mason Brown, George Jean Nathan, John O’Hara were all as charmed as Wilfrid Sheed upon their first visit, and remained friends for life. One of Clare’s most important coups was the capture of Bernard Baruch, with whom she had a long romantic interlude and who introduced her to the Realpolitik of the two-party system. Still other survivors of Vanity Fair report on the motto that stood on Clare’s office desk: “Down to Gehenna or up to the throne. He travels fastest who travels alone.”

  1. *

    Faye Henle, Au Clare de Luce (S. Day, 1943); Stephen Shadegg, Clare Boothe Luce (Simon and Schuster, 1970); Helen Lawrenson, Stranger at the Party (Random House, 1975).

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