None of the above facts is mentioned by Sheed, who, to the great detriment of his book, continually understates the tougher elements of his heroine’s mettle. But they are worth noting because they testify to her obsessive and wily search for stardom and success, and to the suffering and solitude that preceded and even attended her rise to power. The one master stroke that seems relatively devoid of shrewd planning was Clare’s capture of Henry Luce, the result of a coup de foudre on his part the minute he met the loquacious blond beauty; he proposed to her upon their very third meeting. And a few months later he had divorced his wife of fifteen years.
So Clare marries tycoon. Clare goes to Broadway, becomes war correspondent, goes to Washington, to Rome. Sheed has precious few interesting opinions on Clare’s public activities. And his most awkward pages are those in which he attempts to cleanse the reactionary political image she has acquired for liberals. “Her Cold War alarums were simply translations of Churchill into American.” Her vehement conservatism on foreign policy, he insists, was amply compensated by her liberalism on domestic issues. “She called for a soak-the-rich tax scale to the level of confiscation in order to pay for the war…. She made uncalled-for pitches for black rights…. She even voted against the Dies Committee (later HUAC)….”
He stresses that she had been an ardent New Dealer before marrying Luce and seems charmed by her kittenish rationalization for changing parties (“You married Harry, you became a Republican”). It is in such moments of perilous rescue that Sheed’s style becomes pedestrian, contrary to his usually elegant prose. “Clare’s [globaloney] speech was much more practical than the breezy one that people think they remember. Even so, the cream pies flew at once….”
Cream puffs rise from Sheed’s own text as he rambles on about Luce’s ambassadorship to Rome and her subsequent retreat from public life. She flubbed a potential ambassadorship to Brazil by not curbing her malicious tongue (“Wayne Morse was once kicked in the head by a horse,” she quipped about the senator who had led the opposition to her confirmation.) In her next and most unexpected incarnation Clare retired to Arizona, where she took to painting, ceramics, and LSD. Harry followed her into Lotus Land and reported having communicated with God on the golf course. We have plodded, since that first blessed Connecticut summer, through a hundred very dull pages. Sheed has been elusive, from the start, about the emotional texture of the Luces’ complex marriage; and why she chose to retire to Hawaii after Luce’s death in 1967 is never explained.
I once visited Clare Boothe Luce in Honolulu, in 1970, with press credentials from The New Yorker, and the spell she cast on me for an hour helps me to understand the spell she cast on Wilfrid Sheed for life. Her translucent beauty—with her golden hair, and immense pale blue eyes, she had the air of the princess in some Nordic fairy tale—was still there; she was sixty-seven. It was made all the more mysterious and hypnotic by an intense attentiveness toward her visitors (feigned or genuine, how can one know?) and by a floating serenity of manner which made her look as if she’d never done a strenuous thing in her life. There were two other persons in the room. One of them—a visiting professor—said, “It’s quite extraordinary, Mrs. Luce, but I don’t see any black people walking around Honolulu.” “Yes, isn’t it marvelous, there are so few!” she answered dreamily. “Let’s continue to keep them out by keeping the plane fares high, and raising the hotel room rates.” Sheed’s cosmeticized portrait of Clare Luce as secret liberal was surely absent at that moment; the animal magnetism was not.
Sheed also traveled to Honolulu, in 1977, to document his book. For years he had been unsuccessfully defending Clare and finally decided to commit to print a portrait of his heroine that his numerous liberal friends had not allowed him to express in table talk. ” ‘She’s really a nice woman,’ I’d say: and a quick survey of eyebrows would tell me, he’s showing off again, pretending to know something. Mae West is really chaste, oh sure.” So Sheed and his wife were flown by Clare to Honolulu (“the ancient secret charity is still there,” the author muses) to be her guests in her flower-filled lanai. Sheed finds her “sunny and gentle and life-size,” regretting little except the loss of her looks (looking in a mirror becomes “a summit conference with the enemy”), and he also finds her valiant. She is half-blind after nine cataract operations, but the schedule continues the Connecticut routine of thirty summers ago: work in the morning, swimming in the afternoon, good talk in the
The talk returns to St. Theresa. Clare admits that she had once tried the saint’s way of getting through the day anonymously and perfectly, but had realized at the end of twenty-four hours that sanctity was “too strenuous” for her. In the fourteen hours of conversation they tape, Sheed reports that Clare has taken to the new détente with Red China surprisingly well and does not blurt out an unkindness about anyone except Otto Preminger. Later, comparing Clare to the Roman matrons of Classical times, Sheed sums her up with an ambiguous and historically questionable generalization: “All the famous Roman women were villains. It was the price back then, too. The virtus, the pietas, the stoic virtues are all there, shining fiercely in this seventy-seven-year-old lady: love them or leave them, but they are not tacky.”
For “not tacky,” read “high style.” Sheed’s frequently stated admiration for Clare’s style is inextricable from the devotion he has offered her throughout his life in return for her past kindnesses. And this emotion of gratitude, however valorous personally or ethically, is at the heart of the book’s flabbiness. Sheed’s touching loyalty and long-dormant puppy love not only lead him to camouflage the seamier sides of his heroine’s political and personal record, cutting out the pith of revealing candor that informs any worthwhile memoir. They also make him incapable of dealing with her greater sorrows, as if he wishes to preserve her from the pain of her own memories. The most inexplicable omission of all is Sheed’s reluctance to document the central episode of the Clare Luce drama, the link between the death of her daughter, Ann Brokaw, and her conversion to the Church. This connection is touched on by Clare herself in her torturously self-probing series for McCall’s, “The Real Reason,” and amply corroborated in the Shadegg biography.
In January 1944, on the day before her death, Ann Brokaw was walking down a street in San Francisco with her mother; and when they passed a small Catholic church Ann suggested they go in. Clare followed her daughter’s impulse, and they stayed through Mass.
Ann died in a freak car accident the following morning near the Stanford campus, where she was attending college. Upon hearing the news Clare rushed out of the hotel and went to the church in which she had attended Mass with her daughter the previous day. She spent a half-hour there and returned to her hotel in tears.
A few hours later she asked her secretary to call for the priest of the church she had just visited. The bewildered cleric, whose answers to Clare’s questions she found “too pat, too shallow,” was swiftly dismissed.
It was time to run for Congress again, and Clare responded to her sorrow by burying herself in the congressional campaign more vigorously than ever. Her nascent interest in Catholicism was not resurrected until the following year, after her reelection to office, when she phoned a Jesuit with whom she’d had a long correspondence (he’d originally written her a fan letter about a laudatory article she’d written on Madame Chiang Kai-shek). The Jesuit, as terrified of Luce’s searing questions as the parish priest she’d run to some months before (“I can’t accept hell, father”), passed her on like a hot potato to Fulton Sheen, then famous for inspirational radio broadcasts. She was in Sheen’s office the very next morning. The Monsignor shrewdly offered his notoriously talkative catechumen a format in which he could speak for five minutes and she could answer for an hour. When it was time to find a confessor, she asked Sheed for “someone who has seen the rise and fall of empires.” She was confirmed in St. Patrick’s in February of 1946.
The chance visit to the church which occasioned her first impulse to conversion, her sublimation of that impulse to win a congressional campaign, her choice of the greatest media star of American Catholicism for instruction, her need to describe her conversion in three-part magazine installments, the combativeness of her discussions with Sheen—all this Sheed bypasses. Instead, the issue of Clare’s conversion is obscured by a bland sociological digression on the kind of Catholics who were in power in the 1940s, why Clare went on to strike up a friendship with Cardinal Spellman, what Spellman meant to the Catholic community—the author all the while evading Clare Luce’s genuine sorrow and despair.
Such lapses suggest it might be unwise to write before the fatal moment about any celebrity who happens to be a beloved friend. What a torture to be constantly worrying about pleasing the other, sparing pain. The very elements that have made Sheed one of the finest essayists in the country—wryness, irony, a sometimes malicious candor—are often lost here in this valentine of a text. The considerable wit that enlivens the book is of a self-mocking kind, or else takes the form of gratuitous snippy comments about the decades he documents; in either instance, it leads us still further astray from the Luce enigma.
However, the full strength of Sheed’s prose returns when he ceases camouflaging the public Clare, and depicts her less controversial qualities: her furtive generosity, her capacity for friendship (especially with men). He is particularly skilled at describing the androgynous charm that enabled her to build her career. For alongside her talent for vocations that were thought of as “masculine” she retained throughout her life an old-fashioned coquettishness, rather like that of “a southern belle, for whom a certain flirtatiousness is simple good manners.” It was this kittenish grace that enabled her to learn from the many successful men whom she seduced into her orbit, and who taught her almost everything she would need to advance her career, from the problems of farm parity to the intricacies of international relations. “That passion to instruct” which led her to befriend young strangers such as Wilfrid Sheed was part of a passion to be instructed which was the central obsession of her life.
How would this seductive establishment feminist fare in our own times? Have we come to expect “women achievers” to be blunt and tousled? Have we lost that gallantry, Sheed muses, that once made us cherish the deeply female qualities possessed by the perennially soignée Clare Boothe Luce? Sheed shrewdly observes that the New Left of the Sixties treated its women considerably less well than the individualistic capitalists of the previous generation treated Clare. And that one of the ironies of her career is that her very femininity enabled her to move into men’s worlds that most women were scared even to touch, and to make clearings for other women in the future.
Henry Luce called his wife “Mike.” He had a passion for reading aloud in the evening, and on nights when they were alone he read aloud to Clare. Even as ambassador to Rome, the Dynamo might have listened, bent over her needlework.