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.”
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.
April 1, 1982
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). ↩