FEATURE

Blond Ambition

IF CLARE BOOTHE LUCE, with her lowly origins and blinding ambition, hadn’t existed, she might have sprung fully formed from the imagination of Henry James—or, perhaps, Candace Bushnell. The very fact that it’s hard to figure out which universe of discourse Luce belongs in—the nuanced world of a literary master or the frothy realm of an expert purveyor of chick-lit—says a lot about the confusing tangle of impressions this brainy blond bombshell left in her wake. After many achievements—as a journalist, editor, playwright, wife of Time Inc. publisher Henry Luce, war correspondent, congresswoman, and ambassador to Italy—she would eventually become one of the first contemporary celebrities, famous for being famous. And although it would be too reductive to say that she was all style but no substance, it would be accurate to note that her passions, whether literary, political, or romantic, were singularly self-advancing.

All of which might help to explain why Sylvia Jukes Morris’s exhaustive and lengthy authorized biography, the second volume of which, Price of Fame, has now finally appeared (following upon the earlier Rage for Fame, published in 1997), leaves one wondering why a life so chockablock with incident doesn’t add up to something more consequential. It’s a question that kept chafing at me as I made my way through the more than 1,100 pages that make up the two volumes (sans endnotes). Why was it, I found myself wondering, that a figure like Jackie Kennedy, who in the end accomplished so much less than Luce, lingers in the collective imagination, while Luce, with her many considerable attainments, seems all but forgotten?

The difference has to do with many factors, including the iconography that attached itself to Jackie as the dignified—and always photogenic—First Widow after President Kennedy was assassinated. But it also, I suspect, has something to do with what we intuit about public personalities and their claim upon our attention. Luce was as insistent on hogging the spotlight as Jackie was on eluding it, which is never the way to ensure interest. Even at a moment of triumph, when her play The Women opened on Broadway in December 1936 to a mostly captivated audience, it bothered her that “none of the ants on the street had ever heard of me.” Similarly, while Jackie’s life behind the scenes teemed with motherhood, love interests, and private drama, Luce’s life away from the bright center seemed like a yawning void, no matter how many people were in attendance at her various homes. (“It’s a beautiful, well-constructed façade,” one of the men in her life observed, “but without central heating.”) The mystery of individual staying power—of figures who outlive their own moment versus figures whose relevance is limited to a specific time and place—is one of the many issues that Morris’s biography raises but never fully engages. Still, it is to the author’s credit that she does not take her subject’s significance for granted.

Clare Boothe Luce in Milan, 1953.

IN OUR END IS OUR BEGINNING, as T. S. Eliot noted, and in regard to Clare Boothe Luce’s life this long-angled perspective seems especially apt. She was born in New York City on March 10, 1903, the second illegitimate child of Anna Clara Schneider, who was four months short of twenty-one. Her mother was a beauty who had bewitched a forty-one-year-old married piano salesman and violin virtuoso named William Franklin Boothe, with whom she already had a son named David. From lower-class beginnings herself, Ann (as she was known) was a fantasist as well as femme fatale, one who specialized in tall tales: “Mother told people that her father was the youngest son of an impoverished Austrian noble,” Clare would write in an unpublished novel. “[She] could spin lies the way a spider spins a web. We were all entangled in them for years.”

Although she would also insist in later years that “I never drew a happy breath in my entire childhood” and that her mother “poisoned” her life, Clare was a strikingly pretty and precocious young girl who seems to have been largely adored by both her parents, despite their own unharmonious relationship. (They lived together in Nashville and then Chicago until Clare was eleven, at which point Ann moved back in with her parents in New Jersey, officially declaring herself a “widow,” and then to Manhattan’s Upper West Side.) Notwithstanding an acute shortage of funds, money was always found for Clare’s and her brother’s educations: After attending a girls’ preparatory school in Nashville, where she quickly garnered A’s in all subjects, Clare was sent to the illustrious Latin School for Girls in Chicago. In New York, where her family lived in squalor and Clare slept in an “airless room off the kitchen, prey to the bites of mice and rats,” she went to a private school on West Ninety-Sixth Street. Ann, meanwhile, had begun trading on her female charms with various gentlemen callers. One of them was a rich Canadian who invited Clare and her mother on a trip to Europe; on the ship across the Atlantic, an adolescent Clare discovered her own potential for seductiveness, learning to play chess from the prime minister of Hungary and beguiling the ship’s captain, who gave a dinner in her honor.

In the years that followed, Ann continued to rely on the generosity of male admirers, one of whom—an affluent bachelor named Joel Jacobs—eventually assumed financial responsibility for her children but whom she didn’t marry because she didn’t want to be “hampered by Jewish ties.” Clare became a boarding student at the Cathedral School of St. Mary in Garden City, which had a rigorous curriculum that included physics and Latin. She continued to develop intellectually and struck adults as “startlingly poised” but was disliked by her fellow students, who anointed her “the most conceited girl in the school”; eventually she transferred to another school, skipped eleventh grade, and became a senior at age fifteen. Having been primed by her aspirational mother to aim for the stars, Clare noted in her diary that “my whole heart and soul is wrapt up in three things. Mother, Brother and my ambition for success.”

Despite her brilliant academic career, Clare did not attend college (Morris attributes this, somewhat ambiguously, to her “lack of qualifications”) and instead diverted herself by taking riding lessons as well as fine-tuning an interest in politics (she published a sonnet in the Stamford Advocate that conveyed her frustration over President Woodrow Wilson’s capitulation on the “fourteen points”), catching a prizefight in Paris, visiting Berlin (where she observed Jews “like locusts buying things”), and entering into several heartfelt but financially vexed romantic relationships while continuing to dream of nabbing a rich husband. (“Matrimony,” she philosophized, “should be spelled matter o’ money.”) She also worked briefly for the National Woman’s Party in Washington, DC, at the behest of Alva Belmont, a rich radical feminist she had met on one of her seaboard voyages. On August 10, 1923, after a courtship of little over a month, a disillusioned twenty-year-old Clare married George Tuttle Brokaw, a forty-three-year-old millionaire bachelor—and, as it would turn out, an alcoholic. Their engagement was marked by a seventeen-carat-diamond solitaire ring as well as eighteen pieces of Vuitton luggage for use on their honeymoon; their wedding night was spent at the Plaza Hotel, where the marriage was probably not consummated, and the couple set sail for France the next day.

Clare’s immersion in the haut monde’s “whirl of dinner parties and balls” in the first few years of married life would give little indication of the consuming drive and “adamantine will” that would fuel her worldly ascent in the decades to come. But motherhood—she gave birth to a daughter (named, a bit confusingly, and vaingloriously, Ann Clare) in the summer of 1924—and the seasonal social rounds, not to mention her disappointment in her husband, left her restive. She obtained a Reno divorce from George on grounds of “extreme cruelty” in May 1929 (the couple’s parting was actually good-natured, with him sending her farewell orchids and providing a generous settlement), and from there on in seemingly nothing could stop her. Within the next five years she set herself up in a penthouse, where she was catered to by four servants and which featured a toilet-seat cover of ermine fur, “complete with dangling black-brown paws”; became a writer and editor for Frank Crowninshield’s Vanity Fair, producing pieces that were peppered with caustic wit and gimlet-eyed observations of the rich and pompous; hobnobbed with André Maurois and Edward Steichen; published a collection of her magazine articles, Stuffed Shirts; and schemed her way into the affections of any number of men, including Vanity Fair managing editor Donald Freeman, the financier and presidential adviser Bernard Baruch (“She was drawn as usual by the triple attributes of money, eminence, and seniority”), the writer Paul Gallico, a widowed tycoon named Howard Coffin, Buckminster Fuller, and Randolph Churchill. Her daughter Ann, meanwhile, had been stowed away at a boarding school at the age of eight, leaving an erratically doting Clare unencumbered.

All of the foregoing was excellent preparation for Clare’s next act, one in which she would cement her vision of herself as meant for great things by becoming the wife of publisher Henry Luce. For one thing, Clare’s tendency to spend lavishly on all aspects of her life, from building her wardrobe (“She went to Vionnet, Lavenal, and Jean Lanvin for dresses, Laura Belin for lingerie, Hermès for scarves . . . Caron for perfume, and Elizabeth Arden for makeup”) to decorating her homes to satisfying her cravings for jewelry and art, now had firmer backing than it had ever had; for another, Henry would bring her into a circle of accomplished and illustrious people, ranging from Somerset Maugham to Winston Churchill, and enable her to cast her lifelong passion for politics in an activist mold. Although their marriage would prove troubled on several fronts, not least sexually, and Henry would attempt to serve her with divorce papers in later years, the couple also had a real bond, based on shared interests and a visceral emotional connection. Indeed, the normally impassive Henry referred to his meeting with Clare on Sunday evening, December 9, 1934, as a “coup de foudre,” telling her within minutes of their first conversation that she was the one woman in his life. (This despite the fact that he was married and had met her once before without being particularly overcome.) They were married at a private ceremony on November 23, 1935, two days after Clare’s first attempt at playwriting, Abide with Me, opened to devastating reviews. (“Abide with Me is merely a gratuitous horror play,” the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson observed, “a literal portrait of people who are difficult to get on with in the theatre as well as at home.”) The play closed after thirty-six performances.

Morris’s first—and more compelling—volume focuses on Clare’s spectacular rise; by the end of it her play The Women has been made into a successful film directed by George Cukor, while Clare has written a well-received account of her impressions of the imperiled international situation titled Europe in the Spring and has become a Republican congresswoman, sparring with the influential journalist and radio broadcaster Dorothy Thompson and speaking out against FDR. Price of Fame, on the other hand, deals more directly with the demons that underlay her “ineffable charm” and manic energy. These included a dependence on drugs, such as stimulants and sleeping pills; spells of “the dismals” (her terms for her bouts of depression), which deepened after the successive losses of her mother and her only child, Ann, both of whom died in car accidents, the latter at the age of nineteen (although Henry Luce thought that Clare had treated her daughter “abysmally” in earlier years, the two had become increasingly close as Ann grew of more companionable age); compulsive habits, such as compartmentalizing her dresser drawers down to her stockings; chronic “deluxe loneliness,” as she termed it, and insecurity (“She deemed herself to be ‘unloved, unlovable and unloving’”); sexual frustration, despite the ministrations of a bevy of powerful men, including those she had met during her tour of the Allied campaigns in World War II, such as generals Lucian Truscott and Charles Willoughby; and an abiding antsiness, which led her to seek solace briefly in psychoanalysis and more successfully in Catholicism, to which she converted in 1946.

The dazzling pace of Clare’s life rarely slows down in the second volume, revealing her commitment to the political arena, where she operated as a uniquely empowered (by virtue of her marriage to Henry Luce) free agent. She was the first elected US official to testify about the horror of the concentration camps, which she visited in April 1945, arguing that footage of the atrocities should be shown to an incredulous public. In 1954 she became ambassador to Italy, the first American woman to be assigned to such an important diplomatic post. She remained firm in her hawkish anticommunism and her support of Republican candidates, such as Goldwater and Nixon, despite contradictory liberal leanings when it came to the civil-rights movement, feminism (she was an early advocate), and the establishment of Israel. She had a magnetic effect on onlookers for most of her political career, from her first press conference as a newly elected congresswoman from Fairfield County, Connecticut, in January 1943 to her eightieth birthday party on Capitol Hill in April 1983, where Richard Cohen of the Washington Post remarked to Morris: “That’s the only eighty-year-old I’ve ever wanted to jump into bed with.” This was in part because of her considerable beauty (“Her extraordinary translucent skin and blue eyes, shimmering with intelligence”), in part because of her stylish presentation (she always wore nail polish and a trademark fresh rose in her lapel, its stem in a tiny vial of water), and in part because of her ready wit and “gift for oratory.” Her way with dazzling put-downs—she characterized Vice President Henry Wallace’s global outlook as “globaloney”—led one colleague in the House, whose misuse of “inferred” for “implied” she scorchingly corrected, to note that she had “a tongue like a dragon’s.” (Baruch considered her to be “the best female intellect” of his acquaintance.) She displayed her vitality late into her career by keeping her hand in on a number of other fronts: traveling, decorating homes (including ones in Washington, DC, and Hawaii), taking cooking and art lessons, plying her sterling athleticism (after she bested Henry at golf early in their marriage, he never played with her again), swimming with dolphins, fighting off melancholy, experimenting with LSD, waiting out Henry’s affair with Lord Beaverbrook’s granddaughter Lady Jeanne Campbell, and shopping for designer clothes well into her eighties.

Throughout her long, controversial, and remarkably prolific life—she died at the age of eighty-four on October 9, 1987—Clare Boothe Luce remained “a practiced vamp,” arousing fascination and desire in the opposite sex. In other women, however, she characteristically inspired equal amounts of admiration and hostility, often setting their teeth on edge. Lady Diana Cooper, who considered Clare to be both “a great beauty” and “alarmingly intelligent,” observed of her strange effect on her own sex: “I think I am the only woman in England and one of a very few in America who like Clare. The bother is that it’s impossible not to be jealous of her. She has too much, and much, much too much confidence—which is what I am jealous of . . . No one likes it—if she concealed it, she’d be loved.”

Sylvia Jukes Morris has written what is in many ways a riveting and clear-eyed account of this complicated and self-contradictory figure, one who had everything a person could wish for and still experienced great unhappiness (she wrote to Morris that “my private life . . . has been sad . . . and sometimes tragic”), but the book is marked by what appear to me to be two not insignificant problems. The first is a strange, not wholly conscious antipathy toward its subject that affects the tone throughout, making it come across too often as sniping instead of critical, and seems consistent with the collective female response to Clare. Morris, who had complete access to Clare’s enormous collection of papers and essentially talked her way into a resistant Clare’s good graces, persisting in her wish to write her biography even after she was decisively turned down, also spent a good deal of time in Clare’s company in the last few years of her life. Although it is entirely for the better that she has not indulged in a hagiographic portrait, Morris frequently errs on the side of churlishness, such that I often found myself silently coming to her subject’s defense. Clare was undoubtedly a scheming narcissist who “needed ego-boosters to support her queenly aspirations, or commiserate with her when her spirits were low,” but she was also many other things—vulnerable and outspoken and capable of generosity as well as of a degree of realism about herself—and some of these nuances of character get short shrift in Morris’s rush to judgment.

The other flaw in the book has to do with its consistent overflow of information (do we really need to know the date Clare began menstruating? or the exact number of nights she made love with the younger writer William Harlan Hale?), which probably has a lot to do with the fact that we live in an informationally trigger-happy age but begins to grow fatiguing to read, especially in the second volume. Many of the details Morris has ferreted out are intriguing, but there is simply too much of a muchness, and I, for one, would have appreciated a bit more filtering. That said, this is a wholly impressive undertaking, done with no small degree of perfectionism (a trait Morris assuredly shares with her subject) and a daunting commitment to filling in the contours of a large and bustling story. For those for whom the name of Clare Boothe Luce still resonates, this is a fascinating, close-up look at a woman whose prodigious gifts were used in the service of her appetites for wealth, fame, and power. For those for whom her name doesn’t produce any echoes, this will serve as an introduction to a precursive female role model whose life is also something of a cautionary tale, a stylish striver whose blond ambition has not yet been matched in its scope by any woman who has come after her.

Daphne Merkin’s essay collection The Fame Lunches: On Wounded Icons, Money, Sex, the Brontës, and the Importance of Handbags was just published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.