Luce, Clare Boothe (1903–1987)

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Luce, Clare Boothe (1903–1987)

American editor, playwright, congresswoman, ambassador, and eminent convert to Catholicism. Born Clare Snyder Boothe in New York City on April 10, 1903; died on October 9, 1987; daughter of William F. Boothe (a theater violinist) and Anna Clara (Snyder) Boothe (a musical "chorus girl"); attended St. Mary's in Garden City, Long Island, New York, 1915–17; The Castle, Tarrytown, New York, 1917–19; Colby College, Fordham University, Litt.D., Creighton University, Georgetown University, and Temple University; married George Tuttle Brokaw (a garment-industry heir), on August 10, 1923 (divorced in Reno, 1929); married Henry R. Luce II (the Time magnate), on November 23, 1935 (died 1967); children: (first marriage) Ann Clare Brokaw (1924–1944).

Parents divorced and made first visit to Europe (1913); was associate editor of Vogue (1930); was associate editor of Vanity Fair (1931–32), and managing editor (1933–34); was a newspaper columnist (1934), and playwright (1935—); enjoyed success of The Women (1936); served as a war correspondent (1939–40); served as a member of 78th and 79th Congresses from 4th Connecticut district (1943–47); death of Ann Brokaw, her daughter, in a car accident (1944); served as U.S. ambassador to Italy (1953–57).

Selected writings:

Stuffed Shirts (1933); Europe in the Spring (1940); Abide with Me (play, 1937); The Women (play, opened December 1936, ran for 657 performances); Kiss the Boys Goodbye (play, 1938); Margin for Error (play, 1939); Come to the Stable (movie based on a Luce story, 1949); Child of the Morning (play, 1951); Slam the Door Softly (1970).

Clare Boothe Luce was in many respects a pioneer among 20th-century American women, being one of the earliest supporters of a constitutional Equal Rights Amendment for women, first congresswoman from her home state, and first woman to represent the United States as ambassador in a major European capital. She has not been acclaimed by all, however, because she was a political conservative, single-mindedly ambitious, sexually profligate, a ruthless controversialist and infighter, and owed at least part of her success to the cultivation of rich and powerful men. Her legacy is ambiguous, but the life of this talented woman was unique in its combination of opportunities offered, accepted, and mastered.

Her father was a theater violinist and her mother a Broadway actress and ex-chorus girl who blended a lofty romanticism with a sharp-eyed ambition for her children. The couple was rarely together, and Clare's father played little part in her upbringing; her parents were officially divorced in 1913. In his place, her mother had a succession of men friends, including a Jewish tire-merchant, Joseph Jacobs, who took care of Anna Boothe and her two children, but whom she refused to marry. Anna tried to prepare Clare for social success by sending her to private schools in New York (though she never got a high school diploma), and scraped together the money to take her on a cultural tour of Europe when she was ten, and another when she was sixteen. Despite her patchy schooling, Clare was intellectually ambitious, read George Bernard Shaw, Oswald Spengler, and the Victorian novelists, and dreamed of becoming a writer, while penning reams of adolescent poetry.

Her mother's remarriage to a prosperous surgeon, Dr. Albert E. Austin, in 1919 alleviated the family's long era of financial worries, and Anna Boothe now turned to finding a good match for Clare. She worked at it assiduously, even trying to bag the heir to the British throne when he visited America. She made a valuable friend of Eleanor Robson Belmont , one of the wealthy patrons of the women's suffrage movement, and, from the early 1920s right into the late 1970s, Clare was a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution (finally withdrawing her support when ERA was linked to the pro-choice abortion position, which she opposed). With Belmont's encouragement Clare learned to fly, and on one occasion dropped women's suffrage leaflets over Syracuse, New York.

One promising romance, during their European travels, turned sour. A British Guards officer, Julian Simpson, courted her in London when she was just 17, and they declared their love for each other before she sailed home. When Simpson pursued her, however, he realized for the first time, on seeing the house she lived in, that she was not a rich heiress and turned away coldly from her declarations of love. Her mother's efforts succeeded in 1923 when Clare, aged 20, married a 43-year-old clothing industry heir and millionaire, George Brokaw. They lived in a mansion at Newport, Rhode Island, but Brokaw's status as a nouveau-riche made them unwelcome among the snobbish grandees who had made their own fortunes a generation or two earlier. Clare expressed later her resentment at social snubs during this period in a collection of short stories, Stuffed Shirts (1930), the title of which says it all. In his informal biography of her, Wilfrid Sheed writes:

Clare's infuriating poise had obviously not been perfected yet, and certain insecurities peeped out, even while she toughed it out in her lonely salon. Perhaps this explains how someone as willful as Clare could have stood still for an arranged marriage with a dodo.

Brokaw showed a growing fondness for heavy drinking, which made him dangerously violent, and the marriage broke up in 1929 when she went to Reno to get a divorce. From the settlement, she received $26,000 per year for life and joint custody of their daughter Ann. She was now 26 and hardened by the experiences of this painful marriage.

[Henry Luce] did not put her on a pedestal: She built her own. She had made herself into an international celebrity, carved out her own careers in theater, magazines, and politics, and she raised herself up to be one of the most admired women in the world. Her life was a glittering Christmas tree, but in her own final summation, she admitted that she never fulfilled the dream of her life; she was never really a writer.

—Ralph G. Martin

Far from relaxing on what was then an ample income, Clare began to work, first for Vogue and then for Vanity Fair, beginning as a caption writer but climbing to the position of managing editor in 1933. There, among a long succession of celebrities and lovers, she met Bernard Baruch, the wealthy and influential advisor to a succession of presidents. Baruch fell in love with her (though they did not marry because, in his own way, he was devoted to his wife, Annie Griffen Baruch ), introduced her to Franklin Roosevelt, and helped her to become established at the fringes of Democratic Party politics and to widen her already immense circle of acquaintances. Despite Clare's skills as an editor, a frivolous and costly magazine like Vanity Fair could not survive the long hard grind of the Great Depression, and it was merged back into its parent magazine Vogue in 1936 by owner Condé Nast. By that time, however, its editor had new and grander prospects.

In 1935, Clare Boothe had met Henry Luce, the editor of Time magazine and chief of a growing press empire. Son of American missionaries to China, he was already married to Lila Hotz Luce (1899–1999), was the father of two sons, and was possessed of an active Presbyterian conscience. Nevertheless, he proposed marriage to her, she accepted, and he divorced his first wife. Clare had had the idea for a new, mass-circulation illustrated magazine to take the place of Vanity Fair. When it began in 1936, Life bore many of the hallmarks of her idea. Henry Luce did not want his new wife editing one of his journals, however, though a subsequent court case proved that she was right to have claimed that the idea had been hers first. Her exclusion from the editorship of the successful new magazine annoyed her, and from that time on she always insulted or ignored the executives of Time, Inc., who had spoken against her appointment. Denied an editorship and unable for medical reasons to have more children, Clare Boothe Luce turned to writing a new play,

She had written several earlier plays and one, Abide with Me, had been performed, though without much acclaim—she even modified the Time review of it in a disillusioned mood and wrote that it was "stinking and lousy." But the debut of The Women was a roaring success and at once made her a literary "lion." Some reviewers thought it was so artful that its director, George Kaufman, must have written it—one of many occasions on which her own work was treated as though a "man under the bed" must really be responsible for it. Based on her experiences getting a divorce in Reno a few years before, the play featured only women on stage, many of them spiteful, but each with her own tale of marital woe, making for a hilarious sequence of coincidences and double entendres, and enriched with a bitingly satirical script. She followed this Broadway success with two more, Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1938) and the anti-Nazi drama Margin for Error (1939). By then, she was a fully established figure on Broadway and could probably have continued to get her work on stage, but the outbreak of the Second World War (along with her sense that Henry did not much care for her show-business friends) led her to take up another new career, this time as a war correspondent.

The European war began in September 1939—more than two years before Pearl Harbor—and during those years Clare Luce traveled extensively through the European and Far Eastern theaters of conflict. Because of her husband's eminence, she gained access to all the important politicians in Britain and France, and was accorded VIP treatment by most of the generals she met, so hers was far from the slow, slogging experience of an ordinary war journalist. The outcome of this work was a book, Europe in the Spring, which described the "Phoney War"—the period between late 1939 and mid-1940, when Britain and France calmly awaited German moves rather than pressing an attack into Western Germany while the Wehrmacht was engaged in Poland. Satirical in tone, Europe in the Spring proved prophetic when the German army turned on France and the Low Countries with annihilating power later that year. The book also demonstrated that she could become an accomplished political journalist if she stayed with it, though Dorothy Parker headlined her review "All Clare on the Western Front."

Back in America in the summer of 1940, Luce found that her husband was backing Wendell

Willkie as Republican presidential candidate for the forthcoming election. Although her earlier political dabbling had been with the Democrats, she now swung behind the Willkie candidacy too, and made a series of speeches on his behalf, showing yet another talent never previously exploited. Willkie lost to Roosevelt who won an unprecedented third term with the slogan "You don't change horses in mid-stream" (meaning don't give up an experienced president for an inexperienced one at the height of a world war). During the campaign, Clare Boothe Luce had developed a taste for the cut and thrust of electioneering. Two years later, she acted on this new obsession and ran successfully for Congress in the Connecticut district her stepfather, Dr. Austin, had held from 1938 to 1940. She won re-election in 1944, despite being the first woman to represent any Connecticut district in Congress.

In 1944, her reputation for hard-hitting speeches and her personal magnetism also led the Republican Party to offer her the keynote speech at the convention which nominated Thomas Dewey as their presidential candidate. In this speech, she broke a taboo by declaring (quite accurately, but in a way which enraged Democrats) that Franklin Roosevelt was so sick his death was imminent. She also said that Roosevelt was responsible for the death of "GI Jim," the soldier who did not return from the war to the hero's welcome reserved for "GI Joe." Roosevelt, she added, had "lied us into the war" (a line she later regretted, admitting that "lying was clearly the only way to get us there"). Her Democratic Party opponent in the Congressional election of 1944 was another attractive woman, Margaret Connors , who almost managed an upset; President Roosevelt had encouraged Connors to "continue the fight until the Congress is rid of that untamed shrew." Luce's hair-breadth victory was rumored to have been achieved by covert bribery on the part of her friend Bernard Baruch.

Her main political interest in 1942 and 1944, as it had been in 1940, was winning the war; her domestic policy proposals were uncontroversial, if anything quite liberal, and she was careful to mollify the trade unionists in her district. In an augury of things to come, she also avoided praising the Soviet Union, at the time America's ally—her constituency was full of anti-Communist Catholics, with whose views she was in ready sympathy. In a succession of speeches as the war ended, she urged presidents Roosevelt and Truman not to let the nations of Eastern Europe fall uncontested into the Soviet sphere of influence.

Luce as Congresswoman was in a bind. Already famous as a glamorous woman, she was treated by much of the media more as a fashion statement than as a politician, but if she tried to work hard on genuine policy questions, she was suspected of plotting on behalf of Henry Luce's sinister ambitions. There were many critics whom she was destined not to please whatever she did. On the other hand, her prior fame and notoriety meant that she never had to endure the years of obscurity suffered by most incoming congressional representatives. Her interest in a cause or issue would win for it instant publicity, and knowledge of this fact made her influential in the House from the start. Her political style was highly combative; she was willing to get into ugly political feuds and to make long-lasting enemies. The events of 1944 were typical. She hacked away mercilessly against Roosevelt in preelection speeches, making some analysts think she was doing more harm than good to the Republican cause. But she held her own seat, and then set off on a tour of the European theater of war, winning press plaudits at every stop, receiving royal treatment from generals Patton, Eisenhower, and Mark Clark, and keeping her fellow congressional delegation members completely in the shade.

Despite her successes in Congress, Clare Boothe Luce left Washington in 1946 and did not run for re-election. She had soured on politicians and the "fishbowl" life of a congresswoman, and was trying to come to terms with new difficulties in her life. Her daughter Ann Brokaw, aged only 19, had been killed in a car accident. In addition, Clare Luce realized that her magnetic hold over her husband was beginning to fade, and that he was having a love affair with Jean Dalrymple , a theatrical agent, and flings with several other women. Luce herself was widely reported to be, at various times, the lover of Bernard Baruch, Joseph Kennedy (the future president's father), Buckminster Fuller, Irwin Shaw, George Kaufman, and others, so that a vigorous gossip mill in New York and Washington found plenty of material to keep the allegations flying. When Henry Luce asked her for a divorce so that he could marry Dalrymple, she would agree to it only if he gave her, as part of the settlement, 51% of Time, and to this surrender of his business he could not consent. Uneasily, they remained together.

Between 1946 and 1952, Clare Luce was out of the limelight for a time, during which she converted to Roman Catholicism, despite having shown no interest in religion during the earlier part of her life. Monsignor Fulton Sheen, the Catholic radio and television celebrity, was given the credit for bringing her into the Catholic Church; Sheen and New York's Cardinal Spellman both seemed willing to accept this convert's divorce and remarriage as a fait accompli, despite the strict Church teaching against divorce. In 1952, she tried to resume her political career by running for a U.S. Senate seat in Connecticut, but did not even get as far as the Republican nomination. As a consolation prize, President Eisenhower, that election year's big winner, appointed her American ambassador to Italy, making her the first woman to hold such a senior diplomatic post. Much of the Italian press considered the appointment a slight to their country's dignity, an indication that America now saw Italy as a third-rate power, though Luce proved to be a skillful diplomat and quieted their indignation. Luce was in Italy from 1953 to 1957 and quite actively supported Alcide de Gasperi's Christian Democratic Party against the strong Italian Communists, while trying to aid Italy in its claim on the port city of Trieste against Marshal Tito's Yugoslavia. Henry Luce spent half of each year with her in Rome (he had a makeshift office there so that he could carry on running the Time empire) and half back in New York. They apparently still enjoyed being a powerful public couple.

Her service in Italy finally proved satisfactory to the population and to the American government, but it ended in an odd way. Her hair began falling out, and she lost some teeth. An investigation by CIA men showed that poisonous lead and arsenic dust from the paint on her sitting room's ceiling was falling on her when she slept on the couch, causing a disorienting effect. She parried malicious reports of being drunk in public with an explanation that she was suffering a mild form of poisoning. But as Sheed notes, "Since she and Harry had long since been dubbed 'Arsenic and old Luce' the poison on the ceiling provided, so to speak, the icing on the cake." Back in America before the 1956 election, it seemed possible for a time that she might displace Richard Nixon and become Eisenhower's running mate for his second bid at the presidency, but the "Dump Nixon" mood soon passed, and Luce carried on for a few more months in Rome.

Eisenhower was sufficiently impressed by her work in Italy that he nominated her as his envoy first to the funeral of Pope Pius XII and then to the coronation of Pope John XXIII in 1958. Next, he offered her the post of ambassador to Brazil. This time, however, her reputation as a Republican firebrand led her into trouble during her Senate confirmation hearing. Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, an enemy of Henry Luce for Time's rough handling of his own career, led the charge, and tried to veto her appointment by announcing that in the 1920s she had undergone psychiatric treatment (following her divorce). The allegation was true, but the combative Luce answered that Morse had been kicked in the head by a horse, on the right side, and that he had been "thinking left" ever since. She won the Senate confirmation 79–11 but the furor over this acid remark aroused Brazilian as well as American tempers and finally she decided to withdraw from the position altogether.

After that, she held no more public appointments. In the 1960s, she began to write frequently for National Review, the conservative magazine which William F. Buckley, Jr., had founded in 1955. She was an early and ardent defender of the American cause in Vietnam, treating the war in part as a defense of Catholic South Vietnam against "Godless Communism." With Henry Luce, she now moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where the two of them experimented with LSD in the days before it became a notorious and illegal "hippie" drug. Henry Luce died in 1967, having resisted the temptation, a few years before, to leave Clare and marry his girlfriend Jean Campbell , who was the granddaughter of the British press baron Lord Beaverbrook. Though she was upset about his affair, Clare quipped: "If Harry marries Jean and I marry Lord Beaver-brook, then I'll be Harry's grandmother."

In the 1970s, Luce became an ardent champion of the anti-abortion movement, and was dismayed by the Supreme Court's liberalization of the abortion laws in Roe v. Wade (1973). She became a regular contributor to the Human Life Review, a journal of the pro-life movement, and appeared frequently on Buckley's television show "Firing Line" where he treated her with amiable deference as the Grand Old Woman of American conservatism. She now spent long periods of time in Hawaii, but died back in New York in 1987 at the age of 84. Her life had witnessed a transformation of America's role in the world, and of the role of women in American public life. Her rare blend of beauty, charm, social grace, ambition, literary talent, and political acumen had made her one of the most visible women of the century, but certainly not one who could ever win universal esteem.


Baughman, James L. Henry R. Luce. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Hatch, Alden. Ambassador Extraordinary: Clare Boothe Luce. NY: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1956.

Martin, Ralph G. Henry and Clare: An Intimate Portrait of the Luces. NY: Putnam, 1991.

Shadegg, Stephen. Clare Boothe Luce: A Biography. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1970.

Sheed, Wilfrid. Clare Boothe Luce. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1982.

suggested reading:

Morris, Sylvia Jukes. Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce. NY: Random House, 1997.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia