March 10, 1903 – Clare Boothe Luce
“If I had my life to live over again, I would have been a good deal kinder, I think. There’s one thing about getting old—you look back on the callous acts you did. I don’t think I meant to be unkind; it was just that at a certain time of my life my imagination didn’t encompass the sufferings or the problems that other people were having.”
It is important to remember her for her many accomplishments, but for gay people and lovers of camp, she will always be held in our hearts for giving us the 1936 Broadway comedy The Women and its 1939 film version directed by George Cukor, starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine and Mary Boland, with a screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfi that sticks close to the play.
The Women, in case you missed the 20th century, is about the pampered lives and power struggles of a group of wealthy Manhattan socialites and the gossip that does damage to their relationships. Men are the subject of their lively discussions, but they are never seen in the play or film.
Luce’s varied career included the editorship of Vanity Fair magazine, writing hit Broadway plays, serving as controversial Republican member of the House of Representatives from Connecticut, plus, in the Eisenhower Administration, a becoming a hardworking and frequently praised Ambassador to Italy.
She was also the sharp, outspoken wife of one of the nation’s most influential publishers, Henry R. Luce, whose magazine empire included Time, LIFE, Fortune and Sports Illustrated.
She was often on the lists of the world’s most admired women, but her glamour and her tart tongue drew criticism, often partisan, sometimes envious.
She was born Clare Boothe in New York City. Her father was a violinist, her mother was a chorus girl. Her parents separated when she was eight years old. She was brought up by her mother who had to work, but still managed to take her to France for a year and send her private schools.
She became interested in the Women’s Suffrage movement and was hired to work for the National Woman’s Party in Washington, D.C. and Seneca Falls, New York.
In 1919, her mother married a prominent physician from Greenwich, Connecticut on a trip to Europe, where the 18-year-old Luce met the fabulous hostess and interior designer Elsa Maxwell who announced:
”I’ll have her to one of my parties. Whatever happens then, she’ll get a rich husband.”
That’s what happened. Luce met George Tuttle Brokaw, a millionaire-playboy. They married in 1923 in a wedding that was an important social event. Brokaw, 23 years older than Luce, was a heavy drinker and abused his wife. After six years of marriage she was granted divorce with a half million in alimony.
She implored Conde Nast, the publisher of Vogue and Vanity Fair, for a job. She did a stint writing photo captions for Vogue and then Vanity Fair‘s editor, Frank Crowninshield, hired her after challenging her to make a list of 100 bright ideas. She rose quickly to assistant editor and wrote satirical pieces about society that were later collected in a book, Stuffed Shirts (1933).
Her penthouse apartment was where the social, artistic and political celebrities who were featured in Vanity Fair‘s pages would gather. She became managing editor of the magazine, bringing in more political material to help revive the magazine. She left in 1934.
She had written three plays that were never produced. Her first produced play, Abide With Me (1935). was a disaster. It was about a drunken, sadistic husband who is shot in the head in the last act. She never went to another opening night.
Two days after the opening, she married Henry R. Luce. The two struck sparks on their first meeting, when they were seated together at a dinner party and Luce ignored her. The next time they met, at a party at the Waldorf-Astoria, she decided to pay back her future husband by asking rude questions. This time he was enthralled by her.
The marriage lasted, although there were rumored problems, perhaps inevitable in a marriage between two strong personalities. She had her careers and he had his magazines.
She returned to writing plays and with The Women in 1936, she had a hit.
In 1938, her play Kiss The Boys Goodbye, a satire on the search for the female lead in Gone With The Wind was a box-office smash, and so was Margin For Error, a zany comedy about anti-Nazism the next year.
At the start of World War II, she sailed to Europe as a correspondent for LIFE for a firsthand look at the war. Her reporting was gathered for a book Europe In The Spring. Dorothy Parker called it: ”All Clare On The Western Front.”
The marriage was difficult. Her husband was extremely successful, but his physical awkwardness, lack of humor, and discomfort with conversation, put him in awe of his wife’s poise, wit, and imagination. Her years as managing editor of Vanity Fair gave her a keen interest in journalism.
Their marriage was an “open” one. Her lovers included Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, Randolph Churchill, and Lucian K. Truscott, Jr. Kennedy was the father of several United States politicians, and she provided advice to the campaigns of John F. Kennedy.
In 1941, Luce toured China and reported on the status of the country and its war with Japan. Her profile of General Douglas MacArthur was on the cover of LIFE on December 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After the USA entered the war, Luce toured military installations in Africa, India, China, and Burma, compiling a further series of reports for LIFE. She published interviews with Chiang Kai-shek and Jawaharlal Nehru.
In 1943, Luce decided to run for the House of Representatives from Fairfield County, Connecticut.
Despite her friendships with the New Dealers, she was by now a Republican and made speeches critical of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration’s handling of the war. Riding an off-year tide of anti-Administration sentiment, she defeated the Democrat incumbent.
In her first speech in the House, she attacked a proposal by Vice President Henry A. Wallace calling for postwar freedom of the air. Luce labeled the Wallace proposal ”globaloney.” In Congress, she spoke out on foreign policy as well as for racial equality in the armed forces and war production.
Despite a brief infatuation with Communism in the 1930s, Luce was as an early hardline anti-Communist.
She won re-election in 1944. Her 19-year-old daughter was killed in an automobile accident that year. A Jesuit priest introduced her to Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, whose radio broadcasts were popular. She became a Catholic in 1946.
She described the widening battleground of World War II as:
“…a world where men have decided to die together because they are unable to find a way to live together.”
Because of personal problems and long separations from her husband, Luce did not seek re-election in 1946. She remained politically active, and in 1952 she campaigned for Dwight D. Eisenhower.
He offered her Secretary of Labor, but she turned it down. He then named her Ambassador to Italy, stirring controversy because of Luce’s Catholicism, her lack of diplomatic experience and because she was a female.
She did help lay the diplomatic groundwork for an international conference that worked out a compromise on the status of the pretty city of Trieste, a dispute that threatened war between Yugoslavia and Italy.
She made strongly anti-Communist speeches and warned of cutoffs of American aid to Italian industry because communists dominated the labor unions. Once her chauffeur misunderstood her directions and took her to the residence of Italian President Giovanni Gronchi. Luce, whose relations with the Gronchi were strained, took the occasion to persuade him to allow American troops to be stationed in Italy.
In 1959, Luce was nominated to be the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil. A determined opposition to her appointment was mounted in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon. Luce was confirmed both by the committee and the Senate, but she could not resist a final jab at Morse:
”My difficulties, of course, go back some years, when Senator Morse was kicked in the head by a horse.”
There was a big fuss, but Eisenhower defended her while her husband publicly urged her to resign, which she did.
In 1964 she announced that she was running for the Senate in New York State as the Conservative Party candidate and became a supporter of Senator Barry Goldwater, whose nomination for President she had seconded at the Republican convention. Under pressure from the party and Goldwater himself, she withdrew from the race right before of the Conservative Party convention.
After her husband died in 1967, she moved into an apartment at the Watergate complex in Washington DC. In 1973, Richard Nixon named her to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. She remained on the board until Jimmy Carter succeeded Gerald Ford. Luce served on Ronald Reagan‘s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. She could hold an elegant dinner party and afterward write checks to Cuban guerrillas who promised to kill Fidel Castro.
Long considered a hero of the Feminist Movement, Luce had mixed feelings about the role of women in society. While serving in Congress in 1943, she was invited to co-sponsor the Equal Rights Amendment, but claimed that the invitation got lost in her mail. Luce advised women to marry and provide supportive homes for their husbands. Yet, her own career as a successful editor, writer, playwright, reporter, legislator, and diplomat showed how a woman with no college education could raise herself up. Luce left a personal fortune of $50 million to the Clare Boothe Luce Program, to encourage women to go into technological fields traditionally dominated by men. Because of her determination and unwillingness to let her gender stand in the way. In 2017, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
In the early 1960s, both Luces were friends with openly gay LSD advocate Gerald Heard, and she was known to have tripped several times.
Her LSD diaries are now public at the Library of Congress. Her handwritten accounts of her acid trips in the 1960s capture a moment when the drug counterculture was beginning to alter the consciousness of the American Establishment. Gore Vidal says Luce told him that she was taking the drug “under medical supervision”. Vidal:
“That’s the sort of thing that public figures say privately.”
The Luces were one of the great power couples of American History. Luce checked out for good at her apartment at The Watergate in 1987, gone at 84.