Luce Canon

Reading between the lines.
May 28 1997 3:30 AM

Luce Canon

The apotheosis of a memorable bitch.

Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce
By Sylvia Jukes Morris
Random House; 544 pages; $30

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Pick Clare Boothe Luce as the answer to a game of Twenty Questions, and you'll probably stump your interlocutors. Luce's fame was a floaty, ineffable thing, not easy to get at with "yes" or "no" inquiries. Was she a playwright? In 1936, Luce wrote The Women, an unapologetically catty satire of female competition that achieved a lasting notoriety and a venom so pure it was almost guileless. But though she turned out a couple of plays after that, they never achieved the same kind of critical or commercial success. Even The Women lives on primarily in George Cukor's film version, where the preposterous hats those society dames wear are half the joke. Was she a journalist? In the early 1930s, she served briefly as the managing editor of Vanity Fair, then a deco dream of a magazine gleaming with smart chat. When World War II broke out, she filed dispatches from Europe for Life, the picture magazine launched by her husband, Henry, based on an idea she'd whispered in his ear. But reporting soon palled. Was she a politician? As a Republican congresswoman from Connecticut and later, as Eisenhower's ambassador to Italy, she brought a jaunty Realpolitik to the anti-Communist cause. But she didn't say much about the Soviet threat that wasn't already being said, to a wider audience, in her husband's other weekly magazine, Time.

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What made Clare Boothe Luce famous had nothing to do--directly, at least--with the lasting value of any of these accomplishments. What made her famous is that she did all these things in one lifetime, like a paper doll that comes with different costumes for different vocations (the girl about town, the war correspondent, the ambassador); that she did them all and was beautiful; that she did them all in a perfumed cloud of scandal and glamour, trailed by many lovers and by gossip that she herself stoked with her acerbic tongue and her thirst for celebrity.

In a way Luce is the ideal subject for this particular moment in the art of biography. The relative slightness of her work is part of the attraction. It forms the latticework through which we can peer at the risqué private life, the slender pretext for voyeurism's pleasures. Well into this century, biography was the art of inspiring readers with the spectacle of an exemplary life, or of offering insights into an exemplary body of work. This narrowed the range of subjects to the conventionally eminent, mainly men. Now--thanks to feminism, a general skepticism about the great man theory of history, and an even more general interest in the details of sexually adventurous lives--biographers are more likely to focus on women, less likely to care about their canonical status. Bohemian types whose lives beckon with an erotic shimmer while their artistic output goes unread--Vita Sackville-West, Mabel Dodge Luhan--are in. So are clever and seductive limelight seekers like Luce. The life's work matters less than the lifestyle. And, frankly, it helps to have slept around.

As it happens, this premium on the juicy stuff has emerged in unlikely tandem with a new professionalization of the biographer's trade. Biographies these days are likely to be heavy and clanking with scholarly apparatus--exhaustively researched, loaded with random information about far-flung progenitors, and long. And so arrives a peculiar hybrid, the dishy biography that is also a formidable work of research. Three hundred pages into Sylvia Jukes Morris' Rage for Fame and mostly enjoying myself, I was astonished to flip to the last page (473) and discover that this was only Volume 1. I'd been dumped unceremoniously in 1942, having just seen Clare--by now I was certainly on first-name terms with her--off to Washington for her first term in Congress. Like one of her hapless boyfriends, I'd been left without so much as a forwarding address. And in churlish retrospect, I began to wonder how much we really needed to be told that Clare's first pet was a fluffy chick named Pip that lived "only a short time."

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T hat said, this is a biography that nicely captures the schemes and dreams of an ambitious young woman in the pre-feminist era. Luce's early years mark her as a classic American upstart. Born in 1903 to parents who never married (her father, William Boothe, was already married to someone else), Clare was the repository of her socially frustrated mother's yearnings for a brilliant destiny. Her parents were poor, and her mother, Ann Snyder, obsessed with trading first on her own beauty and then on Clare's for a life of satin sheets and annual sailings on the Conte di Savoia. Neither was especially nice about it. After Ann left William (whose once-promising career as a salesman had devolved into an impecunious one as a roving violinist), she hooked up with a wealthy Jewish tire tycoon named Joel Jacobs. He kept her and her two children in grand style, even after she married a third man. But none of that prevented Ann from rejecting a New York hotel because it was "a dirty place full of Jews" (as Clare later put it), or from explaining to Clare that she could never marry Jacobs because "I don't want my children to have a Jewish father."

As a teen-ager, Clare herself was given to pronouncements like: "Matrimony! It should be spelled matter o' money." At 20, she made good on her pun when, with her mother's active encouragement, she married 43-year-old George Brokaw, who was very, very rich and not terribly bright. He wrote her love letters in baby talk, and when he got drunk--which was often--he serenaded his elegant young wife with Princeton glee-club songs rendered on the banjo. "Don't worry," her mother soothed. "He'll fall down those marble stairs soon enough." But after six long years of marriage and one child, he wasn't yet in "dying condition," Clare complained, "and I am not going to waste my life waiting for him to get in it." The divorce left her a wealthy young woman indeed.

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I n a double-barreled biography this big, you're bound to get some extraneous details. But in general, Sylvia Jukes Morris has an excellent eye for the telling anecdote, and with the help of Luce's tattletale diaries, she has unearthed one after another. The stories she tells about Luce's magazine career make up a kind of profile in chutzpah, and are particularly fun to read. When Clare applied for her first magazine job--writing picture captions for Vogue--and heard nothing from the editors, Morris writes, "she put on a gray dress with white collar and cuffs, went back to the Graybar Building, and persuaded an assistant that she was a new employee. She took a seat at an empty desk in the editorial department and waited for some work to arrive. After a while it did." When the editor in chief returned from her vacation "and found Clare in place, looking both businesslike and elegant, she assumed Condé [Nast] had hired her. He, in turn, thought she had." As a junior editor at Vanity Fair, Clare started an affair with the managing editor, Donald Freeman, who was brainy, homely, and enthralled by her. By the time he died, in a car accident that may have been an act of suicide provoked by Clare's indifference, she'd learned enough from him to step into his job with assurance and fill it with panache.

What Rage for Fame makes abundantly clear is how essential the patronage of powerful suitors and would-be suitors was for Luce, and probably for other career women of her generation as well. A female editor or correspondent was still something of a novelty act in the '30s and '40s, a luxury that male employers could forgo without compunction or a lawsuit. It was harder to forgo the beautiful ones--elegant, blond Clare, for instance, with her hard-won hauteur and Lilly Daché hats and petal-white skin. But if beauty was a handmaiden to ambition, motherhood was not. Luce packed her young daughter off to distant boarding schools and summer camps every chance she got. "It's a beautiful, well-constructed façade, but without central heating," as one of Clare's escorts said of her.

Maybe the best way to portray a character like Clare Boothe Luce would be to transport her to fiction. There, you could leave behind the old expectations of biography--grand deeds, historical importance--and bring an ironist's sensibility to her inner life. You could imagine, for example, Edith Wharton writing of Boothe, as she did of Lily Bart, that to Miss Boothe, "acquiescence in dinginess was evidence of stupidity; and there were moments when, in the consciousness of her own power to look and be so exactly what the occasion required, she almost felt that other girls were plain or inferior from choice." But we have no Edith Wharton, and this is the age of Real Lives. Rage for Fame will have to do.

Margaret Talbot is a senior editor at the New Republic.

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