Her life was like a cross between Sex and the City and Game of Thrones. In her youth, Clare Boothe Luce was a Depression-era Carrie Bradshaw, a go-getting, sexually freewheeling quipster who reveled in the hustle and bustle of Manhattan; by World War II, she had degenerated into a modern-day Cersei Lannister, entitled, power-hungry and morally hypocritical.
This sea change is one of the more memorable aspects of Price of Fame, the final volume of Sylvia Jukes Morris’ sweeping biography of Luce, a dynamo of ambition who parlayed sharp wit and seductive charm into fabulous wealth and political influence. Luce has receded into semi-obscurity, but for 15 straight years she occupied a spot on Gallup’s most admired women poll.
Her accomplishments were diverse and impressive: hit playwright, bestselling author, trend-setting socialite, sought-after public speaker, two-term congresswoman, U.S. ambassador to Italy, presidential advisor. But she did not rely solely on her intelligence and work ethic to satisfy what she called “a rage for fame.” Sleeping with rich, well-connected men was a trick she learned from a grasping and manipulative mother who would have put Kris Jenner to shame.
A Rage for Fame was the title of Morris’ acclaimed 1997 book on Luce. Covering the first 39 of her 84 years, it ended in 1942, with her election to Congress. Her second husband, Henry Luce, hoped this was only the beginning. A media mogul whose empire included Time and Fortune magazines, he had left a wife and two children for Clare, who had a daughter of her own from her first marriage to an alcoholic millionaire. They quickly established themselves as leading lights of the Republican establishment. There was even talk of naming her the vice presidential nominee in 1944.
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Now, after 17 years, Morris tells the rest of the story, and it’s not happy. Morris was genuinely fond of Clare, who granted her unfettered access to her papers before she died. Perhaps this is why she tries to gloss over the unpleasantness she discovered.
Her subject is not nearly as appealing this time around. One must also question the necessity of two volumes. Much could have been condensed or excised; Clare Boothe Luce lived an enviable life, but did she merit 1,300 exhaustively detailed (and well-written) pages, treatment usually accorded a world-historical figure?
Still, Morris chose her title well. Clare paid a heavy price for her fame. Whether she lost her soul after gaining the world, undoubtedly she suffered amid the splendor. Fate drew first blood with the death of her daughter. This bright, pretty heiress was crushed by a reckless driver. Clare was in such despair that she fell into the arms of the Roman Catholic Church.
Conversion ruined her creativity. Henceforth she became preachy; her prose, which had been praised for its acerbic honesty, grew hesitant and predictable. The threat of damnation did not stop her from attempting suicide on multiple occasions over her husband’s infidelity.
They were a mismatched couple: Henry was humorless, ill-mannered and thin-skinned. For the last 28 years of their marriage, he never had sex with her. His explanation was preposterous: He was in such awe of her that he could not get aroused. Other women, however, were not placed on so high a pedestal.
But Clare had cheated, too. Before she found God, Mrs. Luce welcomed several men into her bed, among them generals, financiers, diplomats and writers (Roald Dahl claimed to have been exhausted by her in a marathon session). One misses this Clare; she seems a lot more fun than the one who considered herself more Catholic than the Pope.
Religion crept into her politics as well. In Congress, she was a moderate Republican, in favor of civil rights, immigration and taxing the rich, any one of which would get her booted out of today’s GOP. But during the Cold War, she moved to the far right, denouncing godless Communism with inflammatory and belligerent rhetoric.
Things got weirder: She espoused anti-Semitic beliefs, treated lesser mortals shabbily (she once slapped the wife of an assistant who wished to leave her) and dropped acid for several years. Terrified of failure, she abandoned one project after another until all that was left was an old lady who, to paraphrase Citizen Kane, might have been a really great woman if she hadn’t married rich.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.