Clare Boothe Luce:
A Singular, Sensational Life

By Harold Frost

Biography magazine, 2002

Clare Boothe Luce was a Broadway playwright, war correspondent, society goddess, Congresswoman, and wife of the world’s most powerful media tycoon. She was a U.S. ambassador, political commentator, and LSD pioneer. She led a spectacularly interesting life in an era when the idea of a woman having one formidable career – much less several – was almost unheard-of.

Clare Boothe Luce (1903-1987)

Born in New York City on March 10, 1903, she was the daughter of the beautiful and ambitious Anna Clara Schneider, age 20, and William Boothe, 41, a salesman and musician. William and Anna never married, a fact their daughter carefully hid in later years.

Anna, a single mom, “poisoned my life,” said Clare in her old age. Her mother was an unhappy, pushy soul who taught the girl to crave money, fame, status, and power. Clare was thus propelled to accomplishment, but she paid a price – for years she gave short shrift to wisdom and spiritual growth, and she never found enduring, mature love.

In her early days she aspired to act, and briefly served as a Broadway understudy, but didn’t follow up. She obtained a decent high school education, showing smarts, spunk, and a feel for literature. Lacking the formal credentials for college, she never attended; instead, she traveled, read, and had a few flings.

In 1923, age 20, she was beautiful, bright, self-centered, and watching for the main chance. When it came ambling along, she grabbed it, just as she’d been trained. (Her mother helped in the grabbing.)

His name was George Tuttle Brokaw. He was 43, rich and handsome, and a drunk, possibly a mean one. Clare had a child with him, a daughter she named Ann; toward the end of the 1920s she dumped the old boy and began collecting alimony checks.

She was now a Manhattan divorcee, 26 years old, with plenty of cash and a staff of servants to keep an eye on the kid. She also had, in the words of a later observer, a “lust to function” – an imperial need to accomplish something substantial on her own other than bearing a child. In those days, women with such a desire had few role models, so Clare “had to invent herself, for better or worse,” writes author Wilfrid Sheed in his memoir of his long friendship with her: “It was a brand new territory, outside the tiny compound where women lived in those days.”

She invented herself as a writer, a profession she’d wanted to pursue all her life. Connections helped. At a dinner party in New York in 1929 she made the acquaintance of Conde Nast, magazine publisher extraordinaire, and soon after, he gave her a job as an editorial assistant at Vogue. She functioned brilliantly – writing, editing, attacking tasks, meeting every deadline – and also had an affair with a key editor. The mixture of competence and sex worked well. After three years she was named managing editor of Vanity Fair, another Conde Nast publication. During this period she wrote her first book, “Stuffed Shirts,” and made sure it got a thumbs-up review in her magazine. (She wrote the piece herself; it was published unsigned.) Also during these years she dropped the “Brokaw” and became Clare Boothe.

Meanwhile she partied with gusto. A sense of her capacity for fun and/or zesty manipulation can be gleaned from a New York dinner she attended in the autumn of 1932, where she sat with four people who, unbeknownst to one another, had all gone to bed with her or wished this event to transpire: Conde Nast (he wanted her with every cell of his 59-year-old body, and they possibly had a fling), Nast’s young wife Leslie (ditto on the lust, but they probably didn’t get together), a writer named William Harlan Hale (Clare had a romance with him the previous summer in Maine), and the financier and politico Bernard Baruch, 62, with whom Clare had a long affair around this time. Baruch was probably the love of her life, but he was married and would not leave his wife.

Clare glowed like the Manhattan skyline during these years, but some of the light was drug-induced, writes biographer Sylvia Jukes Morris, who cites her subject’s “lifelong dependence” on uppers and sleeping pills. Deep down, Clare seems to have felt terrifyingly empty at least some of the time. She wrote in her diary in the 1930s, “My heart is heavy, and I know I am worthless, shallow, insincere with everyone – and myself.” The artist Frida Kahlo, a genius at observation, knew Clare in the late ’30s and regarded her as “cold, brittle, and impenetrably defensive.” Raymond Bret-Koch, an artist who occasionally took her out, described her as having a “beautiful, well-constructed facade, but without central heating.”

On December 9, 1934, Clare Boothe, 31, attended a party at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel for the Cole Porter show “Anything Goes.” Simply everyone was there, including Henry Luce, 36, co-founder and publisher of Time and Fortune magazines (Life came along a bit later). Clare had met Luce briefly a few weeks earlier and perhaps had been pondering him. At the party, as he walked along the perimeter of the dance floor carrying glasses of champagne for himself and his wife Lila, Clare announced her presence: “Oh, Mr. Luce, you’re no doubt bringing me that champagne.” Indeed, replied Mr. Luce, and they began to chat. Clare was a master conversationalist, skilled at making men fall in love with her as talk unfolded at elegant tables as everyone watched, ogled, and absorbed the vibe. Within minutes of sitting down next to her, Luce apparently was prepared to throw over his wife of 10 years (and the mother of his two sons) and begin life anew. What Harry Luce wanted, Harry Luce usually got; Harry and Clare married within a year.

Harry Luce was the most powerful American media mogul/editor/publisher of his time. Clare wanted power. Women in the 1930s got power by inheriting it or marrying it. By becoming Harry Luce’s wife, Clare created an American power couple second only to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The Luce dinner table, overlooking Manhattan, filled with the best cuisine and wine, hosted the world’s most important and interesting people; power flowed like a mighty river. Clare had a say in how the magazine empire was run, and had access, as a writer, to the empire’s pages. She didn’t get the gig she really wanted – running the show at Life (which began publication on November 23, 1936, and needed experience at the helm) – but, well, maybe that job would become available down the road. (It didn’t.)

The Life circulation jumped in one year to 1.5 million. (However, it was perpetually plagued by high costs and not enough ad income.) Harry and Clare toasted one another with champagne as they examined the bright lights of the big city.

Clare Boothe Luce enjoyed another huge success during these incredible months. (Really, someone should make a movie about Claire from the 1930s to the ’80s.) On December 26, 1936, her play “The Women” opened on Broadway and was a hit. Rumors spread that the play had been improved by the great comic writer George S. Kaufman; Clare denied the gossip. Biographer Morris says the best evidence points to Clare as the sole author, but others are dubious – critic and historian Nora Sayre writes that the denials of doctoring “aren’t fully convincing, since the play is far funnier than anything else she wrote” – an accurate point. Whatever the truth is, Clare was the one who answered the curtain calls. The 1939 film version was also a success, directed by George Cukor and starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell. Critic Leonard Maltin gives the movie three-and-a-half stars out of four and calls it “hilarious.” Critic Pauline Kael notes that the work “confirms rich men’s worst suspicions and fantasies of what women want (money) and what they’re like when they’re together (clawing beasties).”

Clare’s 1938 play “Kiss the Boys Goodbye” is an allegory about American fascism. Her play “Margin of Error” in 1939 was moderately well-received. She also invested in shows, making money from “Oklahoma!” in the 1950s.

In early 1940, as Europeans drew their swords (and in some cases failed to do so), she traveled the continent as a Life correspondent; her book “Europe in the Spring” was published in September of ’40, receiving respectful reviews and achieving bestsellerdom. She visited several war theaters for Life in 1941-42.

To outside observers, Clare and Harry appeared to be a splendid couple, and in some ways they were, but not in the way of actual love. By 1940 or thereabouts they apparently had stopped sleeping together. Wilfrid Sheed writes that Harry could function sexually with only one woman at a time: “As soon as someone, anyone, else came along, that was that. Whoever came along, I deduce, did so after about five years” of marriage to Clare.

The Luces stayed married because they excited one another in conversation; the ideas that sprang forth at their table helped shape the world. Also, Harry was a devoted father to Clare’s daughter Ann, now a teenager. And, of course, he was fabulously rich. Clare was free to indulge in flings. Whether her central heating problem ever got fixed is not known.

Before marrying Luce, Clare supported the Democratic Party and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her husband saw things differently, and as Clare later said, “You married Harry, you became a Republican.” In the 1940 presidential campaign, on the strength of the Luce name and her book about Europe, Clare made a number of speeches for Wendell L. Willkie, the Republican candidate for president. She was outstanding on the platform and loved applause. She had always relished politics; she now wanted to get elected to something, and in 1942 she won a Republican seat in the House of Representatives from a safe district in Connecticut.

She served two terms, doing significant work on atomic energy and post-war Europe. Her voting record was moderate; meanwhile she served as hatchet woman for her party, saying nasty things about FDR’s health, his significant capacity for lying, and his decisions as commander-in-chief. This happened during wartime, and much of America was singularly uninterested, if not outraged.

Tragedy struck in January, 1944. Her daughter Ann, 19, a college student, was killed in a freak automobile accident. Clare took stock. She declined to run for re-election in 1946 and spent the next five years out of the public eye, exploring psychotherapy and becoming a devout Catholic, converting from her Episcopalian background. She said later that becoming Catholic wrecked her writing career – she lost her acerbic bite and never found it again. However, she apparently found a modicum of peace.

In 1952, age 49, she felt ready to re-enter the political whirl, and as usual, her timing was good – Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidency that year and appointed her ambassador to Italy. She was the first American woman to serve as chief envoy to a major country. Very probably she would not have gotten the job without her Time-Life association, but this didn’t faze her for a second – she did an excellent job, winning the respect of many Italians and Americans.

Staking out a steadfast right-wing position in foreign policy, Clare spoke and wrote about the threat to the world of the Soviet Union and Communism, perceiving many cracks in the armor of Western civilization. Her admirers viewed her efforts here as trenchant truth-telling; her critics saw it as overwrought Red-baiting – “loose cannon” is the phrase used to describe her by critic Maureen Corrigan.

In the early 1960s she experimented with LSD. She found serenity, connecting to God with an intensity that she hadn’t known since adolescence. She persuaded Harry to try it; one account says he heard wonderful music; another says he read a biography of poet and critic Matthew Arnold.

Harry died in 1967 at the age of 68. Clare lived for another 20 years, spending much of her time at a beautiful waterfront estate in Hawaii, where she painted, read, wrote, conversed, and swam (she was exceptionally graceful in the water). She visited Washington and New York often, assessing policy, and getting briefed on who was up, who was down, and who was doing what with whom. She supported Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and in the ’80 election; in ’83 he gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She watched, perhaps wistfully, as a younger generation of women made it to such places as the U.S. Supreme Court. And she set up plans for dispensing money – she created a think tank called the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, and launched the Clare Boothe Luce Program, which has become a major source of private support for women in science, mathematics, and engineering.

Clare Boothe Luce died of cancer at her Watergate apartment in Washington on October 9, 1987, age 84.

Wilfrid Sheed: “Clare’s career is a guidebook to what a woman without inherited means thought she had to do to get ahead in this American century. And there’s not a lot of evidence that says she was wrong. If she seemed at times pushy and calculating, the chances are we wouldn’t be talking about her at all if she hadn’t been….I would be surprised if a man finding his way in a world of Amazons would be half so good-humored and well-balanced about it as Clare Boothe Luce.” ●