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Book Review: Price of Fame

By (June 30, 2014) One Comment

Price of Fame: The Honorable Clare Boothe Luceprice of fame cover
by Sylvia Jukes Morris
Random House, 2014

It’s been a long wait since Sylvia Jukes Morris’s 1997 Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce, which chronicled in exuberant, chatty detail the rise of its main character, through luck, talent, marriage, and sheer force of will, to national prominence. Morris’s concluding volume, Price of Fame, takes up the story in 1943 when Clair Boothe Luce, newly elected to the House of Representatives from Connecticut, arrives in Washington, D.C. and takes the established order by storm. She herself was already notoriously established, a famous author of books and, more importantly, successful stage-plays, including brilliant works like Margin for Error and The Women. She’d married magazine magnate Harry Luce, the glowering engine behind Time and Life, and she’d created a habit of astonishment wherever she went – this white-blond bowstring-taut lightning-bolt of woman, always ready with a cutting quip, always riveting a veneer of smiling fearlessness onto a heart quite frequently fearful or darkened by the angry, helpless moods.

She quickly made history, becoming the only female member of the House Military Affairs Committee and one of the first women to be given major diplomatic positions, first and foremost as U.S. ambassador to Italy in the early 1950s (Morris details her tenure in that post better than anybody has before). Through her own cutting commentary and laser-like focus – and through the enormous influence and political clout of her husband – she became over the years a pillar of the liberal Republican establishment that has now entirely disappeared from the American political landscape (one can only imagine the perfectly-shaped scorn she’d have for the rabidly hateful, resolutely stupid Republicans of the 21st century). Morris follows this story – enough life for two or three biographies – with an indefatigable energy quite appropriate to her subject. Harry Luce, writing to Clare once in the ardent flush of his bumbling infatuation, put it this way: “It’s you and you alone I’ll always be missing – and when my life has no room for missing it’s because you’re there, filling up all the room.” In Sylvia Jukes Morris’s handling, Clare Boothe Luce fills up all the rooms. It makes for absolutely succulent reading.

Morris was the beneficiary of many hours of discussion with Clare Boothe Luce, and with hardly any exceptions, that kind of exposure tended to produce only one effect: adoration (the most notable failures of this effect where the rare individuals who possessed charisma in equal measure to Luce’s own; her exchanges with President Kennedy, for instance, can be almost telegraphic in their wary mutual dislike). She spends a disappointing amount of time on wardrobe, for instance (such details probably pleased the octogenarian Luce, but so what?), and her book includes more words like “supersvelte” than a sober biographical study probably should. She does roughly the same kind of retroactive excuse-making that any favorable biography is forced to produce, but she too often falls back on some of the carefully-constructed (and tellingly theatrical) caricatures created by Luce herself, including priestess/seductress dichotomy she worked better than any public figure of her time:

Evidently, Clare Boothe Luce was not a strict feminist. She had succeeded in a man’s world, and believed that women were entitled to careers if they wanted them. But she was also an accomplished seductress, having married once, if not twice, for money, social position, and power.

Any biography of Clare Booth Luce will run the risk of becoming a string of great zingers. Writers tend to yield to this temptation in a kind of helpless admiration – it happened, for instance, to Wilfrid Sheed, who at eighteen became one of Luce’s first biographical disciples and decades later filled his 1982 book on her with anecdote after pitch-perfect anecdote, like the one about the earnest theological discussions she used to have with Sheed’s father Frank:

After taking a brilliant law degree at Sydney University, Frank had abruptly abandoned all that (“When I realized that some lawyers were paid more than others, I knew that there was no justice”) to take up the Catholic Church as a sort of legal brief – and if there were any justice, he’d have received a fee for it like unto Clarence Darrow’s. I have never met nimbler arguer, though Clare bounced along with him very well. (When he asked how she was making out with Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, she confessed that “one swallow does not make a summa.”)

(And since these were clever decades we’re talking about, not all the good quips are hers; take for example the story Morris relates about how British author Noel Coward, when asked his thoughts about the talk in 1944 of drafting Luce onto the Republican Vice Presidential ticket, responded, “I think she is a very good playwright”).

Through all the personal and diplomatic crises Luce weathers in the course of the book – a cooling marriage, the loss of loved ones, a chemical dependency greater than either she or her biographer is willing to admit, the unpredictable stress-contractions of the postwar world – Morris is always at hand with an illuminating story, a previously-overlooked fact, a well-placed tension-breaker, or a counterintuitively sympathetic scenario, as in a revealing lapse in 1953 in the midst of the Trieste crisis:

That night at dinner, a weary Clare unwound with alcohol, and shocked her colleagues with loud remarks about Alfred Kinsey’s new report on women’s sexuality. She said had been asked to write a review of it, but in light of her current position felt the assignment inappropriate. Had she accepted, she said, her voice rising, she could have pointed out that a 480-page study was not needed “to prove that all men are dopes.”

The dining room went quiet. “After all,” she went on, “women are not interested in sex. All they want is babies and security from men. Men are just too stupid to know it.”

Luce provided her Boswell with rich material even as illness and old age began their rapid encroachment. Price of Fame‘s final chapters suddenly empty out of jet-setting dinners and political summits and fill instead with boozy late-night phone confessionals:

To the end, she remained a practiced vamp. One evening, having sold [her palatial Hawaiian estate named] Haleni’a for $3.6 million and moved to what would be her final apartment, at 906-907 Watergate South, she telephoned to say she had “a terrible attack of the dismals.” I asked why, and she said, “It’s Saturday night, and I haven’t any beaus.”

This two-volume work by Morris is almost certainly the final word on her subject; here are all the private papers, all the final reflections, all the long-view contextualizations, and all of it presented in a voice that often feels straight out of the dialogue from The Women, razor-sharp, smart, gossipy, disillusioned-yet-hopeful. It should be required reading for modern-day high-profile political operatives like Hilary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren (and perhaps there’ll be an abridged picture-book version for Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin), to remind them of what we’ve perhaps known all along: we still very much need Clare Boothe Luce.