Wednesday, June 8, 2016
The Woman, or "There's a Word for You Ladies..."
Clare Boothe Luce is the half-forgotten Zelig of American public life, twentieth-century division.
That's my conclusion as I walk away from reading Sylvia Jukes Morris's excellent two-volume biography of the woman thought of today primarily as the original author of one of Hollywood's bitchiest and most glamorous Studio Era products (by way of a smash-hit run on Broadway), The Women. She wrote a number of other plays, two of which, Kiss the Boys Goodbye and Margin for Error, were adequately successful on both stage and screen before more or less dropping out of sight. The theatre, though, is just a tiny slice of her total career, which ran from understudying Mary Pickford in her childhood to ending up a kind of fairy godmother to the neoconservative movement of the 1980s. In between, she was managing editor of the old Vanity Fair, a war correspondent, a two-term member of the House of Representatives, U.S. ambassador to Italy, a perennial on the best-dressed lists, and half of a high-profile but stormily married couple thanks to her marriage to Henry Luce, founder of Time and Life magazines.
She went everywhere, knew everyone, and was endlessly discussed - to the point that her enormous celebrity obscured the fact that while her achievements were substantial, it seems (especially with the advantage of hindsight) that what fueled her endless rise and rise was less the pursuit of creative, political, or any other kind of excellence than the quality that gives Morris the title for her first volume: a Rage for Fame. Actually, it would be more accurate to append one phrase to fully capture Mrs. Luce's aims: "and cash." Lots and lots of cash.
One can see why. She started out not just poor, but in truly sordid circumstances, the illegitimate daughter of a conman/dreamer father and a wildly ambitious social-climbing mother whose single-minded life's work was to, as it were, follow the money. It can't be easy playing the devoutly Catholic grande dame of Washington, DC, as Luce did for a very long time, remembering as she must have the days in a cold-water Harlem flat when Mama used to go out nightly and come back richer (or at least less broke) thanks to, in the words of another American playwright, the kindness of strangers.
The result of Luce's raising - in poverty, but straining after pretensions to wealth - was the daunting combination of a steely ambition and a truly unparalleled ability to compartmentalize. Supplementing her raw nerve were what was by all accounts a remarkable physical beauty and the rare ability to radiate a charisma that promises everything - carnally, intellectually, emotionally - while revealing nothing at all of the actual person. Start to finish, hers was a life of head-snapping contradicitons: later in life, she was a fervent supporter of Barry Goldwater and of experimentation with LSD; earlier, she was passionately anti-Nazi and, simultaneously, deeply and reflexively anti-Semitic. She was a publicity-seeker of the first order who constantly bemoaned her lost privacy, and her highly ballyhooed conversion to Rome (accompanied, for a while, by a public piety that rivalled Loretta Young's) did little to squelch a nature that seems to have been from the first unquenchable in its thirst for new sexual conquests. She endlessly sought friendships and almost as ferociously cast people out of her life; she was a passionate advocate of American democracy even as she could be breathtakingly rude to anyone she perceived as less than her equal (of whom she clearly thought she had few).*
What you end up with is a paradox: a fascinating story of a terrible person, a woman you cheer on even as you shudder. Reviewing Morris's first volume, one reviewer (none other than Judith Martin, Miss Manners herself) sniped that the overall effect was like hearing too much "from someone who hates her boss." I disagree; one is left with what seems to me a complex, intriguing, compelling story of someone who could be at turns as beautiful and charming as her careful PR would have it, even as she was, possibly just as accurately, almost as tiresome, high-strung, and generally unpleasant as could be imagined. Her tragedy, possibly, is that she wanted to be Mary Haines but was by nature equal parts Sylvia Fowler and Miriam Aarons.
The fact that one can refer so casually in that way to three of her fictional creations, secure in the knowledge that at least a few will get the reference, is I suppose some kind of testimony to Luce's lasting influence. But for someone who was year after year voted one of the half-dozen most admired women in America, one who was seriously bruited about as a candidate for, if not president, at least vice over several electoral cycles, it's a pretty slim legacy. What makes it sad, to me, though, is that, given how endlessly, furiously, almost monomaniacally she worked to scrabble to the very top of the heap, in the end she seems to have taken very little joy from any of it. She ended her days celebrated but not particularly liked, famous for being famous in a way only a notch or two up in terms of cultural or intellectual legitimacy from the Gabors, and very much alone. And today, on top of all that, more or less a footnote. Morris got the title of her second volume just right: if Luce learned one lesson from her decades in the spotlight, it was the Price of Fame.
* The story of how she treated celebrated interior designer Billy Baldwin, entrusted to his cost with decorating one of her many Manhattan penthouses, is worth the price of admission by itself - a definite highlight of volume two.