- - Thursday, July 17, 2014


By Sylvia Jukes Morris
Random House, $35, 752 pages

Throughout her life, playwright and diplomat Clare Boothe Luce insatiably aimed for the top. In “Rage for Fame,” published in 1997, Sylvia Jukes Morris traced how a beautiful and intelligent girl, born of humble origins, married a millionaire decades her senior; transformed herself as managing editor at Vanity Fair, wrote her hit play, “The Women,” married again, to Henry Luce of Time Inc.

“Price of Fame” continues the second half of this amazing story, clearly capturing the successes and pathos of a narcissist infused with shame and self-hate. (“Nobody could love me who really knew me.”)

Fame Clare now has, but with it came personal loss: the death of her only child; of her brother; the suicide of a close friend; the disappointment in her dysfunctional marriage to Luce, her love and enemy. Their extramarital affairs, along with Clare’s schemes to extract millions, is told without censure. Those millions, later bequested to institutions and charities, also significantly benefited women entering the field of mathematics, science and engineering.

The book opens with Clare’s election in 1942 as a Republican congressman from Connecticut. The only female member of the House Military Affairs Committee, she traveled to Europe, visiting liberated Nazi concentration camps. She crossed the aisle to work with Democrats, and is credited with advancing 18 initiatives, including human rights, equal pay, and the rehabilitation of veterans, and the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission. No fan of FDR, she said he had created a nation of “hypochondriacs, introverts and psychotics.” Nonetheless, she was a friend of his wife, Eleanor (both were advocates for civil rights). After Clare’s conversion to Roman Catholicism, she was appointed ambassador to Italy, the first woman ever appointed ambassador to a major foreign power, playing a role in negotiating a peaceful resolution to the Trieste Crisis.

Working in a man’s world, she easily vanquished dullards with “lawyerly logic,” eliciting the admiration of statesmen, among them Bernard Baruch, Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, who thought her a “cinch to become the first woman president.” Clare left Congress in 1946, convinced that politics was “the refuge of second-class minds.” She remained an active member of 26 boards, dealing with issues ranging from arms control and counterintelligence to accuracy in the media. Under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, she served on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. In 1983, Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

A running theme throughout Clare’s life is her shimmering sexuality — a lethal cocktail of luminosity, charm, intelligence and wit. One of her bon mots was “No good deed goes unpunished.” Her seductions were legendary; the editor Fleur Cowles joked that she slept with every general on the Western front. There were those who resented Clare’s “conceited assumption” that “she has everybody eating out of her hands in a few minute’s time.” Perhaps she can be forgiven when so many letters to her are filled with the yearning fantasies of countless males. Well into her 60s, she captivated men decades her junior.

Nightfall found her suffering “a terrible attack of the dismals.” Bravely, Clare kept repeated bouts of depression at bay with a roster of interests that included her major art collection, scuba diving, the theater and screenwriting. Her energy flagged only at the end, at her death of brain cancer in 1987, at age 84.

Clare attempted her own autobiography, but got no further than: “One gets born. From there on, it’s hell, or a little better, with a rare touch of heaven, all the way to the grave.” A better self-portrait was a haunting picture she painted of a woman in utter despair. Reluctant to revisit tragedy and secrets, Clare repeatedly tried to dissuade Sylvia Jukes Morris from writing her life, saying it didn’t “stack up.”

Plowing her way through 460,000 items of Clare’s restricted papers at the Library of Congress, a collection bigger than that of most presidents, Ms. Morris was the only author given complete access. She has also uncovered rich sources elsewhere, among them the diary entries of Time Inc. employees and the tape-recordings of Clare’s reactions as she tripped on LSD in a pioneering experiment. It is the author’s steady, sensitive handling of the material, told with humor and objectivity, that makes this biography so poignant and profound.

The author’s skill at delving deep into sources was eventually rewarded by Clare herself, who confessed she felt closest to Ms. Morris “because you know everything.” However, it is the late Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, who said it best: “How often does it happen,” he asked, “this coming together of a great subject and an ideal biographer?” That observation beautifully applies to “Price of Fame,” and it is nothing short of a triumph.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the editor of the forthcoming “Mencken: The Days Trilogy, Expanded Edition” to be published by The Library of America.

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