One of the most famed, accomplished, brilliant, powerful, and wealthy beauties of the 20th century, Clare Boothe Luce, had everything — including depression that led to suicide attempts, said biographer Sylvia Jukes Morris at the June 22 launch of “Price Of Fame: The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce” (Random House).
Best-known as the playwright of “The Women” and wife of Time-Life creator Henry Luce, Clare Boothe Luce was also a two-term Congresswoman from Connecticut; America’s first woman ambassador to a major country; friend (or enemy) of several Presidents; war correspondent; managing editor of “Vanity Fair” by age 30; a child understudy to Mary Pickford…
But what a high “Price of Fame”, notes Sylvia Jukes Morris, whose first volume was “Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce (Random House).
Luce had “terrible health”. She suffered such severe colitis that she was hospitalized. Even worse — her depressions, which she called “‘the dismals'”.
“Whenever she was out of the spotlight, she got depressed, even suicidal…and made two suicide attempts,” Morris told the rapt audience at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
“At one point, it was so bad that her doctor thought she should check into Payne Whitney (psychiatric hospital). “But she got a call from President Eisenhower (who’d appointed her ambassador to Italy) saying the Pope had died, and she was back in the spotlight,” Morris said.
She had always been “a depressive” but got “worse with age” — especially after she converted to Catholicism. She also tried uppers, downers, and LSD, which she got hooked on, the biographer noted.
Luce had thought that converting to Catholicism “would help her feel better about everything, and see the world through rose-colored glasses,” Morris said. “But she got worse.”
She tried LSD, used back then to treat depression and other mental problems. “Clare had good trips. She got hooked on it, and kept taking it.” One time Henry Luce took it and thought he was conducting an orchestra in the garden. “Hilarious; he was not musical at all.”
During one of many calls to the biographer, when Clare Boothe Luce was 80, she said “‘I have a terrible case of the dismals…It’s Saturday night and I haven’t a beau.'”
Her beaux//lovers had been numerous and famous, including financial speculator Bernard Baruch; “all the generals on the Western front, and a few on the Eastern front”; and men far younger than she was as she grew older. “‘Better to have regrets than remorse'” is one of her many famous witticisms.
But at age 80 on that Saturday night, she said she wanted a “‘homosexual Admiral with a lot of medals. I wouldn’t have to put out at the end of the night.'”
She had gotten her values from her mother — “‘My mother poisoned my life,'” Luce told Morris. The mother, Anna, a “stunning beauty with violet eyes”, was “a piece of work”, and ended up “like a call girl.”
Clare and her brother David were illegitimate. Eventually, David committed suicide.
“The thing that disturbed her most was her childhood,” the author said. “She had seen too much trauma, and was exposed to too much too soon. Whenever we talked about that, she became very down.”
Luce had resisted a biography, stalling Morris by explaining, “‘My life has been so unhappy.'” One of the worst crises: her only daughter, Ann, was killed in a car crash.
Her “acid wit was her saving grace.” Other famous quips: “No good deed goes unpunished.” And “The difference between an optimist and a pessimist is, the pessimist is usually better informed.”
Her “chutzpah”, extraordinary ambition, brilliance, sex appeal, and luck propelled her to the top.
She wanted to work at “Vogue”, so she simply walked into the offices, sat at an empty desk, and started writing captions. Soon, she was recruited for “Vanity Fair”, and swiftly became managing editor by age 30.
“She had a low boring point. As soon as she mastered anything, she wanted to move on.”
Part of the reason she was able to move on so fast and far was a “combination that was lethal to men — beautiful, charming, intellectually brilliant, funny…” the biographer said.
The life story of the so-called “woman of the century” is “an inspirational tale, but also a cautionary tale.”
And the tale in two volumes is told masterfully by Sylvia Jukes Morris.