He who would accomplish anything must learn to limit himself.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Two dozen red roses and a contingent of Washington correspondents and photographers awaited the new Republican Congresswoman from Fairfield County, Connecticut, at Union Station on Monday, January 4, 1943. Clare Boothe Luce was by far the smartest, most famous, and most glamorous member of the House of Representatives—the last quality not much evident elsewhere in the wartime capital.
When the cars of her express emptied onto the windy platform, twenty-two minutes late, a United Press man noted perplexedly, “Mrs. Luce wasn’t on it.” Had Clare been coming only from New York, she might have chosen to take the next commuter special. But she was booked on the last leg of a journey from Los Angeles, where she had just finished a screenplay for 20th Century-Fox.
Aware that the thirty-nine-year-old Congresswoman had written four Broadway comedies—three of them hits and made into movies—the UP reporter suspected she might have pulled off an old theatrical trick, the incognito step from the wings, melting into the crowd in nondescript clothing. Also, as the wife of the publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune, Clare was media-savvy enough to know that the best way to attract press attention was to elude it. On a hunch, he called the swank Wardman Park Hotel, and asked to speak to Mrs. Henry Luce. A secretary answered, and professed not to know where her employer was.
Sure now that Clare had concealed her arrival, he complained that he and his colleagues were being given the brush-off. There followed a click as the secretary hung up.
Next morning, the elusive Representative called a press conference in her new quarters, suite 1631 on the sixth floor of the new House Office Building. Attendees were baffled as to how a freshman member of Congress had acquired such a coveted space, with its two entrances, ample reception hall, large office with private bathroom, and second office for three or more assistants, with enclosed “lavabo.”
Freshman or not, Clare knew how to operate on Capitol Hill. She was the stepdaughter of the late Representative Dr. Albert Elmer Austin, and had just won back the seat he had lost in 1940. She had often visited him in his cramped quarters in the old Cannon Building, and realized that they would not satisfy her fastidious standards. Throughout her life she had aimed for the best of everything, and usually gotten it. Hearing shortly after her election that a few suites were available, she had sent an aide to stand in line for this one, and beaten out seventy or so other applicants.
She arrived ten minutes late—another coup de théâtre—and faced a battery of flashbulbs and newsreel klieg lights. Her appearance touched off pandemonium. Photographers stood on tables and unpacked storage boxes, yelling for her attention: “Just one more shot, please.”
Female reporters seemed more irritated by Clare’s tardiness than their male colleagues, as well as envious of her stylish beauty. Cool, slender, and immaculately groomed for her “debut,” she wore a red wool-crepe dress with deep pockets, and daisy-patterned gold-and-diamond earrings. Black velvet bows nestled in her blonde hair, upswept and softly waved above the brow. Her extraordinary translucent skin and blue eyes, shimmering with intelligence, invariably captivated men, as did her outsize personality and charm. Much of her seductiveness—and success as a playwright—came from her wit. “The difference between an optimist and a pessimist,” she would drawl, in cultivated tones harking back to private school, “is that the pessimist is usually better informed.”
She began by apologizing for having sneaked away from Union Station the day before. Claiming to have been four days without a change of clothes, she said that she had exited the last car and rushed to her hotel to freshen up for an evening appointment. In any case, she had assumed reporters on the platform were waiting for some labor officials on the same train.
Even the most hardened Washington pressmen were beguiled. One was overheard saying that there was “no labor leader living who would interest him if Mrs. Luce were around.” A barrage of questions followed. What were her views on taxation, women’s rights, the war, and the GOP’s election chances next year?
“I hope to do what I can,” Clare said. “It might be little, or nothing, or much.” Not wanting to sound flip, she added that voters in her district were “interested in precisely the same things as other people—gasoline rationing among them.” Some issues she was not yet “up on.” But she had been an advocate of women’s rights for some twenty-five years now, and vowed to continue fighting for them. As for her party, the GOP, its priorities must be to defeat President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, and to win the war.
Never one for false modesty, Clare stated that since she had spent many months of the past three years reporting from both the East and West battlefronts, she felt qualified for a spot on the Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Places on that committee are supposed to go to seasoned Congressmen,” a reporter reminded her. Clare realized she had let her ambition show, and said lamely that she would of course abide by House rules.
“When are you going to make your maiden speech?” a voice shouted.
“When I have something to say.”
At this point a lobbyist for a dried-milk company, who had managed to infiltrate the room, asked if she would vote in favor of his product. She replied with a straight face that as yet, she had taken no position on the desiccation of anything.
The bedlam increased. Newsmen scrambled over wires. Somebody kicked an electric socket, causing a loud explosion. The room grew increasingly airless, but with her customary sangfroid, Clare began talking about her three weeks in Hollywood. She said she had worked on a script about the birth of modern China, called The 400 Million. The Red scare in that overpopulated country had been on her mind when she visited a state-of-the-art steel mill, set not in a town but amid the orange groves of Fontana, California.
“Why can’t there be more of this kind of thing?” she asked. “If we can move the factories to the farms and give our people some land to live on, most of their troubles will disappear. . . . Communism does not thrive when people are satisfied and happy.” With a prod at the current administration, she asserted that “little people” deserved a better incentive to succeed in life “than they are likely to get from the New Deal.” Only capitalism was capable of satisfying the world’s material, spiritual, and cultural aspirations.
Thus, on her first full day in Washington, Representative Luce touched on vital themes that would preoccupy her for the next four years: equal rights, foreign affairs, and democracy versus authoritarianism. With only ten minutes left before the Republican caucus was due to begin, she edged toward the door.
“Are you going to hold regular press conferences?” a woman called out.
“I think not. In fact I know not. The answer is No. Period.”
Clare rose early on Wednesday. Before leaving for the Hill, she went to the Wardman Park beauty shop. In the manner of one used to giving orders, she asked the proprietor to telephone her maid or chauffeur and tell them to bring her some reading material. After several calls, and irritated promptings from the Congresswoman, a package was delivered. Other customers looked on intrigued as Clare ordered coffee and a rye crisp. When told that the café served only toast, she said she would take that. But when it appeared, she waved it away and demanded a proper breakfast from room service. Soon a waiter appeared with a loaded table. Evidently she could be, in the words of one of her profilers, “a lady with a whim of iron.”
The scene, duly reported in a Washington gossip column, could have come from The Women, Clare’s greatest Broadway success. Her script for that play, with its lacerating portraits of spoiled New York socialites in beauty and exercise salons, had given her a reputation for astringency. Few in the shop had ever seen such a fuss over food. Yet after the perfumed whirlwind had gone, they felt bereft, such was the force of her persona.
At noon, the 78th Congress of the United States convened. Clare again made a delayed entrance, this time from behind Speaker Sam Rayburn’s platform, and slipped into her assigned seventh-row seat, fifth from the right aisle. The six other women on the floor—five of them Republicans—were already in place, dressed uniformly in black, corsages being their only splash of color. Clare thought them all frumps, except for Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, an unassuming, effective politician whom she admired. The others were Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, an advocate of programs for veterans; Frances P. Bolton, a fluffy-haired two-termer from Ohio; and Jessie Sumner of Illinois, a prim isolationist. From New York came a slim lawyer, Winifred Stanley, six years younger than Clare but prematurely gray. The sole Democrat, senior to all of them, was New Jersey’s Mary T. Norton. Her party held a working majority of 222, compared with 209 Republicans, 3 Progressives, and 1 Labor member.
In contrast with her soberly clad peers, Clare dazzled in a custom-made, form fitting purple dress. Her black-and-blue-striped ascot matched her hair bows, clipped atop two golden coronet braids. Flat-heeled black shoes supported her regal five-foot-five frame. To observers in the visitors’ gallery, she looked like a leading lady, with her lustrous complexion, straight thick brows, discreetly remodeled nose, and pearly, slightly crooked teeth. Most enchanting of all were her ready smile and infectious laugh.
Other freshmen might have been awed by the presence of the President’s wife in the visitors’ gallery, but Clare was not. Some years earlier, Mrs. Roosevelt had seen her satire Kiss the Boys Goodbye, and publicly predicted that “Miss Boothe” would become a first-class playwright someday, “when the bitterness of the experiences which she has evidently had are completely out of her system.” She had invited Clare to visit the White House for a talk. “I think it would be pleasant for both of us.” Later, at the war’s onset, Clare had accompanied her husband to a private dinner with both Roosevelts. FDR had welcomed them as anti-isolationists and proponents of his Lend-Lease program, which made old American ships available to the embattled Royal Navy. He shared the anti-Nazi views that Time Inc. magazines had propounded many months before Pearl Harbor.
Few Congressmen looked happy that afternoon at having yet another woman invade their domain. On either side of the aisle, it was the most conservative House since the days of Herbert Hoover. However, the man to Clare’s right shook hands with her, and the one on her left engaged her in a lengthy conversation.
Not wanting to miss anything of the opening ceremony, she took out a white handerkerchief and polished a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles. She seemed nervous, removing and chewing the glasses, folding and refolding a pamphlet in her lap. From time to time, she rested a cheek on one hand. Her reply of “Present” to the roll call was scarcely audible.
Though much of Clare’s adult life could be seen as preparation for elective office, her origins were not auspicious. She had been born illegitimate in 1903, in an insalubrious part of New York City’s Upper West Side, to William Franklin Boothe, a gifted violinist and former piano executive, who had come down in the world, and was reluctantly working as a patent-medicine salesman. Women found the handsome, clever, and athletic “Billy” irresistible. Son of a Baptist clergyman, he had forsaken his moralistic upbringing and drifted into multiple liaisons and marriages. While still wedded to his second wife, he had met Anna Clara Schneider, a violet-eyed beauty less than half his age. The poor daughter of Bavarian Lutheran immigrants, she was no stranger to Manhattan saloons. In two successive years, 1902 and 1903, she had given her lover his only children, David Franklin and Ann Clare Boothe.
Clare had always found it hard to acknowledge, or even look into, the more obscure facts of her parents’ relationship. But apparently they never married. In 1907, William Boothe had taken his family first to Memphis and then to Nashville and Chicago, where he became a member of the Lyric Opera orchestra. But his musician’s salary had not satisfied the luxury-loving Anna, and in 1913 she had left him and returned East with her son and daughter. Clare had seen her father only once after that. He was to die estranged from his children in 1928, eking out a living as a violin teacher in Los Angeles.
As the self-restyled “Ann Snyder Boothe,” Clare’s mother had prospered in New York City from the largesse of lovers. The most generous of her gentleman callers was Joel Jacobs, a Jewish industrialist. He helped finance city apartments for her, as well as a summer house in Sound Beach, Connecticut, and paid the private school fees of both children. At age ten, in early evidence of theatrical talent, Clare had contributed to the family income by understudying Mary Pickford on Broadway, and two years later acted in an Edison silent movie, The Heart of a Waif.
In 1922, at age forty, Ann had married a Connecticut physician, Albert Elmer Austin—the future Congressman whose seat Clare now occupied. Dr. Austin was not wealthy, to his stepdaughter’s chagrin (“Mother always told me to marry for money, but she didn’t do it herself”). But Jacobs had become part of the Austin ménage, lavishing jewelry on Ann, escorting her to the racetracks, and playing pinochle with the doctor.
Clare, removed early from her father’s academic and cultural influences, had acquired much of Ann’s money mania, vampishness, and free attitude to sex. Some teenage trips to Europe had helped mitigate this dominance and nurture Clare’s intellectual curiosity. Chatting to traveling diplomats confirmed the precocious penchant for politics she had shown in debates at the Castle School in Tarrytown, New York. Flirting with a White Russian spy interested her in the Bolshevik Revolution, and sparked a lifelong passion for espionage. Collecting mementos of World War I on the battlefields of northern France helped her understand the importance of military preparedness. She experienced at first hand the devaluation of the currency in Weimar Germany, which taught her the importance of national solvency. Her aptitude for the theater was fed by avant-garde performances of Wedekind plays in Berlin. On one homebound crossing, she had impressed the Austrian producer Max Reinhardt, who seriously considered casting her in his extravaganza The Miracle. The role went to Rosamond Pinchot, but her friendship with Reinhardt endured.
Excerpted from Price of Fame by Sylvia Jukes Morris. Copyright © 2014 by Sylvia Jukes Morris. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.