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Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce.

Reagan pals tell a story about the night Nancy Reagan invited Clare Boothe Luce to dinner in the White House family quarters. Table talk came to a halt when the President, halfway through relating a dream, froze in embarrassment. Luce, then in her eighties, put her arm on the table, leaned toward the former matinee idol, and in a husky voice whispered, "I'd love to hear your fantasies." So much for the other women in the room.

Throughout her illustrious life as a vamp, successful playwright, ambassador, congresswoman, fashion plate, and arch conservative, Luce always got the better of any woman she befriended. So maybe it is not so surprising that even in death, Luce has managed to outwit, outshine, and undercut her biographer, Sylvia Jukes Morris, author of Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce.

Take Morris's efforts to nail Luce down on the simple matter of her birth date -- a predictable obstacle when tackling women of a certain age. For most biographers, a subject who lies about her age is a challenge to be confronted. Morris sees it as a justification to whine. After announcing that the date of Luce's illegitimate birth was March 10, 1903, Morris sniffs that the child, "for inscrutable reasons," was encouraged to celebrate birthdays a month later. She then complains of confronting the 82-year-old Luce with the discrepancy and being greeted with evasiveness and vague digressions about Easter Sunday, Good Friday, and the astrological signs of Aries and Pisces.

One might scrape up some empathy for the high-handed treatment Morris is said to have suffered at the hands of Madame Luce were it not for the fact that she clearly asked for it. Despite her stated belief that subjects ought to "choose their biographers," Morris set her sights on Luce, and enlisted historian Daniel Boorstein and former Reagan staffer Selwa Roosevelt to help plead her case. Luce, who was feeling lonely and somewhat snubbed by the conservative renaissance, reluctantly agreed. Morris subsequently spent six years and a good deal of her own money following Luce to Hawaii, London, and Washington, nursing her while she was ill and occasionally bringing her breakfast in bed.

After years of deferring to Luce in exchange for scraps of information, Morris apparently feels it's her turn to have a say. She tries her best to be catty throughout the book, and at times she even succeeds in evincing a certain feline wit -- as in her devastating description of Luce spiriting sculptor Isamu Noguchi, chisel in hand, into her Manhattan apartment to touch up her marble bust after a secret nose job. Equally priceless is Morris's account of the ermine toilet seat (complete with paws!) that Luce fashioned from a hand-me-down coat belonging to her mother-in-law.

And Morris has managed to amass lots of titillating details about the range of Luce's sexual conquests. Vanity Fair editor Francis Crowninshield compared Luce's effect on Walter Lippmann to that of "a queen cobra on a field mouse." Another Luce devotee was Ambassador Joseph Kennedy, who obligingly shipped Rose and the kids -- including 8-year-old Edward Kennedy -- home to Massachusetts in anticipation of Luce's 1940 visit to his country place near Windsor, England. Luce returned the favor, leaving her husband, media visionary Henry Luce, home in New York. Randolph Churchill was another catch. So was Wall Street speculator and FDR adviser Bernard Baruch, 32 years her senior. Luce circled the pages in her diary to mark days when their affair was "consumated."

But even in the midst of these juicy tidbits, Morris's penchant for melodrama bogs the story down in pedantry and blather. Bringing down the curtain on the Baruch-Luce liason, she writes, "Deep feminine longings demanded that he bind himself to her by impregnating her. But his age and family preoccupations made this unlikely." And Morris's frequent skirmishes with her subject for control of the story quickly evolve from being vaguely amusing to tediously petty. In describing the death of Luce's jilted lover Donald Freeman, for instance, Morris disputes Luce's contention that her former Vanity Fair editor committed suicide over her by driving into a tree. Instead, Morris peevishly notes, "he might have intended not to kill but merely injure himself in order to elicit sympathy and perhaps rekindle her love."

Apart from the salacious segments, which are highly readable, the book is essentially a poorly organized collection of facts. The text frequently conjures up the sound of index cards dropping to the table. After recounting an anecdote in which Luce's father teaches her how to swim by throwing her into deep water, Morris follows up wits three unrelated water references: Luce tried out for the 1920 Olympic swim team; she had houses in Hawaii and a river view apartment at the Watergate; and in her mid-fifties, she painted a picture of a child being thrown into the sea by a Herculean man. What emerges is not an insightful account of an influential and controversial woman, but a portrait of an author drowning in details and overwhelmed by her subject. Morris might want to set aside some time for reflection before moving on to Volume II. In considering how she was had, Morris might finally begin to get a glimpse of Lady Luce.
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Author:Watters, Susan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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