Clare Boothe Luce: feminine feminist with a string of firsts

Straightbacked, graceful, and elegant, she sits on the green velvet sofa of her Watergate Hotel suite like the Queen Mother she is. Clare Boothe Luce: playwright, war correspondent, congresswoman, ambassador, friend or foe of nearly every major political thinker in the last 60 years, she could easily assume the title of the Republican Party's "first woman," leaving "first lady" to others.

During a two-hour interview, the lucid Mrs. Luce -- in a black-and-white houndstooth check suit and Greek gold jewelry -- showed that she still knows how to scorch an enemy, turn a phrase, and clarify an issue in a way that both charms and persuades. The feminine feminist, known as much for her beauty as her steel-trap mind, recalled how she used both to wrestle open doors for herself and her gender.

"I have so many firts, I can't count them," she says, reviewing the progress of women, "and all of these firsts were only in the last 20 years."

The latest "first" took place early in November of this year, when she became the first woman to give the John Findley Green Foundation Lecture, in memory of Winston Churchill, at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. But she dates her feminist accomplishments back to her first job.

There, at the age of 18, Clare Boothe went to work for Alice Paul, author of the equal rights amendment. Although Mrs. Luce has yet to see that piece of work come to fruition, she now sayst that "I do not think the failure to pass [ ERA] is going to have a very severe effect on women."

This is because "as time has gone on, there are very few of those things I was anxious equal rights should be passed for that women haven't already achieved. It's all very well for young women to feel they're discriminated against in the job field," she says in a voice accustomed to declarations, "but if they had lived in mym generation, they would see what enormous strides have been made." Early successes in publishing

Mrs. Luce made many of those strides herself, starting with her first writing job, which she "literally had to steal" as a caption writer on Vogue magazine. Its editor, Conde Nast, kept telling the new divorcee, "Clare, I know your type. Winter will come and you'll want to be in Palm Springs or on the Riviera, and in any case, you'll soon get married. No, I'm not going to invest money in making an editor of you. No."

So she stole the job while Nast was away, telling her surprised co-workers that she was there to write captions and taking the first empty seat she found in the editorial offices. By the time Nast returned, she had proved her worth.

But he was right -- she did tire of writing columns like "What the Well-Dressed Baby Will Wear," she says. She elected to move on, not to Palm Springs, but to Vanity Fair, the literary magazine.

That magazine's editor, Frank Crowningshield, teased the eager young woman by saying that all writers applying for a job had to submit 100 new story ideas. Mrs. Luce (who was then Mrs. Brokaw) took him seriously, and after a weekend "filled with gallons of cofee," her hundredweight list was ready to turn in.

She remembers his reaction to it exactly, because it was the "kind that irritated a born feminist like me." He said, "Remarkable, my dear girl, remarkable!" I dare say you had a young man under the bed helping you with these ideas."

the ideas continued their unaided flow from the creative Mrs. Brokaw -- including photojournalism, the mainstay behind a magazine she planned to call Life -- and precipitated her breathtaking rise from "novice assistant editor" to Vanity Fair's managing editor in just two years.

Some accused Mrs. Brokaw of rising through her good looks, an attribute she admits has been an "asset" through life, similar to that which promoted both John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. "I think Ronald Reagan wouldn't have gotten as far as he got if he looked like Jimmy Carter," says the Republican grande dame.

But her beauty has had its drawbacks, she admits. "I know this sounds absurd , but I think I would probably have been a first-rate writer if I hadn't been considered attractive," the carefully coifed blonde says. If men had found her less beautiful, she says, "I might have just stayed home like Eudora Welty and produced some good books."

The books and plays she did produce have stood the test of time; one, written at the onset of her marriage to publishing titan Henry Luce, still pulls in sizable royalties. It is "The Women," a crackling commentary on society women, written because "they wouldn't give me a job on Time," Mrs. Luce laments.

The play grossed $1.5 million dollars its first year -- twice what her husband's burgeoning Time Inc. made in 1935. Telling that figure to her new spouse gave Mrs. Luce "my first realization of how terribly a man's pride can be affected," she recalls.

"He wouldn't talk to me. He wouldn't talk to me! He thought it was a put-down, you see, but I didn't mean it as a put-dowm.

Of course, after that, he took off, and I never saw a million dollars again," she concludes with a short laugh, one of only two or three in the whole interview. Like any good storyteller, Mrs. Luce keeps her desert-dry wit within the confines of a deadpan delivery. Life as congresswoman, ambassador to Italy

The Luces went on to pioneer a path ever-widening today -- that of the commuter marriage. During her two sessions as a Connecticut congresswoman during the 1940s, she lived in Washington while he stayed in New York, an arrangement that was difficult for both.

Then, when President Eisenhower offered her the post of ambassador to Italy, she told him she would have to check with her husband first. This is how she phrased it: "I told [Mr. Luce], darling, I get three months vacation a year as ambassador. If you spend six months in Italy with me, then we'll only be parted for three months a year. If you don't want to, it's all right."

He took her up on it and spent the term checking on Time's European bureaus. "I must say he enjoyed it. He was wonderfully supportive, and his sense of humor never failed him."

Mrs. Luce's success as first woman ambassador depended not just on her humorous husband, but on her astute judgment of the political mentality. She used this judgment to steer the touchy, lengthy discussions between Italian and Yugoslavian government officials toward the Treaty of Trieste in 1955. The making of good politicians

Asked to share her political insight and describe what makes a good politician, Mrs. Luce's reputation for forthrightness comes through: "You have to have a desire for power, for changing people's lives. Naturally, everyone pretends or says what they want to change them for the better, and mostly they do want things changed for the better. But I think the lure of it is just the power of changing things."

She names two she considered "first-rate": Everett Dirksen, who "had the capacity for making everything look crystal clear whether it was crystal clear or not," and another "excellent politician, considered one of the best of the craft" -- Lyndon Johnson. "And yet, he didn't make a great president, did he?" she says. "The art of the politician is not the art of the excellent executive."

Johnson, she believes, tried to win the war in Vietnam "the same way he won a debate in the Senate, and a war in one thing, and a debate on the floor of the Senate is another."

But she says Ronald Reagan will be a good executive because "he's not just a movie star, but a Grade B movie star. And remember that a Grade B movie star knows the two things that are necessary: He's got to have a good script, and he's got to have a good supporting cast." Mr. Reagan, she believes, will fill his cabinet with such a cast.

He will also have a more coherent political policy than Jimmy Carter, she thinks; Mr. Reagan's will be the policy of the conservatives. This is, of course, Mrs. Luce's own brand of politics, and it is with evident joy that she views the past election as "a turn away from the left -- an explosion in a pressure cooker." Advice to women

When asked if the Republicans will continue to open up opportunities for women, or if the conservative trend spells a female return to the hearthside, she bristles a little.

"I was told that this year women are the majority of the enrollment of the universities in the United States. They now have an equal education, and if they cannot use that education, that is up to them."

Mrs. Luce advises women to plan their education carefully, steering away from what she calls the "dropout subjects" like "ballet, design, and psychology." Instead, she thinks young women should move to business management courses that will get them into the moneymaking fields -- and into politics.

She explains: Female politicians have long lamented the lack of financial support they receive from the so-called "old boy networks," and Mrs. Luce points out that "you don't get money from an 'old boy' unless you've been an 'old boy' in his field."

"There's really not much money for women to get from other women -- housewives, or interior decorators, or," she says, glancing at our camera bearer , "even from photographers. So until women can get into the moneymaking professions, they will not be able to have an 'old girl line.'"

If an "old girl network" get established, Mrs. Luce thinks it will give rise to an increasing number of female politicians, although she fears that most will not go as far as national government. "You have to be a spinster or a widow, or you have to say to your husband, will you give up your business and come and be my wife in Washington? And men won't do it," she declares.

For those few who do squeak into Congress, the former congresswoman has some advice: never argue with another woman, and don't be too feminine. Both sagacities are morals to Clare Luce stories, which she tells with finely edited skill:

Mrs. Luce got into a scrap with Democrat Dorothy Thompson during the Roosevelt-Wilkie campaign, and witnessed the "almost physical pleasure" men got out of watching that fight. From this she learned that "men will turn what two women say into a hair-pulling battle, and the issue the women are fighting over will be forgotten." She has never argues with a woman in public since this lesson was learned.

The advice about avoiding excess femininity hails from the days when the new congresswomna, who had been named in one of those "idiotic polls" as the "second best pair of legs in the country, next to Marlene Dietrich," prepared her maiden speech before Congress.

"It was a good speech -- I really worked on it," she declares forcefully, "and afterward this Republicanm came up to me, grabbed my hands and said, 'waht they say about you is true -- you've got the best-looking pair of legs that has ever been in congress.'"

"You know," I said to him, "I hope before I leave here, it's the other end of me you'll be paying a litle attention to."

It is this sort of comment that has bedeviled Mrs. Luce all her life and leads the party's "first woman" to conclude, almost in a whisper, that "even if you've made a great success as a woman, you still can say to yourself with some feeling of being reasonable. 'Had I been a man, I would have received much more credit.'"

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