Clare Boothe Luce conquered the political sphere in much the same way that she stormed the publishing industry and elite society—with quick intelligence, a biting wit, and a knack for publicity that, along with her celebrity and beauty, made her a media darling. Luce won a Connecticut U.S. House seat in 1942, despite never having stood for elective office. Though she was critical of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Luce’s internationalist bent led her to back the broad outlines of the administration’s plans for the postwar world. She once described her philosophy as, “America first but not only.”1
Clare Ann Boothe was born on April 10, 1903, in New York City, to William Boothe and Ann Clare Snyder Boothe, both involved with the theater. The family moved from New York City to Memphis, Tennessee, but after her parents divorced in 1913, Clare, her mother, and her brother, David, returned to New York City to build a new life. To help pay bills, Clare worked in several play productions and did not attend school until she was 12, studying at the Cathedral School of St. Mary on Long Island and at Miss Mason’s School in Tarrytown. Her mother eventually married Albert Austin, a wealthy doctor who later served in the Connecticut state legislature and the U.S. House. In 1923, Clare Boothe married George Brokaw, scion of a clothing fortune. They had one daughter, Ann Clare, but were divorced in 1929. Clare set her sights on writing and was hired by publisher Conde Nast at Vogue. By 1933 she served as managing editor at Nast’s Vanity Fair magazine. On November 21, 1935, Clare Boothe married Henry R. Luce, founder of Time, Life, and Fortune magazines. Shortly thereafter Clare Boothe Luce came into her own as a successful playwright. In 1936, she wrote a Broadway hit, The Women (1936), a satire about the lives of idle rich women. Other commercial successes followed. When war broke out in Europe, she toured the world as a Life correspondent. Luce eventually wrote dispatches from the North African and Chinese theaters.
Clare Boothe Luce’s interest in politics developed during the Great Depression. In 1932, she worked as the executive secretary of the National Party, which united conservatives with moderately liberal plans for rescuing the economy. Through her relationship with the financier Bernard Baruch, Luce for a brief time became a Franklin Roosevelt supporter. She eventually broke with the FDR administration over New Deal economic programs. Her first active participation in Republican politics came with her energetic support of Wendell Willkie’s 1940 presidential campaign. Her travels during World War II changed the focus of her criticisms of FDR from domestic to foreign policies. By 1942, Connecticut political leaders lobbied Luce to run for a U.S. House seat encompassing Fairfield County and the wealthy town of Greenwich, where Luce had a home. Initially reluctant because she thought she did not possess a temperament suited to politics and was unfamiliar with the district, she later accepted.2 In the GOP primary, opponents attacked her as a carpetbagger but she prevailed at the nominating meeting by a nearly unanimous vote.3 Luce based her platform on three goals: “One, to win the war. Two, to prosecute that war as loyally and effectively as we can as Republicans. Three, to bring about a better world and a durable peace, with special attention to post–war security and employment here at home.”4
In the general election she ran against Democratic incumbent Leroy Downs, a local newspaper publisher who had defeated her stepfather, Albert Austin, in 1940. She dismissed Downs as a Roosevelt “rubber stamp.”5 Nevertheless, her internationalist orientation differentiated Luce from isolationists. On that basis the influential syndicated columnist and FDR supporter Dorothy Thompson endorsed Luce.6 Former GOP presidential candidate Wendell Willkie also campaigned for her.7 With support from labor unions, Downs held his core Democratic voters together, but Luce defeated him by a 46 to 42 percent margin.8 If Socialist candidate David Mansell had not skimmed away 15,000 votes that likely would have gone to Downs, Luce would not have been elected. Still, she portrayed her victory as a mandate. “I have campaigned for fighting a hard war—not a soft war,” Luce declared. “Therefore this election proves how the American people want to fight this war.…They want to fight it efficiently and without bungling. They want to fight it in an honorable, all–out, plain–spoken partnership with our Allies.”9
Luce originally hoped to get a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, but Republican Minority Leader Joe Martin steered her onto the Committee on Military Affairs. Impatient with the arduous process of creating and passing legislation, she used her Military Affairs assignment as a soapbox from which to criticize the wartime policies of the Roosevelt administration. Her first floor speech attracted half the House Members—an unprecedented draw for even the most powerful veteran. In an address entitled “America in the Postwar Air World,” Luce advocated postwar U.S. air dominance, both commercial and military. In the same way that the British Navy controlled the world’s oceans in the 19th century, Luce suggested, U.S. airpower would control global airspace. She warned against British and Russian competition and attacked the administration’s “freedom of the skies” plan for postwar international aviation cooperation as “globaloney.”10 The speech had the effect Luce seemed to intend, stirring domestic and foreign controversy.11 From London, Member of Parliament Lady Astor mused, “People who start out to be sensational usually don’t last long.”12 Luce later clarified that she believed “every nation has sovereignty of its skies” and that the U.S. must extend aid to allied nations to reinvigorate the aviation industry and spur competition.13
Despite her status as a leading GOP spokesperson, Luce voted to support the general outlines of FDR’s foreign policy. She described an Anglo–American bilateral alliance as the “foundation stone” of any postwar international organization.14 She supported the so–called Fulbright Resolution in 1943, sponsored by Representative J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, which envisioned American participation in a postwar international organization—later the United Nations. She introduced resolutions to study the problem of postwar refugees and to create a U.N. agency to oversee arms control.15 Unlike isolationist Republicans in the House, Luce backed American involvement in the United Nations Refugee Relief Agency, though she wanted separate U.S. oversight of aid distribution in recipient countries.16 Luce also supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.17
On domestic policy, Congresswoman Luce was more centrist than her rhetoric implied. In 1943, she supported the Equal Rights Amendment on the 20th anniversary of its introduction in the House. Luce also endorsed the development of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, arguing that, “We have always been fighting women and never afraid to do our part.”18 She advocated a heavy wartime tax on the rich: “those who can afford it, the well–to–do and the rich, must be taxed almost to the constitutional point of confiscation.”19 In 1946, Luce introduced a bill to create a Labor Department bureau to ensure women and minority workers equal pay for equal work.20
Republican leaders most valued Luce for her wit, sharp intellect, and ability to turn a phrase, especially when singling out Roosevelt’s policies for criticism. Party leaders selected Luce as the keynote speaker at the 1944 Republican National Convention in Chicago, the first woman so honored by either party. Her “G.I. Joe and G.I. Jim” speech largely consisted of her charge that Roosevelt had been duplicitous in handling foreign policy as war grew imminent in both Europe and Asia, and, through wartime mismanagement, had caused undue American fatalities.21 Aiming squarely at Roosevelt’s habit of making one–man diplomacy, Luce charged that American democracy was “becoming a dictatorial bumbledom.”22
Luce’s re–election bid in the fall of 1944 was buffeted by intraparty fighting, resulting in the abrupt resignation of her top backer, J. Kenneth Bradley, from his GOP state chairmanship.23 Luce survived the primary and entered the general election against a 29–year–old Democrat challenger—Deputy Secretary of State of Connecticut Margaret E. Connors.24 Connors attacked Luce as a late and opportunistic convert to the cause of a postwar international organization.25 Meanwhile, Luce intensified her rhetoric against President Roosevelt during a national speaking tour to support the GOP presidential candidate, Governor Thomas Dewey of New York. Luce declared FDR to be “the only American President who ever lied us into a war because he did not have the political courage to lead us into it,” arguing that Roosevelt had not halted the transport of vital strategic materials to imperial Japan soon enough as it waged war against China.26 She also insisted that from 1933 to 1939, as Hitler and Mussolini rose to power in Europe, FDR was “the world’s leading isolationist and appeaser” because he had failed to confront fascism more forcefully.27 Critics assailed her. Mary Norton, dean of Democratic women in the House, accused Luce of “complete ignorance” of the facts. Vice President Wallace dismissed her as a “sharp–tongued glamour girl of forty” who “when running around the country without a mental protector, ‘put her dainty foot in her pretty mouth.’”28 Connors portrayed Luce’s “lies” as proof of her core isolationist beliefs.29 Connors eventually carried industrial sections of the district by wide margins.30 In an election year when prominent isolationists such as Hamilton Fish of New York went down to defeat, the Democratic message that conflated Luce’s criticisms with isolationism proved potent. Luce barely edged Connors by 49.9 to 48.9 percent. A Socialist candidate polled 2,448 votes, a little more than Luce’s margin of victory.31
In early 1945, Representative Luce expressed grave concerns about Soviet foreign policy objectives, particularly in Eastern Europe. She traveled to liberated Europe and toured the Buchenwald concentration camp where Nazis had murdered thousands of Jews and Soviet war prisoners. As the German threat receded, Luce perceived a growing menace in Soviet communism. She argued that the Kremlin had “incorporated the Nazi technique of murder” and that Washington should halt the spread of communism in Europe.32 Returning to the United States, Luce authored a bill to acknowledge American “national responsibility” for the Yalta Agreements of February 1945. Hers was a particularly resonant attack on FDR’s compromise with Joseph Stalin over the division of postwar Europe. Recognizing the role the Soviet Army played in crushing German occupation forces in Eastern Europe, FDR had conceded Moscow’s sphere of influence in the region. Stalin, whose chief security interest was to prevent another German invasion through a weak Polish state, soon reneged on his promises for free elections and a coalition government in that country. Nevertheless, Luce and other critics described the accords as capitulation on the part of the FDR administration and as “a partition of Poland and overthrow of its friendly, recognized constitutional Government.”33 Her position played well in her district, home to a large Polish and Eastern European community.
Luce’s interest in political office, however, steadily eroded. In January 1944, her daughter, Ann, a student at Stanford University, died in an auto wreck.34 Friends noted that the tragedy sent Luce on a three–year search for closure and greatly diminished her enthusiasm for politics. In January 1946 she declined to run for re–election and retired in January 1947.35 She did not, however, drop out of politics. Luce addressed the 1948 Republican National Convention.36 In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed her U.S. Ambassador to Italy, making her the fifth woman to represent the United States in a foreign country and the first posted to a major European nation.37 She served until 1957, eventually arranging a conference that settled the disposition of Trieste, a city on the Adriatic Sea, claimed by both Italy and Yugoslavia. In 1959, she was confirmed overwhelmingly to become the U.S. Ambassador to Brazil. But, following a bitter public exchange with Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon that undermined her standing, she resigned her ambassadorship after just three days.38 The Luces settled in Honolulu, Hawaii, where Clare remained after Henry’s death in 1967. In 1983, she accepted a post on President Ronald Reagan’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom as “a persistent and effective advocate of freedom, both at home and abroad.” After a long battle with cancer, Clare Boothe Luce died on October 9, 1987, in Washington, D.C. Upon her death, the Washington Post, which often stood at odds with Luce’s politics, eulogized her. “She raised early feminist hell. To the end she said things others wouldn’t dare to—cleverly and wickedly—and seemed only to enjoy the resulting fracas…Unlike so many of her fellow Washingtonians she was neither fearful nor ashamed of what she meant to say.”39
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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