Monday, September 15, 2008

The Woman Behind "The Women"

They're showing Clare Boothe Luce's satire of her gender again on Turner Class Movies tonight and, in the year of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, memory brings back one of the most famous--and fascinating--political women of the past century.

As the new editor of McCalls in 1965, I inherited her as a columnist after my predecessor hired her to balance Eleanor Roosevelt with a conservative icon. But now Mrs. Roosevelt had died, and, to my discomfort, I was left with the caustic writer, a former member of Congress and Ambassador to Italy, wife of America’s most powerful publisher, known for consigning enemies to publicity hell, as she did a respected politician by noting her problems with him went back to “when Senator Wayne Morse was kicked in the head by a horse.”

After cocktails at lunch, I said earnestly, "Since you and I disagree about so much politically, I don’t see how we’re going to work together. We might keep making each other uncomfortable.”

With a dazzling smile, she answered, “Why don’t we try? I promise never to make you uncomfortable.”

She kept her promise. For the next three years, she wrote charming, sometimes touching pieces on manners, morals and culture, carefully skirting politics.

We would meet for lunch, spend a few minutes talking about the column, then argue amiably about politics. In her early sixties, Clare was a seductive storyteller and shrewd observer. When I told her about trying to protect Jacqueline Kennedy from embarrassment only to have her cancel an interview and give it to a competing magazine, Clare said sweetly, “The Kennedys leave no good deed unpunished.”

She talked often about her husband. Their turbulent marriage had settled into a kind of prickly peace, and she loved telling stories at his expense, about his misadventures as “the world’s worst driver” and his cantankerousness. They had just built a house in Hawaii, and the new cook asked, “How does Mr. Luce like his eggs?” “Any way,” Clare answered, “that you can’t cook them.”

She liked men but was an affectionate skeptic. "They say women talk too much," she once said. "If you've worked in Congress, you know the filibuster was invented by men." And: "A man's home looks like his castle on the outside. Inside, it's more like his nursery."

Early in 1967, after Luce died suddenly, I went to see her. Dressed in black, Clare seemed pale and fragile. In a disembodied voice, she talked about how free his life had been of suffering, how even death had come without pain. As always, her tone was wryly affectionate with an undercurrent of anger.

Just before I left, her voice softened. “The people from Time Inc. came yesterday,” she said, “and I made up my mind not to cry, so I put on false eyelashes...”

She looked at me. “But I don’t have them on now,” and broke into tears.

On the way out, I reminded myself Clare had been an actress, but if those tears were a performance, it was a good one.

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