This well-known Montesquieu quotation is an epigraph in Price of Fame: The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce. It’s cynical and so damn depressing, and spot-on for the biography’s subject:
If we only wanted to be happy it would be easy. But we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.
Charles de Montesquieu
I knew next to nothing about Clare Boothe Luce when I picked up her two-volume biography. Only that she had commissioned a painting by Frida Kahlo. And that the finished painting shocked Luce so much that she almost destroyed it.
Luce seems prudish, pearl-clutching in that episode, which is depicted in the Hayden Herrera biography of Kahlo. It turns out that Luce, like Kahlo, was a complicated figure with a remarkable force field and vitality. She was a woman ahead of her time, not content with the narrow role society reserved for females.
But whereas Kahlo proudly donned her colorful Mexican peasant dress and shunned convention, Luce maneuvered within the bounds of upper-class society. She had the desperate need to be accepted that is characteristic of someone who grew up poor but fiercely ambitious.
What Luce accomplished in her career was remarkable. Of course, it helped that she was wildly intelligent, charming, and beautiful. She also knew how to manipulate those around her, particularly men, to get what she wanted.
As a woman in the 1930s and 1940s, Luce:
- Climbed the ranks to become Managing Editor of Vanity Fair
- Wrote plays produced on Broadway that were turned into films, including the international hit The Women
- Became a war correspondent, publishing a volume of collected journalism Europe in the Spring, covering the early war years 1939-40
- Was elected to the House of Representatives in 1942
- Served as U.S. ambassador to Italy, and then Brazil
The two-volume biography is overlong and feels exhausting at times. It could have been trimmed–by a lot. But the details should be welcome to history lovers. Many famous figures enter and exit Luce’s story.
For instance, Clare and her husband, the publisher of Life and Time, visited Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas in France in 1939. Stein was eager to meet Clare, whose “granite” personality she had been told about by their mutual friend Thornton Wilder. There was a culture clash between the over-manicured Clare and the eccentric Stein and Toklas, to say the least:
The meal, consisting of simple fish and potatoes, was prepared by Miss Toklas, who welcomed them in a pleasantly modulated voice. Clare looked askance at her red sack dress tied in the middle, two ropes of carnelian beads, a prominent mustache, and severe black, bobbed hair with long bangs.
The next day, Clare and Stein set off on an excursion to the nearby Ain Valley. Stein later told Toklas that she and Clare read each other’s palms. Stein, then 65 and still acerbic, remarked: “And do you know what, Pussy, she has a whore’s hand.”
As Gore Vidal wrote, in an archived New Yorker review: “Everyone shows up in Clare’s story, in or out of bed.”