Her life story reads as if might describe about twelve completely different women: from humble origins, Clare Boothe Luce (March 10, 1903– October 9, 1987) became a socialite, a magazine editor, a war reporter, a feminist playwright, a devout Roman Catholic, a Republican Congresswoman, an early LSD user, an American ambassador, and, believe it or not, more. One writer describes her life as a cross between “Sex and the City and Game of Thrones;” her biographer claimed that everyone who ever met her fell in love with her.
In 1974, the illustrious Luce granted an interview to Rodelle Wientraub, assistant editor of a humble literary journal called The Shaw Review. The topic was “The Gift of Imagination,” and somehow, Luce manages to comment on an issue very real to writers working in today’s heady political climate: ought creative types turn to politics?
Luce breaks down her writing career, sharing how her first Broadway play, Abide With Me, “abode with no one. A melodrama without a trace of humor, it was a flop. The reviews would have discouraged anyone less stubborn than I to abandon playwrighting forever.” Instead she went on to write The Women, a satire distinguished by its all-female cast, cementing her reputation as a wit. The Women became a Broadway hit in 1936 and Hollywood classic in 1939. (Another not-quite-as-succesful Hollywood version was made in 2008).
Luce comments, “American playwrights do not like or understand women—at least not normal women. None of them has ever managed to create a believable flesh and blood, attractive female character.” One wonders whether or not she included herself in that number, for The Women is populated by wise-cracking, acid-tongued women fighting over men, none of whom is what one would call a “believable” or “likable” character.
The Women is not exactly a feminist work of art. It wouldn’t even pass the Bechdel Test, as all the women talk about is, well, men. They are catty back-stabbers, with the exception of the too-good-to-be-true protagonist Mary. By the end (spoiler alert!), after Mary’s frenemies have convinced her that she needs a divorce, she triumphs by becoming, essentially, one of them.
But despite its all-woman gimmick, Luce never set out to make a feminist, or indeed any, political statement with the play. In fact, she told Weintraub, “Playwrights should leave politics alone. Involvement with contemporary politics will almost invariably ruin a creative talent.”
Luce did not, obviously, take her own advice. Instead, after marrying publishing magnate Henry Luce, she embarked on a political career. In 1942 she was elected to the House of Representatives. By 1953, Luce became the American ambassador to Italy, the first American woman ever to hold such a high diplomatic post. She devoted herself to public life, and essentially quit writing. As she put it, “Such small talent as I had as a playwright was ruined by my involvement in politics!”
While the (hilarious) mean-girl sniping of The Women might not read as particularly feminist today, and her politics were not always what we would now call pro-woman, Luce’s legacy continues to support women. The Clare Boothe Luce Fund, as stipulated by her will, provides grants to encourage young women to enter, study, graduate, and teach in science, mathematics, and engineering.
The Shaw Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, SHAW AND WOMAN (JANUARY, 1974), pp. 53-59
Penn State University Press