“Her technique was simple: aim for the top,” an envious colleague wrote of Clare Boothe Luce. No American woman of the twentieth century aimed so accurately, or rose so far, as this legendary playwright, politician, and social seductress. Born in New York’s Spanish Harlem, with nothing to recommend her but beauty, ferocious intelligence, and dry wit, she transformed herself into the youthful managing editor of Vanity Fair. She married two millionaires and wrote three Broadway hits, including the biting satire, The Women. Her second husband, Henry Luce—the publisher of Time, Fortune, and later at her suggestion Life—was only one of the dozens of men she entranced. Adding politics and power to journalism and drama, Clare used sex, street smarts, acid humor, and money to plot a career more improbable than anything in her own fiction. Not content with mere wealth and the acclaim of transatlantic café society, Clare Boothe Luce confessed to a “rage for fame.” This extraordinary book—the result of more than fifteen years of research by Sylvia Jukes Morris, her chosen biographer—tells how she achieved it.
Praise for Rage for Fame
“A model biography . . . the sort that only real writers can write.”—Gore Vidal, The New Yorker
“[The] riveting first part of a two-volume biography . . . Relentlessly candid, meticulously documented, Morris’s book traces [Clare Boothe] Luce’s rocketing rise from illegitimacy and poverty to wealth, power and fame.”—Hartford Courant
“Powerful and resonant, admiring at times, always critical, at times searing, but ultimately fair.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Crammed with enough drama for several mini-series.”—The New York Times
“An important book about an important figure . . . a stunning feat of biography.”—Forbes
“A dishy biography that is also a formidable work of research.”—Slate
“One of those rare books where the reader dreads the final page.”—Newport News Daily Press
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
We are born into the world, and there is something within us
which, from the instant we live, more and more thirsts after
its likeness. —PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
Anna Clara Schneider gave birth to her second illegitimate child in a second-floor apartment at 533 West 124th Street, in an all-white, middle-class neighborhood of New York City, on March 10, 1903.
The birth certificate, signed by George A. Leech, M.D., recorded this date and gave the baby’s name as “Ann Boothe.” It stated that her father, William Franklin Boothe, a “salesman,” was forty-one and, incorrectly, that he had been born in Illinois. Her mother, misidentified as “Anna Clare Boothe” and said to be twenty-five, was, in fact, not William’s wife, and was four months short of twenty-one.
These little deceptions, which seemed to have no purpose, unless to conceal bastardy, proliferated as the child grew. She soon became “Ann Clare” and for inscrutable reasons was encouraged to celebrate her subsequent birthdays a month late. This pretense would continue throughout her life. When, at the age of eighty-two, she was asked about it, she furtively explained, “Mother always said I was born on Easter Sunday. Besides, those born under the sign of Aries are always lighthearted and gay.” She clung to the myth even when informed that April 10, 1903, was actually Good Friday, and that her true astrological sign was Pisces.
Why did she persist, to the point that the wrong date would be chiseled on her tombstone? Was it just because her mother insisted upon it? Did she really see herself as “lighthearted and gay” when she was often melancholic? Did she ever ponder the coincidence that her father had been born on that date in 1862—and not in Illinois but in Poolesville, Maryland?
Booming sounds of gunfire accompanied William Franklin Boothe’s entry into the world, for his place of birth was “debatable land” in the Civil War, an area crossed and recrossed by the armies of both sides. Poolesville was repeatedly shelled, and during these bombardments Sarah Rebecca Deaver Boothe would take her firstborn to the safety of the cellar until the cannonading stopped. Thrown together in a constricted environment, mother and son forged a close bond. She would later attribute her son’s tempestuous, unpredictable personality to the turbulence of his early days.
The Reverend John William Thomas Booth (records show that he spelled his name without an e at this point) had been assistant pastor at Poolesville Baptist Church since October 1861. His main duty was teaching in the parochial private school, where the curriculum covered all subjects from the three Rs to Neoplatonism. He was a man who lived almost entirely in his mind. After William’s birth he wrote in his diary: “Studied Greek for one hour, read Latin for ¾ hour. Read 22 pages of 5th book. Retired at nine.”
According to his son Edward, he was a striking figure, “finicky about the cut of his jacket,” and a crisp, energetic speaker much in demand as an itinerant preacher at sister churches. In one year he delivered 61 sermons, made 171 visits, distributed 1,050 tracts, and proudly reported “an increasing interest in spiritual concerns” on his circuit. But by 1864 “Brother John” was so war-weary, and in such poor health from his constant travels, that he resigned his pastoral post and moved north to study at the College of Rhode Island.
Meanwhile, William was growing into a handsome, curly-headed boy, with such gracious manners that mothers sought him out as a playmate for their daughters. He charmed adults, his brother Edward later recalled, with his “Yessum to the ladies, no sir to the men, an’ when companee is present never pass your plate for pie agin.” Sarah Boothe favored William within her growing family (there would eventually be four boys and six girls), indulging his whims and eccentricities. In turn, he loved her without condition.
By the mid-1870s the Boothes had moved to Lafayette, Indiana. Here it was even more apparent that their oldest offspring was no ordinary youth. He was especially gifted in music, languages, and athletics, and his sisters had to admit that he excelled them in crochet. Edward insisted that William was a genius, with “all the concomitants of the type,” and compared him with Dryden’s
… man so various that he seemed to be
Not one, but all mankind’s epitome!
Yet to his father, William was not faultless. The studious cleric doubted that the multitalented boy would settle into any one discipline. Indeed, there was something restless, even unstable, about his brilliance. In 1876, at fourteen and a half (the usual age was fifteen), he was admitted to Purdue University’s preparatory academy for students of superior ability.
He excelled at history and was able to remember and cite all the contrasted characters in Plutarch. With an ease that flabbergasted math teachers, he gave quotients in arithmetic, and was a meticulous scholar in English grammar, Latin, and German. In his first year, he received all A grades, yet he failed to show up for subsequent examinations two years in a row.
William enrolled in the Cincinnati College of Music (later to merge with the Cincinnati Conservatory) shortly after its opening in 1878, and studied violin with the eminent Professor S. E. Jacobsohn. There is, however, no record of his graduation. In the early 1880s he worked for a while in Dakota Territory at Shurtleff’s ranch, where he rivaled the wiriest cowboys in “busting out bad range horses without pulling leather” and mastered Brulé Sioux, conversing for hours with White Buffalo men. From out West, he sent lavish gifts of silk stockings, fur coats, hats, and muffs to his family. One cousin remarked that “Billy” had such a generous nature “he could never hold onto his money,” and accurately prophesied that he would “die broke.”
Though he was reluctant to stay in any place or job for long, there was nothing of the dilettante about William Boothe. When he competed, Edward said, he did so “with professionals.” He looked frail as a youth, but he had prodigious muscular strength and was a fearless fighter. Once he boxed to a draw Arthur Chambers, who afterwards fought Dominick McCaffrey, a rival of John L. Sullivan. He became a crack marksman with both revolver and rifle, taking third place in an Adirondack contest against the prize shots Ross Hays and Ezra Bruce. As a powerful long-distance swimmer—he could cover five miles with ease—he entered a race from Wilmington to Penns Grove, New Jersey, and came a close second to the champion, Friday Pearson. He was also an expert yachtsman and navigator.
Outstanding as he was at sports, he cared for none as much as music. Although he could neither dance in step nor hum a tune, he played the piano with verve and skill, and at the age of twenty published two concert études, one of which, in octaves, was frequently performed in its time. But his real gift was for the violin. He made a special trip to Europe to study with Eugène Ysaÿe and returned with a fully developed, professional bow technique. His rendition of Bach’s Air on a G String reportedly “made the goose flesh come.” Yet an innate reticence prevented him from performing in public, and he never realized his own dream of the concert platform.
One possible reason for failing in this ambition was William Boothe’s irresistible appeal to women. Outgoing and exceptionally attractive, with a shock of dark hair, bushy brows, broad chin, and sensuous mouth, he made conquests easily. The fact that he was free from personal vanity made women “crazy about him,” Edward said. Because he had a loving heart, he could not reject their advances. Only when they discovered he cared more for music than for money did they flee in tears or anger.
In spite, or perhaps because of his inability to handle the opposite sex, William Boothe would acquire no fewer than four wives—three legal and one common-law. In his early twenties, he married Isa Hill, a blue-eyed beauty with hair “yellow as taffy after much pulling.” Apparently she had a disturbed personality and passed out of his life “as suddenly as she had entered it—and as stormily.”
Soon afterwards William was back East working as a piano salesman for the Philadelphia company of Heppe, Ramsdall and Dearborn, and courting Laura Olivia Brauss, a pretty, ambitious young woman whom he married in New Jersey on November 7, 1886. They settled in Philadelphia, where William opened a piano and organ store at 1416 Chestnut Street.