IT'S AN ODD little book that Wilfrid Sheed has written in affectionate tribute to his friend of more than three decades, Clare Boothe Luce, the whilom Dragon Lady of American journalism, theater and politics. On the one hand he provides a most useful corrective: a close if not unduly intimate view of Luce in which she is revealed as "sunny and gentle and life-size," in stark contrast to her public image as a "witch" who "lies about her origins, is cold, feline and preternaturally lucky, and over and above everything she cheats." But on the other hand this is in some respects a most unappealingly smug book: supercilious, coy, self-aggrandizing.

The friendship of Sheed and Luce is at first glance a most unlikely one: he with his flirtations with leftish politics, she with her emphatic identification with hard-right Republicanism, especially in foreign affairs. But its origins are familial and religious, not political. Sheed's parents, ardent and prominent Catholics, were acquainted with Clare and Henry Luce. In the summer of 1949 Clare had recently become a Catholic; for reasons that Sheed professes to be unable to identify, he ended up spending that summer at the Luces' house in Connecticut.

He was 18 years old. His invitation to stay in Ridgefield probably had something to do with Clare's grief over the death of her only child, Ann Brokaw, who was about Sheed's age; it may also have had something to do with her sympathy for young Sheed, who was recovering from a bout with polio. Whatever the reason for it, he found himself quite unexpectedly in the lap of Luceian luxury, with servants and a pool at his disposal and, most beguilingly, the beautiful, witty and famous Clare Luce as his companion--though for the suspicious 1980s reader he is quick to note that "it was an innocent period, especially for young Catholics, and the idea of an 18-year-old boy making time with a 46-year-old woman did not come naturally, or at all."

At the time Clare Boothe Luce was, with the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt and, possibly, Helen Keller, the most famous woman in America. She had been managing editor of Vanity Fair, had served two terms in Congress, had covered World War II for Life magazine, was married to the most powerful journalist in the nation, Henry Luce, high priest of the Time-Life empire--and in just a few years would be named ambassador to Italy by President Eisenhower. She was, at a relatively youthful age, already a legend: vilified or adored, depending on one's politics and/or one's view of woman's proper place, with no in-betweens. To young Sheed she was at once a mystery and an education:

". . . I came to know the (legend) intimately, and even to dislike it myself, because that was obviously its purpose. The icy blond, bright, greedy, insensitive--who could like such a person? It was as if the celebrity world existed to spin out moral fables, of haughty queens and humble haberdashers, Clare Luces and Harry Trumans, for our constant instruction, and these fables became dogma. 'She's really a nice person,' I would say: and a quick survey of eyebrows would tell me, he's showing off again, pretending to know something, Mae West is really chaste, oh sure. If there's one thing we know for certain, it's our celebrities."

But it is the central point of this book that in fact we do not know them; we know only what we see, or what we think we see. The person behind the facade of celebrity can possess, in reality, almost nothing in common with that facade. That reality can be dark: behind the strutting image of King of Rock 'n' Roll, was the insecure and grubby reality of Elvis Presley. Or it can be bright: behind the facade of "witch" that Clare Boothe Luce presented, Sheed argues, lay a woman of far more complex motives and yearnings than we suspected, and a woman of impressive decency.

Though eventually she became a wealthy and influential person, both through her own efforts and through her marriage, Clare Boothe Luce had a rough beginning. She grew up relatively poor, with an adoring mother who saw in her beautiful daughter a ticket to the big time. She had, for someone who became a prominent writer, a markedly limited formal education. As a very young woman she was married off to George Brokaw, a wealthy lout who drank heavily and abused her; from him she got a daughter, a divorce, and a settlement that guaranteed her a decent income for life.

She used her new money to set herself up in New York society; but Sheed contends, persuasively, that her talent and intelligence were what got her as far as she went. Sheed sees hers as a classically American story: "The paradox is that while Clare's success may seem like the last word in worldliness, it is rooted like the Great Fortunes in old moral precepts: patience, fortitude, hard work. God helps those who help themselves." (Of course many of the Great Fortunes are also rooted in larceny; that, which is inconvenient to his argument, Sheed overlooks.) Into the bargain, and most crucially, Luce is a woman. This Sheed addresses with perception and sensitivity:

"I did not, as a tongue-tied Oscar Wilde, understand the deeper nature of her challenge: which was, how was a woman supposed to be clever over brandy and cigars? In her youth, one simply left the room or was pushed. Now one stayed--but then what? Was Clare supposed to bring feminine lightness and caprice from the next room? Or was she, like Burlington Bertie dressed up in tails, expected to act like a man, laying down the law and topping the other fellow? Being Clare, she of course tried both--which was plucky or overweening, or both. She was, after all, a U.S. congresswoman, and also a Broadway wit, a salon keeper and a salon wit, for which combination there were no instructions and precious few precedents. It was a brand-new territory, outside the tiny compound where women lived in those days. Clare was a pioneer not just during office hours but every breathing minute: a role that might have taxed St. Therese herself."

Throughout her life, but especially after her marriage to Luce, she had to contend with the predictable charge that her successes were owed to the men in her life. Because she was (and most emphatically still is) beautiful, she had an extra handicap: ". . . short of having her good looks removed by surgery, there was no way of proving she'd done anything without their assistance. Femininity could not be neutral: it either helped you or crippled you." Clare Bothe Luce had a formidable arsenal of assets, but she still had to overcome one obstacle or another at every turn; in the good old American way, she did.

Though Sheed declines to call his book a biography-- "I'm not dead sure what it is"--he provides a reasonably full outline of her life; it is written with abundant sympathy and, where he feels it called for, a discreet candor. He is interesting and perceptive on such varied matters as her friendship with Cardinal Spellman, her strengths and weaknesses as a playwright, and her lifelong fascination with things miltary. His willingness to portray the Dragon Lady with understanding and appreciation, thus bucking the liberal tide that flows in the literary circles where he moves, is most laudable; what a pleasure to see someone as eminent and controversial as Clare Boothe Luce viewed as a person rather than as an ideology.

Unfortunately, though, Sheed has chosen to write about her in a chummy, cozy,exclusive manner. He is a witty and stylish writer, but for some reason he seems intent here upon proving that he is a member of Clare's club. Modestly he denies that he occupies a special place in her life; immodestly he depicts himself as her confidante, the recipient of her juiciest and most wicked witticisms, the guardian of the door to her true soul. Like others who have written about the rich and famous, he cannot resist the temptation to pretend, however subtly, that he too belongs.

Because Sheed insists on being a star performer in Luce's story--he employs the first-person singular with mind-rattling frequency--he raises the familiar suspicion that his book exists to honor its author as much as its subject. In the end, therefore, the honor he brings to her is somewhat tarnished.