"Dear Boy, will you zip me up?" The door to a fifth-floor apartment has just opened. A vision of velvet is swirling in the evening light. The visitor, one foot in, one foot out, is startled. Is this a tease, an old coquettish gambit, a way to seize the advantage? Maybe Clare Boothe Luce just needs zippering up. The guest is all thumbs. Simple task--only a modest l2 inches of zippering up the back of her dress. Why should this be taking all afternoon? "My dear, I think you forgot the hook. I must fix you a drink."

Her dress, ebony and rich, is afloat in perfume. Her skin is soft and fair. The lipstick looks perfectly applied. Her gold watch, with a face the size of Delaware, somehow seems not ostentatious, at least on her. Clare Boothe Luce will be 79 on Saturday, and she is a striking woman. In her day she made men swoon. Her legs were said to be second only to Marlene Dietrich's. Reporters, covering her, used to gush descriptions like this: "Despite her illness Mrs. Luce looked wonderful. A ruby-red velvet cloche framed her lovely face, and a matching scarf was tied at the neck of her loose-fitting gray wool coat."

Clare Boothe Luce, whom detractors think of as a "Dragon Lady," has returned to Washington. She is back in a city where Republicans currently preside and where she has lived on and off for half a century. She is back for a spiral of reasons, not least, you suspect, out of a desire for some good conversation at dinner parties again. (The Daniel Boorstins are due at her door in an hour to take her to the Cosmos Club.) In advanced age she has answered another bid to serve her country, something she has been doing sporadically in one capacity or another since she was a member of Congress from Connecticut in the '40s. Doubtless, she doesn't mind the limelight again, either. The other evening she gave a speech in Connecticut on foreign intelligence. It was a sellout. According to her secretary of 35-years, Dorothy Farmer, people stood in line in the rain for tickets.

In the middle distance, past the blond locks falling to her shoulder, lay the interior of her new apartment. There have been many Luce abodes over the years, in Connecticut and Hawaii and Rome and other climes. This newest is near the Shoreham Hotel. She used to have a place at the Watergate, but that one was sold and she is putting up here now. From the doorway (which the visitor is still trying to get past), the apartment looks serene and tasteful, maybe not Diamond-Head-breathtaking, but with hues of blue, fine rugs and paintings, lashes of afternoon sun lying on gleaming furniture. Her dining room table hasn't come from Hawaii yet and that is a bit of an irritant.

This time around Luce is serving on Ronald Reagan's reinstated Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. (She was on the board before, as an appointee of Richard Nixon and then Gerald Ford; Jimmy Carter abolished it.) She is also a consultant to the National Security Council. Her friend of 30 years, National Security Affairs adviser William Clark, called her up and she accepted on the spot. (She had been advising him at the State Department.) She and Clark have known each other since Clark and Luce's daughter were at Stanford. Her daughter, Ann Brokaw, who was her only child, died in an automobile accident in the '40s.

Most Aprils, Clare Boothe Luce celebrates her birthday with the Clarks at their home in California. "Hers was the first name I thought of when I came over here," says Clark. "I asked her to be a consultant because of her interest and knowledge in the NSC process, particularly in intelligence. I might add that the president has a great trust in her, too." She goes down to the White House regularly, according to an aide, whenever Clark wishes to pick her brain.

Washington is fine again, she says, but already she misses badly the Pacific and Hawaii's pastel breezes. She is an expert swimmer (she took up scuba diving in her '50s) and doesn't know what she'll do if she can't find a pool here. Wilfrid Sheed, in his elegantly written new book about her, "Clare Boothe Luce," reports that her failing sight and eight or nine cataract operations have reduced her now to swimming with her head erect above the water in a straw hat, "like old royalty taking the baths."

"I'm looking for some sort of sport club where people won't come up and say, 'Why are you riding that ridiculous bicycle?' "

You could call her now old royalty in a dry season, without husband or grandchild. She wouldn't like it and it wouldn't entirely be accurate.

Harper's magazine ran a recent excerpt from the Sheed book with this cover line: "From Courtesan to Career Woman." The line caused a flap, in that a standard dictionary definition of courtesan is prostitute. The editor of Harper's pleaded ignorance about that meaning of the word. Luce herself says, "I would have rather had it read, 'From Career Woman to Courtesan.' That would have really got them talking." On a shelf in Luce's living room there is a framed copy of the Harper's cover, autographed by Sen. Strom Thurmond.

Always Go First-Cabin

She is no Evita, though don't cry for her, America, she's had her wild days, her mad existence. Think of her as our Helen of Troy: the face that launched a hundred magazine covers. Also the lip that launched a thousand quips: "Men--you can't let them out on a leash." "Widowhood is a fringe benefit of marriage." Maybe only Dorothy Parker could be quicker and bitchier. Some of her brittlest lines can be found in "The Women," her play that became the immediate hit of the 1937 Broadway season. Some people claimed George S. Kaufman ghosted part of it. That still gets her goat. "What boils me is that when George Kaufman wrote a play, no one said, 'Well, he got his wittiest lines from his friend Clare Luce.' "

It is easier, almost, to say what she hasn't done, whom she hasn't known. With the exception of Eleanor Roosevelt, or maybe Amelia Earhart, is there a more famous American woman of the century? (In 1947 she came second to Eleanor Roosevelt in a poll of the Most Admired American Woman.) Certainly none has had so many field-shifts. And yet the whole has always seemed greater than the parts.

She has known every president since Woodrow Wilson. She has been playwright, managing editor of Vanity Fair magazine, satirical essayist, society hostess, U.S. ambassador to Italy, member of Congress. She covered World War II for LIFE magazine. She sat with Bernie Baruch on his park bench. Noel Coward and "Willie" Maugham used to come over for supper.

"I'm one of the earliest feminists from waaay back," she says with a partial head tilt and trilling little laugh. You are a guest in her house and it doesn't hurt to flirt. She removes her thick-lensed glasses, folding them carefully in her palm. The left pinky lifts to brush the mascara of an upper lid. It could be a Vanity Fair set piece. "I've never been envious of any other woman of my time except one: our new Supreme Court justice. And, oh, yes, another woman I know who swam with the sperm whales. I don't mean envy in any green-eyed cat-clawing sense, of course."

Once Gloria Steinem called on her in Hawaii. Some people would have killed for the tapes of that session. Actually, Gloria was very lovely, very smart, she says. "I nearly dropped dead. She always said I was the Queen Bee." You keep waiting for the kicker to drop, like Groucho's duck, like a lead shoe. She only smiles, then adds: "Ms. Silly thing. You know that's silly. It doesn't mean Miss or Mrs. How do you improve things by having it mean nothing?"

Some can only see her as a climber and schemer. Pushy and calculating. This explains everything. "It's a beautiful fac,ade, well-constructed, but without central heating," an enemy said years ago. According to the detractors, Clare Luce had one golden rule: Always go first-cabin. When she was converting to Catholicism (shortly after the death of her daughter), and Fulton Sheen, himself an ambitious, rising monsignor, asked about her choice of confessor, she is said to have replied: "Give me one who has seen the rise and fall of empires."

Over her desk at Vanity Fair she reportedly used to keep a motto: "Down to Gehenna or up to the throne. He travels fastest who travels alone." In her early days, when she was ruthlessly climbing ladders, she used to come back from lunches and announce to the office, or so goes the story, "I've just been lunching with Somerset Maugham at the Waldorf." This was approximately true in that Maugham was there and she was there. Only they were at different tables.

"I'm a little hurt these days, if you want to know. I seem to be a contraption of some kind, a gimmick, at least according to these endless reviews of this Sheed book about me. People seem to think Clare Luce had no other life, nor was interested in anything else for 50 years, but to make herself famous and powerful. Ambition seems such a wicked thing in a woman, doesn't it?"

Cover to Cover

"Ah, let us be happy with wine," she says, wagging a finger for the guest to follow her. "Or do you want a martini?" Out to the kitchen, an expedition. She gets out glasses, slaps ice in a glass bucket, pulls out a silver tray. The tray has an engraving across its shiny face, a salutation from the New York Board of Trade to her late husband, Henry R. Luce. Not the least of the celebrity of Clare Boothe Luce are the years of her marriage to the high priest of Time Inc., the man who she says almost single-handedly invented international journalism. She and old rope-smoking Harry, who died in 1967, made a pair, people say. Someone once dubbed them Arsenic and Old Luce. It might have been Clare who thought up the line. Harry was already married and had two sons (and two famous magazines) when he met Clare.

A ransack of drawers for a corkscrew. "Is this a corkscrew?" (It's a meat thermometer.) "How about this?" (It is a dicer.) "If I were a corkscrew, where would I hide? Do you know that old game? Dear me, I may have to call my secretary." Don't feel sorry about her failing eyesight; she'll use it to get off good lines. "At movies I try to remember to face the screen." The right sprinkle of self-deprecation is part of the recipe of style.

Her pronouncements on the state of the world (it was she who coined "globaloney") come glibly as ever, though perhaps with less strident ring in some of them. In years gone by some liberals accused Clare Boothe Luce of being reactionary. Now her musings on the world seem to have a more wistful-cum-gloomy tone.

"I was wondering today what the religion of the country is--and all I could come up with was sex. When I grew up we knew about romance and a little about sex. I guess we knew about sex, but not in this . . . genitalized sense. I think I was 35 years old before I knew what a homosexual was. Sex and money, those are the two dominant things in American life today. A liberal begins to define himself by wanting more money and more sex--for other people, of course."

"Poor me," she will say at one turn. "I just barely finished high school. I was born too early. No, I got born at just the right moment, because God knows I don't want to be alive through the next 20 years."

And at another: "I see no objective reason why America can't maintain its influence, its power, its prosperity for at least another 100 years. I say no objective reason. I won't try to look into a crystal ball beyond 100 years. No one wants another Pearl Harbor, of course. But what we might want is something that will awaken us to the fact that the Russians only have another five or six years to make it. After that they may crumble. So we may be in the most dangerous decade since 1776.

"The U.S.S.R., you'll recall, is only 49 percent Russian. And the other 51 percent is beginning to feel its desire for rising. We're not idiots. We know nations rise and fall, even great nations. It could happen to us. We could be taken over by the Russians. When I was a little girl and studied geography, one third of the map of the world was pink--the British Empire. And you know what happened there. If we should not have another beautiful or proud 100 years it will be our own fault.

"I remember during the war. You'll recall I did an awful lot of war corresponding. I wrote a book, 'Europe in the Spring.' Anyway, I thought it was all over in Europe. England can't possibly survive, I thought. I went out to the East and it was worse there. Then the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor. And 20 minutes after Pearl Harbor I said, 'They've had it. They might not know it yet, but they've had it.' "

Arsenic in the Coffee

She wears myth and legend as other women wear pearls. You couldn't check them all out if you had a week and a calculator. In 1956, when she was Eisenhower's ambassador to Italy, a Pan Am DC-7B made a Transatlantic crossing from Shannon to Idewild in 9 hours and 46 minutes, shaving 7 minutes off the previous record. The pilot put the pedal down. Why? Ambassador Luce was on board and had a toothache. Maybe it's true and maybe it isn't.

"Ike gave me 14 missions," she says. "I did them all in five years." One of her Italy assignments was settling a tricky jurisdictional dispute over Trieste. She negotiated it and got medals. Harry was very supportive of her stint as ambassador, she says. "I think it was the first vacation he ever had. He loved the villa." She did, too--until arsenic started dripping from the ancient ceilings of her study, into her coffee and brainpan, thus causing lead poisoning. This bizarre story made headlines on two continents, and nobody still knows if it really happened.

Upon her resignation as Ike's envoy, she was asked if she found being a woman a diplomatic disadvantage. "I couldn't possibly tell you. I have never been a man," she told reporters.

Once, in the redded desert of Arizona, where she and Henry Luce had repaired for a spell, she and some friends and her husband began taking LSD. Harry talked to God on the golf course, though her revelations were less clear.

She may have coined the phrase "stuffed shirt." She has known them by the train carloads, you'd wager.

She grew up bathing in the kitchen sink to the smell of cabbage. This, too, the improbable rise, is keystone in the Luce legend. In her youth, before Henry Luce, she was married to a drunk and a wife-beater who happened also to be a millionaire. The divorce settlement was fine. Eventually she was on Beekman Place, living like a movie star with a lady's maid to draw the bath.

Occasionally there was one wisecrack too many--as when she allowed that the trouble with Sen. Wayne Morse was that he had been kicked in the head by a horse. This was after Italy, and she was now Ike's nominee as U.S. ambassador to Brazil. The remark was really no meaner than LBJ's somewhat later line that the trouble with Gerald Ford was that he had played too much football without a helmet. Howls and hackles got raised. Henry Luce was furious, though Clare says she would do that one again with relish. Her nomination was withdrawn.

And yet, despite the half century of splash, of legend, she insists her favorite saint is St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, that child-mystic hidden from the world in a Carmelite monastery, the patron of anticelebrity. "I tried St. Therese's Little Way once," says Clare Boothe Luce. "I didn't last a day." There is no joke here. The mystery of someone winning sainthood by being perfectly ordinary fascinates her.

Power there must be, she says, though anyone who is plotting it doesn't really understand it. Men are addicted to it. They suck it up like alcoholics take liquor. Actually, America understands almost nothing about women and ambition. "I think America, in terms of power transferred to women, is the most backward of Western countries. Of course it does have to do with our geography, too, doesn't it? I was a married woman and in the Congress, and there was no shuttle, and it took me three or four hours on a Friday night to get home to Connecticut. I mean, you think of the size of England, where a woman in public life can get home and put her feet under the table by suppertime. In France, of course, a woman would rather exercise power through a man than over men. A man can make it without a supportive wife. He can always shed her and get another. But not vice versa. When I served in the House of Representatives, Henry Luce was very supportive. Then I was offered the Senate. I realized it was either the Senate or my marriage. So you give a little here, a little there."

One of the reasons there are so few women in politics is because it doesn't generally suit their nature. "I know some people will laugh at that, but it's true. People point out queens, but they have been brought up to it, so to speak. Actually I think there is only one political career for which women are perfectly suited: diplomacy. In diplomacy you win an argument gracefully while making the loser think it was his idea you won."

The LBJ Nomination

Music is floating from another room. It is odd music, foreign and thin, a kind of high birdy trilling like her laugh a minute ago. Does it conjure up Roman nights on the Via Veneto? Actually it's Greek pipes, she says. She did the recording herself.

She picks up a magazine. "You know I was reading a poem today, and a line just reached out at me: 'Men will always love woman, and always pull down what she does.' "

She has pulled a few men down in her own day. Clare Boothe Luce, raised by women to destroy men. She would harrumph at the line.

Now she is telling her famous story about Lyndon Johnson and why he decided, after all, to get on JFK's ticket. She is dipping in and out of accent.

"This is the true story. He stopped off to have dinner with Harry and me en route to the '60 convention. He was sure he was going to be nominated. And after dinner I walked him to the elevator and said, 'Lyndon, what are you going to do if you don't get it? Will you get on his ticket?' Well, you should have heard him. He had a terrible foul mouth, you know. He and I knew each other well. He said, 'Clare, honey, no way will I ever join that SOB.' And so on.

"Well, the next time I see him it's the inauguration. There was a terrible snowstorm on inaugural night, you remember, and they put us on some dreary bus and took us around to the inaugural ball, and who do I end up sitting next to but Vice President Lyndon Johnson. And I said, 'Lyndon, come clean. Come clean.' And he said, 'Clare, honey, Bird's been wanting me something fierce to slow down, and my health ain't been good lately, and, well, I thought this job might suit me a spell.'

" 'Come clean, Lyndon.' "

"And he leaned close and said, 'Clare, I looked it up: One out of every four presidents has died in office, I'm a gamblin' man, darlin', and this is the only chance I got.' "

Now she is conducting a tour of her glass-top coffee table. As coffee tables go it is slightly boggling. There must be a hundred beribboned medals, crosses of honor, keys to the city, and other decorations encased beneath the glass. Haile Selassie could not have had this many. There's the Cross of the Italian Republic; the Dag Hammarskjold medal; a decoration Madame Chiang Kai-shek laid on her; the keys to Detroit and Fort Lauderdale; university medals; something making her a dame of Malta; papal medals--all of them snugged up like cousins, a little musty but impressive as hell.

"Damn it all, I'm almost 80 and if I want to show them off, why not? You know that old joke--'you get your first decoration by mistake and the rest just follow.' These were given to me for trying to do a few important things."