In 1997, Sylvia Jukes Morris published the first volume of her exhaustive biography of the remarkable woman born Ann Clare Boothe. “Rage for Fame” portrayed the coming of age of a smart, beautiful and desperately ambitious girl, torn between pursuing the rewards of her brains or those of her looks.

From childhood, her big eyes and blond hair held absurd power over men, and she married money twice. After divorcing the alcoholic George Tuttle Brokaw, she made a far more lucrative and influential match with the publishing titan Henry Luce in 1935. The following year, her hit Broadway play “The Women” made her famous all over again for its brutal satire of gender relations.

There’s a thrilling kind of energy in watching this ruthlessly self-made life take shape, an energy that is matched and reversed in “Price of Fame,” as celebrity just as ruthlessly takes its toll.

Both volumes of the biography open with vivid scenes in which Clare (as Morris calls her) ducks away from a too-bright spotlight. In “Rage for Fame” she hides, alone, at the top of the Empire State Building on the opening night of “The Women.” Eight years later, as “Price of Fame” opens, she is on her way to Washington as a newly elected Republican U.S. representative from Connecticut. With a mob of reporters awaiting her train, the new political star manages to evade them and to emerge the next day at a news conference, 10 theatrical minutes late. Initially annoyed by her presumption, soon “even the most hardened Washington pressmen were beguiled.”

This pattern of evasiveness and availability characterizes Clare’s behavior throughout Morris’s clear-eyed biography, and the people around her fall in line just like the Washington press: first irritated and then infatuated. From the vast selection of correspondence and reporting collected here, it seems nobody was indifferent to Clare Boothe Luce.

“Price of Fame: The Honorable Clare Booth Luce” by Sylvia Jukes Morris. (Random House)

The hyperbole she inspired makes it impossible to distinguish her achievements from her personality and appearance. In 1943 such routine prejudice, which hounds powerful public women to this day, was exacerbated by her rarity: She was one of the few women in Congress, and the only one to show up on her first day wearing purple. Asked in later life whether she had felt disadvantaged in her career by being a woman, she seemed to duck the question: “I couldn’t possibly tell you. I have never been a man.” But the answer is more revealing than perhaps she knew: Because she was not a man, her words and actions were never separated from her appearance and emotions. For all else that brought her fame, from writing to politics to broadcasting, she was always judged as a woman first.

The range of Clare’s activities and of the people she knew is daunting, and the biography offers a detailed picture of the evolution of U.S. politics and culture from World War II into the Reagan era. In Congress, Clare served on the House Military Affairs Committee, and more than once she toured the war zones, where most of America’s top military brass fell at her feet: “Generals in both theaters were confessedly in love with her.” At the end of the war she was part of a delegation touring the newly opened concentration camps, where she was shocked by “the creativeness of Nazi cruelty” and gripped by fear that such abuses could be repeated. Her lifelong anti-communism was fueled, in Morris’s telling, by this encounter with the mechanized slavery of the camps and by her belief that the rights of the individual must be protected at all costs against totalitarianism.

Her life was immeasurably darkened by the death of her only child, Ann Brokaw, in a car accident in January 1944. In Morris’s wrenching account, it’s clear that the loss of her 19-year-old daughter, in circumstances eerily similar to her mother’s death in 1938, destroyed something vital in Clare. Her subsequent conversion to Roman Catholicism is one of the most moving sections in the book, in which she confronts her humanity and the meaning of her life apart from fame. The loss of Ann was compounded in 1948 by the death, probably by suicide, of her errant brother David, who had found a small measure of peace in military service and was bereft after the end of the war. His inability to settle down, his recklessness and his drinking frightened Clare as they resembled her own demons in a heightened, violent form.

Catholicism appears to have been genuinely transformative — at least until President Dwight Eisenhower named her ambassador to Italy in 1952. In Rome, she found herself subject to even more extreme chauvinism than she had seen at home, but her role in brokering a peace settlement between Italy and Yugoslavia over the port city of Trieste eventually made “La Luce” a darling of the Italian press. As always, once she had retired from a demanding public role, she found the quiet unbearable — perhaps one reason she was somewhat chemically dependent and enthusiastically experimented with LSD during the late 1950s.

Clare’s relationship with Henry “Harry” Luce was the backbone to her life and work, until he died suddenly — as all her loved ones did — in 1967. Theirs was not quite a marriage of convenience, but neither was it a fulfilling emotional or sexual union — both partners had lovers and close confidantes outside the marriage. In 1956, a protracted crisis over Harry’s affair with the young heiress Lady Jeanne Campbell brought them closer to divorce than ever, but Harry’s indecision (and Clare’s suicide attempts) stopped him from leaving her for Jeanne. Clare clearly recognized that being half of the most powerful couple in America elevated her already high status. But even after Harry’s death she continued to exercise her unwavering talent for keeping people fascinated, loyal and, ultimately, at arm’s length.

Her biography isn’t likely to convert readers into admirers, but in a culture where the rage for fame feels inescapable, it might just help us to weigh its costs more accurately and count the blessings of obscurity.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer and board member of the National Book Critics Circle.


The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce

By Sylvia Jukes Morris

Random House. 735 pp. $35