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RAGE FOR FAME: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce By Sylvia Jukes Morris, Random House: 561 pp., $30

June 22, 1997|FLORA LEWIS | Flora Lewis is the author of "Europe: Tapestry of Nations." She is a columnist for the New York Times Syndicate and the International Herald Tribune

Clare Boothe Luce was, by force of will though not necessarily by nature, a phenomenon. A beautiful, alluring woman, she was determined to make her mark on a man's world when women were expected to be seen and not heard. She succeeded in her time, though without achieving any lasting influence or leaving much more than dazzle behind. She was already a prominent editor and journalist when she enchanted and married Henry Luce, founder of the Time empire, and went on to use her connections to make sure her name was widely known.

She started from the most inauspicious beginnings, the child of an unmarried abandoned, little-educated but socially ambitious mother who taught her to look for men to support her. She learned the lesson very well, adding her own talents to the search for fame and fortune. Sylvia Jukes Morris is fascinated with how she went about it, amassing great detail about the story of her climb, including the climbs in and out of beds, and trying to probe the feelings that drove her.

Morris quotes Lady Diana Cooper, wife of the British diplomat Alfred Duff Cooper, at one point, "I think I am the only woman in England and one of a very, very few in America who like Clare. The bother is that it's impossible not to be jealous of her. She has too much, and much, much too much confidence--which is what I am jealous of. . . . No one likes it, if she concealed it, she'd be loved."

Clearly, Morris doesn't feel that generous. She is intrigued by Luce, sometimes amazed by how she always managed to get her way. But there is no sign of warm admiration, though she had long interviews with Luce in her late years and with many of her friends and acquaintances.

"Rage for Fame," the first of two volumes on Luce, ends with her election to Congress in 1942. She went on to become ambassador to Italy at a critical time, when the country seemed to be moving to the right early in the Cold War, and later was behind the scenes in the Republican Party and in dealing with Vietnam to help Richard Nixon get elected president. She moved far to the right--a disdainful, autocratic right--before neoconservatism came into fashion. Some called her fascistic.

Unfortunately, the result of dividing the story of her life in this way leaves her sounding superficial, interesting only in her own terms, as a clever seductress who craved celebrity. The impression this first volume gives is of a woman who cared deeply about being somebody but not much about doing anything in particular. There isn't much substance to her. It leaves one wondering whether she was really so shallow or whether that is the way the author chose to approach her. I suspect that there is some of both, because those were dramatic times, but the sense of lowering history doesn't come through.

For example, Luce went off to Europe in the spring of 1939 to report on events that were leading to war and then to the Philippines to interview Gen. Douglas MacArthur not long before Pearl Harbor, maneuvering that trip mainly because she fancied a fling with a handsome colonel on the general's staff, as Morris reports. Her work as a correspondent is presented more as another trick to attract attention than as a serious attempt to understand ominous events.

Henry Luce comes across as something of a dithering nerd, so entranced with his glamorous, glittering wife that he can scarcely concentrate on his own affairs. He was a powerful man with great influence not only on American taste but on American interest in foreign affairs. He was born in China and always paid close attention to that country and to American policy abroad.

A sense of historical setting is missing, so that Morris' repeated references to the beauty of Clare Boothe Luce--her style, her irresistible charm for any man who attracted her, her pouting dismay at anything less than total approval--drown out the times and their dramatic context.

The title "Rage for Fame" is a perfectly accurate summation of what Morris sees in Clare Boothe Luce, a woman extraordinarily consumed by achieving recognition but not a particularly extraordinary woman. I met her briefly when she was in Congress; she made quite a smash with her "globaloney" speech attacking then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's internationalist ideas. I was not awed, but I did find her energy and intensity impressive. She had force and wit.

Though the author takes due note of the tremendous success of Luce's corrosive play "The Women," which was also made into a hit film, she is biting in her disdain for Luce's otherwise failed attempt to make an additional career as a playwright. Morris' critique reveals her assessment of her subject's talent and even character. "Clare was by nature unable, or unwilling, to explore metaphor to its artistic limit," Morris writes. "Her own life had amply furnished her with the stuff of pure comedy and tragedy, but she could draw from it only farce and melodrama."

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