Clare Boothe Luce and “The Women”

Today is the natal day of the extraordinary Clare Boothe Luce (1903-1987). It is convenient for us marketing-wise that her birthday falls within Women’s History Month, but in reality, you can drop all qualifiers you might otherwise attach to her name (female playwright, female conservative, conservative playwright, etc). By any measure, she’d rank as one of the most remarkable Americans in history: U.S. Congressperson, Ambassador to Italy, (briefly) Ambassador to Brazil, managing editor of Vanity Fair, caption writer at Vogue, journalist at Time and Life (a magazine which she was instrumental in founding), fiction author, playwright, child actress, celebrated wit, and prominent conservative leader. And this is only some of it.

I’d have written the paragraphs below anyway, but as it happens, I have a couple of tenuous connections to her that would have made me more than ordinarily interested in her life:

One is that a week ago I moved into a house that was once owned by her former brother-in-law, William Gould Brokaw. The home I live in was once part of Brokaw’s Great Neck estate “Nirvana”. Luce’s first husband, to whom she was married from 1923 to 1929 was William’s brother, George Tuttle Brokaw.

Secondly, I met her step-son Henry Luce III many times — he was an important and involved member of the board of the New-York Historical Society, where I was privileged to be p.r. director in the early oughts. Among much else, he made this possible.

Most astounding of all, Clare Boothe Luce came from nothing. Her parents were a pair of unmarried artists: her father a violinist (and travelling salesman), her mother a dancer. The three moved all around the country. In 1914, at age 11, Clare understudied Mary Pickford in the Broadway production of The Dummy. The following year she had a bit part in a silent movie called The Heart of a Waif.

In 1919 Clare graduated first in her high school class and her ambitious mother left her father and married Dr. Albert Elmer Austin, then a Republican member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, later to be a U.S. Congressman. Clare’s first job was working for feminist leader Alva Belmont, a socialite who’d been married to both William Kissam Vanderbilt and Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont.

Then came Clare’s 1923 marriage to Brokaw, then the 1929 divorce and the beginnings of her writing career. This is the period when she began editing at magazines, and became noted for her wit: (No good deed goes unpunished”, “A hospital is no place to be sick”, “A man’s home may seem to be his castle on the outside; inside is more often his nursery.”) She edited short humor pieces by P.G. Wodehouse, and penned many of her own.  In 1931 she published a collection of short stories called Stuffed Shirts. In 1935, still billed as Clare Boothe Brokaw, she had her first play on Broadway, Abide With Me. Around the same time she married Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, Life and Fortune. In 1936, her play The Women debuted and was a smash hit, playing for nearly two years on Broadway. In 1938 came another, Kiss the Boys Goodbye. In 1939 there was her anti-Nazi play Margin for Error, and the film version of The Women (more on that below.)

During the early years of World War II she toured Western Europe and the Far East, publishing her impressions in Life magazine and in the book Europe in the Spring. In 1942 she won a seat in Congress as a Republican representing Fairfield County, Connecticut, the seat formerly held by her stepfather. From this point until the day she died she was a prominent member of the Republican party, and a staunch anti-Communist. In 1946, following the death of her daughter, she converted to Catholicism, becoming one of then most prominent and vocal American Catholics. In 1952, President Eisenhower named her Ambassador to Italy — one of America’s first female Ambassadors, and at a particularly challenging time in history. Post-war Italy had come close to falling to the Communists. In 1953 and 1954 Italy and Communist Yugoslavia angled for control over Trieste, a dispute Luce was instrumental in settling. In 1959 she was named Ambassador to Brazil, but only served a few days. By that stage she had become such a controversial conservative that there had been backlash against her nomination and she voluntarily resigned. In later years, she continued to support candidates like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. She also wrote a play in 1970 called Slam the Door Softly. 

NOW. We finally get to the film The Women. Initially, that was to be the entirety of this post, but I think you’ll agree the author’s own life is too remarkable to ignore.

The Women is an AMAZING historical object. As in the Broadway version, the cast has something approaching 150 female roles and no men. Further, the script was adapted for the screen by two women, Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. There were virtually no female directors in Hollywood at the time (not counting the silent era, Ida Lupino would become one of the few a decade later); the assignment was given, however, to George Cukor, who was gay.

What’s beguiling about The Women is that it is genre defying: sort of a satire, sort of a screwball comedy, sort of a melodrama, and (nowadays) sort of camp. Despite being by, of and for women, it’s not really feminist — it’s about a bunch of disaffected, wealthy housewives. It’s a weepy soap opera, one of the highlights of which is a Technicolor fashion show.

Norma Shearer stars as a nice rich lady whose husband gets stolen by a department store perfume saleslady played by Shearer’s real life MGM rival Joan Crawford. For movie fans that’s meaty enough. But then the entire cast is filled with other female stars: Rosalind Russell as a bitchy, gossipy friend; Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Mary Boland, Lucile Watson, Florence Nash, Virginia Grey, Cora WitherspoonHedda Hopper, and for diversity, Marjorie Main and Butterfly McQueen. At a certain point, divorces must be procured and the whole thing shifts to a ranch in Reno, Nevada! And, given the ultimately conservative proclivities of the author, the “happy ending”  is that Shearer reunites with her cheating husband (despite the fact that Luce’s own divorce from Brokaw had been a happy ending in and of itself. She won a huge settlement and she got rid of a guy with a drinking problem). The Women is full of witty banter and cleverly staged scenes (Russell has to deliver her lines in one scene while doing leg lifts at the gym). It’s racy for its time, deals with sex, and then restores everything to the status quo.  Very Hollywood and very 1939.

In 2008, Diane English, creator of Murphy Brown, wrote an updated adaptation and directed it as well, with an all-star cast that included Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Carrie Fisher, Cloris Leachman, Bette Midler and Candice Bergen.