March 8, 2011

International Woman's Day

Today, for International Women's Day, I was going to write about - who else - but the great and mighty Margaret Thatcher. However, she is fairly well-known and I wanted to try and introduce you to another significant female historical figure that you may not know as much about. So today, this post is about one of my favorites; a writer and a politician, a mother and a playwright, a wife and a policy-maker, a woman who literally went from the poor house to the White House, and not riding on her husband's coattails:

Clare Boothe Luce

Like many people in 1929, Clare Boothe Brokaw (who became Clare Boothe Luce six years later) was facing tough times. She'd just been divorced from a cruel alcoholic. She was a single mother. It was the beginning of the Depression.

The 26-year-old New Yorker decided what she needed was something she could really sink her teeth into- like a job.

There was just one problem. She had little experience. Yet she refused to let that get in her way.

She wanted to work, and work she did. By 1933, she'd become managing editor of Vanity Fair magazine. In 1936, she wrote the hit play The Women, still performed today. She was a foreign correspondent for Life magazine in Europe and in China during the early part of World War II in 1940.

She became the first congresswoman from her home state of Connecticut in 1943. In 1953, she became ambassador to Italy under President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her service in the U.S.

Ever since girlhood, Clare Boothe had a way of making things happen. She was born in New York City to an ex-chorus girl and a wandering musician who traveled constantly. Because she went with them, she attended only two years of grammar school before she was 12, notes Michelle Easton, president of the Herndon, VA-based Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute, a leadership school named for Luce that trains politically conservative women.

Clare wanted to learn and filled the gaps herself. Growing up, she read biographies of successful people and history and philosophy books. In high school, she took the opportunity to focus on her studies.

“When the other girls were reading a racy, contraband account of their favorite movie star, Clare would have a volume of Racine or Moliere,” recalled Dorothy Burns, her best friend at the Castle School in Tarrytown, NY. “She just didn't have the time for trash. She even read while brushing her hair or when she bathed, propping a book on the faucet of the tub.”

Her hard work paid off. She graduated first in her class in 1919, at the age of 16.

She approached her 1929 job search with the same hungry attitude that had brought her an education.

Instead of going door to door, she racked her brain for people she knew who might help her.

She'd met Conde Nast, owner of Vogue and Vanity Fair magazines, through mutual friends. When she ran into him at a dinner party a few weeks later, she didn't hesitate to jump at the chance.

“She approached the publisher with a directness which must have been disarming and asked him for a job on one of his magazines,” wrote Stephen Shadegg in Clare Boothe Luce: A Biography.

Nast gave her the brushoff.

"My dear girl," she later recalled, "I've had many like you come and ask for jobs, but you won't stick it out. You won't have any capacity for work."

She zeroed in on her goal. Three weeks later, she showed up at Vogue offices. Told that Nast had left for Europe, she resolved to take matters into her own hands.

"She noted through the open door another editorial office where there were six desks. Two of them were vacant. She popped into the office and asked about the empty desks,” Shadegg wrote. “Someone told her that two caption writers had left to get married. (She) took off her coat and gloves and settled herself at one of the desks with the brief explanation that she was ready to go to work.”

By the time Nast returned, she was already on the pay roll, proving herself.

After three months of writing photo captions, she decided to make the next move. Smart and satirical Vanity Fair was more to her taste than Vogue's fashion pages. She dreamed of seeing her name in Vanity Fair's pages.

Again, she went straight for her goal. She made an appointment with Frank Crowninshield, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair and asked for a job. His response? Come back in a week with a hundred well-researched ideas for articles and you've got a job.

It was a daunting task. But she loved a challenge. Although, she was working full time she found the hours to make her mark.

"(She) spent frantic nights typing, editing, rejecting the ideas that flowed into her mind,” Shadegg wrote. A week later, she returned to Crowninshield with her surviving article ideas. He offered her a job.

It was entry-level assignment, but she gave it her all. She made sure her notes for photographers were accurate and thorough. As she arranged interviews for other writers, she practiced her finesse. In her spare time, she honed her writing skills.

She sought mentors, including editor Donald Freeman, who drilled into her that success depends on discipline. “No good writer can depend on flights of inspiration," he told her. “If you are going to let anyone or anything distract you, you'll never be a writer.”

She was a perfectionist. When she wrote, she'd go over every page, paragraph and work, crossing out and rewriting parts that didn't satisfy her. “It was her nature to always want to do better,” Easton said.

She also paid close attention to politics and people. She studied current events until she knew them inside and out, always on the lookout for new material.

Steadily, she worked her way into the magazine's pages and up the ranks, until she was named managing editor in 1933. Her verve helped nearly double the magazine's circulation.

The discipline and perception she developed at Vanity Fair fueled what became another passion- writing plays.

Brokaw, who became Clare Boothe Luce in 1935 when she married Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine, kept aware of the happenings around her- trivial events as well as global ones. She was inspired to write her 1936 play “The Women” when she overheard a gossip session in a women's restroom. Shortly after World War II began, she traveled to Europe to understand the brewing conflict up close.

Clare Boothe Luce saw how integral politics was to everyday life, and in 1942 she ran as a Republican for the U.S. House, winning election in a Democratic district in Connecticut. During her two-year stint in the House, she served on the Committee on Military Affairs.

Luce (1903-1987) didn't mince words. She often relied on the creative spark she honed at Vanity Fair when she made statements to Congress and the president. For example, she once criticized Vice President Henry Wallace's foreign policy ideas as “globaloney.”

Her keen observation helped get her named ambassador to Italy in 1953. A hard worker who was well studied in Italian affairs, she relied on creative ways to get attention for issues. Once she sent President Eisenhower a poem about increasing tension in Trieste, on Italy's border, to make sure he understood how severe Italy-Yugoslavia border disputes had become.

When times got tough for Luce, she turned to religion. In 1944, after her 19-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident, Luce became a devout Catholic. She took time each day for prayer and reflection to help her maintain a positive attitude.

Work also kept her inspired. She stayed active in politics until the end of her life, serving as a member of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

biography from


  1. What a great life she led. Good old-fashioned hard work and perseverance do pay off.


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