AMY MACDONALD: I'm Amy Macdonald, the Forum Producer at Kennedy Library.
First, allow me to acknowledge the generous underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums: lead sponsor Bank of America, Raytheon, Viacom, the Lowell Institute, the Boston Foundation; and our media partners, the Boston Globe, Xfinity and WBUR.
In her review of Price of Fame in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Maureen Dowd described Clare Boothe Luce as, "A woman who had more hyphens in her résumé than Barbra Streisand – actress-editrix-playwright-screenwriter-Congresswoman- ambassador-presidential advisor." Which explains why she is the subject of not one, but two books by our speaker today, Sylvia Jukes Morris.
After pursuing Mrs. Luce, whom she met through a mutual acquaintance, Sylvia became her official biographer in 1980, giving her access to over 460,000 items in the Library of Congress. Sylvia's first volume, Rage for Fame, was published in 1977, this second volume, 17 years later. Not only did Mrs. Luce write prolifically and save everything, she knew everyone. The result is a model biography that not only captures a truly extraordinary life, but also the times in which she lived.
The man who this Library honors also plays a small role in the book. JFK knew Clare Boothe Luce through his father, who – JPK, that is – was most likely one of her many lovers, as she was one of his many. As a young man, JFK dated her daughter Ann. As Senator, he enthusiastically supported her nomination as Ambassador to Brazil. As President, he graciously listened to her advice, although privately confessed he did not appreciate her telling him "how to run the world." [laughter] Most revealing, perhaps to me, is when she converted, Clare Boothe Luce, to Catholicism in 1946. JFK said to her, "Why strap the cross on your back? I never thought a Catholic religion made sense for anyone with brains." [laughter]
I would also like to acknowledge Sylvia's husband, Edmund Morris, the biographer of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Theodore Roosevelt. Edmund graced this stage in 2011 when he discussed the last book in his trilogy of Roosevelt. Thank you, Edmund, for accompanying your wife today.
Our moderator today is also an acclaimed British-born biographer, Nigel Hamilton, who during the day is our neighbor across the way. He is a senior fellow with the McCormack Graduate School at UMass. Nigel is best known for his biography of JFK as a young man, JFK: Reckless Youth. His newest book, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942, is on sale in our Museum store, along with Sylvia's book, and both authors would be delighted to sign copies at the conclusion of their conversation.
We're going to begin with a four-minute clip from an interview with Clare Boothe Luce and Dick Cavett in 1980, shortly after Ronald Reagan was elected President. And after the clip, we will begin the conversation. Thank you.
DICK CAVETT: Good evening. My guest tonight served a couple of terms during the Second World War; is rumored to have coined the term GI Joe. She was during the early months of the war a war correspondent for Life magazine, reporting from Burma and Libya. Among the many contributions my guest made while serving Congress was the introduction of a bill to establish control over the Atomic Energy Commission, a bill that would establish regulations for equal pay. Have I said "she"? Up to this point I should have. In the early '50s, she became the first woman to hold a major diplomatic post. President Eisenhower asked her to serve as Ambassador to Rome. She is, of course, Clare Boothe Luce, a woman whose contributions to American life include many articles, Vanity Fair, McCall's magazine, and justly famous, if for only writing the play, The Women, which opened in New York in 1936, probably being acted somewhere at this very minute. It's a staple of theatre all over the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, this woman about whom you could coin the cliché – they don't make them like that anymore – and a few others, Clare Boothe Luce. [applause] Maybe they do. It's just that they aren't letting them out.
CLARE BOOTHE LUCE: Every generation breeds its new type.
DICK CAVETT: Yes.
CLARE BOOTHE LUCE: So they'll be talking another ten years "they don't make them like that anymore" about some other …
DICK CAVETT: A whole new model.
CLARE BOOTHE LUCE: A whole new model, yes.
DICK CAVETT: I'm notorious for not complimenting ladies on how well dressed they are, but that is especially gorgeous. Should I know what nationality that is?
CLARE BOOTHE LUCE: No, I have gone into partnership with a few friends on the island of Maui. You know I live in Hawaii.
DICK CAVETT: Um hmm.
CLARE BOOTHE LUCE: And we have an import shop, and we import clothes, called Mandalay Imports, from Thailand. So this is Thai silk. But you're mentioning that you pay so little attention to ladies' clothes. My husband paid almost no attention, but this being the season during which we are about to have a Presidential inauguration, I am reminded of an amusing story about the gown I bought to wear to Jack Kennedy's inauguration.
DICK CAVETT: Could I get you to tell it?
CLARE BOOTHE LUCE: You can't stop me. [laughter]
DICK CAVETT: I wouldn't be fool enough to try.
CLARE BOOTHE LUCE: At any rate, I bought this at Lanvin, who was then a very famous French dressmaker and it cost a pretty penny of Mr. Luce's money, I can tell you. It was a beautiful dress. It arrived in a big box the night before we were going down to Washington, and I thought I'd try it on, see that everything fitted well. So I got myself into it, and I walked into the living room where my husband was deeply immersed in a copy of Time, Life or Fortune, as the case may be. And I said, "Darling, look, see?" And I pirouetted around the room in this gown. I said, "This is the dress I'm wearing to the inauguration ball. What do you think of it?" He looked at it and he said, "It's always been my favorite dress." [laughter]
DICK CAVETT: Did you leave it at that?
CLARE BOOTHE LUCE: [laughter] What do you do with a man like that?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: That's a hard act to follow, but we're going to do our best.
And I thought since Amy had raised the subject of Clare's relationship with the Kennedy family and we're here in this magnificent Library dedicated to the former President, I would just touch on very briefly some of her encounters with both Joseph Kennedy and John Kennedy over a period of 20 or 30 years.
The first one occurred when she was going to Europe in 1940 to write about the phony war, as it was then called, because the Germans had not yet invaded France, and her shipboard companion happened to be Joseph Kennedy. I think that's where the little romance between the two probably began because they were sort of in limbo. It was a shipboard romance, which would probably come to an end once they hit the docks of Southampton. But no. She went and stayed with Mr. Kennedy in his country house and continued to see him over the years because they had a lot in common politically. He became Ambassador to London, as you know.
Then the years go by and John F. Kennedy grows up, and he starts to date Clare's young daughter, who at the age of 18 was one of the … She wasn't really a debutante in the strict sense of the word in that there was big ball; she didn't want that. But he started to date her at about that time. But I always got the feeling, reading between the lines, that he was really more interested in the mother than he was in the daughter. And when I came to read the girl's diaries, she confirmed it and said, "I think he really cares more for mother than he cares for me." Because he would have admired not only Clare's beauty but her extraordinary intellect, too.
Then, unfortunately, Ann was killed in a car accident in her last year at Stanford so any possibility of that relationship continuing is unlikely. But he did write Clare a very nice letter about that. He said, "I thought I had become hardened to losing people I liked, but when I heard the news today, I couldn't have been sadder."
Then years go by and Clare is at her Mepkin Plantation and she hears that Lieutenant
Kennedy, who's about to go out to fight in the Pacific war, would like to come to see her.
And so she received him at the plantation in South Carolina and she decided that she would give him -- since he was going off to war -- she would give him a good-luck piece to take with him. She chose a medal, actually a coin that her mother had given to her, not knowing of course how valuable this was going to become in subsequent years, but it was the coin that Theodore Roosevelt asked his good friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design because they thought they might like to introduce it into our currency. It was called the double eagle coin because it had two eagles on it, and she gave it to JFK and numismatists who scrutinized the sort of necklace that he wore around his neck when he was on the PT-109 boat, they scrutinized that and they think that that was the coin that he wore around his neck. At the end of the war when he was rescued, as you know, by the man who lived in the Solomon Islands -- the native farmer there -- he gave that to him subsequently. That's what I think is the legend, anyway. Of course, today, that is worth well over a million dollars, that coin, because of its beauty and its rarity. It's supposed to be the most beautiful coin ever designed. In America, anyway.
The years go by and Clare is with the Kennedys, the Joseph Kennedys, at their house on the Riviera. She's just come back from a cruise on Stavros Niarchos's yacht, where she said even the gold faucets were oozing caviar. So she goes to stay with the Joseph Kennedys in their so-called villa, but she found it was really quite a modest house near a railroad track that kept her awake all night because of the trains going by. But then the next morning before she got up she heard that what they ate there mostly was not caviar, but yogurt and bread and rice, boiled rice, and that at 6:45, they would all be expected to come before a very nice priest for early mass. So the contrast between the two parts of her holiday was quite extreme.
Then time goes by again and shortly after that JFK is nominated to run for the Democratic Presidency and Joe Kennedy comes to the Luces' suite at the Waldorf Astoria to watch the proceedings with them. Shortly after that, Clare got a phone call from Joe Kennedy and he was very, very agitated. He said, "I would like you to do me a favor because I really have a problem now the campaign's begun because of the Catholic thing." This was the first man nominated to be a Catholic President. So he said, "I'm finding that at all the campaign at rallies, the nuns are occupying all the front seats [laughter] and they're clicking their rosaries and their dentures [laughter] in their excitement." This handsome, young, Catholic candidate. So he said, "I would ask Cardinal Spellman to help me out on this, but I really can't approach him because the son of a bitch, he hates me." [laughter] He said, "I beat him once out of some real estate." So he asked Clare to tell His Eminence that if he wanted a Roman Catholic in the White House, he'd better keep those goddamned nuns out of the front rows. “This isn't an ordination," he said, "it's an election."
So I think over to Nigel, who's going to ask me any questions that are on his mind whatsoever. We haven't planned this at all; they're just going to come out of left field and if I stumble over some, you'll know why because it's not prepared.
NIGEL HAMILTON: Thank you, Clare.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: [laughter] I get that all the time!
NIGEL HAMILTON: That's how identified you are with the book, Sylvia. And thank you, Amy. And thank you, everybody, for coming out on such a beautiful afternoon which you're going to miss but at least it's air conditioned here.
I'm delighted to be here with Sylvia, whom I've known for many years. I'd like to start by saying I have loved reading this book. I really, genuinely think this is one of the best biographies I've read in years. And I was puzzling over the reason why I couldn't stop reading it. I came to the conclusion that it was a bit like closely observed trains, that I could see this woman, whom we've seen on the video, in one of the trains and she is a passenger and Sylvia is watching her so carefully and recording not so much the landscape that Clare is seeing out of the train windows, but Sylvia is watching Clare and recording Clare and how people interact with Clare. We're right in that railway wagon.
Then she transfers at every subsequent station to another train and each time you think, well, has this journey come to its sort of an appointed point of we've-had-enough, she moves into another train and starts another journey.
I think that's a tribute to the way you've selected the themes, the events, the people in her life. This is a book in which you're going to meet – and I hope you're all going to buy copies of Sylvia's book -- not only extraordinary people and historic people, presidents to popes, but you're going to meet completely unknown people. You're going to meet Clare's daughter. You're going to meet Clare's brother. The daughter who is tragically killed; that in itself a beautifully, beautifully chronicled scene on the West Coast. The story of this difficult brother of hers, a ne'er-do-well. So here is Clare who's married one of the richest men and entrepreneurs in the United States and so Clare is extremely wealthy. And here is her brother who doesn't have a bean and who keeps borrowing money from her.
The more I read in the book, the more I felt, this isn't just the biography of Clare Boothe Luce. This is a portrait of a marriage, a marriage to Henry Luce, but also what comes with that. We even have a granddaughter, is it, a great …
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: A great-niece.
NIGEL HAMILTON: Niece of Henry Luce. You're meeting the members of the family, not just Clare Boothe Luce. And the series of dramas that that entails, the suicide of the brother, the grief that Clare feels when her daughter dies, the way it drives her to want some kind of a spiritual resolution from this and how she becomes a Catholic. I found this was utterly absorbing. I'm a Democrat and Clare Boothe Luce was a horrible Republican, but I could not stop reading this book.
And I was often reminded, Clare Boothe Luce is not a particularly … She's a physically attractive woman, but she isn't really a particularly attractive character in the sense of, like JFK, somebody you really love. She's feisty. You admire her, but you don't necessarily like her. And perhaps a bit later we can talk about this business of whether as biographer we need to like our subject.
But I think it is a tribute to you, Sylvia, that you not only follow Clare on these train journeys, but you paint in these subsidiary characters – members of her family, people she meets, the priests who indoctrinate her, and so forth – so that it's just compellingly interesting. It's not so much sort of name-dropping, because many of these are historic people. It's just this is the detail of a human life recorded from the middle, at the beginning of the volume, when she becomes a Congresswoman, through to the end.
So having said that, I want to start by asking you to remind us, tell us how you became so fascinated with this woman, how you were drawn into writing her life story and what sort of a person you found, whether it was different from the person you'd expected.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Apropos of what you said about whether you love or hate the character that you're writing about, I feel you can have neither emotion. If you love the person, it's going to be hagiography and nobody's going to believe a word you write. If you hate the person, well, what's the point? Who wants to spend 30 years writing about somebody you hate?
You've got to have something in between, like a mild affection for them and that has to remain throughout. And you have to see them through the good times and through the bad times, and the tragedies that happen, and all the venality and all the horrors. Sometimes she could be monstrous because she was extremely ambitious and didn't always mind who she trod on in order to get there. But at the same time, she was totally human. And you had to admire, first of all, I think primarily her sense of humor. Her wit was absolutely legendary and her brilliance. Even Henry Luce always thought that he was the smartest person in any room. When he married her, he had to concede that he wasn't. He actually wrote her a letter one day and he said, "When I'm in a room with you and you're dealing with politicians, and you're dealing with the press, and you're dealing with the ordinary man on the street, I am so in awe that I inwardly bow to you." So it was a marriage, as you can see, that was not going to be on an even keel. It was going to have problems, because although they adored each other, they were in competition in many ways in their various careers; and he particularly as an editor, because she had been a brilliant editor, too, in her time.
But how I got into it is now the subject. I feel sometimes that you don't choose the subject, that they in some strange way choose you. I had finished a biography, actually, of Edith Kermit Roosevelt, who was the second wife of Theodore Roosevelt. I was looking for another subject and I keep a file on people who interest me. I still do it, actually; it's a sort of habit that I have.
NIGEL HAMILTON: We'll ask you later who's in the file.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Who's in the file, exactly. My husband always says, "Let me see the paper before you've cut it into pieces."
Something literally dropped out, an article dropped out. I picked it up, and it was an interview with Clare Luce, written up in the New York Sunday Times Magazine of 1973, when her play, her most famous play, as Nigel already said, was revived on Broadway. And so, of course, she was very much back in the public domain; she was 70 years old at that point. In this interview, she talked about where she came from, how she was born … She didn't say Spanish Harlem, but she wasn't born exactly in a salubrious neighborhood, and how at the age of nine her ambitious mother had put her on the stage where she understudied Mary Pickford. Then she'd gone and made a movie at the Edison Studios in New Jersey, a silent movie called Heart of the Waif, which you can still see today at the Museum of Modern Art film archive. Then she went on to marry her first millionaire at the age of 20, and then Henry Luce at the age of 32. So I thought, who is this amazing person? She goes on to be a Congressman. Then she's the Ambassador, and she marries another millionaire. Who is this?
So I reread the piece that I cut many years before, and I thought she's absolutely fascinating. Then three coincidences happened. I won't go into them in great detail because we'd be here all day. But in the next week, I got phone calls from two people inviting me to meet with her. One of them was giving a dinner party for Clare Boothe Luce. Another one was the Librarian of Congress, who in a conversation with him said he was spending Christmas with Clare and he'd put in a word for me if I wanted to write her biography.
And the other one was going to a television studio with my husband, who was prompting one of his Roosevelt books, and Howard Jarvis of Proposition 13, if you remember him, the California man who was trying to lower the real estate taxes – I didn't know him at all but he was on the same show – he came up to me and he wagged his finger at me and he said, "Good book you wrote on Edith Roosevelt. Next book for you, Clare Boothe Luce." And I thought, is God trying to tell me something? [laughter] These three things happened all in the space of about a week or ten days.
So I think that's how I really got into it. Then at the dinner party where I met her, the hostess was a woman known as Lucky Roosevelt; she's married to one of TR's grandsons. She said, "Oh, I'm going to put you at the table with Clare Boothe Luce." She didn't know I wanted to write about her yet. But she said, "But she won't take any notice of you, she won't take any notice of any of the woman. She's only interested in men." [laughter] So she seated her next to the guest of honor, actually, who was Alistair Horne, the British historian who wrote the biography of Prime Minister Macmillan, for one, and many books on France and World War I and II. And she just grilled him the whole evening.
She didn't even turn to her right to talk to the person on her right.
But at the end of the evening, I was standing at the top of the stairs. I knew she was somewhat myopic; I could tell that she was having eye trouble. She was then 77 years old. And I was standing at the top of the stairs and she came up and gave me a kiss and said goodnight. I thought she'd mistaken me for the hostess, who was also short and dark. [laughter] I thought, well, is this a kind of benediction or something? She must know that I wanted to write a book about her. Does she know, has she sensed this? I didn't know. But anyway, I wrote her a letter after that, and after many letters went back and forth in which she said she was disinclined to work with any biographer because her personal life had been so unhappy; she didn't want to go back and live those bad times in her life.
NIGEL HAMILTON: But she'd never written an autobiography, had she?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: She wouldn't write the autobiography. And I asked her why, I said with all these documents you've kept. There were over 1000 boxes of papers in the Library of Congress alone and then more of the same at the State Department covering her diplomatic career. Then in Hawaii, where she was then living, she kept all the personal documents; she still had all the letters, the love letters, the diaries, everything, even her daughter's diary. All that was out there.
So I went out there and looked at those things, but I didn't have time to Xerox anything and she didn't have a copier anyway. So I had to wait for those papers also to be shipped to the Library. I'm giving this by way of an excuse for why this book took so long, because there was just so much documentation. But eventually she did say yes.
NIGEL HAMILTON: I think I read that you said that she’d been asked to write her autobiography, her memoirs, but she decided that while Harry Luce was still alive, there was too much she wouldn't be able to say without perhaps being hurtful.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Yes, she said, "How could I write about Harry?" Which is sort of an interesting remark. But she also paused and said, "You know, autobiography is not really that, it's adding biography." She meant that you never could tell the truth about yourself, complete truth.
NIGEL HAMILTON: So you think in giving you her benediction, she was okay about revealing her rich personal, sexual, whatever, as well as political and artistic career?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Another attribute of Clare was she was gutsy. She was an extremely brave person. I mean, not only brave physically – she was going to all the battlefronts. She was a reporter on the Eastern front and she went over and reported on World War II on the Western front, and she often could have been killed; she was at the front lines. Guns were actually firing right at her position, where she was. So she was extremely brave.
But she was also spiritually and intellectually brave. I think she knew she'd be famous from birth, almost; she always knew she would be a well-known person. So she kept every scrap of paper. There are even letters written when she's four years old to her mother. She kept every scrap. So although she knew that her story in some ways would be a cautionary tale – what not to do in life or the accidents that can happen to you – but also an inspirational tale. So she kept everything and she wanted the story told, warts and all. I just have that feeling.
NIGEL HAMILTON: And by a woman. It's interesting that she comes across not necessarily as a feminist, but certainly somebody who wanted equal rights for women and did not feel that women were in any shape or form inferior to men.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: No, she did not. But she wasn't a feminist in the strict Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem sense. She wasn't a militant sort of feminist. She felt that some women belonged in the home. She said, "If you're a creative person and you love home-making, you love gardening, you love decorating, you like to bring up children, you're a nurturer, you should be allowed to do that without any kind of stigma attached to it. Not everybody wants to go out in the workplace." She was never a person who felt every woman should have a job outside the house. She never believed that. I think she deeply regretted it because she was a person who did always work outside the house after her first marriage anyway. She always had a job of some sort, even if it was just a column for some newspapers. But she did feel that you didn't have to have a career. You didn't have to. You could be perfectly satisfied as a wife and a mother and a home-maker.
NIGEL HAMILTON: One of the other things that I so admire about the book is this evenhandedness that you have, that you very rarely quote a tribute or something positive said about her without also quoting the opposite. Because that was the truth about her life, that she was very controversial and there were as many people who despised her or detested her as who admired her. And there are some wonderful, dramatic scenes. I mean, I love the way you bring real documentary evidence. So rather than just say it, as I'm saying it now, you actually give the chapter and verse.
The particular drama I'm thinking of is when she is appointed. She had really quite a successful time as Ambassador to Italy and solved the Trieste problem that had been around since World War II. But she was then nominated to be Ambassador to Brazil, as we said earlier. And that was really such a contentious process that she went through for her conformation. She was confirmed, but in such a way, as you say, that she … Well, what happened?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Couldn't take the job, yes. The position in Rome was controversial, too, because the Italians, as you know, are not for having women in high places. They said, "Why are they sending us a woman? They must think we're a secondrate power. Why are they sending us this woman?" And they wrote all kinds of horrible articles about her, even printing a photograph of the actress Clare Luce swooning in the arms of Mark Antony saying, "This is what the Americans are sending us, this actress." So she had a really hard time but she was so brilliant that … All the people at the embassy, too, resented the appointment, because they were career diplomats and one of them would have liked the job himself.
But it took her exactly one week to win them over because she just came so well prepared. Also, they found that when she went off to have a meeting with the Italian prime minister -- and there were four of them in the first ten months of her tenure, she had to deal with four different people -- but she would come back and she would give her staff chapter and verse a complete, verbatim account of what had taken place. At first they didn't believe it. "She's making this up. She's a playwright after all. She's making this up." So they got the transcripts from the Italian foreign office and they found that word for word she'd had total recall, and she just gave them the whole hour-long interview verbatim.
Then when it came to the question of going to Brazil -- because she'd been so successful, as Nigel said, in helping to settle this horrible land dispute between Yugoslavia and Italy which had been going on really since the end of World War I when as part of the spoils of war, Italy had been given this beautiful port town of Trieste, which gave them really control of the trade on the Mediterranean, and Hungary wanted, and Stalin also wanted to get a port, an outlet to the Mediterranean for not altogether peaceful purposes probably, somewhat nefarious purposes. Anyway, she settled that. So Ike immediately wanted to appoint her to another post, this time Brazil. And she went through all the confirmation hearings but she had this acid tongue, as I've said. Things she would say, like, "Well, the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is a pessimist is usually better informed." [laughter]
She made a quip of that kind, it was one too many, after these hearings because somebody who'd given her a really hard time during the hearings was Senator Morse of Oregon. And he resented her deeply because she'd said something during World War II, in the heat of the campaign, I must say, about FDR having lied us into a war, into which he should have led us. But nobody ever remembered the second half of that quote. They only said, "FDR lied us into war." Which in a way of course he did. He said for many, many months before Pearl Harbor, "I'm not going to send you off …
NIGEL HAMILTON: You and I are going to disagree about FDR.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Oh, yes, we will disagree. Everybody will. And she herself came to feel she'd committed an injustice with FDR, and she came to her mind greatly at the end of her life. But she made this quip and Senator Morse held this against her so he gave her a really hard time during the hearings.
NIGEL HAMILTON: She was confirmed.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Even though she was confirmed, she realized she couldn't go to Brazil because Senator Morse was head of the Latin Affairs Committee. So everything she wanted for Brazil – and they needed a lot of aid, they needed a lot of goods, they needed a lot of trade – she wasn't going to get anything. So she said it would have been a disservice to Brazilians for her to have taken the job. And with Harry's consent, he agreed, too, that they would issue a statement that although she'd been confirmed, she was not going to take the post because she realized it wouldn't be fair to Brazil after that remark.
NIGEL HAMILTON: I'm sure some people have actually read the book and are enjoying it, but I don't want people to think it's a book simply about Clare as a sort of public figure. Because, yes, that is an extraordinary … She was often voted one of the, whatever of the – not just best dressed, but …
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Most admired. For 16 years, she was never lower than number six on the most admired women in the world list. She usually came in second to Eleanor Roosevelt and sometimes third or fourth behind Queen Elizabeth, people like that. Sister Kenny.
NIGEL HAMILTON: So we're talking about a very prominent woman in the 20th century.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Yes. Also on the best dressed list, which the others were never on. [laughter]
NIGEL HAMILTON: I do want people who are thinking about buying the book to know that this is such a wonderful investigation of a human life. And to me, one of the wonders of biography is that when it's well done it allows us to some degree identify with a human figure. I mean, it's not that we imagine ourselves as ambassadress to Italy; it's just that we can see ourselves in a marriage with somebody who may have a lot of money and how that affects us as a human being. We can identify with somebody where the tensions of a marriage tend to drive us into thinking about divorce. I mean, that is a theme that runs through the book. Harry is a philanderer, but a strange one in that he seems to form these romantic attachments to other women.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: A lot of them were not consummated, actually. He just had confidantes. He liked to talk to women because he was very close to his mother, for one thing. So he was used to having a really sympathetic person in his life, which Clare sort of wasn't, because Clare was too often away. He didn't have her to talk to; she wasn't there.
When you think four years in Washington during the war, three-and-a-half years in Rome, reporting on both fronts during the war, they were apart more than they were together really, when you think about it. And when I asked her if she'd like to have gone back to play writing after the war – she had three successful Broadway plays. They were all hits, and they were all made into successful movies. And as you know, The Women, I think has been made into a movie four times now – made into a musical and two films and a television program, too.
But because of all of that, the marriage was troubled a lot of the time because Harry needed that sympathetic ear, and she wasn't always there. And of course, when she was there, she was the sort of person who could cut through all of the sentimentality, cut through all the nonsense and say something actually that probably you didn't want to hear, like, "Is that a successful article, Harry?" or, "Was that a good edition of Time magazine?" She spoke the truth and sometimes it was hard for Harry, because he cared passionately about his own business and career.
NIGEL HAMILTON: But she does stay married to him, to the bitter end, to his death. I think that's one of the moving aspects. They go backwards and forwards, and she's releasing him from the marriage because he says he's in love with Lady Jean …
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Campbell.
NIGEL HAMILTON: Campbell. And it's absolutely fascinating from a personal, just from a life point of view. I'm not a Catholic, but I was very moved by the way you described her grief after her daughter's death and the way she sought a kind of sanctuary from all this in the Catholic church. And like a number of prominent people, including Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, she converted. I think, again, the wonderful thing about the book is that you've accessed this vast archive to be able to give us kind of chapter and verse, if I can use that expression, of the conversion process -- the people she's dealing with who are helping her into this new religion and the ramifications of that, whether it does help her cope with her grief. Also the negative effects of it, in that she never really writes a great play again. It has such a profoundly – becoming a Catholic, it freezes her as a creative fiction writer.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: You've hit on a very good point there. The death of the daughter wasn't all of it because having been at least around the Western fronts – and Clare didn't just go to the battlefield; she also went and toured the hospitals and saw the soldier with the trench foot, with their arms and legs off, and things like that. She did that repeatedly; it wasn't just a once-photo-op. She went twice to the Italian front, and she went twice to the Far East. And she was bombed in many, many world capitals – Chongqing, and also Belgium and France. She was there when the places were being bombed.
So when she came back from the war and when she had this dark night of the soul one night at the Waldorf, she just felt that her life was closing down. Her then-lover wasn't going to come back for the Eastern front. He was going to go with MacArthur to Tokyo to bring democracy to the Japanese. So her daughter was dead. She couldn't write anymore, because how can you write these acid, witty plays when you've seen what she's seen of the world and of life?
Her brother committed suicide. Her mother was killed in a car crash. Her father left – at least the mother left the father; they probably were never married, even, earlier in Clare's life. So she had a really tough life. And she couldn't bring herself. She tried. There are many, many unfinished plays amongst her papers, but she could never finish another play because her real gift was for satire and wit. She wrote humor very well. She couldn't do it anymore.
So she had this dark night of the soul at the Waldorf, and by chance there was a letter waiting for her, and she hadn't opened it yet. She opened it; it was from a priest who'd actually been in correspondence with her for quite a while since he'd read an article she'd written about Chinese orphans. And she thought, "Well, maybe I can talk to this priest." So she found his number, she called him up. And he said, "I can't help you. I know you're in spiritual trouble. I can't help you because I'm not enough of an intellect for you, but I will recommend you to Father, then-Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen." So he became her catechist. He talked to her, and he said in interviews later, he said he had never spent as many months – he spent about usually a couple, three weeks with people he was converting. But he had to spend many months with her because her questions were so deep, so profound, she really had to be really convinced. And he said, "In the end, I realized that nobody could convince Clare to convert to Catholicism; God had to strike her with lightning and she had to be convinced."
And that's really what happened in the end. And it gave her peace for many, many years. But, of course, it wasn't forever because deep down … There's a marvelous quote on the back of the book, as you'll see. There's a picture of Clare with the soldiers at the Western front, and they're all staring hard at her and smiling and she's laughing and she looks like a really, really charming, happy person.
But the person who wrote an introduction to her account of her conversion, which was three articles from the McCall's magazine called "The Real Reason," these people, the Catholic publishers – Frank Sheed, who was Wilfrid Sheed's father, and Maisie Sheed, his mother, they were Catholic publishers – they wanted to put these three essays, very, very moving essays into a book. Still call it The Real Reason. But Clare had become Ambassador by then and she was having enough trouble distinguishing between being Ambassador to Rome itself or being Ambassador to the Vatican. She didn't want a book about her religious conversion coming out at that time. But this woman, Maisie Ward, wrote a brilliant introduction that would have gone at the front of the book. She said, "Never was a woman more actually named, Clare, clarity, clearness, because her intellect was just able to cut through the most difficult problems. Also she had everything that you would think would make for happiness. She had a wonderful husband. She had money. She had gifts. She had good friends. But something in her prevented her, because happiness is complexity. Happiness means you're a complex personality and you come to happiness through the complexities of life. But Clare had nothing but darkness at the core. Of course, because she came with all that baggage, no matter how well life her life was going, at the end, in the dark night of the soul, it was Clare with all the baggage that she brought with her from the life which had been a painful life, for the most part, really.
NIGEL HAMILTON: I did find that very moving. This was somebody who was struggling – and as you say, her brother committed suicide as a pilot – who was struggling with depression and a sense of– what was it that she felt, that she just wasn't loved enough? She seems to have collected …
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: That's excellent.
NIGEL HAMILTON: Through the book, page after page, she collects these incredibly interesting friends. I mean, not just the famous ones, but even the ones we don't know. But they're all interesting people. She seems to spark the Mexican composer Chavez, or…
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: General Willoughby, chief of intelligence to MacArthur.
NIGEL HAMILTON: MacArthur's chief of intelligence.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: And Lucian Truscott, too. He simply adored her. Adored her.
NIGEL HAMILTON: Great corps commander.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Couldn't leave his wife and children, but he did love her, I think, until he died.
NIGEL HAMILTON: Somerset Maugham. Just tell us the story of going to lunch with Somerset Maugham.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Oh, yes. I'll get to that, but you've raised a very good point about her never having enough love and I think it's true. Psychiatrists will tell you this, that the narcissistic personality, which she certainly was, is often the result of faulty parenting, particularly if you as a child are given more than you can actually cope with.
You're not old enough yet to deal with some issues.
Clare was always put in a position where she taking care of this mother who never had enough money, never had enough men in her life. And Clare was put in that position. And I think that became part of her own personality eventually; the mother never thought she was loved enough and Clare never thought she was. So although she had these spectacular lovers who were absolutely devoted to her, she was always terrified of rejection. So she always got out of the relationship before they dumped her. That was a pattern through her life.
The thing about Harry, and I think why that endured, is in the end he was always there for her as a friend, if not always as a lover. But she was terribly dependent on Harry Luce. The survival of that marriage was terribly important to her, because it was the only thing in her whole life that remained throughout. There's a line in The Women where the mother is talking about the woman who's about to get divorced. She said, "Don't go through with this divorce, because being together at the end is what really matters." And I think Clare felt that. That was a line from Clare's heart. She felt being with Harry at the end was really important.
NIGEL HAMILTON: How many times did she try to commit suicide?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Well, we're giving away all the plot, aren't we? [laughter]
NIGEL HAMILTON: All right, we won't count.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Don't just count the times!
NIGEL HAMILTON: But again, that was something that moved me deeply. Her struggle, if you like.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Depressions, yes, acute depression.
NIGEL HAMILTON: Even though she's not this warm figure, you can't help but empathize with the depth of her depression and sense that there's something wrong with her at the end of the day. She recognizes that and she's right in many ways.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: It was so bad some days she would stand in the middle of a room, and she said – there were several doors out of that room – "And I simply was frozen. I couldn't decide which door to go through." And somebody called me up who's a doctor and said, "Well, I've been reading this book and it's all about these depressions. Was she bipolar or what?" Of course, bipolar was not a word that was bandied about in those days; I don't think it existed. Of course, borderline personality, a Princess Diana kind of character that is so distraught and so confused sometimes that when they come down to the breakfast table, the husband doesn't know who's going to show up because they're either the depressive or they're the somebody on a big high, or they're charming, or they're witting.
This is indigenous; she couldn't help this. This is a clinical condition and of course, it wasn't diagnosed. But one doctor who was with her throughout her life, actually, even when she moved different places. They stayed in touch until his death and then she took up with his son. And at one point, she'd attempted suicide one night and Harry summoned this doctor and he said, "It's Payne Whitney, we have to put her in Payne Whitney,” which is where Marilyn Monroe was put, if you recall. Just as luck would have it, the very next day Eisenhower called her and said, "Clare, guess what? The Pope has died and I want you to go to Rome as my ambassador at the funeral. And then I want you to go back two weeks later for the coronation of the new Pope." And that snapped her out of the depression because again she was useful. Again, she was going to be in the limelight, which is the only place she was really comfortable, I think.
NIGEL HAMILTON: We're going to allow people to ask questions.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Oh, yes.
NIGEL HAMILTON: We've probably talked enough between ourselves. I want to get us to talk a little bit about, while you're here in Boston, about our mutual passion, which is for the business of biography, of how best to record a human life. Or rather, how best we individually, because there are a hundred different ways in which you can do a human life. So I wanted to talk just briefly about this business of the architecture of biography.
You are lucky – and I'm lucky with my FDR book, because mine is just the first volume of two volumes about FDR as commander in chief – you were allowed to tell Clare's story in two big volumes and in a world of Twitter and 140 characters. How do you see the mission, the purpose of biography, of the biographer today in choosing and portraying a human being?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Interesting what you said earlier about how you get the subject. As I said, I think the subject chooses you and Nigel can probably tell you how he got into his books, too. But then you have to have a format – how am I going to tell this life? Am I going to tell it chapter and verse from the day they were born till the day they die? Or am I going to focus on a period of their life? Or just deal with their careers? Or only their personal life?
For my part, my books sort of write themselves. I don't have any plan. I just do it by instinct. But I can see that Nigel, with this book – which is wonderful, by the way. I've read volume one and am waiting now for volume two. But he decided to just do FDR as commander in chief and point out that it wasn't Churchill actually who was the prime person, character in that story of World War II, but very early in the game, as early as 1942, FDR emerged as the decision maker. Mainly because, of course, he had the money, he had the manpower, he had the industrial capacity to turn out all those planes and tanks and rifles and train all those soldiers, which Europe no longer had. So he emerged. So he deals with episodes that show FDR emerging as the prime brain behind the war. So he chose that method.
NIGEL HAMILTON: To put it succinctly, I'd say I have an agenda. I definitely want to change history. If history is how we see the past, I feel very strongly we do not give President Roosevelt the acknowledgement that he deserves for having won World War II and given us the world we live in. So I'm writing with an agenda. But I don't feel you have that agenda with Clare Boothe Luce. I feel you have done what … Somebody wrote in a review in the Times that my book was the memoir that FDR hadn't been able to write. Well, I think that is actually more true of your volume. This is Clare Boothe Luce's life as she herself knew she couldn't write. I mean, FDR had hoped to write his memoirs had he lived. He was only, what, 62 when he died. But Clare Boothe Luce decided she couldn't write that and you finally have come forward, and you have written it. I think she would be terribly proud of what you've done.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: They say they never like the books written about them.
NIGEL HAMILTON: She was a big woman in that respect. I mean, she could take criticism; she knew that was part and parcel. There is a quote where she tells somebody "Swallow it." She's been in Hollywood. If you've been in Hollywood, you know what it's like. But I think you've done her a tremendous service. So the question is, in tackling a life on that scale, where do you go next?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Where do I go next?
NIGEL HAMILTON: Yes.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Waiting for that knock on the door, somebody to find me.
NIGEL HAMILTON: What's in this file? What are the names?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: What are the names of the current? Well, we don't have anybody who you could call a Renaissance woman anymore, do we. We have Margaret Thatcher, but she concentrated on politics. We have Sandra Day O'Connor; as Clare would say, she went to the top of her particular pole. Clare, said to me – she didn't think she wanted a biography done or it could be done – she said, "Because I never reached the top of any particular tree." I said, "Well, I know you weren't Tennessee Williams or even Arthur Miller because you didn't stick with it. Do you think if you hadn't been rich, you would have gone back and worked on those plays that were rejected at one point?" And she said, "Without a doubt." In other words, money was a bad thing for Clare in some ways. It gave her too much security. Didn't have to go back and fix the play. Just move on to another field. So I don't know if I'll ever find a Renaissance woman like that who's so multifaceted, who's not only a writer but a politician and a diplomat, and also a scuba diver -- we haven't even gone into that -- and a painter, a mosaicist.
NIGEL HAMILTON: We have to leave some things.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Have to leave something.
NIGEL HAMILTON: Let's move on to some questions, please. We have microphones here. Amy, do you want to …
AMY MACDONALD: I'll start. This is such an example of her humor. Could you tell the story, the McCall's article she did when she was asked is it improper for Jacqueline Kennedy to be wearing clothes made in Paris, as a First Lady, and her response to that I thought was so funny. Then, the other question is, have you listened to the oral tapes of Jacqueline Kennedy with Arthur Schlesinger?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Yes, I have, indeed. I used them.
AMY MACDONALD: So the scene when Clare Boothe Luce meets JFK for lunch and Jacqueline kind of excoriates her and says at one point she had three martinis before she had lunch with the President. And he was just appalled by her. I was wondering if maybe that reaction had to do with her sarcastic remark about Jacqueline Kennedy's clothes, although JFK seemed to take it in stride very well.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Yes, they were trying to stir up trouble, because Clare was always very wary. She said, "I'm never going to get into a catfight with women, because that's just what they want." So she always tried to be very nice with competitors. And she didn't see Jackie Kennedy as a competitor, exactly, but she got out of that by saying, "Mrs. Kennedy doesn't have to go anywhere for her clothes. Mrs. Kennedy would look good in a gunny sack." So that just quietened the press straight up for what could they say?
But I was going to read you actually this incident which you've just reminded me of. She got a call one day from Letiticia Baldridge, who was JFK's social secretary, as you know, and had been Clare's social secretary at the embassy in Rome. So they knew each other from way back. And she said, "Oh, Jack wants to see you, the President wants to see you." So she thought,”Well, I wonder why. Maybe he wants to talk to me about Cuba.” because it was the height of the Cuban crisis at that point. So she goes to Washington, and I don't know about the drinks before lunch. I would have thought that unlikely knowing JFK probably knew that Clare didn't hold her liquor well. She didn't have to drink a lot before it really affected her. But they go in and they have lunch and they begin to talk, and he said, "Well, now, Clare, what's on your mind?" And she thought to herself, "Well, I thought he was asking me here because there was something on his mind." So they begin the conversation and I thought I would just let you hear a little bit of their – because again, she had total recall. She went home, she wrote it all out. So in the Library of Congress it's "My conversation with Kennedy today," and she wrote the whole thing out.
AMY MACDONALD: I thought it was taped, it was so …
NIGEL HAMILTON: If you look in Sylvia's footnotes, it's actually Clare's own notes after the talk. And I wondered how come this isn't on the White House recordings.
AMY MACDONALD: Yes, exactly.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Yes, it should have been.
NIGEL HAMILTON: It would be interesting to know the President's …
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: I'll read you just a few lines. They're there chatting away and she says, "Oh, you know, all Presidents, really, they go down – famous people have one line that's associated with their fame, like “He died on the cross to save us,” or “He freed the slaves.” What's going to be your line?" she says to Kennedy and he says, "Oh, I'm not interested in my place in history." He wants to talk about more things. "What he really is concerned about at this time actually is he doesn't think he's getting good coverage in Time, Life and Fortune." [laughter] And he hoped that he could influence her. He thought she had more influence than she did. But on editorial policy, she had no influence whatsoever.
Anyway, they'd been talking about Berlin and the Berlin situation, and he said, "There are some situations you just have to live with," he said. Clare asked, "Why should Americans tolerate the presence of Russian military power 90 miles from Florida? Why is the exclusion of communism in Vietnam and the Near East more important to us than in our own sea off our own shores?" He said, "Your policy then is war with Cuba and the risk of nuclear with the USSR." "The Soviets had not risked it over Vietnam or Korea," Clare reminded him. She felt the United States should call their bluff in its own hemisphere. Kennedy was dubious. "Calling their bluff, as you put it, could lead to nuclear war." "Nuclear war will settle nothing for anybody," she said. "But if Khrushchev really believes it will, now is the time to find out." [laughter] "You would rather take Cuba then and hold Vietnam or Berlin?" "We are holding Vietnam alone," she said. "Berlin is a multilateral commitment. If our allies want to hold it at the risk of nuclear war, we will be in better shape to honor that commitment without Russia at our back door." Kennedy rejected her brinkmanship. "I do not wish or intend to be the President who goes down in history as having unleashed nuclear war." And it goes on; that's not the end.
NIGEL HAMILTON: Do you want to come forward? Then everybody can hear your question.
Q: Could you say a few words about her life in Hawaii. And why on earth would she leave the power centers of New York and Washington to go to an island in the middle of the Pacific?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Jimmy Carter. [laughter] That's why she left. When she got there, of course, she built herself a magnificent house. She had been going to go over there with Harry. They had plans, they had architectural drawings and everything, which she moderated after his death. But she went ahead with the plans because she always wanted to live in America. Even the car – when I went out to visit her, she sent a car to the airport and it's General Motors and "Made especially for Clare Boothe Luce" was on the dashboard. She was a real patriot.
The election of Regan brought her back. By that time she'd been there about over ten years and she said to me, "I'm living in a fur-lined rut." And she hoped that if she could be back and be the grande dame of the Republican Party, maybe she could get on the President's foreign intelligence advisory board, or something like that. Which of course she promptly did. So she came back to Washington and she sold off the house in 1984 when he was clearly going to get a second term. And she did get put on to that board and she served on that until she died.
NIGEL HAMILTON: She was in self-appointed exile in Hawaii.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Self-appointed exile, yes.
Q: Can you talk about her involvement with LSD, how she got involved and how long it went on and then went motivated her to stop her sessions.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Again, as I told you, she always wanted to be in the avant garde of everything. She was curious. When she died, she was studying nuclear physics and chemistry. She had all the latest gadgets. I loved that about her, because I can't even put on a record. But she could do everything like that.
NIGEL HAMILTON: You don't put on a record.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: I still put on records, that's all I can do. Anyway, I really admired that about her. What was the question now? Oh, yes, about the LSD. So of course when LSD came, she wanted to try it. She also later on tried marijuana but didn't become addicted or anything like that. Or except I think to LSD she did become a bit addicted because she had good trips. [laughter] But in 1959, when it was just coming in to vogue, it was still legal. There were experiments going on, particularly at the veterans' hospital in California under a man called Dr. Sidney Cohen. A brilliant physician who had hoped to use it with psychotics, with schizophrenics, with any troubled people, people with severe depression, with criminals, with violent people of any kind. And he wanted also to see how it influenced highly creative or highly intelligence people, if their abilities could be enhanced by taking the drug.
So she was very happy to be part of that experiment, except that she never actually went out to the hospital to be supervised. She got the drug via a friend of Dr. Cohen who was called Gerald Heard. He was a British philosopher who had worked for the BBC before emigrating to America. And he administered the drug to her, because he could induce better trips, somehow. Dr. Cohen said, "I'm really more interested in the subterranean. I want to go deeper. But if you want to have the light experience, if you want to float, go with Gerald." So she went with Gerald, and she had really good trips. She saw the flowers breathing. She could hear music. And she really enjoyed her trips. And she went on taking LSD well into the '60s, until about '63 or '64, until it became illegal because people started to take it and jump out of windows, and things. So they had to make it illegal, and she of course stopped then.But it was a drug that certainly appealed to her.
NIGEL HAMILTON: Do you think it helped her?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: I wonder about if it helped her with that. Because apparently the influence of LSD lasts for many weeks after you take it. And Senator Morse, who interviewed her for the Brazil job, he detected something psychologically strange about her. And apparently that's what his specialty was; in college he studied psychology. And he twigged that. And I wonder if it wasn't– because she actually admitted, she said, "It lasts with me for several weeks after taking it." And she went to those hearings shortly after taking LSD. So maybe there was something that Senator Morse picked up on.
Q: After writing the book and being close with her for many months, I'm sure, what was your feeling toward her as a woman personally? How did you feel about her? Would you like her as a friend or just as writing a book about her? Would you have liked to converse with her on a daily basis? How did you feel about her?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: I adored her, really. In fact, my husband got very worried because Clare was ill at one point and she was between maids; she didn't have anybody staying with her. I could see she didn't want to be alone because she wasn't feeling well. So we volunteered to stay for a few days, and I would make her supper and I would make her breakfast and lunch and everything. So I got to know her eating habits pretty well that way.
One night she said, "Oh, let's watch Brideshead Revisited," the war series. She liked to watch TV in bed always, so she was laying there. She said, "Come and sit behind me." So we propped our pillows, and I sat there and Edmund sat on the floor and we watched the episode. It turned out to be the one where Jeremy Irons, if you remember, is making love to Julia on board the Queen Mary as they crossed the Atlantic, and the sea is going like this. Clare is watching the love scene and her glasses are down on the end of her nose, I remember it, and she's looking over the top, and she said, "Well, on PBS, they can only do it in the missionary position." [laughter]
You couldn't help adoring a person like that because her humor was just one of the most delightful things about her. So yes, I did. And my husband at that point was very worried because he said, "You're in danger of losing your objectivity. You're beginning to care for her."
NIGEL HAMILTON: I was going to say, you recognized, or Edmund recognized a certain danger, which I have with FDR.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: He's seductive. He's a really likeable person.
NIGEL HAMILTON: I think he is a great hero in the first volume. But in the second volume – and you're dealing with a woman who becomes more difficult as time goes on – FDR begins to make some really terrible mistakes, particularly towards, just what I'm writing about, General de Gaulle and the French in World War II, and mistakes of judgment, almost out of hubris and arrogance and the dislike of DeGaulle, and he loses his objectivity. I found that actually as I'm writing this, I'm alarmed, I can't sleep properly, because here is this man I so admire and he's doing the wrong thing and I want to stop him in hindsight.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: I had an experience of that kind, too, yes.
NIGEL HAMILTON: To put it bluntly, why has it taken you so long to do the second volume?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Well, she was a seductress, Clare was. So you always felt her charm. She was always very with you when she was with you. She was intense in that way. And I just was taking everything she was telling me as gospel truth. So I thought, well, just in the interest of history, really, I ought to check a few facts. She's getting on in years now, maybe not all of these things are accurate.
So I started with the birth certificate. And I found actually she wasn't born on April 10th, which is when she celebrated her birthday. She never lied about her age; it was nothing to do with the year. So I found that she was actually born on March the 10th. So I said, "Clare, I got your birth certificate and it says you were born on"– she said, "I thought
Mother had always told me I was born on Easter Sunday." I said, "Well, actually, April 10th was Good Friday that year. It was not anything to do with the date of Easter." And she said, "Well, I must admit you're one hell of a detective." [laughter] I said, "It's not that difficult, you just go down to city hall and you get the birth certificate." And she said, "Well, I never wanted to be a Pisces. I wanted to be an Aries because they're more lighthearted and gay." [laughter] So she simply arbitrarily changed the date because she didn't want that sign. [laughter] So it was nothing really sinister at all. It was something quite trivial, really.
Q: Thank you very much. Question: You had mentioned at the very beginning of your remarks that she was apprehensive about her own life, her memoir, because what she might have to redact about Harry which she couldn't say that would be hurtful to him. I'm wondering if in your research and writing and your companionship with her, over your time, what you ended up crystallizing in the book that now is here, if that changed as a result of her not being here. Did you feel that over time your perspective on her changed?
And had she been alive, your writing might have been a little bit different?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: I was always aware that the subject is never going to like the book. Because in some way you're seeing them as they don't see themselves, in some strange way. Maybe she thought I emphasized this too much, or I did not emphasize that enough. She was afraid I was going to write more about romance than about Rome, for example, because I had to do a lot of research about those lovers; they were very big figures and I had to have them large in the book. But in the end, Rome fascinated me to such an extent that I think it covers five chapters in volume two.
NIGEL HAMILTON: It's too long. [laughter]
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: It's too long in a way. But I felt this is what she was most proud of. I have to give this weight, because she would have wanted this. So in a way, I was kind of paying attention to her after death, because I wanted her accomplishment to be really fully documented and without being boring or anything. I don't think it ever drags down because it's always such an exciting period.
And of course, she got poisoned, as you probably know. The ceiling in her bedroom, which was in this old villa in Rome … It was her own fault in a way, because she put in a washing machine above her bedroom. So the maids used to go up there and one of her aides said, "There were these peasants stomping around up there," he said. And they would run the machines while she always had breakfast in bed. She always looked at her mail, she looked at her notes for the day and read the newspapers in bed. So she always drank her coffee there. And with the shaking ceiling, this old paint was loosened and the dust fell into her coffee and into her breakfast. She got arsenic lead poisoning. They
didn't know, of course, where it was coming from. They only did the test and found that it was arsenic in the blood test. But at first they thought, of course, it was the Italian communists, because she was so trying to get the communists out of the factories and she was so effective in that: "You're not getting American aid unless you get rid of those communists in the factories." She was adamant, and they thought they got into the kitchen somehow and they were poisoning her food.
It was only when the CIA came over, pretending they were architects, and they went all around the villa looking for evidence and they found on her record player, her old disk – she was learning Italian all the time, she kept trying to learn better Italian – they found a film of dust. And they asked the maids, "How often do you dust in this room?" And they said "We dust daily." They said, "Well, what's this dust?" So they scraped some off, took it to the US Naval Laboratory in Naples. They tested it and lo and behold, arsenic from the old paint. But of course it took many, many months. She lost hair. Her teeth fell out. She had horrible colic and she lost a tremendous amount of weight, like 30 pounds, and she was already pretty skinny. Anyway, that was another story in the Rome period, which gave a lot of spice to that story. But it is a good story of her real accomplishment in the diplomatic field.
NIGEL HAMILTON: Unless there’s somebody else to ask a question, please, what about – one advantage of writing about somebody who – I was going to say somebody who is recently alive or dead, but in some ways it may actually be more difficult if somebody's alive.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Yes, that's true, too. Oh, I didn't answer your question about why it took so long. Yes, why it took so long: Because while she was alive I couldn't write. Because I traveled a lot with her, I could never get to writing. Also, I was still researching the papers. Then they declassified the State Department papers. So the things I wasn't allowed to see when I first went, I had to go back, do all that work again, to get the declassified material. Then the trunk of papers that I'd seen in Hawaii, which were all the important personal documents, the diaries, the love letters, everything, was shipped to the Library of Congress, along with a lot of Clare's furniture, when she left Hawaii. And it never showed up at the Library. And she thought it had been lost at sea or on the docks or stolen. Never came. So it was a really difficult period those last years with her, because this trunk never showed up.
After her death, a friend of hers went to help the Sotheby's people who were going to sell Clare's furniture and bits and pieces up in New York. He called me and said, "Sylvia, you won't believe this. That trunk is here in this warehouse on River Road in Washington." And it was clearly labeled "Library of Congress," and it just got misshipped. So I couldn't finish the book without those papers. They were the most important to get to the heart of her. That was in the trunk. And that's another reason for the long delay of completing the book.
NIGEL HAMILTON: When you write, do you like to do the research first and then write the book? Or do you write it in sections, research, do the section?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: No, for volume one, I completed – in fact, when I wrote volume one, it was supposed to be just volume one. But I got so fascinated by her early years, and I thought her accomplishments with all the things she had to overcome were so great that they needed to be documented. Becoming Vanity Fair editor, for example; after only two years of working on a magazine, she became the managing editor. So all of these accomplishments, reporting on war, and then getting elected to Congress and I'd only got halfway through the life when I'd already got 600 pages. And I didn't want a doorstop. I said to the publisher, "Look, I don't know what you think, but we don't want a 1200-page book here." He said, "Go ahead, do another volume."
So I ended volume one and I called it Rage for Fame. It's Clare, actually, who said that line. I found it one of her yearbooks, which was also in that trunk. In the yearbook, she had a picture of herself and underneath she had written the line, "A rage for fame attends both great and small." And I thought, well, that's pretty nice for a 14-year-old, but I'd better check it out. Being Clare, better check it out. So I found out that actually it was a double line, it was the last two lines of an ode by Peter Pindar, who was a British poet, 18th century poet. And I found the poem: "Rage for fame attends both great and small"; the last line was, "better be damned than not be named at all."
So Clare wanted to be famous from childhood and that line was her line, rage for fame. And it's called Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce. And I called the second book Price of Fame because I think she paid a huge price in personal terms for her service to her country. Those jobs were enormous jobs. She was never in the best of health. She was frail physically, although she was tremendously energetic, a lot of febrile energy. But then that became Price of Fame: The Honorable Clare Boothe Luce, which was her title of course after her period in Congress and throughout the diplomatic career.
NIGEL HAMILTON: And in terms of writing, had you finished the research and then sort of narrated the story?
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: I covered the life, yes, in terms of the Library of Congress papers. But as I said, those declassified papers came later at the State Department. I had to go back and redo those. And of course, more people came out after her death, too. They were more willing to talk, for example, they were more candid than they had been during her life. Not that it was all insalubrious stuff, but … Oh, my husband's got a question, look out. [laughter]
EDMUND MORRIS: Nigel, she gracefully evaded your question about is it easier to write about a living person or a dead one. That identical question was posed to me when it was announced that I was going to write the biography of Ronald Reagan when he was still President. And this guy from the New York Times came down to Washington, said, "Mr. Morris, you've written about the dead Theodore Roosevelt. Now you're going to write about the alive Ronald Reagan. What kind of biography do you prefer?" I'd not actually thought about the question yet, so I stammered and was wondering what to say, and she was in the kitchen listening.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: She, Sylvia.
EDMUND MORRIS: Sylvia. Eavesdropping as usual. And she shouted out, "Dead is easier." [laughter]
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: I suppose that's right. Because after Clare died, a lot more people came forward.
NIGEL HAMILTON: I have written two volumes about President Bill Clinton and that was very difficult.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Because he was living, too. [laughter] It's hard. Because also, you're more in danger, as I aid, of losing your objectivity with somebody who's still alive. Because they're a subject, they're there. They're still there influencing how you feel about them on a daily basis. You get the objectivity after they die more, I think. Would you agree? Well, Clinton's not dead yet so you don't know.
NIGEL HAMILTON: That's why I haven't written a third book.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Are you going to? Do you think you might?
NIGEL HAMILTON: No.
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: You might. Never say never.
NIGEL HAMILTON: I still have to finish FDR.
Well, everybody, thank you so much for coming. [applause]
SYLVIA JUKES MORRIS: Thank you very much. You're very nice. Great questions.