February 21, 2018

Luce's Women

On this day in 1936, Clare Boothe Luce's The Women opened on Broadway, the first of its record-breaking 657 performances. Some reviewers (usually male) were more appalled than enthralled with the eye-scratching gossip of "best-bred hellcats and social filth mongers" all dressed up in "ermined smut," but the play brought first-fame to Luce, and opportunities which her beauty, considerable ambition and adequate talent would not waste.

The biographies are awash with evidence that Luce had and knew how to use the "jungle cat" instincts of her characters. Perhaps these came from home: it is hard to tell which of the following one-feliners are from the mother and which are from The Women:

1."A woman is fine as long as she has big pearls and small hips."
2."I'm a virgin-a frozen asset."
3."Don't talk heavy stuff too much. Let them all tell you how blue the eyes and golden the hair. But never let them see what makes the wheels go round."
4."Time comes when every man's got to feel something new."
5."Morning sickness!... This is positively the last time I go through this lousy business for any man!"
One and three are the home-truths, passed on to Luce from one wise to the ways of the man-world. Apparently they were taken to heart: Luce would have ostentatious bouquets of flowers delivered to herself at her Vanity Fair office; she would get the wives to dress-down for her party so that she could get the husbands by dressing-up; she would write an anonymous review of her own book. One of the older rich men who came before Henry Luce described her as "a beautiful, well-constructed facade, but without central heating."

In 1986, a year before her death, Luce was careful to blame her faults on her upbringing, telling her official biographer that "Mother poisoned me." The diaries she handed over at the same time show a kind of remorse, though it is hard to separate the self-blame from the self-serving: "My heart is heavy, and I know I am worthless, shallow, insincere with everyone -- and myself." The title of the eventual biography, Sylvia Jukes Morris's Rage for Fame, is taken from a line Luce inscribed in her high school year book: "What rage for fame attends both great and small." There is no indication that Luce knew the second line of the original John Wolcot couplet -- "Better be damned than not mentioned at all" -- or knew that the whole thing was satiric.

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