Clare Boothe Luce, From Broadway to the Cold War

Author of Broadway hit The Women, the Vanity Fair managing editor Clare Boothe Luce was a dogged anticommunist. As US ambassador to Italy, she worked tirelessly to keep the Left out of office — and set a precedent for Washington’s meddling in democracies abroad.

American politician and US vice president (and later president) Richard M. Nixon talks to politician, author, and editor Clare Boothe Luce and US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Washington DC, March 1956. Walter Sanders / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty

Today, Clare Boothe Luce is perhaps best remembered as the playwright who authored The Women — a searing 1936 send-up of malevolent, boring Park Avenue ladies. Yet as the United States’ ambassador to Italy from 1953 to 1956, she also played a directly historical role. A hard-line anticommunist, sent to Italy at the height of the Cold War, she was tasked, among other things, with making sure the Italian Communist Party (PCI) did not come to power — a victory which would have upset the NATO ties between Italy and the United States.

When Soviet leader Joseph Stalin died in March 1953, the month before Clare sailed for Rome, her boss, Dwight D. Eisenhower, fumed about the CIA’s incompetence in terms of planning for what would happen next. “All the so-called experts have been yapping about what would happen when Stalin dies … well he’s dead. And you can turn the files of our government inside out — in vain — looking for any plans laid … we are not even sure what difference his death makes.” Yet despite the inflamed rhetoric in Washington about “the Red Menace,” the strategic situation in Western Europe was clearly to the United States’ advantage. Nikita Khrushchev remarked that Stalin had “trembled” and “quivered” at the prospect of global combat with the United States.

Already at Italy’s first postwar general election in 1948, the United States intervened with massive resources to keep Alcide De Gaspari’s Christian Democratic (DC) party in power. In Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist Tim Weiner lays out the crude methods used by the fledgling CIA, set up in 1947. “Cash, lots of it, would be needed,” said Rome bureau chief James Jesse Angleton. Funds were funneled into the bank accounts of wealthy Italian Americans. Millions were delivered to politicians and priests affiliated with Catholic Action, a political arm of the Vatican. Suitcases filled with cash changed hands.

“We would have liked to have done this in a more sophisticated manner,” wrote one CIA man. “Passing black bags to affect an election is not really a terribly attractive thing.” But, at least superficially, in 1948 this gambit seemed to work. The DC won 48.5 percent of the vote, allowing De Gaspari to comfortably form a coalition government excluding the Communists and Socialists, both of which had participated in the top tier of earlier administrations led by De Gasperi.

As she reached Italy in spring 1953, Clare Boothe Luce’s job was to ensure that this fresh general election brought no nasty surprises. At a time when the United States was also plotting forays into Iran and Guatemala, politics in Rome were a frontline of the Cold War — and a test bed for covert operations around the world.

The Enemy

Italy’s Communist Party was a mighty force, led by the sophisticated Palmiro Togliatti since the mid-1920s. Like many of his comrades, he had lived abroad for many years during Benito Mussolini’s rule — and had suffered his distance from his homeland. “When he returned to Italy in March 1944,” Joan Barth Urban writes in Moscow and the Italian Communist Party, “years of isolation abroad, ineffectuality in Italy, and low self-esteem in Moscow had left their mark on all of these [PCI] men. They longed for contact with the Italian masses, for visibility and clout, for political space at home — if only as one of many parties competing in a democratic system.”

Togliatti had also worked in Moscow and had long walked a treacherous line dealing with Stalin’s dictates while carving out a singular role back home for the PCI, termed “the Italian road to socialism.” Many on the Left considered this approach insufficiently combative. Indeed, Togliatti had made many concessions in the writing of Italy’s postwar constitution, including the recognition of Catholicism as the country’s sole religion. Togliatti had moreover been famous for his “Salerno Turn” which, for a short period in 1944 made the PCI part of the monarchist Pietro Badoglio’s cross-party government.

In 1943–45, PCI members had earned a strong reputation in leading the Italian Resistance movement. They worked closely with Allied troops, often doing the most dangerous jobs in fighting the Nazis embedded in Italy. For many Italians, the Communists had provided a heroic example and the party’s membership soared in the postwar period — especially in Northern industrial areas where trade unions were strongest. By the start of the 1950s the PCI could claim over 2 million members.

The former Allied commander Eisenhower was intent on destroying the PCI, and he purposefully chose the Luces — Clare and her famous husband Henry R. Luce (known by everyone as Harry) to undercut Togliatti. From the beginning, Harry made it clear that he would play a major role in Rome. He would, in fact, spend at least half his time working for Time Inc., where he was CEO, in a newly opened office near the American embassy. Although Harry and Clare’s marriage had been fraught with deep tensions (and numerous affairs on both sides), the pair were united when it came to Cold War politics. To many of their critics, it seemed that the Luces detested Communists — of all varieties — much more than they hated fascists.

Clare had juggled several impressive high-profile roles over the years: short-term managing editor of Vanity Fair; international war correspondent; playwright and two-term Republican congresswoman serving the Fairfield district of her deceased stepfather. She would go on to campaign vigorously for Eisenhower in 1952 while Harry, publisher of Time, Fortune, and Life, donated a hefty $48,500 ($470,000 in today’s money) to Ike’s campaign.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith, working for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, remarked that Clare’s “taut, high-pitched, frenetic tones condemned [the] domestic tolerance of Bolshevism” (as recently deceased biographer Sylvia Jukes Morris relates in her deeply researched Price of Fame) This was, after all, the heyday of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Republican senator from Wisconsin who went on to ruin countless people’s reputations under the accusation that they were “commies.” But Clare and Harry kept their distance from McCarthy, explains Morris, thinking him “crude.”

For much of her thirty-year-career, Clare had drawn fire from former colleagues and friends. Misogyny, of course, was an intrinsic part of the 1950s culture, but attacks on Clare were so endemic as to be hard to ignore. No doubt she was fearless and intelligent. She had been born to a struggling, unmarried New York couple who soon parted ways; her mother schooled her to marry for wealth. She did just this, at the age of nineteen, after finishing prep school. Skipping college, Clare married a much older, alcoholic multimillionaire, divorcing him at age twenty-six, with a young daughter in tow.

With a fancy Manhattan apartment, and a hefty divorce settlement, she weangled a start-up job in publishing at a dinner party where she met Conde Montrose Nast, founder of the firm that owned Vogue and Vanity Fair. In an amazingly short time, she moved from writing headlines at Vogue to a top role at Vanity Fair. A tempestuous affair with that magazine’s managing editor resulted in her appointment to his job after he died in a car crash. Not long after, she left Conde Nast to pursue what would prove to be her most successful career — as a playwright. After a few smaller successes, she became a media “darling” with her Broadway mega-hit The Women.

Life and Times

It was during this period, in 1935, that Clare met Harry, marrying him, and quickly reinventing herself as an international war correspondent for his latest publishing venture, Life magazine. Her book, Europe in the Spring, was another success. “But by 1942, her work had become something of an embarrassment,” writes noted Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley in his biography, The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century. Clare’s articles for Life, once eagerly published, became a source of awkwardness for editors who found them glib and superficial (more suited for the theater), but feared the consequences from Luce if they turned them down. Life editor John Shaw Billings described Clare’s work, according to Brinkley, as “just a jumble of words … a mess.”

Even her closest friends wrote about her proclivity for affairs with a long list of well-placed men: Bernard Baruch, Joseph P. Kennedy, Randolph Churchill, a number of high-profile military leaders and likely, but never proven, Allen Dulles, CIA chief during the Eisenhower years. “Her technique was simple, quipped one friend, ‘Aim for the top.’”

Harry’s original brainchild, Time magazine, had been launched in the early 1920s together with his Yale friend, Brit Hadden, initially as a news digest. Hadden died suddenly at the age of thirty-one in 1929, making Harry CEO. For the first fifteen years, Time had no reporters on the ground, but like future twenty-first-century content aggregators used the reporting of other publications, giving their work a “Time wordspin.”

Its New York–based foreign editor Laird Goldsborough had a well-earned reputation as a hard-right commentator, including with regard to Italy. Under his guidance, Time described Benito Mussolini as “virile,” “vigorous,” and “totally in command.” Few US journalists were more hostile than Goldsborough to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. This political stance earned him Harry’s admiration. As the son of a Presbyterian missionary based for decades in China, Harry had long despised the emergence of the Chinese Communist Party over his long-cherished Chiang Kai-shek. When famous contributor Theodore H. White “outed” Chiang’s Nationalist regime as deeply corrupt, Harry eased him out of Time.

In Italy

All this informed Clare’s political interventions when she became ambassador to Italy in spring 1953. Back in 1948 the CIA had sold its efforts to Washington elites as a great success — winning the agency more resources. But by the time of Italy’s second postwar general election in June 1953, many voters were getting tired with the unremitting economic problems of the period — as low wages, mass unemployment, and poor housing persisted. “For the working-class movement the first half of the 1950s came to be known as the ‘hard years,’” writes historian Paul Ginsborg. Clare had to react to this — and make clear to Italians that a Communist vote was “off limits.”

Prodded by the deeply worried Eisenhower administration, she delivered a speech in Milan on May 28, just eleven days before the election. Her intervention was soon considered a bombshell on both sides of the Atlantic. She said pointedly, “If … I am required in all honesty to say this … the Italian people should fall unhappy victim to the wiles of totalitarianism of the Right or the Left, there would follow — logically and tragically — grave consequences for this intimate and warm cooperation we now enjoy.” The speech was instantly attacked, and Clare was widely condemned for her arrogant interference in Italian affairs. Diplomacy bent on making Communists “look like devils” might have a counterproductive effect on the labor vote, scolded Emilio Taviani, the Italian undersecretary of state. He and De Gasperi were both dismayed, according to Morris, believing that she had equated “socialism and Marxism with Nazism.”

On June 7, 1953, Italians went to the polls. De Gasperi’s Christian Democrats lost forty-five seats in the Chamber of Deputies and fifteen in the Senate, with a vote drop from 48.5 percent to 40.1 percent. Washington’s favored ally had received a hefty setback — while the Left was on the advance. Yet “more alarming to Clare,” writes Morris, “was that 22.6 percent of voters backed Togliatti’s PCI and 12.7 percent, Pietro Nenni’s Socialists — a combined total of well over a third of the electorate.” Together, the Popular Front had increased its share of the vote by 4.3 percent. The Monarchists and neo-fascists also had a successful run, with a joint increase of 7.9 percent.”

Nevertheless, the DC, with the help of Republicans, Liberals, and some socialists kept control of the Italian Parliament — but by an extremely slim margin. Togliatti’s dark view was that Clare had “brought bad luck.” But another factor was that De Gasperi had rammed through a controversial new election law that was unpopular with Italian voters. By July 28, De Gasperi admitted that he was unable to form a viable administration and gave up the prime minister’s job he had held since the end of the war. He died just over a year later. By November, Eisenhower would write to Clare, “It seems odd that of all the Communism we have had less success in Italy than any other,” adding, “every report from Italy bears evidence of an increasing resentment towards us ….”

As promised, Washington punished those who had voted the wrong way — with economic measures against the hotbeds of PCI support. Clare made good on her earlier threats to withhold aid from Italian companies with Communist-dominated unions. She cancelled a $7.5 million warship construction project in Palermo, and an $18 million munitions contract in Milan. Fearful they might be the ambassador’s next target, “1,920 workers in the Fiat Avionics plant in Turin voted against Red leadership [in their trade union elections].” As a result, Clare came under renewed left-wing criticism in both Italy and the United States. This had been, as Italian historian Mario del Pero noted, “an ambitious attempt … to drastically transform Italy’s landscape.”

The Cold War dispute heated up even more — on both sides. In January 1954, Togliatti stood up in the Italian Parliament and turned his sights on Amintore Fanfani, the Christian Democrat who was looking to form a new government after De Gasperi’s demise. “The things you have said against us (the Communists) have already been said by the American ambassador ….my advice is don’t run after her … She is a ‘porta sventura’ [i.e., she brings misfortune].” This dramatic attack achieved its goal — and Fanfani was unable to get his vote of confidence. As a result, Togliatti’s speech attacking Clare got widespread coverage — and a number of Italian cities had walls plastered with Clare’s “evil eye.”

For the ambassador, this was a setback — and an embarrassment. She contacted Harry back in New York asking for him to get her out of Rome — “please darling.” But fortunately for the harassed ambassador, John Foster Dulles — Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, who was passing through the Italian capital — stood up for her. Dulles — the United Fruit Company ally key to the ouster of Guatemalan president Jacobo Árbenz in 1954 — said that she had had every right to link anticommunism to threats of withdrawn American financial aid.

Dulles praised Clare Boothe Luce as a strong diplomat — but commented later in the fall that he would not oppose her resignation. She ultimately quit her post on November 19, 1956 and although offered another ambassadorship, she turned it down. She died on October 9, 1987, at the age of eighty-four.

The Italians were big losers in the proxy battle between the United States and Soviet Union in the early 1950s. Because of the aggressive interference in their elections, they were unable to enjoy the honest results of a pluralist political system. If this interference had not happened, and the Left allowed to campaign on equal terms, the odds were that wages would have been higher and more former fascists pushed out of public life.

America’s arrogance — and deep-seated refusal to acknowledge Italy’s distinct political history — would only become rasher and more dangerous as the same techniques were exported around the world. In many cases, Italy had been a test case for the world of 2020 — a calamitous history of misadventures and spilled blood in the name of protecting US interests.