In early 1944 Ann Clare Brokaw, the daughter of Clare Boothe Luce, was killed in a car accident. The loss of her only child devastated Clare Boothe Luce, who was then finishing up her first term in the United States House of Representatives. Although she managed to win reelection, the trauma persisted. Searching for solace, she turned to religion, finding consolation in Catholicism. On February 16, 1946, much to the consternation of her husband’s Presbyterian family, she was baptized a Catholic in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Overnight, Clare Boothe Luce, already renowned as a playwright, socialite and politician, became one of the most famous converts to Catholicism. At the time that religion was still viewed with suspicion by many in the United States. This may have contributed to her decision not to run for Congress again.
Her retreat from politics was not indefinite. In 1952 she and Henry R. Luce became early supporters of the candidacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower for the presidency. After his victory President Eisenhower wanted to reward the Luces for their support, initially thinking of offering Clare Boothe Luce the Secretary of Labor position. However he ultimately decided to appoint her as the American ambassador to Italy. The appointment was the first of its kind. Although women had been previously appointed to ambassadorial positions, this appointment made Clare Boothe Luce the first woman chosen to head a major U.S. embassy abroad.
Her recent conversion made the appointment of Clare Boothe Luce to the deeply Catholic nation especially appropriate. Although the United States did not have an official representative accredited to the Holy See at the time, Clare’s prominence ensured that she would be able to meet and interact with Pope Pius XII.
Among the supporters of the appointment was Eleanor Roosevelt who, unlike her husband, had an amicable relationship with Clare and wrote in support in a newspaper column:
“They say the Italians were uncertain about accepting a woman as ambassador, for it was a somewhat new departure in their part of the world. But in Mrs. Luce they will find not only a beautiful woman, but an able ambassador, with brains which any man might be proud of. I feel Mrs. Luce will represent us well. Her powers of observation and analysis, sharpened by her training both as a writer and as a member of Congress, should make her very valuable.”
Clare Boothe Luce had her job cut out for her. Her mandate extended to over a thousand members of the embassy staff based throughout Italy. The country itself was still recovering following World War II and the government was very unsteady. Italy possessed the largest Communist party in Western Europe and one of the primary tasks for Clare was to prevent the Communists from taking over. A fervid anti-communist, she constantly emphasized that the United States would only continue to provide assistance to the nation if the Communists are defeated, leading to criticisms that she was interfering in Italy’s internal affairs. She was continually attacked by the left leaning press, with one Communist newspaper disparaged her as an elderly lady who spoke Italian with a Brooklyn accent.
Henry Luce, who embraced his wife’s newfound position of power, followed her to Italy, lavishing his fortune to refurbish and decorate the ambassadorial residence. The Italian government gave him an honorary rank as the ambassador’s consort, and he happily switched roles with Clare acting as her advisor and assistant; attending lunches and other events in her stead when she could not come. The role reversal led a colleague to remark that Luce made “an extraordinarily good ambassador’s wife.”
For reasons of health Clare Boothe Luce left her post as ambassador to Italy at the end of 1956 famous throughout the country. She remained so years after. When Henry Luce died over a decade later, in 1967, at least one Italian newspaper headline read “Clare Boothe Luce’s Husband Has Died.”
In 1959 Eisenhower asked her to serve at as the U.S. ambassador to Brazil. The confirmation hearing in the Senate were more tempestuous than Clare Boothe Luce expected and she was repeatedly attacked by Wayne Lyman Morse, a Democratic Senator from Oregon. Although confirmed by a wide margin, including a large number of Senate Democrats, Clare Boothe Luce wanted to get back at the Senator from Oregon. Earlier in his life Morse had been kicked in the face by a mare, resulting in a broken jaw and knocked out teeth. In a statement made public after the confirmation vote, Clare Boothe Luce referenced the incident by saying “My difficulties, of course, go some years back and began when Senator Wayne Morse was kicked in the head by a horse.” The intense backlash following the statements added to the second thoughts Clare Booth Luce may have had about taking the post. Although President Eisenhower wanted her to proceed, telling her that “A soldier fights where his commander sends him,” Clare Boothe Luce decided to withdraw, ending her ambassadorial career.