October 26, 1987 12:00 PM

First does not always mean most. The Wright brothers built the first airplane, but it barely got off the ground. Clare Boothe Luce was different; her flight spanned much of the century. When she first took off as a personal and social phenomenon more than 50 years ago, career women were in scant supply—like pilots in Wilbur and Orville’s day. The remarkable thing, now that Luce has died at 84, is that her career still flies rings around even the most expansive notion of what a modern woman can accomplish.

Magazine editor, Broadway playwright, war correspondent, Congress-woman, ambassador—that was just the short list. She was also wife (first to millionaire playboy George Brokow, later to Henry Luce, co-founder of Time Inc.), mother (her only child, daughter Ann Brokow, was killed in an auto accident at 19), convert to Catholicism (with Bishop Fulton Sheen as her personal instructor), artist (as a creator of colorful mosaics) and lifelong beauty (once pronounced “drop-dead gorgeous” by a D.C. fan).

That beauty brought admiration and problems. “Women resented the fair skin, the even features, the shimmering blond hair and cold eyes lit with an inner fire,” wrote her biographer, Stephen Shadegg. “Men were dismayed when the ‘dumb blonde’ challenged their intellect and plainly indicated she preferred conversation to caresses.”

Ann Clare Boothe had few prospects when she was born in New York in 1903. Her father was a pit orchestra violinist; her mother a former chorus girl. Her parents separated when she was 9. Still, her mother managed to put her through boarding school, and Clare did the rest. She persuaded Condé Nast, publisher of Vogue and Vanity Fair, to give her a job in 1930. Three years later she was managing editor of Vanity Fair. By one account, Henry Luce promised that if she would marry him, he would start the picture magazine she had proposed. She did, and he did. Its name was LIFE. Years later she championed another fledgling Time Inc. idea; this time the magazine’s name was PEOPLE.

When Sandra Day O’Connor was named to the Supreme Court in 1981, Luce admitted to her friend, author Wilfred Sheed, that she was envious. “I would just like to have had that kind of chance,” she said. But Sheed believes Luce enjoyed her singularity, fighting her way up with only her own resources at a time before women’s liberation was even a phrase. “If everybody was doing it,” he says, “she probably wouldn’t have found it particularly interesting.”

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