CLARE: The Honolulu Years
David W. Eyre
Mutual; 254 pages; $35
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Special to the Advertiser, 12/9/07
Many people in Hawai`i today might know the name Clare Boothe Luce only from the background of modern life—perhaps the eponymous Honolulu Academy of Art pavilion or Punahou School wing. The recent publication of David Eyre’s book, written in the late 1980s, sets out to change that with an exploration of Luce’s 14 years as a Hawai`i resident during the 1970s and ‘80s, after the death of her husband Henry R. Luce, founder of “Time” and “Life” magazines, brought her away from the world stage.
Eyre is a good storyteller, and begins the book with a long list of Honolulu characters who interacted with Luce, from Japanese stamp trader Takashi Gomo, who bought her home in 1983; to Vladimir Ossipoff, the architect who designed it and found Luce extremely difficult to work with. Also one of her friends during that time, Eyre writes with unabashed adoration of her celebrity and luxurious life, but oddly much of the story is conjecture.
He presents a portrait of her character and a day in her life not from direct interaction but pieced together from a mini tour of the Dolphin House, her possessions, details of her painting lessons, health, and dealings with architects, designers, politicians and artists. Throughout, the story is framed by historical context, revealing less of her intimate person, and more her position in American life.
A journalist, playwright, congresswoman, and ambassador, Luce was indeed a larger than life figure, but one also known for her “bitchiness” and ruthlessness. She admitted marrying her first husband, George Brokaw, for his money, and as Eyre writes, “Critics in and out of the press often portrayed Clare as a malicious, selfish, unpleasant woman determined to claw to the top.” She owned a teakettle purportedly plucked from the ash heap of Hiroshima, never knew what she wanted, took credit for others’ ideas, and was a known miser.
And though she purportedly loved Hawai`i, she remained indifferent to its culture and customs. Just one example is that though she began formal painting lessons in the Islands, she never patronized Hawai`i artists; there were no Jean Charlots or Pegge Hoppers in her art collection. Eyre bemoans how Honolulu high society snubbed her, how she was never invited to Washington Place and never given any local award.
But Eyre doesn’t address the other perspective—why should Honolulu, with its own culture, politics and concerns, care that a rich, aloof dowager moved to the Islands for a few years? What award should she have been given, and for what service? (The Honolulu Academy of Art pavilion that bears her name was paid for by the Luce Foundation, not Clare herself.)
Eyre calls it “public neglect” as a result of political differences (Luce was a conservative Republican), but seems too enamored of her, flaws and all, to entertain more obvious reasons for her diminished influence in the Islands. This myopia is underscored by a section detailing Hawai`i’s past, influences, landscape, climate, pidgin and food, as if this locally published book was produced for a purely mainland audience.
Nonetheless, the immediacy of Eyre’s facile prose creates a sense of drama that has all the allure of a celebrity insider story, with gossip tidbits, quotes, and photographs of jewels, presidents and parties that are hard to pass up. Luce is the book’s cynosure, a point from which to view the not too distant opulent ‘80s in Honolulu past.