by Ernest Troost
I wish I had met Clare and got to tell her how much I enjoyed climbing her trees and wandering through her fields and meadows. How I scraped my shins trying to climb a granite ledge behind her greenhouse, how I lost a shoe in the mud hunting for frogs down by the lake, and how one summer I dug up some of her wild columbine and jack-in-the-pulpits in a dark hollow behind the caretaker’s cottage, and I transplanted them to the rock garden my mom was planting in our front yard. I watered them, watching over them, but they didn’t live more than a few days. I should have left them where they were, wild and happy in the cool shade of Clare’s woods.
I grew up in Connecticut on a dirt road opposite the Henry Luce estate. Did I realize as a seven-year-old that people of great wealth and political influence lived across that dusty road? That they had written Broadway plays and scripts for Hollywood movies, that they had been famous war correspondents? No. All I knew was that they owned the beautiful woods across from us.
The Luce property was one hundred acres of woods and hilly meadows along the southern tip of Fox Hill Lake. Occasionally, in the fall when the trees were bare, we caught a glimpse of the Georgian two-story brick and stone manor house that must have had twenty rooms. We lived in a newly built, three bedroom, nine hundred square-foot ranch house, just like the ones my friends lived in, all built by a developer who thought this affluent town needed homes the working class could afford. He fought with the town elders and the zoning board, and in the late 1950s built little clusters of small houses around three man-made lakes.
Did my parents talk about the Luces? I remember hearing something about the Luces being the publishers of Life magazine, which I loved. We got month-old, dog-eared copies of Life from my bachelor uncle, who had a subscription. I remember my mother saying that Clare Boothe Luce attended our Catholic church. She even pointed her out once at Sunday Mass, and whispered in a hushed voice she used for dramatic effect, “That’s Clare.”
One winter my father went to the Luce caretaker’s cottage and asked permission for us to toboggan down the hilly field we’d been watching fill up with snow. We made a few runs, but the long grass under the wet snow stuck to the toboggan bottom and we couldn’t get any good momentum. After a few tries we gave up and went home.
The posted “no trespassing” signs around their property made the fields and woods very desirable for childhood adventures. We were supposed to play in the woods behind our house, but our woods were small and constrained by neighbors’ yards and by roads. You can’t see the edges of real woods. Clare’s woods was the real woods, dark and thick with mystery and mountain laurel, and we snuck over there often. Once, we discovered a huge downed tree, which was our spaceship and Twenty-Thousand-Leagues Under the Sea submarine, for the whole summer. I wonder now if I’ve ever enjoyed myself more than when I was roaming through those woods. Little League and school sports had rules, but here in Clare’s woods we ran wild.
We always referred to the land across the road as the Luce estate, but years later, after reading Clare Boothe Luce’s biography, I learned they had called the estate Spring Hill. They had lived there off and on starting in the 1940s, and many national figures in publishing and politics had visited. Eisenhower might have enjoyed a martini on the terrace of Spring Hill one summer, while across the road I was struggling to lift big rocks to my dad, who was building a stone terrace in our back yard. We were the town folk living at the edge of a sophisticated country estate, the kind that provide what New Yorkers call local color in a 1940s Hollywood movie like Christmas in Connecticut.
We moved into our new house in 1960, so we overlapped with the Luces from 1960 to 1965. Around 1965 they divorced and sold the property to a rare book collector. I’ve read that those last years at Spring Hill were not happy ones for Clare, that she was ill and alone much of the time.
I’ve also read that Clare took LSD with a doctor and her friend, an Argentinian composer, on her property in the early 1960s. They walked down to the birch grove that overlooked the lake and lay down in the leaves and watched the clouds roll by. Was I playing or climbing trees on her property that day? I can’t remember ever seeing her, but maybe she saw me. Maybe we got mentioned on the society pages. “On Saturday, Clare Boothe Luce, playwright, politician, and icon of the conservative right, spent the day tripping at her peaceful, bucolic country retreat, while nearby a young boy was scampering up a smooth beach tree until he was high enough that the slender trunk began to bend, and lowered him gently to the ground.” I loved those woods. Apparently, Clare did too.