In one of the most fascinating congressional races in the country that autumn, wealthy playwright Clare Boothe Luce, the glamorous wife of TIME, Life and Fortune founder and publisher Henry R. Luce, announced her candidacy for the Republican nomination for the U.S. House from Connecticut’s fourth congressional district during this week in 1942.
Considered one of the most powerful women of the twentieth century, Luce declared her candidacy on August 31, barely ten before the GOP state convention in Bridgeport in which she was named keynote speaker. The 39-year-old playwright-turned foreign correspondent for her husband’s Life magazine had been extremely coy about her intentions until it was absolutely certain that the Republican nomination was hers for the taking.
Despite her late entry, Luce’s bid for her party’s nomination was virtually assured when five of her six opponents, including Westport industrialist Vivien Kellems, the celebrated critic of the federal income tax, withdrew from the race during the party’s nominating convention.
Kellems, who was regarded as Luce’s strongest contender for the GOP nomination, later became something of a lightning rod on the American Right when she boldly denounced the federal income tax as “a monstrous invasion of the rights of free people” and declared that she would no longer deduct the federal withholding tax from her employees’ paychecks on the grounds that federal withholding was unconstitutional and had been sold to the American public as a wartime measure.
In announcing her own candidacy for the fourth congressional district seat earlier that summer, the vivacious Kellems took a swipe at her wealthy socialite rival, saying that she didn’t consider Luce a resident of the state. “It would be very difficult to conduct a political campaign in Connecticut from the ivory tower of the Waldorf-Astoria,” she quipped.
Assailing her opponent for lacking original ideas, Kellems later cautioned that Luce’s nomination “would be a victory for those who wish to nullify our Constitution and substitute an evil internationalism for our true democracy.”
The daughter of a small town minister, Kellems said that the United States was losing the war and that she was running for Congress “to help stem the tide and turn defeat to victory.” Kellems, whose manufacturing firm made cable grips invented by her brother and used in mounting guns on battleships and in supporting cables leading to gun turrets, said that she was tired of dealing with “the stone wall of bureaucracy, inefficiency, incompetence, and plain lunacy in Washington” in her efforts to help the nation’s war effort.
Hundreds of U.S. ships were being torpedoed and sunk off our coast, she complained, while her pleas for the material to make the tools for operating minesweeping equipment that would have prevented those acts of aggression were being ignored by officials in Washington.
In pulling out of the race a month later, the 45-year-old tax crusader and feminist could hardly contain her disappointment, saying that she realized the cards had been stacked against her. It also provided a glimpse into her feisty nature, a trait that would last a lifetime. “But the very weight and power of the forces opposing me presented a challenge which I could not resist,” she admitted. “It is my first real experience in politics, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly and have learned a lot,” she said, adding that she didn’t intend to retire from politics.
True to her word, the prominent Connecticut businesswoman and fiercely combative tax protestor waged several campaigns for the U.S. Senate during the following decade, twice seeking the Republican nomination and running as an independent or write-in candidate on three occasions. Briefly teaming up with longtime Socialist Mayor Jasper McLevy of Bridgeport — he’s “the best damned Republican of them all” — on an aborted third-party ticket in 1950, Kellems later polled a relatively impressive 6,219 write-in votes in a general election against Republican Sen. Prescott Bush, the wealthy Wall Street banker and father of former President George H. W. Bush.
Kellems, who held a graduate degree in economics from the University of Oregon and started but never completed work toward a doctorate from Columbia University in 1921, also ran for governor of Connecticut and was nominated for the vice presidency against her wishes on the right-wing Constitution Party ticket headed by an equally reluctant Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1952. In 1964, she co-chaired Connecticut’s Citizens Committee for Goldwater-Miller.
The stormy petrel of Connecticut politics also ambitiously set out to change the state’s onerous election laws, hoping to get rid of the straight party lever, establishing a direct primary and reducing the number of petition signatures required of independent and third-party candidates.
Though the stylishly attired, self-made millionaire was unable to prevent Luce’s nomination in 1942, the congressional race that ensued that autumn captured the nation’s attention.
Connecticut’s fourth district, after all, was long known as one of the most competitive House seats in the country. In fact, the district’s voters had switched party allegiance no fewer than five times during the previous dozen years, unseating incumbent lawmakers each time.
In 1940, Democrat Le Roy D. Downs had narrowly defeated Luce’s stepfather, the late Albert E. Austin, a physician and banker from Old Greenwich, to capture the seat after Austin himself had unseated a freshman Democratic lawmaker two years earlier. Moreover, Austin’s victory in 1938 probably wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the staggering 35,828 votes cast for the Socialist Party’s Charles H. McLevy, the brother of Bridgeport’s immensely popular Socialist mayor.
Luce, who had actively supported Wendell Willkie’s ill-fated bid for the White House in 1940, was determined to reclaim her stepfather’s seat in Congress for the Republicans. An outspoken critic of FDR’s foreign policy prior to Pearl Harbor, it was clear from her keynote address to the Republican state convention on September 10 that the wealthy socialite was going to make the war — and Roosevelt’s yearlong “bungling and muddling” of it, as she put it — the centerpiece of her campaign. Acknowledging that this was “the toughest war in history,” Luce lambasted the Democratic administration for talking tough, but acting differently.
“The fact remains that while the administration and many of its appointees have talked a tough war, so far, unhappily, they have fought a soft one,” she declared. “A soft war is an improperly conducted one. A soft war is a war in which the greatest shortage always turns out to be a shortage of victory.”
Luce promised the cheering delegates a “hard war but a happy peace.”
This, of course, was an old theme with the woman who once aspired to be an actress. During the 1940 presidential campaign she had sharply criticized the President for not being tougher on Hitler, accusing Roosevelt even then of waging a “soft war.” Every powerful leader in the world had a symbolic gesture, she asserted. Churchill had the “V” for victory sign, Hitler had his Nazi salute and Mussolini had his pompous strut. When asked about Roosevelt, Luce cleverly licked her finger and held it in the wind.
Clare Boothe Luce’s celebrity status made that year’s congressional campaign one of the most widely-watched races in the country, creating an opportunity that the Socialist Party wasn’t about to pass up. The Socialists, long a viable alternative in Bridgeport and surrounding communities, had mounted several competitive campaigns in the district during the previous decade. In addition to Charles McLevy’s impressive 24.9 percent showing in 1938, Arnold E. Freese of Norwalk — state party secretary and brother of that city’s future Socialist mayor — polled an astounding 21,021 votes, or 17.1 percent, while running for the seat in 1934.
Little-known David Mansell, an architect and longtime party activist from Old Greenwich, carried the party’s banner in 1942.
Lester P. Barlow, a world-renowned explosives inventor who had briefly sought the Republican nomination, also entered the race as an independent after submitting petitions bearing more than the 2,200 signatures.
The longtime resident of Stamford had invented some of the first aerial bombs and torpedoes used in World War I, but the patents on his weapons were kept secret by the U.S. government and Barlow received no payment for his inventions until 1940 when Congress, after a lengthy court battle, finally awarded a payment of $529,719 for use of his destructively deadly inventions. It was estimated that the U.S. had dropped approximately 500,000 bombs designed by Barlow during the war.
A man of ideas who had once proposed the construction of a billion-dollar interstate highway system similar to the one eventually developed in the 1950s, Barlow had been a strong supporter of the late “Fighting Bob” La Follette of Wisconsin and had briefly served as a lieutenant in Huey P. Long’s Share-the-Wealth movement.
A political gadfly of sorts, Barlow frequently clashed with members of Congress and other government officials and once called for FDR’s impeachment. As president of the World War Veterans, he tried desperately to stampede the Farmer-Labor Party’s 1920 national convention in Chicago into nominating “Fighting Bob” for the presidency against his wishes, triggering a noisy, 45-minute demonstration on behalf of the Wisconsin progressive. Barlow, who was then living in Minneapolis, received ten votes for the party’s vice-presidential nomination at that convention.
Running on a “win-the-war” platform, the 55-year-old aerial munitions expert was never really a factor in the 1942 campaign, but made headlines across the country when he refused to shake hands with his witty and outspoken Republican rival during a candidates’ forum in Stamford.
In one of the most closely-scrutinized congressional races in Connecticut history, Clare Boothe Luce prevailed on Election Day, garnering 63,719 votes to 57,861 for Democrat Downs and 15,573 for the Socialist Party‘s David Mansell. Mansell’s 11.3% share of the vote was the Socialist Party’s strongest congressional showing in the country that autumn and marked the third time in the previous eight years that the Socialist nominee in that district had received a double-digit percentage against Democratic and Republican opposition. Barlow, the controversial bomb-maker, finished a distant fourth with a disappointingly skimpy 914 votes, or less than one percent of the total.
Downs attributed his defeat to the relatively large vote received by his Socialist opponent, including an astonishing 11,029 votes in the party’s Bridgeport stronghold.
One of only eight women to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives during the 78th Congress, Luce was narrowly re-elected in 1944 when she defeated Democratic challenger Margaret Connor, a Bridgeport attorney, by barely 2,000 votes in a race in which the Socialist Party’s nominee again polled the difference.