In 1949, Wilfred Sheed spent his 18th summer at the Luces'--the two incandescent opening chapters--and took umbrage, thereafter, at the bitch-legend of Clare. Partly, he wants to reconcile the Private Clare (friendly, generous, attentive) and the Public, overweening Clare; partly, he wants to deny ""the last word"" to her detractors--especially ""her sometime sidekick,"" Helen Lawrenson. For a novelist of parts--even for the biographer of Muhammad Ali--this is a dubious business. Sometime editor/ playwright/congresswoman/ambassador Luce, who owed her career to a combination of cleverness/looks/drive and ""the-man-in-the-wings"" (rich first husband George Brokaw, mentor/lover Bernard Baruch, Henry Luce), is cast by Sheed as ""the first pure Success Woman""; and ""The first pure Success Woman had to be something of a bitch."" This proposition, suspect from both a factual and a feminist angle, is variously hedged and qualified and undercut by Sheed himself (e.g., she ""must want to be something like the woman she seems""). More tenable is his '20s-femme-on-the-make interpretation of Clare Luce's political performance; more intriguing, his portrayal of Harry Luce and their relationship. After my-summer-with-Clare comes a reprise of her life designed in part to get her off the Lawrenson schemer/poseur hook (Luce ""pursued her""; daughter Ann, killed in an auto accident at 20, wasn't disaffected), in part to display her accomplishments. (The Women was ""a first-rate piece of work""; her 1940 book, Europe in the Spring, qualifies her as a ""global thinker""; in Congress, 1943-46, she was ""a premature anti-Stalinist""; she ""ambassadored as well as one can ambassador."") But the reprise also sets up Sheed's interesting premise that her combativeness, even her ""implacable-enemy theory,"" were residues of The Women: ""Clare learned all about the preemptive first strike in Newport and Park Avenue."" As for Harry and Clare, each was an acquisition for the other, and together they were perfect foils: ""His gruffness sparkled, her flippancy was solemnified."" But within five years or so, his ardor cooled (a major reason, along with her daughter's death, that she turned to the Catholic Church); at one point, he was eager to marry Lord Beaverbrook's young granddaughter, Lady Jean Campbell (who instead became the new Mrs. Norman Mailer); and in Arizona semi-retirement, they found mutual solace in LSD. We last see Clare in (what she calls) her ""fur-lined rut"" in Hawaii, and in her two preeminent domains--among the military brass and the monks. What sticks in the mind, though, is Sheed at 18 ""playing the moon-faced youth from the provinces who would years from now try to write it all down."" Otherwise, a gracious gesture with some very sharp apertheÃ‡us.