Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

More Arsenic with Your Coffee, Madam Ambassador?

01u/24/arve/g2107/084Clare Boothe Luce, U.S. ambassador to Italy in the 1950s, famously fell ill with arsenic poisoning during her time in Rome. Rumors and speculation about the source of the poisoning began to circulate, and many believed that Luce was being targeted by agents of the Soviet Union. However, medical analysis eventually determined that her condition was caused by arsenate of lead in paint dust. The episode weakened her physically and mentally, and she resigned her post in December, 1956.

She later recovered and was later nominated by President Eisenhower to be Ambassador to Brazil. You can read more about Clare Boothe Luce here. Paul McCusker was a Legal Affairs Officer in Rome during Luce’s ambassadorship. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 1991.


McCUSKER:  In came Clare, arriving on an Italian ship, by the way, when all the rest of us, of course, had to travel by some U.S. carrier, cleverly enough, because she was not welcomed in the initial days in Rome, the Italians being very full of machismo, felt it was an insult to them to have a woman as an ambassador.

Well, she quickly disproved any ideas the Italians, or for that matter, her co-workers had that she was just another pretty face, which she certainly was — a very pretty woman, very charming woman actually. And she showed that she was made of flint, if not stainless steel. Her ability to argue logically was phenomenal. I’ve never seen such a steeltrap mind that she had. And with her I was a little bit closer because I had been working on….

I thought Clare Boothe Luce was great, and you know the famous story about the arsenic in the coffee, was absolutely true. I knew very well her then staff assistant, Jack Shea, who subsequently moved from State to another agency, through the Luce connection with [CIA Director and brother of the Secretary of State, John Foster] Allen Dulles. When the story began to break about the fact that she was suffering literally from arsenic poisoning, she looked awful, I must say, and was away from the office quite a bit. The story was true.

ROSENKAVALIER_Fleming_and_Graham_3750There was arsenic in the lead in the paint in her boudoir, and flakes dropped into her coffee cup, and she drank the coffee. Jack told me one time that she used to complain about the taste of the coffee, and she said, “This tastes like poison.”

Actually, it was. And he sent away to Sears for a new coffeemaker for her and that didn’t help the situation, because she would, like the Marschallin in the opera Der Rosenkavalier, kind of hold her levee in the morning, and sip coffee in her bed, really.

And Jack would go there early in the morning — not too early — bring her the overnight collection of cables, and messages, etc. And she’d come into the embassy quite late as a result, but having drunk a lot of coffee, I guess, with arsenic of lead in it.

She was brilliant, and made a tremendous impression on anybody she met. So I was sorry to leave during her regime, and she was very kind to me in a number of ways.




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More Arsenic with Your Coffee,…

by Chris Sibilla time to read: 2 min