“American Lady: The Life of Susan Mary Alsop ” by Caroline de Margerie , translated from the French by Christopher Murray
By Jonathan Yardley,
Thoroughly trained in the social arts by her girlhood in the most exalted High WASP circles of New York, New England and Long Island, and then by a decade and a half of young adulthood in Paris, Susan Mary Jay Patten arrived in Washington in 1961 set to become one of this city’s most influential and admired hostesses, a role she filled for most of the four decades before her death in 2004 at the age of 86. Her husband, Bill Patten, had died in 1960 after a long, debilitating illness, leaving her free to remarry, which she did soon after arriving here.
As her second husband she took Joseph Alsop, the transcendently self-important syndicated columnist who “gave great parties and was liberal with champagne,” as Caroline de Margerie puts it in this slender book. Alsop offered her, in effect, a marriage of mutual convenience. He admitted to her that he was homosexual, revealing a side of himself — “someone timid, lonely, vulnerable, in need of tenderness” — that was otherwise difficult to discern and, in the process, leading her to believe, or to hope, that his confession might lead to “a possible change in his nature.”
If that is indeed what she hoped for, she surely was disappointed (the exact nature of their amatory relationship apparently will remain a mystery, as well it should), but she married him in February 1961 and remained with him for a dozen years, until his “harsh criticism” and their “continual and exhausting confrontations” made it impossible for her to stay any longer.
Long before that she had established herself as Washington’s reigning hostess — reigning, that is, among the powerful, the vain, the sycophantic, the perpetual climbers who make up what passes for high society in Washington. She seems to have been a considerably better person than many of those who paid court at the house in Georgetown that she and Alsop shared — she had “intelligence, curiosity, and energy,” as well as a genuine interest in current events and the people who attempted to control them — but she knew how to manipulate them: “She gave full, all-enveloping attention to her conversation partners — men in particular, but not exclusively — the kind of attention that made them sit up and feel more important, more alive. Subtly and firmly, she guided their performance.” De Margerie quite deftly slips in the stiletto:
“By dint of her personality, exceptional talent as a hostess, and intelligent exploitation of her past, Susan Mary made her salon one of the centers of Washington social life, a place that evoked older, more civilized times, when money stayed in its place, political party affiliations were less important, and America got along with Europe. Becoming a legend has a price, and it was one that Susan Mary paid willingly. By inviting only those who were well known or hoped to be, by entertaining only success and ambition, she deprived herself of the other, gentler kinds of company that these strict criteria often cast aside. No matter her mood, she allowed herself only corseted perfection, sacrificing spontaneity, emotional sincerity, and repose.”
She was queen, in other words, of a shallow little world where appearances mattered more than substance, position and power more than meaning and weight. She had trained for this, presumably unconsciously, as a young woman in Paris, where “she soon began to blossom as a hostess.” She “knew how to mix people and ideas, how to lower the lights, and how to spice up conversation with alcohol,” and more: “She found that well-managed hospitality was not without benefits. Beyond the pleasures of friendship, she liked receiving fresh and reliable news from all over the world, even though it was not always good.”
If this seems to you, as it does to me, a quite empty form of accomplishment, one does not need to read very deeply between the lines to sense that it seemed that way to Alsop as well. Long before arriving in Washington, she had escaped a passionless marriage to the decent and affectionate Patten by entering into an ardent affair with the celebrated British diplomat, adventurer and bon vivant Duff Cooper, though the ardor was pretty much entirely on her side: “For Duff, the whole affair was highly flattering and somewhat disturbing. He was not in love with Susan Mary. He was seldom in love, as a matter of fact. He was straightforward about those things, to the point of bluntness. He took his pleasure as he took champagne, frequently, remorselessly, and without measure.”
What he got was “an earnest American girl married to a Boston puritan.” The affair, which began soon after the end of World War II, was strange, involving as it did not merely the two participants but their spouses as well: Cooper’s wife, Diana, who seems to have winked at his infidelities, and Patten, who seems to have been blissfully oblivious, even when his wife at last became pregnant and produced a son, William Patten Jr. He was of course Cooper’s, and he retaliated, when she blurted out her secret in 1995, by writing an uncommonly vindictive and self-serving book, “My Three Fathers, and the Elegant Deceptions of My Mother, Susan Mary Alsop” (2008). The Pattens and Coopers socialized with each other as the very best of friends, the subplot simmering just beneath the surface.
Alsop revealed another side of herself after the end of her marriage to Joe Alsop when she began to publish books of her own: a collection of correspondence between herself and her closest friend, Marietta Tree; a biography of Lady Sackville; an account of the first Americans in Paris; and an account of the Congress of Vienna. Whether any of these books would pass scholarly review is at least doubtful, but they were well received, and not only by the author’s friends among the Washington elite. (She also contributed several reviews to The Washington Post’s Book World.) After a lifetime of living in the shadows of prominent men and pouring tea and champagne at Washington back-scratching sessions, she had established herself on her own, and the satisfaction must have been intense.
Her life did not end happily. “Scotch or vodka became necessary to make it through the day,” de Margerie writes, “waiting and waiting for the evening, which would hopefully bring company. Drink dissolved solitude, regrets faded into peaceful nostalgia, the end drifted further away.” She went into treatment but relapsed and “slowly returned to the comfort of alcohol, with all its inevitable consequences.” Her death, though, seems to have been peaceful.
This modest biography is appropriate to its subject, admiring but unsentimental (except at the very end) and forthright about the limitations of a life lived in large measure for parties. There is a French bias — “What she loved . . . was the French art de vivre; it had survived for so long and was still holding on,” or “For years afterward, she would avoid visiting certain rooms at the National Gallery, because Impressionist paintings of the French countryside made her heart throb with sadness.” But this is forgivable both because the author is French and because the bias seems to be justified by the facts. The summer of 1947, when she was in Paris and in love with Cooper, “was one of the most glorious summers of Susan Mary’s life,” and much of what followed can only have been anticlimax.
AMERICAN LADY The Life of Susan Mary Alsop By Caroline de Margerie Translated from the French by Christopher Murray Viking. 232 pp. $26.95