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.”
(Viking) - ’American Lady: The Life of Susan Mary Alsop’ by Caroline de Margerie
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.”