Susan Mary Alsop, 86, the grand dame of Washington society whose Georgetown dinner parties epitomized the nexus of political power and social arrival in the 1960s, died Aug. 18 of complications from pneumonia at her home.
Mrs. Alsop's dining room was considered the absolute center of Georgetown's social scene at a time when President John F. Kennedy's arrival energized the once-sleepy capital. Her guests were the witty, the accomplished and the credentialed from the worlds of politics, media and diplomacy, and they used the opportunity to strike alliances, argue foreign affairs and bargain over the nation's fortunes.
Ex-CIA director Richard M. Helms and Susan Mary Alsop chat at Katharine Graham's book party in 1992.
(Harry Naltchayan -- The Washington Post)
As the descendant of one of America's first families (she was a Jay, as in John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States), she grew up privileged and firmly a member of the most elite Eastern Establishment circles. She dined with presidents and prime ministers, often at her home, and frequently at the salons of the rich and powerful, where the conversations often were continuations of parliamentary or embassy debates.
"All these stories will be in the history books," she wrote to a friend in a letter, "but it does send a chill down one's spine to hear them told by the actors in the drama."
As a young woman, she had Sunday night suppers with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in the White House. The president, armed with a martini shaker, would urge guests to dip into a bowl of Russian caviar. "They called it Uncle Joe's Bounty. The idea was to eat as much of that as possible," she said in one of her books.
As a teenager, she had tea with Edith Wharton and was disappointed that the great writer was "a gossipy old girl," she told a visitor 11 years ago. As the young wife of an embassy official in Paris, she was often seated beside British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ("He has decided I am . . . French . . . and nothing will deter him from speaking French to me.") when she wasn't drinking champagne with Noel Coward and the Duke of Windsor.
In Washington, widowed and remarried to newspaper columnist Joe Alsop, she always had her hair done just in case she was invited for dinner at the Kennedy White House. Hers was the only private home that Kennedy visited on his inauguration night, stopping in for a bowl of terrapin soup.
"Susan Mary loved to connect people together, young and old. Some were famous, some were not," said her daughter, Anne Milliken. "All that mattered to her inquisitive mind was that her guests be engaged in living life."
Susan Mary Jay was born in Rome, the daughter of a diplomat, and grew up in South America and Europe. Her mother attended the wedding of Russia's Nicholas and Alexandra in 1894. She attended Foxcroft, a boarding school, in Middleburg and took courses at Barnard College. When her mother offered the 18-year-old either a debutante ball or a trip abroad, the young woman immediately chose the trip.
She began working at Vogue magazine in 1939 as a receptionist, writer and model. At the World's Fair in Flushing, N.Y., that year, she and a friend were persuaded, for $75 an hour, to hang from parachutes in evening dresses until photographers were satisfied.
After World War II, she joined her husband, Bill Patten, in Paris, where he worked for the embassy. She immediately put them on the diplomatic social circuit, where she was described as "stylish, intelligent, loving and good, and very funny." Christian Dior and other French designers let her wear their latest ball gowns for a pittance, which was necessary because she did not have the great wealth that others in her circle assumed.
In Paris, she began giving the parties for which she later became so well-known. Her letters, collected into a book titled "To Marietta From Paris: 1945-1960" (1974), are dizzy with upper-case names: Greta Garbo, Ho Chi Minh, the Rothschilds. Somehow it doesn't read like name-dropping, perhaps because she also routinely reports catching the flu or asks her girlfriend back in the States to send "three cans of Bon Ami" or other bathtub cleansing solutions.
During the Paris period, she had a discreet affair with British diplomat Duff Cooper, engineered by his wife, according to Robert W. Merry's biography of Joseph and Stewart Alsop, "Taking on the World" (1996). "It lasted until Duff's death in 1953, and close friends concluded that it was the greatest love of Susan Mary's life; but she never let it undermine her marriage or her family," Merry wrote.
Patten died in 1960, after years of battling emphysema. She married his college roommate, columnist Joseph Alsop, the next year, and moved to Washington, apparently with full knowledge that he was gay. She said he was a good stepfather to her daughter and son, Bill Patten, although memoirs from the period say he treated her rudely in public.
The perfect hostess, however, knew how to smooth over embarrassing situations. When called upon to comment on the propriety of an incident in 1986 in which the Canadian ambassador's wife publicly slapped her social secretary, Mrs. Alsop said the woman "must have been very tired, is all I can say. I think it just means two women were just worn out by people like myself dropping out at the last minute. . . . I think we just don't talk about it. She's such an important and marvelous friend. Nobody in Washington is going to fuss about it."
Religion, however, was not on the approved topic list for dinner parties. "I don't think that anyone that I would be apt to be fond of would discuss it," she said in a 1999 interview. "I mean, I go to Christ Church in Georgetown every Sunday and I wouldn't miss it, but I've never talked about it. It's very private. It's inappropriate socially, absolutely. It's not like foreign policy, not anything that would be discussed in my world, I'm afraid."
She volunteered at D.C. General Hospital, served on the board of the Sasha Bruce House and "would have joined Common Cause if Alsop had not instructed her otherwise," her daughter said. The couple divorced in 1973 but remained friends, and continued to give dinners together. He died in 1989.
Mrs. Alsop began her literary career after the divorce. She first edited her letters, followed by "Lady Sackville: A Biography" (1978), "Yankees at the Court: The First Americans in Paris" (1982) and "The Congress Dances: Vienna 1814-1815" (1984). She became a contributing editor to Architectural Digest.
Her survivors, in addition to her son, of Worcester, Mass., and her daughter, of Salt Lake City, include seven grandchildren and a great-grandson.
A great Washington party, she once told a reporter, "is a question of electricity. It's also luck. If you're fortunate enough to get the secretary of state and the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the night of an international crisis. . . . It sounds ghoulish, but it's something you want to have."
Then there's the advice of Lady Diana Cooper, which Mrs. Alsop passed on to her daughter: "Oh, just give them plenty of booze and hope it will go."