By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, August 3, 2008
MY THREE FATHERS
And the Elegant Deceptions of My Mother,
Susan Mary Alsop
By William S. Patten
PublicAffairs. 379 pp. $27.95
William S. Patten, who celebrated his 60th birthday on July 4, believed until 13 years ago that he was the son of his namesake, also William S. Patten, a privileged New Englander who had married his equally privileged mother, Susan Mary Jay, in 1939. Then, in 1995, when he and his sister, Anne, took their 77-year-old mother from her residence in Georgetown to a clinic in Minnesota for "intervention" regarding her alcohol abuse, he learned otherwise. Talking with her children in a small room there, she began telling them about the death in 1954 of Duff Cooper, a noted British diplomat, writer and hero of World War I. Why on earth was she rambling on about this distant figure? "She looked up as if suddenly remembering, placing her palm on her forehead, and said, 'Oh, yes, of course, and he's your father.' "
Understandably, Patten was astonished by this disclosure, all the more so since he'd already had two fathers in his life: Bill Patten, who died in 1960 after a half-century of fighting asthma and its complications, and Joseph Alsop, the Washington newspaper columnist and man about town who had married his mother a year after Patten's death. Alsop was divorced from her a dozen years later but remained close to her and to Patten, until his own death in 1989. Judging by the evidence in My Three Fathers, Patten is still trying to come to terms with the presence of Duff Cooper in his life, not to mention with his relationship with his mother, a smart, determined, beautiful woman who had a powerful "attraction to power and politics" and eventually became a rather formidable figure in the Washington social clique centered in Georgetown. She was also an accomplished writer who occasionally reviewed for Book World.
The result is a book at once interesting and infuriating. The interesting parts -- fortunately they take up much of the book -- are those about the author's four parents. The infuriating ones are those about the author himself, since he comes across as a wholly self-centered man, besotted with the practices and language of pop psychology. The book begins with an "intervention" and nears its end with its author training to be "a facilitator of batterer intervention classes," all of which no doubt comes from the heart but is (to my taste) cloying. By the same token, the stories the author tells at some length about his own marriages and repeated career changes may have therapeutic benefits for him, but their connection to the central gist of the book is difficult to discern. Authors are always entitled to write their books as they wish, but My Three Fathers would have been a better one had Patten said less about himself.
The marriage of Bill Patten and Susan Mary Jay was made in WASP heaven. His mother was a Thayer, "the scions of Lancaster, Massachusetts, a village they had largely dominated -- first theologically then financially -- since the early nineteenth century." Bill was a graduate of Groton School and Harvard University -- as was Joe Alsop -- both institutions being WASP incubators. As for Susan Mary, she was a direct descendant of John Jay, "best known as our country's first chief justice of the Supreme Court," and more: "He was also president of the Second Continental Congress, secretary of foreign affairs of the Confederation, and governor of the state of New York. According to John Adams, writing in 1815, he had 'as much influence in digestion of the Constitution, and obtaining its adoption, as any man in the nation.' " And he was an influential diplomat who "in 1782, together with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams . . . traveled to Paris and negotiated the settlement of America's Revolutionary War."
American blood doesn't get much bluer than that, nor does British blood get much bluer than Duff Cooper's. He was directly descended from King William IV, though to most British minds he was notable primarily as "the only cabinet minister in Neville Chamberlain's government to resign over the Munich Pact of 1938," and about him, too, there was much more: "that he had been something of a war hero; . . . that he was a man of affairs in every sense of the word; that he published a book on Shakespeare and a book of poetry; that he seems to have had a lonely childhood, but blossomed in school at Eton and Oxford; that he was a close friend to many great men of the day, including Winston Churchill and Herbert H. Asquith; that his grandfather, a nephew, and his wife were also 'illegitimate' like me; and that he was a remarkable rogue, at least in terms of social propriety."
After World War II, he served as Britain's ambassador to France, in which capacity he made the acquaintance of Bill and Susan Mary Patten. The former was in the American embassy as an economic analyst, and he and Susan Mary were regulars on the diplomatic social scene, though she presumably was the more active of the two as persistent poor health limited Bill's energy. In the fall of 1945 Susan Mary was seated next to Duff Cooper at a birthday party, and "it was after a . . . game of bridge, recorded by Duff in February 1947, that he 'kissed Susan Mary for the first time.' " One thing followed another, as it always seems to have done with Cooper, whose looks were not unduly arresting but whose attraction to women apparently was irresistible: "Working back from my birth on July 4, 1948, it seems likely that the fateful event occurred during an October weekend in 1947 at Ditchley Park, the country house of Marietta and Ronald Tree."
Whether Bill Patten knew that his wife had gotten herself pregnant by another man is unknown, but by his son's grateful account, he was a loving and attentive father, which is a good deal more than the author is willing to say about his mother. "Why couldn't I tell her that in some ways she was a success," he whines early on, "but that she had never been a good mother to me?" Later: "The most compelling forces in my mother's life evolved from a powerful brew of ambition and duty. She needed to be in control but was instinctively drawn to men in power." Later: "My mother was not a woman who was easy to genuinely please. I felt this from as early on as I can remember. Perhaps the best gift I gave her . . . was a new red Camaro in the 1960s that had a powerful engine. It was the only present she ever thanked me for more than twice" -- once, apparently, being nowhere nearly enough. And: "I wanted her to know how far apart we were, how totally disconnected I felt from her."
And later still: "But it was not my mother's fame that kept us apart. When I visited her from Maine, she met me in her red room, cigarette and drink in hand, struggling heroically to find a connection. She certainly knew how to look like she was listening, but the little gushes of flattery gave her away. They landed on me like raindrops, familiar and haphazard, reminding me that I was as invisible as ever. Even the handwritten notes she would leave on the stair landing, thanking me for coming to see her, felt like sad little life buoys flung out to a departing ship."
The book, in other words, is a cross between Mommy Dearest and Poor Me, and equally unattractive as both. Never having been a member of Susan Mary Alsop's social set, not once having crossed her path, I have no personal experience with which to refute her son's complaints, but there is reason to believe she was a person of substance and accomplishment as well as a highly visible socialite. Her record wasn't perfect. Her marriage to Alsop was in many ways a mismatch (he was a closeted homosexual), and her fling with Duff Cooper obviously was a betrayal of the man Patten assumed to have been his father. If Patten has his grievances, well, so do most of us. But when he claims in his opening paragraph that this book is "the story of a rarified world that seems far away today" -- the world that Joe Alsop in his own memoir called "the WASP ascendancy" -- he is skirting the truth. My Three Fathers is an act of revenge, and the author's mother is the victim. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.