She sits, like a painting, in her Georgetown drawing room, amid fresh flowers and hand-painted screens and tall vases and candelabra and French period furniture and massive gleaming oils. Most of the oils are "fake," she confides with odd relish. Almost everywhere you look are little porcelain bowls proffering filtered cigarettes.
A dog is yipping somewhere over a fence; in a moment a great furry feline will turn up on the other side of one of the French doors leading to the patio. "What is that animal?" Susan Mary Alsop will demand.
On the phone the day before, she had described this house as a "hideous little gray place that looks from the outside rather like a Victorian girls' reformatory." Not exactly, though there are bars on the streetside.
Susan Mary Alsop is descended directly from early American Jays--as in John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States. "My forebears helped get this show on the road," is how she tosses that off. To say her life has known privilege and connection is like saying Ted Williams saw something white and hit it with a stick. Half a century ago, with frizzed hair, she was dancing limp, adolescent, summer nights away on the ballroom floor of the Bar Harbor Club. Eager boys who would one day go on to Harvard and grow up to be ambassadors held her slender waist while the band sawed sweetly through "Night and Day."
Years later, in her Paris sojourn (her first husband, Bill Patten, was a reserve attache' at the American Embassy), she would come to know Cecil Beaton and Winston Churchill and Ho Chi Minh and Garbo and the Duke of Marlborough and so many others you'd need to rent the Palace of Versailles to get them all to one party.
"We met Ho Chi Minh at the Fontainebleau conference in 1947. We sat at a sidewalk cafe' with him and passed the time. He was this wizened up little old man with a wispy beard and an absolutely fascinating face. He had superb manners and spoke superb French. That conference was the turning point in French colonial affairs, I believe. Afterward the French sent him packing, he went back to Asia, and we all know what happened."
Susan Mary Alsop, who is 63 now and an accomplished writer with her third book just out, has known some high society parties in her day. Once, in Venice, there was a costume ball that lasted all night and featured two jazz orchestras and a crowd roaring applause every time somebody showed up on the balcony. The papers said Barbara Hutton spent $15,000 on her costume. It sounds straight out of "Gatsby." Alsop's toes hurt, so she went home at 3 a.m.
"I will always miss Paris," she says, allowing herself the smallest fraction of sadness. It flicks by her, like a bird past a window. "Our last apartment before Bill died looked out over the tops of chestnut trees on the Place des Etats Unis. And, oh, the skies."
Another Time, Another Place
She is wearing pearls. A tri-colored scarf is knotted around her neck. The watchband is alligator. Her legs are crossed and the dress is hiked just a modest smidge over the knee. Her shoes are black patent pumps. She is reaching for one cigarette after another. The cigarettes are little batons, punctuation strokes for bon mots and "My dears."
Grand ladies lead grand lives and you don't imagine them winding up with hatters from Topeka. In Washington, you imagine them luxuriant in Georgetown drawing rooms. As she is. On the mere glittery skim of things, Susan Mary Alsop's life seems to have been so absurdly charmed as to be not quite real, or at least not quite of this time and place. In some ways she seems more of the 19th century and William Makepeace Thackeray.
You think of her in connection with wagon-lits slithering off from the Gare de Lyon on "velvet paws so quietly that you hardly realize it is moving. Through the night, after a luxurious dinner, you hurtle through France and when you wake in the morning and pull up the blind it's the Mediterranean you see, cerulean blue on the right side of the train, and pink and white and yellow houses that couldn't be French on the left side, everywhere darkest green-black cypress."
Another time she wrote in another letter a hilarious description of chauffeurs at 9 a.m. belting and rebelting the Dior hatboxes to the tops of basketwork Rolls-Royces in preparation for taking the Simplon Pass. She was writing to her lifelong girlfriend, Marietta Tree. Tree, a New York grande dame in her own right, kept all of Susan Mary's letters in a shoebox; eventually they would get collected into Susan Mary's first book, called "To Marietta From Paris, 1945-1960." The book was published seven years ago and launched a new career, though that wasn't surprising to those who knew her.
Here she is one day in 1957, posting a letter to her girlfriend Marietta from 54 Avenue d'Iena in Paris: "Christian Dior is dead and I went to his funeral. He was very kind to me in the early days and I shall miss him. They say that a young man called Yves Saint Laurent is his chosen successor."
Today she is bird-thin. This past winter has not been kind. She has endured two operations, one for cancer. She doesn't dwell on this nor back away from it.
Though Susan Mary Alsop has led a "lucky" life, as she will be the first to say, along with all the luck and grandness have also come a considerable amount of pain and suffering that might be conveniently overlooked when you're trying to establish American, or at least Washington, types.
There was, for instance, her asthmatic father (Peter Augustus Jay, career diplomat), who ended sorrowfully. A sister who died in girlhood. A mother who lived to be 97 and lay paralyzed upstairs for her last 10 years. (But her mind was like a steel trap: On her deathbed she could remember details of the wedding of Nicholas and Alexandra, which she attended in 1896.) There was the first husband, Bill Patten, who at the end was existing on a Bennett oxygen machine, gasping for breath with one-third capacity of one lung, the other useless. This isn't all of Susan Mary Alsop's pain, though perhaps enough to suggest a reason why there may exist a need for her to write at all, instead of "just milling about," as some grand ladies do.
"I couldn't tell you the anxiety and strains she's known," says Marietta Tree, her correspondent and confidant of nearly 50 years, who seems to care for her like a twin. The two come from nearly identical backgrounds and breeding. "She's basically a very serious person. She is what the French call 'dedicated.' I've seen her lighthearted; I just wish she would be more so. One of the biggest problems is getting her to believe in herself." In the letters book, Susan Mary would "scream" to Marietta about Bill Patten withering away in front of her from emphysema.
A Decade-Long Waltz
Susan Mary Jay Patten landed in Washington in 196l as the bride of Joe Alsop, famed columnist and Georgetown salon-keeper. She had an 11-year old daughter, a son a few years older. Bill Patten, her husband of two decades, had died the year before in Paris. Years before, when the century was new, Joe Alsop of Avon, Conn., and Bill Patten of South Natick, Mass., had gone to the right schools together (Groton, Harvard). At Harvard, Joe and Bill were roomies. After Bill died, bachelor Joe asked for a dance with Susan Mary. Most everyone thought it would be perfect: the best friend stepping in. The waltz lasted a little over a decade.
"Joe just may be one of those people--and perhaps I--who are better off alone," she says. "I was in love with him, and he with me, I think. I wanted terribly to succeed as his wife and I failed, unfortunately. I imagine some people felt I was marrying Joe to assure a stepfather for my children and give me an interesting life. That simply isn't true. I honestly think there is perfection in our relationship now. We're the best of friends."
After the marriage with Alsop ended, she had a terrible sense of failure. That's how the writing got started, in fact. "I was very unhappy, as people always are. Marietta got me to work on my letters. She had saved all of them and one day produced them for Ken McCormick, an editor at Doubleday. He went into the library to look at them while Marietta and I chewed our nails and smoked one cigarette after another."
She was 56 and a new career had begun. And now her third book, "Yankees at the Court," has been published. It is a readable, impressively researched historical account of the first American diplomats abroad, especially in Paris. Because of her connections, she had access to private John Jay documents. She combed the Library of Congress, traveled to Spain. At a recent Georgetown book party, much of what is called Establishment Washington turned out, including Joe Alsop who "came and stood loyally by my side." (He had called her earlier and gone over the book in close detail; he admires it, he says.) In New York, Susan Mary's book party was written up in W, though not without a snippy quote from the proprietor of a "BP" (Beautiful People) bookshop: " These people read political, financial, historical books, and even if they aren't exactly intelligent, they're informed."
An obvious question might be: Why are you doing all this instead of just milling about? The answer is equally obvious, she says:
"I think I always had the writing instinct. It went into letters. There was never really any time. I married Joe and that was another sort of life. He had his office in his house and there were always important guests for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and of course I wanted to manage that for him. Too, there is the lecturing. I discovered I could lecture. And that people would actually listen to me. I can't tell you how pleasing it is. This is where vanity comes in. It's done wonders for my morale. Also I should say I do it for the money, though my advances have never been that large. I'm not as well off as you may think. And then of course there is the fact that someone should want to interview me. There is the vanity again. It never ceases to amaze me that on a muggy afternoon in Georgetown a young man would actually want to sit for two hours and talk to me."
The Mannerly Hostess
Three voices on Susan Mary Alsop:
George Will, syndicated columnist:
"It's a tiny town, as we all know, about 5,000 people. One of the great menaces of Washington social life is the boring dinner party. Boring is something Susan Mary Alsop could never be. She's incapable of it, which means also, I suppose, she's incapable of being bored. I am always grateful when I find myself seated next to her. You are struck immediately by her perfect manners, one of the signs of which is they're not visible. They don't stand out, like a loud necktie."
Joe Alsop, former husband:
"I often serve as host at her dinner parties, just as she serves as hostess at mine. I care a great deal about her, and maybe we're better off not being married. It's entirely possible, of course, to be deeply fond of someone and discover you can't live in the same house with her. We got cross at one another for a time, and that was that."
Frankie Fitzgerald, National Book Award winner, Pulitzer Prize honoree, godchild of Susan Mary Alsop:
"It isn't so surprising at all, actually, that she should have this late-blooming career of her own. The fact is, if you're upper-class English or French, this sort of thing happens all the time, given one's educational background and so forth. Not everybody did or could write books, of course. The idea of a professional woman was just not in her head at all when she got married the first time, or even the second. Her career was a private one in those years. You have to realize she lived in a different world. But things change, the world changes, and you've got to sell. I do think she needs to pick more ambitious topics, though."
Servants and Drillmasters
Paris has flicked elegantly by. So has most of a muggy afternoon in Georgetown. She has a dinner engagement this evening. Quiet little affair, "about six people, I should think." Tomorrow evening she will be on the arm of Bill Blair, former ambassador. "He was the first boy my mother let me go to the movies with at the Star Theater in Bar Harbor, Maine."
A woman in nurse's white has brought ginger ale and napkins. The doorbell has rung and the hostess of the house has bolted up to get it, not waiting for the lady in nurse's white. "Some dumb cluck at the door," she says, returning. In the preceding hour she has spoken several times of "servants." Servant is a musty word in the late 20th century, though somehow not coming from the lips of Susan Mary Alsop. She doesn't say it condescendingly, just familiarly. She has had them, she has known them, all her life.
She is explicating the paintings on her walls. They are all dim relatives of one sort or another. (The famous portraits of John Jay were sold to State or the National Gallery or some such, she says.) "Now that is an old boy there," she says, cackling, pointing to a bewigged puffy gentleman on a far wall wearing a uniform of the Revolutionary Army. "Hasn't he a fierce face? His name is Baron Von Steuben and he was Washington's drillmaster. He was a Prussian officer who heard about our cause and who came over and took this army of utterly undisciplined farmers and turned them into something. Rembrandt Peale painted it. Unfortunately my mother had it cut off at the bottom, and so his name is missing. Museum directors come in here and avert their eyes."
She talks of her children, both grown now. Billy publishes a newspaper in Maine. Her daughter, Anne Crile, lives in New York and is undergoing a painful divorce. Anne works for Swifty Lazar's wife. "Something to do with Hollywood. I'm not very familiar with Hollywood life. I think you read books and say to someone this would make a screenplay and we should push on with it."
What she is familiar with is the movable feast known as Paris. Ah, Paris. For a time, after the war, she did volunteer work at a USO center called the Rainbow Corner. She'd fly down the Champs Elyse'es on her bicycle. Nobody had cars then. She and other Red Cross girls would sit in the lounges with homesick soldier boys. She and Bill bought provisions for the house at a PX. There was damn all to eat and drink, including whisky. "Nothing wrong with good old American bourbon."
Will she ever go back? She suspects so. Someday. She lets it drop. Paris was a long time ago. She has taken up a cigarette. Her life has struck another match.
At the conclusion of her letters book, Susan Mary Alsop wrote this of the French Impressionists: "Those diabolical geniuses carry the high skies of the Ile de France onto their canvases and make one smell the air again, just as one's heart turns somersaults when some silly orchestra plays a tune of which one was fond when one was in love."