Susan Mary Alsop

Washington political hostess and writer
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Susan Mary Alsop, as she herself was always the first to admit, led a very privileged and fortunate life, which took her from the bosom of the US East Coast establishment to the salons of post-war Paris and the most glamorous circles of Kennedy-era Washington. But instead of - as she liked to put it - just "milling around" like many another well-connected and well-provided wife, Alsop created her own career as well, as a writer and accomplished diplomatic historian in her own right.

Susan Mary Jay, writer: born Rome 19 June 1918; married 1939 William Patten (died 1960; one son, one daughter), 1961 Joseph Alsop (marriage dissolved 1973); died Washington, DC 18 August 2004.

Susan Mary Alsop, as she herself was always the first to admit, led a very privileged and fortunate life, which took her from the bosom of the US East Coast establishment to the salons of post-war Paris and the most glamorous circles of Kennedy-era Washington. But instead of - as she liked to put it - just "milling around" like many another well-connected and well-provided wife, Alsop created her own career as well, as a writer and accomplished diplomatic historian in her own right.

She entered the world with impeccable social credentials. Her diplomat father was a descendant of John Jay, the first chief justice of the US Supreme Court; her mother had attended the marriage of Tsar Nicholas II to Alexandra in 1894. Susan Mary Jay herself was born in Rome, and grew up in Europe, South America, New York and Washington.

At the age of 21, she was taken on by Vogue magazine as a receptionist. Soon she was doing writing and modelling work. At the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing, New York, she and a friend were paid $75 an hour - an enormous sum in those days - to dangle from parachutes in evening dresses for the pleasure of the photographers.

By then, however, she was in love. William Patten was not an obvious choice of mate for a budding socialite. He was neither particularly rich nor in good health, already suffering from the emphysema which would kill him. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the illness prevented him from signing up with the military as he would have liked. Instead, he went first to London and then to liberated Paris in 1945 as an attaché at the US embassy. The couple lived there until William Patten's death in 1960. For Susan Mary Patten, they were happy times she would never forget.

The French capital seemed the glittering hub of an otherwise dreary, war-ravaged universe. As the popular wife of a popular diplomat, she met everyone, and, in scores of deliciously gossipy letters, she recorded her impressions of them to her lifelong girlfriend Marietta Tree.

Her encounters ranged from Winston Churchill ("He has decided I am French and nothing will deter him from speaking French to me") to Ho Chi Minh ("a wizened-up little old man with a wispy beard and an absolutely fascinating face"). Noël Coward "gets a feverish glint in his eye when anyone so much as mentions the Navy," she wrote to Marietta, who would become a grande dame in her own right.

Well-connected diplomatic spouses (especially ones who had worked for Vogue) mingled easily with the great names of French fashion. Patten loved Dior's "New Look" - "such well-made armour inside the dress that one doesn't need underclothes". More seriously, another letter to Marietta in 1957 recounted that "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."

A further social entrée, were any needed, was the close friendship that developed between the Pattens and Duff Cooper, British ambassador to France between 1944 and 1947, and his wife Diana. The young American woman and the ambassador 28 years her senior started a discreet affair, which apparently lasted in one form or another until his death in January 1954.

Even Lady Diana Cooper seems to have looked benignly on the liaison. "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," wrote Robert Merry in Taking on the World (1996), his biography of Joseph Alsop, the eminent Washington columnist who would become Susan Mary's second husband.

Joseph Alsop was a close friend of William Patten. The two had been classmates at the élite Groton private school in Connecticut, and had roomed together at Harvard. He was homosexual, but Susan Mary saw him as an ideal stepfather for her two young children and, a year after Patten's death, in 1961 they were married. Her skills as a hostess were further honed alongside Alsop, a Washington grandee whose small Georgetown dinner parties were attended by Cabinet members, top diplomats, politicians and scholars, and sometimes even Presidents.

Alsop was not only one of the most influential journalists of his day. He was famously opinionated and exacting, utterly intolerant of fools and bores. His wife was the perfect foil, as a contemporary connoisseur of Washington social mores put it, "one of those people you can count on to make an effort no matter what seat they've been given at dinner".

The house at 2720 Dumbarton Street (a "hideous little grey place that looks rather like a Victorian girls' reformatory" Susan Mary once called it) was the only private home visited by President John F. Kennedy on his inauguration night of 20/21 January 1961. The President stayed for 90 minutes, drinking champagne and terrapin soup - and, according to at least one account, conducting a brief fling with a female guest as well.

Never, though, was there a better seat than on the evening of 16 October 1962. The Kennedys were there, as were the French ambassador, the new US ambassador in Paris, "Chip" Bohlen, and the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Unbeknown to the other dinner guests, the Cuban missile crisis was gathering. At one point Kennedy went outside for a hurried consultation with aides. At dinner, he twice asked his guests how Russians reacted when their backs were against the wall.

It was the ultimate Washington soirée. A great Washington party, Susan Mary Alsop once said, was

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.

The private Alsop ménage, however, proved unworkable. Joe and Susan Mary Alsop divorced in 1973, although the couple remained close friends, attending and sometimes co-hosting each other's parties. Partly to get over the sense of failure at the breakdown of her marriage, she embarked on her literary career.

First to appear, in 1975, were the Paris letters, edited into volume form as To Marietta from Paris 1945-1960. Three years later, she produced an excellent biography, Lady Sackville, about the mother of Vita Sackville-West, whose exotic life in some respects mirrored the author's own.

In 1982 she published Yankees at the Court: the first Americans in Paris and two years later The Congress Dances, about the 1815 Congress of Vienna. The Georgetown parties remained famous, but by now their hostess was equally celebrated as an author, hailed by one reviewer as a 20th-century Madame de Sévigné.

In fact, she mixed careful research with the intimate, chatty style of a gossip columnist. "It is as if Alsop had attended the festivities herself, and then, returning at dawn, recounted each and every detail so as not to lose a crumb," Prince Michael of Greece enthused in a review of The Congress Dances in The Washington Post. That verdict reflects surely Alsop's greatest talent - the realisation that great events are shaped by very small but very human things.

Rupert Cornwell



Comments