Profile: Fiction with friction: Geraldine Bedell on how art imitates life for the former political profiler turned novelist

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The Independent Online
SUSAN CROSLAND once wrote an extraordinary biography of her husband, the former foreign secretary Tony Crosland: a love story woven around Westminster gossip, a romance which was still, recognisably, political biography. Now she's trying to pull off a similar trick in fiction: her third novel, The Magnates, out next week, is a romance told against the background of an attempt to overthrow the prime minister, an American presidential scandal, a breached arms embargo, and the rivalries of a couple of press barons.

The characters may be a bit cardboard and the plot baroque, but Crosland does her best to give her confection some verisimilitude with a cast that is vaguely recognisable: a nice-but-weak prime minister, a first lady who, she admits, is a 'conscious parody' of Hillary Clinton. This is fair enough, but when the guessing-game extends to most of the other characters as well, you wonder if it is just lazy characterisation.

Crosland's British ambassador to Washington, James Wharton, is a 40-year-old former journalist with a square, boyish face and a passion for sailing, whose wife, Jancie, an ex-television journalist with a chestnut bob, has an affair with an investigative reporter. If this sounds familiar, it may be because Peter Jay, a former journalist with a square, boyish face and a passion for sailing, became, at 40, the British ambassador to Washington. His wife, Margaret, an ex-television journalist with a chestnut bob, had an affair with Carl Bernstein, one of the reporters who broke the Watergate story. And then there is Zoe Hare, a 28-year-old profile-writer, who sounds suspiciously like Zoe Heller, a 28-year-old profile-writer for the Independent on Sunday and Vanity Fair.

Crosland denies that her Zoe has anything to do with our Zoe. 'I have read her and admire her work, and I met her once on a kerb after a dinner. I know nothing whatsoever about her apart from that.' The similarity of names is entirely coincidental. As for the Jays: 'The irony - life is always like this - the irony is that the Jays . . . well, of course there are similarities, because he was British ambassador . . . whose domestic life became . . . there was a triangle there, yes, yes . . . but Peter Jay came in very soon after Tony was dead, and all of that passed me by, as did most things for the next five years. Now with my head - I know the Jays, I bump into them - so with my head I know this, but there's not as much in my consciousness as there is about - yes, I knew he was ambassador, yes, I knew he was a distinguished journalist, yes, I knew there had been an affair. And then I forgot about him. Until someone else noticed.'

This is a typical Susan Crosland speech. She has a habit of stopping a sentence half way through to introduce a tangential thought, then going back to something else she was saying a minute ago, then trying to finish. It can be heavy weather trying to work out what the point is. But perhaps she is nervous. She says several times that she wishes she were in my position rather than hers. Her friend, the writer Beatrix Campbell, says: 'She is very comfortable being empathetic, interested, and inconspicuous, making people feel very good when they are the subject. She would be less comfortable disclosing herself.'

The one thing I had expected was that she would be poised. Her background is upper-class American - she can trace her family back to the Mayflower - and she went to a girls' private school and Vassar. She married a foreign secretary, and imported the extended newspaper profile to Britain. These days she is squired about town by a succession of men, from whom she likes to keep herself, ultimately, aloof, and prides herself on also having a number of close women friends. Auberon Waugh once described, in a sickly-sweet Vanity Fair profile, her 'small but costly dinner parties of great elegance' at which one might meet the American ambassador, a couple of cabinet ministers, 'Britain's most glamorous anchorwoman, Anna Ford, and perhaps a publisher or two.'

CROSLAND'S yellow, chintzy drawing room in Kensington may be essentially English (she also owns a converted watermill in Oxfordshire), but there remains about her much of the Southern belle. She speaks in an unhurried soft drawl, suggesting a tremulous vulnerability, which is, one guesses, hugely appealing to men of her generation, not least when combined with her slow movement, her wide sexy mouth, and her ash- blonde hair. But her profiles and interviews were much admired for their sharp but unmalicious perceptiveness. Presumably these qualities are there still, but they can be difficult to discern beneath the broken sentences and the fluttery, breathy manner.

She was born Susan Watson; she would rather not say when. Her father was a Pulitzer prize-winning defence correspondent and, later, editor of the Baltimore Sun. Her mother was part of an old tobacco-growing Maryland family - which is what, she says, really counted in Baltimore. Susan spent her summers on the shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont, which features as an idealised rural setting in The Magnates.

She tells me that she fell deeply in love when she was 14 - and again at Vassar, 'with the most unsuitable person . . . he was so patently unsuitable . . . my poor mother] Oh, so many things were unsuitable about it. I think his father . . . it was some sort of tailoring business that his father was in . . . they lived in this tiny little house in a row of identical houses in a suburb of New York, such as I'd never seen in my life. As I say, my poor mother . . .'

She took a job at the Baltimore Museum of Art and married Patrick Skene Catling, an Anglo-Irish journalist who was working on the Baltimore Sun. They had two daughters, Sheila and Ellen-Craig, and in 1956 - by which time, she says, the marriage was extremely rocky - they were posted to London. Later that year, when Patrick was away covering the Suez crisis, she met Tony Crosland at a London cocktail party. He was divorced, the leading Labour intellectual, and had just published his book, The Future of Socialism. 'What exactly is The Future of Socialism?' she asked him over their first dinner. 'Is it one of those pamphlets?'

Photographs from the period show that she was stunningly beautiful; he was, as she puts it in the biography, 'raffish and compelling'. He was also notoriously promiscuous, although one afternoon in 1957 he told her, 'I'm putting my promiscuity aside until you leave England'.

'Why?' she asked. 'You've taken enough trouble to make me understand that it doesn't diminish what we have.'

'Which it doesn't,' he said. 'But I really want to make the most of this.'

She met John Junor at another party and got herself a job writing the showbiz column on the Sunday Express, where her enthusiasm for Crosland's ideas led to an eventual request from Junor not to mention class every week. When she was divorced from Patrick - he said he wanted to marry someone else - she married Tony Crosland almost immediately.

IT WAS not, perhaps, by modern standards, the most equal of marriages, though it was romantic: he once chartered a plane and flew to France to patch up a quarrel. She wrote in the biography: 'We'd assumed there would be a certain asymmetry in the marriage - that he would once in a while benefit from an 'adventure' without any disadvantage for anyone else.' To this end, he kept his own flat and they always took separate summer holidays, though the first night he spent at the bachelor flat turned out to be the last, and the holiday flings just never happened.

He was a commanding personality, rude if he thought his time was being wasted, and her care in handling him is a persistent theme of the biography. She describes, for example, his approval when she brought written notes into an argument about which of them should go to the petrol station.

Quitting the right-wing Express when Labour returned to government, she joined the pre-Murdoch Sun, and then the Sunday Times, where she did much of her best work, dissecting Tory ministers during the 1970-74 government. The profiles - she rarely interviewed her subjects then, though she did later - were 10,000 words long, and took three months to write. Tony Crosland, shown a fourth draft once, complained that he was seeing it a stage too early.

Early in 1977, Tony had a brain haemorrhage, at home on Sunday morning. He died in hospital six days later. They had been married for 13 years, and he was 58. For five years afterwards, Susan withdrew from the world. The biography written, she returned to journalism, and embarked on research for a biography of Anthony Blunt. 'But it was too much slog. I had re-entered the world of the living as a single woman, and at that time of my life I didn't want - something had to go.' There was a slight problem in that she had already spent the first third of the advance on a Porsche. 'George (Weidenfeld, the publisher) said, 'no, don't give the Porsche back. Why don't you write a novel?' '

She has now written three transatlantic tales of power, money and bedhopping. 'I find it is the kind of writing I like most. If I didn't have an evening life - oh, do not misunderstand me, I do not go out every evening - but I like to be by myself during the day. And there is less research.' She is 'positively uninterested' in remarrying, partly because she cannot imagine ever again experiencing such love as she had with Tony, partly because 'I do what I like, when I like. It's not a freedom I sought, or would have chosen, but it is freedom'. There remain two mysteries, or two aspects of the same mystery. How is it that someone renowned for portraying the complexities of the people she profiled can't draw characters who are more than one-dimensional? And why does someone who was such an acute interviewer come across as quite so dippy?

(Photograph omitted)