AMERICAN LADY: THE LIFE OF SUSAN MARY ALSOP
By Caroline de Margerie
Viking, $26.95, 256 pages
Susan Mary Alsop was a saloniste extraordinaire who served more than tea and sympathy in the fashionable drawing rooms of her well-appointed Georgetown and Paris homes.
A blue blood of the manor born, a descendant of Founding Father John Jay, she catered solely to the creme de la creme of the haute monde on both sides of the Atlantic, offering up the latest in gossip, political and fashion news, and she did so with style, according to her biographer, Caroline de Margerie.
In "American Lady: The Life of Susan Mary Alsop," Ms. de Margerie portrays her subject as clever, curious and cunning, with a passion for English diplomats (she indulged in at least love two love affairs with high-profile Brits) along with a stunning sense of self-preservation, self-promotion and a bit of snobbism. She became a character in her own comedy of manners, and manners were extremely important to her. She knew exactly how to behave, and when she decided to break the rules, she did so on her own terms with flair and panache.
She was a personality straight out of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. Both wrote about her (Mitford several times) and she was determined at an early age to become far more than a frivolous debutante shuttling between imposing homes in New York City and Bar Harbor, Maine.
She achieved her goal when, through her friendship with Jack and Jackie Kennedy, she evolved into one of the grandest of the grandes dames of the capital, sometimes referred to as "the second lady of Camelot."
There was a lot of competition for the title, and Susan Mary used all her connections, wit and charm to obtain and retain her glittery status. She hung on for several decades.
She honed her hostessing skills when her first husband, Bill Patten, was posted to the American Embassy in Paris at the end of World War 11. She lured war-weary French aristocrats, important journalists and visiting VIPs to her table by serving good food procured from the black market, along with copious amounts of champagne and sparkling conversation. (Winston Churchill, Gen. George C. Marshall, the duke and duchess of Windsor and Noel Coward were on her guest list.)
She immersed herself in the French language and culture, served as a clotheshorse for Christian Dior's "New Look," appeared in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and embarked on a torrid affair with married British Ambassador Duff Cooper. Cooper, a notorious Casanova, reveled in many mistresses, but Susan Mary was not deterred. Madly in love, she stoically accepted his other dalliances, writing him ardent love letters:
"Darling, Darling will I see you in three days Even my toes feel excited."
Cooper found the liaison flattering but dismaying, writing in his diary, "I found four letters from Susan awaiting me. It is a strange imaginative affair."
It lasted until his death in 1954.
After husband Bill Patten died, she married the famously cantankerous newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop in 1961. He was her late husband's college roommate, the godfather to her son, Bill Jr. and gay. It was the ultimate marriage of convenience. She wanted financial stability and a leading role in the nexus of politics and diplomacy. He sought a chic sophisticate by his side to oversee and organize his hectic social life. When Kennedy dropped by for turtle soup on inauguration night, the couple was catapulted into superstardom.
Eventually Susan Mary tired of her husband's irascibility and rudeness, established her own literary career and sought a divorce.
She published three well-received historical books and a collection of letters from her Paris years. She also became a contributing editor to Architectural Digest, once again relying on her network of well-placed friends to open the doors of their manicured homes to her and an inquiring photographer in order to produce stories.
The last years of her life were sad and lonely. The balls and grand receptions were gone, and alcohol became a necessity to make it through each day. Eventually scotch and vodka took their toll. Her family intervened and accompanied her to a rehab facility.
There, one afternoon, while discussing Duff Cooper she, cavalierly announced to her 47-year old son, "Oh, yes, he's your father." Stunned, Bill rushed from the room in tears.
After her death he found revenge, writing his own book ,"My Three Fathers," in which he savaged his mother.
In a lovely introduction, Pulitzer Prize-winner Frances Fitzgerald describes some of the highs and lows of Susan Mary's (her godmother's) extraordinary life.
Ms. de Margerie continues the narrative with objectivity, sensitivity and care, providing the story of a determined, pedigreed woman who met Edith Wharton as a young girl, dined with Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt in the White House and went on to be perceived as a doyenne of the last half the 20th century.
She once explained to a reporter her recipe for a successful party and perhaps for life, calling it "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."
• Sandra McElwaine is a Washington correspondent for Newsweek Daily Beast.