- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008


When real estate developer and newspaperman Bill Patten was planning a family intervention with his elderly mother on the subject of her alcoholism a friend told him to be prepared for fireworks. In the first chapter of his memoir, “My Three Fathers and the Elegant Deceptions of my Mother, Susan Mary Alsop,” the author recalls this warning, and the expletive that accompanied it, sitting in a hospital cafeteria and contemplating what, at the age of 47, he has just learned — that his biological father was not Bill Patten, the charming diplomat he grew up considering his father, for whom he was named and who had died when he was 12. In a tense family counseling session his mother had revealed that he was, in fact, the offspring of an affair she had with the aging British aristocrat Duff Cooper, a man Mr. Patten had read about and thought of as a historic and “quasi-literary figure.”

The third father of the book’s title was Joseph Alsop, the well-connected journalist and family friend who became Mr. Patten’s stepfather the year after the senior Patten’s death. His mother’s marriage to Mr. Alsop brought the family from their home in Paris to an elegant town house in Georgetown where the Alsops entertained an extraordinary number of literary and government figures including, on many occasions, the new president, John F. Kennedy.

The immediate effect of his mother’s revelation was to jolt Bill Patten with a vivid memory of his father’s death and the way he had learned of it at his British boarding school. It was for this second loss of Bill Patten that his initial tears were shed. Later, though, attempts to make sense of his family history led Mr. Patten to deeper meditations — reflections on the three men he could, by rights, call father and on the extraordinary but difficult woman whose life connected them all to each other and to him.

Susan Mary Alsop was a social fixture in Washington from the early 1960s until her death in 2006. Descended from John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, she was born in Rome, and later traveled with her parents to diplomatic posts in Romania, El Salvador and Argentina, where her father was named ambassador in 1926. There, her older sister Emily complained one night of stomach pains, then disappeared from young Susan Mary’s life. It was only a month later, as she and her parents neared New York on the ship taking them home, that the child learned that her sister was had been operated on for appendicitis and was dead.

Her devastated parents never recovered from the tragedy, her father resigning from the foreign service and her mother becoming a recluse. Mr. Patten writes that his mother, Susan Mary, was then “catapulted into adulthood” and that photos show her becoming “progressively anorexic” as she matured. She armed herself against future pain not just with thinness but with formidable emotional reserve.

The book unfolds with chapters detailing the interlocking lives of Susan Mary and of Bill Patten, the handsome, appropriate son of a prominent Massachusetts family who she married in 1939; Duff Cooper, with whom Susan Mary had an affair in Paris in the late 1940s, the chronically philandering husband of her dear friend, the beautiful Lady Diana Manners; and Joe Alsop, who had been Bill Patten’s close friend at Groton and Harvard and who, in early 1961, became her second husband. The three men were shaped by elite institutions in Britain and America and by traditions of courtly manners, frenetic social activity, literary interests and a fascination with politics and history. They were also quite different from each other.

Duff Cooper, a generation older than the other two, was seared by experiences in World War I, where he served and lost many friends. Gambling, heavy drinking and womanizing co-existed in him with the clarity of vision and sense of honor that caused him to become the only member of Neville Chamberlain’s cabinet to resign his post in opposition to the appeasement of Hitler represented by the Munich Pact in 1938. When he died, in 1954, obituaries described him as a “great man.”

Joseph Alsop, the brilliant son of a niece of Theodore Roosevelt, grew up valuing pedigrees and social connections and working them well in his career as a journalist. When he married Susan Mary, he had already made a name for himself with his relentless attacks on Sen. Joseph McCarthy. He was warmhearted and treated his stepson with affection. He also had a secret, the homosexuality that he revealed to Susan Mary when he asked her, via typewritten letter, to marry him (and of which, she told her son, she assumed she would “cure” him).

Bill Patten was charming, a person of what the author calls “natural ease,” effortlessly popular, universally liked, a warm and loving parent. With optimism and good cheer he combated the lifelong asthma that eventually killed him at the age of 51.

The woman who attracted these men was beautiful and highly intelligent. In her later years, after her marriage to Alsop had ended in divorce, she wrote several well-received works of history, including “Yankees at the Court,” telling the story of the first Americans to represent their young country in Paris, one of whom was her forebear, John Jay. A reviewer of another of her books remarked that she was “qualified for the biographer’s vocation by her civilized values.”

But Susan Mary Alsop’s predominant characteristics as a mother were coldness, remove and authority. Looking through his mother’s elaborate photograph albums, the author finds that it all looks delightful but it makes him feel as if he and his sister were “well-dressed puppets, all dancing to my mother’s tune as she saw fit.” Indeed, a photo shows the two as tots in Bavarian costumes, “Billy” looking cute but somber. Mr. Patten remembers from his childhood no mirth, no demonstrations of affection, no family fun.

Indeed, the second half of Mr. Patten’s memoir describes his own life that would seem to be a deliberate rejection of just about everything his mother represented. Where she was social and proper, he became a hippie, where her world was Paris and Washington, he moved to rural Maine. All four of his parents valued art, literature and history. After many years developing real estate and running a small newspaper, Bill Patten graduated from a Unitarian seminary and has worked not just as a minister but as an anti-violence counselor to incarcerated men. He has exchanged the suffocating sophistication of his upbringing for coffee-drinking buddies in a Camden, Maine. diner. Of his mother’s lifestyle only the love of France remains. He spends his summers there.

The details of Bill Patten’s story are unique and fascinating but the process he describes of coming to terms with his family, while infinitely less complicated for most people, is a near universal one. The laying to rest of one’s parents — physically, of course, but also emotionally — means letting go of the inevitable hurts of childhood and attempting to see parents for the people they were, appreciating the ways in which they were and were not responsible for one’s own failings and then shouldering responsibility for those failings.

Mr. Patten does not step back from his own history to ruminate on the general conclusions one might draw from it - thoughts on parenting styles or social hypocrisy, on alcohol abuse or the nature of intimacy. But in his final, hard fought acceptance of allegiance to the man he identifies as his true father, a person admired by at least one of his contemporaries for “his uprightness, integrity, simplicity and goodness of character,” he does embrace enduring values and truth of importance beyond his own family.

Stephanie Deutsch is a writer and critic in Washington.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide