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The Washington, D.C., hostess who brought adversaries together

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March 26th, 2013
American Lady: The Life of Susan Mary Alsop by Caroline de Margerie
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In today’s Washington, dominated by political backstabbing and unyielding party loyalty, it’s hard to imagine a time when Republicans and Democrats routinely finished work at the Capitol, then shared a taxi across town to attend a dinner party—together!

This was not the exception, but rather the rule when Susan Mary Patten Alsop and her husband, Joe Alsop, the noted columnist, opened the doors of their posh Georgetown mansion to the Washington elite. Their home played host to one of the most notable “salons” in modern politics. Starting with President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, and moving down through the president’s cabinet, the senate, the congress and, of course, all the movers and shakers behind the scenes, Alsop house soirees were the most sought-after invitations in town.

Given their diverse backgrounds and political views, the guests almost certainly didn’t see eye to eye on many things, but what they did see eye to eye on is the need to keep your enemies closer than your friends, and the love of a good party. This is the world detailed in American Lady: The Life of Susan Mary Alsop by Caroline de Margerie (Viking Adult).

Comfortable but not wealthy

A descendent of founding father John Jay, the nation’s first chief justice, Susan Mary Jay was born to a prominent family. As Susan Mary described it, the Jay family had enough money to live comfortably but not enough to be rich. The book traces Susan Mary’s affectionate yet passionless first marriage to Bill Patten, who secured a job at the American embassy in Paris, just after WWII. It also explores her very passionate love affair with the British Ambassador to France Duff Cooper.

The Pattens quickly became entrenched in Parisian society, hosting and attending parties to spread goodwill and promote relations between France and the U.S. More than just a glorified party planner, Susan Mary took her job as an unofficial diplomat seriously. As her friend writer Nancy Mitford put it, “she liked seeing history on the boil.”

Upon the deaths of both Bill Patten and Duff Cooper, Susan Mary was forced to choose a new direction for her life (and those of her two children). Fond of Joe Alsop, he offered her a life in Washington and a role at the center of the town’s social scene. Though Alsop and Susan Mary had great regard for each other, Alsop informed her before they wed that he was a homosexual. Having existed quite happily in a more or less platonic marriage already, Alsop’s revelation did nothing to dissuade Susan Mary from becoming Mrs. Joseph Alsop.

As Joe had predicted, his new wife was quickly embraced by Washington society. “Pretty, witty, well-dressed, Susan Mary often sat on President Kennedy’s right. Her European experience also appealed to Jackie, and she was asked to join the committee in charge of finding new paintings for the White House, together with art experts and influential figures like beautiful Babe Paley.”

Susan Mary Alsop’s biography is a fascinating look at a bygone era. In this modern age of constant bickering and refusals by both parties to seek common ground, perhaps what Washington needs most is another Susan Mary Alsop.

michele.harris@erickson.com

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