August 19, 2010. A warm day in New York with frequent cloud cover enough to lead you to think (and hope) it would rain. It didn’t.
I had lunch at Michael’s with Robin Verges, a public relations executive with Rubenstein and her friend Audrey Bernard. Lifestyles & Society Editor of Lee Bailey’sEurweb. Audrey’s Social Whirl was borne out of a column she wrote for years in the Great Amsterdam News. Robin told me, when we were waiting for Audrey to arrive, that she grew up reading Audrey the same way a lot of her contemporaries read Suzy.
Audrey and I cover the same territory although often from a different part of the forest. Nevertheless when two social reporters get together, the third party has almost no chance in getting a word in edgewise. Robin is naturally very gracious, however, and was willing to sit back and take it all in. Amused, she was.
Robin Verges and Audrey Bernard
Michael’s was its Wednesday-self. To the rafters. Freddie Gershon with Adam Sanderson; Jean Doumanian and guest; David Carey, the new President of the magazine division of Hearst, with Lally Weymouth and Christine Nicholas; Mad man and media personality Donny Deutsch with a very pretty blonde; Stan Shuman with Alan Patricof; directly across the way from them Terry Allen Kramer, back from a summer in St. Tropez, along with Francine LeFrak, Mia McDonald and Felicia Taylor who were celebrating a birthday with Margo Nederlander (2 candles). Happy Birthday Margo.
Moving on around the room: Henry Schleiff, Lynn Goldberg, Alice Mayhew with David Gergen and Baruch Shemtov; Bernard Schwartz; Judy Price; Harry Benson with Tiffany’s Linda Buckley; Michael J. Wolf, John Sykes, Lloyd Grove; Neal Shapiro with Jon Meacham; David Poltrack; Darlene Fisk with Leslie Bennetts of Vanity Fair and Hilary Black of wowowow.com; and many many more of that ilk and stripe.
Steve Millington, Michael’s GM told me that this is the last week before the final vacation weeks of the summer which ends the day after Labor Day.
Look back. Eleanora Kennedy reminded me yesterday that this month is the sixth anniversary of the death of Gloria Emerson, the distinguished journalist who was the first woman correspondent to cover Viet Nam on the ground and for The New York Times. I recalled that I’d written something about her a few years ago and concluded it must have been some sort of In Memoriam. A few minutes later Eleanora came back with the link.
As it often is, I had forgotten that I had written this particular piece about Gloria Emerson, so it was interesting to re-read. Gloria had died in early August of 2004. I met her only a few times in the early 1970s, although when you were in her company she was with you. People like that you feel you know instantly. And like.
Formidable women. Gloria Emerson died at the beginning of the month (2004),
of her own hand. Some may have seen her obituaries in the Times,
the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune.
She was seventy-five and suffering from Parkinson’s, sensibly
fearful that she would soon be unable to write, the only way she
had to support herself.
I met her thirty years ago when she had come to the fore as the first
woman correspondent for the New York Times in Viet Nam,
from 1970 to 1972. She was the first of all of the correspondents
(that I know
of) who lambasted the military establishment mercilessly in her dispatches,
and with such power – the kind of power that only a woman possesses
– that her reportage had a profound effect on the opinion of
many, as well as altering the way some things were done in the conduct
of the war.
We met in late 1973 at an anti-war rally in Stamford, Connecticut
to which she had come to speak. She was a very magnetic creature.
Tall, willowy, bone-skinny, delicate fair-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed
with a most elegant manner of speaking and comportment. Wearing an
army surplus jacket and jeans, sometimes glasses, she was not pretty
with a noticeably receding chin, yet so powerful a feminine presence
that she had her own beauty. She reminded me of a very patrician
woman who had chucked it all to devote herself to getting a fateful
message out to the world.
Her message was that the war in Viet Nam was a dreadful, stupid,
wrong-headed, corrupt endeavor that sapped the vitality and youth
of this great country, and destroyed the lives of many innocent Vietnamese. She liked to tell the story of coming back
to New York and being invited to a dinner at the home of Iphigenia
Sulzberger, the dowager of the family which owned the Times,
mother of the then publisher Arthur Sulzberger and grandmother of the present
publisher. Mrs. Sulzberger, a very elegant and formidable woman herself,
coming from another age, asked Gloria at this dinner what she thought
of the military balls in Saigon.
“In Saigon, Mrs. Sulzberger, the American military have no balls, ” was
Gloria’s proudly caustic reply.
A clip of a controversial interview with John and Yoko, conducted by Gloria Emerson.
She was a very compelling figure to listen to. Her recounting of
her experiences, of what she had seen, the violence, the horrendous
deaths, the hideous injustices of warfare were painfully articulated.
She was a woman with a mission. A mission to stop the killing. She
was also a woman whose righteousness was beyond question, angry but
I knew very little about her life until I read her obituaries although
it was evident on meeting that she was from a very cultivated, most
likely upperclass, probably WASP-ish background. She didn’t
give a fig for any of it and had no respect for those who didn’t
see things her way. She was married twice, albeit briefly. She’d
secured a job writing about fashion for the New York Times when
in her thirties – something which she dismissed almost contemptuously,
and was assigned to Saigon when she was forty-one.
After coming back from Viet Nam, she was on a tear. She stood up
in Professor Dr. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s lecture hall at
Harvard and shouted out her questions on his stand on the war in
Viet Nam. And unsatisfied by his attempts to avoid the affront, she
continued with more hard, unrelenting (and you might have thought – unforgiving)
She was so fiercely independent in her thinking that it was hard
to imagine her involved in a personal relationship. Although. She
was, as I said, not a pretty woman, but with a most definite allure,
the kind which seems at once needy and yet witheringly dismissive.
I could only think the men who fell for her probably didn’t
know what hit them after it was over.
She was a woman who was deeply humanitarian, who cared about the
people who were victims of humanity’s terrible war machine
that was grinding up lives on the other side of the planet, all in
the name of stopping the Red Chinese “domino theory,” from
eventually taking over the world.
That meant, as it often seems to
with those who have a greater cause, that no one was excluded from
her intolerance of ignorance, or what she so righteously regarded
as ignorance. How ironic it must have seemed to her that three decades
later, this “mortal” enemy has transmogrified into a
flamboyantly capitalistic financial system which invests its mega-surpluses
into the securities of the U.S. government.
“I didn’t write to be famous; I wrote to keep a record,” she
told an interviewer with the Washington Post years after
her Viet Nam experience. Indeed, after that she wrote several books
a novel (“Loving Graham Greene”) and frequently for magazines
and periodicals. I never saw her after that brief encounter during
the months after her speech at the rally. I would like to have seen
her again but felt that I had nothing to bring to her table of important
world affairs. Her eloquence and elegance intimidated this young
man. There was also a powerful feeling of futility about her passionate
quest. I couldn’t disagree and yet had nothing to offer by
way of agreement.
What she was was smart, and powerful, and way ahead of most of us
in the department of human courage, raw, but not unwise, futile but
graced by brains of loving kindness. The life, it seems, personified
struggle she wrote about so compellingly and brilliantly.
Another prominent woman journalist who left the world during the same time that Gloria Emerson departed was Susan Mary Alsop.
Susan Mary was ten years older than Gloria Emerson and of an entirely different sensibility, although also part of that world of journalists, writers, politicians and society. From a very early age, she assiduously cultivated and enjoyed the company of the rich, the famous and the powerful. Gloria Emerson, on the other hand, was often irked by them, to put it mildly; and at times could barely tolerate the arrogance and naivete that comes with that territory.
Susan Mary Alsop.
Two years ago Susan Mary’s only son William Patten Jr. published a memoir about Life With Mother, which, to hear him tell it, was very often Life Without Mother. The ballast of Susan Mary’s famous charm was considerably lessened by her son’s memory of her mothering. She was busy with other things. And people.
Some of her old friends were annoyed by the son’s portrait and believed he was only going for another “Mommy Dearest” (and implied best-sellerdom). I don’t know. I read it with interest. Lives of the children of the rich and famous are not infrequently deprived of intimacy and/or warmth from parents who are very often distracted by their interests in the world outside. Emotional deprivation is often the synonym for these childhoods, and sometimes near abandonment. Sometimes a nanny saves the day; other times it’s lost.
These issues are never intended by those of us who create them. Nor are they remembered out of malice as much as out of a need to come to terms. But the worlds of society and politics spin at the apex, and it is often heady and totally distracting for its participants. Not dissimilar to what sex is for a lot of people, which probably explains why sex plays such a pivotal role in these worlds, in one form or another. Susan Mary knew this aspect of the world better than Gloria Emerson (and had famous affairs), although Gloria with her proper sensibilities would have tolerated it (and Susan Mary) with respect and maybe even awe.
women, Part II. Susan Mary Alsop died this
past week (August 2004) at her home in Georgetown. It had been quite a
life. She was eighty-six
last June and in the last fifteen years of her life had battled
cancer. She was born Susan Mary Jay, a direct descendent of John
Jay, the first Supreme Court Chief Justice.
Susan Mary Patten and her infant son William Patten, 1948 (in Vogue).
She was brought
up in a society that only remotely exists today, and even then with
none of the élan and political power that she experienced
and probably took for granted. It was the Boston-Philadelphia
axis within the reach of the oldest New York families whose
extended back to the earliest Colonial times. She attended Foxcroft
and Barnard and before she was finished, married a young diplomat
named William Patten. Early on in her marriage she was connected
to the Franklin D. Roosevelt White House and
then through her husband’s
diplomatic assignments to Paris, the great big world of literary,
political, royal and movie personages.
Her husband died when she was forty and she married a school-hood
friend of his, Joseph Alsop, the political pundit who counted the
Roosevelts as cousins and played an adeptly promoted role in social-political
Washington. Alsop was homosexual and although this was widely known
by his friends and family, as it was in those pre-Gay Liberation
times, it was not discussed, let alone openly acknowledged, although
no doubt Susan Mary was aware of the facts when she married him.
Whether or not it was a motivating force, the couple divorced after
sixteen years of marriage, although they remained friends and a
kind of social collaboration for the rest of his life.
She was a tiny woman, with an unassumingly fiery yet gentle charm.
She was always called Susan Mary by anyone who knew her beyond
formal introduction, wherever she went. It was a child’s
name that brought affection in its sound all her life.
Young Bill Patten (Sr.) surrounded by (l. to r.) Marietta Tree, Nan Crocker, and Susan Mary Jay, 1936.
I never knew her but did meet her, and as a guest of mutual friends,
I went to her house for dinner a couple of times in Northeast Harbor
in the early 90s. She was said to be very ill at the time and looked
palpably weak physically, but strong-willed enough to keep up.
And keep up she did.
Reading the London Telegraph obit it is hard to imagine her as
anyone's mistress because she had a very brittle feminine allure.
Although indeed, it was an allure. She was a very delicately constructed
woman, not weak in stature but small and thin enough that you might
think you could blow her over.
She was very WASP-ish in a way that most people are now unfamiliar
with, with that now almost extinct mid-Atlantic accent. Words
with "r" rolled,
like Perrr-uh for pearl, beh-rrrd for bird. There was a kind of
snobbishness to it that wasn't snobbishness at all, just an Eastern
Seaboard way of life, very separated from the hoi-polloi, VERY,
very well-aware by nature, of her upbringing; that she had ancestors
(like John Jay) who were Founding Fathers and that her friends
shared similar, if even, indeed, the same ancestors. Amanda
because of her father, the late Stanley Mortimer, is also a descendant
of John Jay (whose homestead is still standing, incidentally, in
I'm sure the Kennedys were very impressed to be on Susan Mary’s
list, being only one generation removed from “lace curtain
Irish” themselves and having only recently (at that time),
thanks to the old Joe’s self-made fortune
and Joe's and Rose's
children actually climbed aboard the Social Register express. Remember
they were very conscious of their Irishness, their Roman Catholic-ness
and well aware that they had made the level of (somewhat acceptable)
acceptance in the hallowed halls of New England WASP-Sdom.
Duff Cooper and Susan Mary Patten at the Volpi Ball in Venice, 1951.
Susan Mary had a house forever overlooking Northeast Harbor in
Maine, one that she may have even grown up in summertimes — an
ark of a place, clapboard, big, but in no way grand, where she
entertained. Sam Peabody, whose sister Marietta (Tree)
was one of Susan Mary’s closest lifelong friends, went
there every summer for two weeks. All the neighbors came for
included Brooke Astor, Nancy and Jackie Pierrpont (Nancy died last
week), Francie Fitzgerald, Marietta Tree's daughter, who wrote
the great Viet Nam book, Fire On the Lake, the Millikens who lived
across the harbor, the Wisters (Diana Wister,
former Strawbridge, a very rich Campbell Soup heiress), a lot
of OLD Philadelphians
who respected (but were never in awe) of each other because of
their shared heritage – and their housefuls of
Dominick Dunne and Susan Mary Alsop.
One July night about ten years ago, at table at Susan Mary's,Francie
Fitzgerald and I were talking about Los Angeles and the multi-cultural
aspect of life there when a very famous journalist, just then retired
from his television career, sitting across from us, burst into
a rant about how the Hispanics in Los Angeles weren't Hispanic
at all but really Central American Indians related to the Aztecs
who sacrificed people and threw innocent women to their deaths
in pits of fire to please their stupid gods.
The rant threw the
conversation out of sync entirely, of course because it was a rant
from someone who was heretofore (by me anyway) well respected for
his reportage but now seemed like a daffy old man who was not only
losing it but ornery. So much for the multiculturalism of Los Angeles.
Susan Mary, at the other end of the table and barely aware of
what had transpired, smoothed out the airwaves seamlessly, putting
nettled guest at rest comfortably. She was a wonderful hostess,
in the fashion that really barely exists today where she paid
close attention, however briefly, moment by moment, to all her
including those, like me, whom she didn't know well or at all.
The fare was simple and good.
There was a lot of conversation.
Her contribution to the world she was born into, grew up and
blossomed in – a great big world to most of us – remains
memorable for the ease and brightness of her charm. What is remembered
is how much everyone liked her. Everyone liked her. They liked
saying her name: Susan Mary. We were very lucky to have been
Click here to read the London Telegraph's obituary of Susan Mary Alsop.
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