Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Their Hearts Were Young and Grand

Looking south along Fifth Avenue. 6:00 PM. Photo: JH.
August 19th. A beautiful August day in New York. But hot. The streets uncommonly quiet leading one to think a lot of people have taken these weeks before Labor Day to get away.

It’s very quiet on the social scene in New York. It’s a good time for me, however, when I can sneak away to read for a few.

A friend gave me a book for my birthday called “My Three Fathers” by William Patten. Mr. Patten had a famous mother. Not famous in terms of celebrity but famous among the famous. Her name was Susan Mary. Susan Mary Jay Patten Alsop, by the time she got to the end of her life.

Susan Mary Patten and her infant son William Patten, 1948 (in Vogue).
Mr. Patten’s book title references his “fathers” although the book is really about his mother. She was married to a man named William Patten after whom the author was named. When the author was in his early forties, however, he was startled to learn from his mother that his biological father was a man named Duff Cooper, an historically prominent British diplomat, with whom Susan Mary had had an affair when he was the British Ambassador to Paris.

The third father in the title’s reference is Joseph Alsop, the Washington journalist and pundit who was closely connected to Jack Kennedy when he was President. Joe Alsop had also been a Harvard classmate of “father” Bill Patten. When Patten died, Susan Mary, married Joe Alsop. It was old friends joining together.

Joe Alsop was also homosexual, which was not exactly a secret but also not talked about in polite company. And “polite” was the only company they talked about. This evidently was not an issue as the two shared many of the same interests in people and politics. Their house (his house) in Georgetown was a famous destination for the socially and politically select.

I met Susan Mary back in the mid-1990s in Northeast Harbor, Maine when, as a houseguest of mutual friends, I was invited for dinner. I’d often heard about her. The reputation which preceded was that of a clever, smart, witty woman who was very knowledgeable about politics and foreign affairs. She’d written a couple of books as well as certain high profile magazine pieces.
Young Bill Patten (Sr.) surrounded by (l. to r.) Marietta Tree, Nan Crocker, and Susan Mary Jay, 1936.
Son and "Father' at Versailles, 1951.
On meeting, I was surprised to meet a tiny, birdlike, frail character who was very much the New England grande dame, exceedingly simple and plain in her dress (like her house which overlooked the harbor, which was previously owned by her parents). The charisma that I had imagined was elusive. She did not look well and I’d already heard references to her “terrible illness.” Nevertheless, her presence added to that “charisma” to her friends. She was stalwart and not about to stop.

Her son’s portrait of this woman is very frank, yet gentle. She was obviously not a warm and cuddly mother. In fact, she sounds cold and remote. Reading about her I was reminded of other mothers of that generation that I have known, including my own.
Churchill with Duff Cooper at Ditchley where Churchill stayed on weekends during the War.
These were people who wrote letters to express their sentiments, their opinions, their feelings and their passions. In many cases those are the only documents of the soul that dwelled in those times. They saw America grow up into the 20th Century and they grew up with it.

There was a sense of decorum about all this, and it was acted out in a matter of manners, comedy or otherwise. The followed the rules. They played by the rules, and everyone knew them. The cleverer ones played on their own terms, for their own reasons, but always under the guise of the rules.
Duff Cooper and Susan Mary Patten at the Volpi Ball in Venice, 1951.
The Susan Mary in Mr. Patten’s memoir is chic and sophisticated. She lived after the Second World War (with her husband and children – including a daughter Anne) in Paris and Washington, who moved easily and quickly through the villages of New York and Boston. On meeting that summer’s early evening in Northeast Harbor, I had no idea this woman was a “mother,” as naïve as that sounds.

She was formidable, and remote in that way easily attributable to New Englanders. She was friendly, but reserved. Many of the men and women at the table that night were very old friends, or relatives of very old friends. She held forth quietly but not meekly.

What I remember of that evening can be found in the memory of her that I wrote at the time of her death four years ago about this time.
Susan Mary and Joe Alsop on their wedding day at the All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase, Maryland, February 16, 1961.
Mr. Patten’s book casts a far different light on the woman. In her young womanhood, she wasn’t what you’d call sexually alluring. At least not at first glance. She was very thin all her life, had no interest in food. She was not sensual although she drank a lot, which for much of her life she managed to conceal. When she was much older, her children and friends did an “intervention” to get her into AA. She went along with the initial excursion to a rehab but left it soon thereafter and never went back.

As a young woman, this woman, to judge from her photographs was not a beauty by any means. She was stylish and soigne in her way. She was interested in men who had power. Duff Cooper, for example, was a fixture in the British Establishment, born and bred. His wife Diana, once considered the most beautiful woman in England was famous for her beauty, her personality and for being famous. They were some of the “people” to know for ambitious young women and men in their 20s and 30s.
Clockwise from above: The two "fathers" of the bridgegroom, Bill Patten and Duff Cooper, in Venice in 1951; Joe Alsop on the wedding day of his stepson and his new wife, Bill and Kate Patten in Cambridge, Massachusetts, December 1970; Ashton Hawkins and Susan Mary Alsop at a book party for her in New York in 1986.
Duff Cooper also had lots of affairs, or “little” romances, and the women often chased after him with his wife sometimes encouraging them. These were very romantic people when it came to marrying their sentiments to sex. They wrote and read poetry to each other. “All Passions Spent” was the name of Vita Sackville-West’s novel. They also had to deal with Hitler. And deGaulle. And Mussolini. And Stalin. And Roosevelt. And Churchill (who was a life long friend of Cooper).

Click to order.
Susan Mary’s marriage, it would seem from her son’s book, was with a kind yet somehow ineffectual man (or a man who felt ineffectual). They shared socio-economic backgrounds, they were antecedents of the Eastern WASP Establishment that ruled the country and the society of that prosperous century.

They did just what girls and boys still do today to get ahead – those who are ambitious and want to get ahead. The template was different, however.

They were the last generation of women before the Women’s Movement came to the fore in the 1960s. They played the Men’s game and when they played it well, they got what Susan Mary got – a very good dinner partner and a good seat afterwards for demitasse.

They had influence which sometimes seemed like power. It was not earth-shaking. They didn’t mind that; being present was everything. That was the good news and, especially to a young woman today, the bad. Their art was their life.

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