Duff Cooper, The Duff Cooper Diaries: 1915-1951, July 31, 1915
“Dined with Raymond and Katharine [Asquith]. Katharine told me a long story about the Grand Duke Serge [Mikhailovich]. He was at the head of the Russian ammunition department and it appears all the money that was supposed to be spent on ammunition was going to his mistress. He has been disgraced and sent to Siberia.”
Duff Cooper, The Duff Cooper Diaries: 1915-1951, July 31, 1915
“Mistresses here in Washington simply aren’t as politically influential as they once were. I wish they were. It would be a lot more fun.”
Susan Mary Alsop, American Lady, The Life of Susan Mary Alsop
New York City seemed to have the zeitgeist in its grip for much of the 20th Century, but there were periods when the right place at the right time did take up residence elsewhere. Susan Mary Jay Patten Alsop found herself in two such places—first in post-World War II Paris, and second, in Kennedy-era Washington, D.C. It could have been of little consequence. After all, it is one thing to bump into the zeitgeist. It is quite another to live and breathe it, as Susan Mary Alsop did. Commented Susan Mary's goddaughter Frances Fitzgerald in the introduction to American Lady, The Life of Susan Mary Alsop, “[S]he often had a front seat to the making of history of her own time.”
It was not pre-ordained. It helped that she was a descendant of John Jay, a founding father and a Supreme Court chief justice, but when she arrived in a recently liberated (and still jubilant) Paris in 1945, she was simply Mrs. William Patten, the wife of an economic attaché posted to the U.S. embassy. Such a position does not usually transform one into Cinderella at the ball, most particularly in Paris, that most sophisticated of cities. In this case, however, it did. Only, it was Christian Dior rather than a fairy godmother comping her wardrobe.
Of course, there were elements of Paris society in which the barriers were fairly low. The Elsa Maxwell set, for example, was open to those with a knack for self-promotion or a willingness to open up a checkbook. And though Susan Mary spent time among the idle rich, her triumph was that she was accepted into real Paris society, the kind in which noble lineage was a plus but cultivated tastes in art and literature were mandatory. This rarefied set included Henri and Marie-Laure Noailles, whom Susan Mary met early on, and they became her champions.
Susan Mary's fifteen years in France come alive in her own inimitable, observant voice through her collected letters, To Marietta, from Paris, 1945-1960 (a signed copy of which is available via the Nick Harvill Libraries store). There is more to the story. As is so often the case, matters that could not be made public in 1975’s To Marietta from Paris came to light three decades later with her son’s 2008 memoir, My Three Fathers: And the Elegant Deceptions of My Mother, Susan Mary Alsop and 2012's American Lady, The Life of Susan Mary Alsop.
The years in Paris built a sturdy foundation, but they were just a first act for Susan Mary. By the early sixties, the place to be had shifted to the unlikeliest of cities, the once sleepy and surprisingly provincial Washington, D.C.. That changed on January 20, 1961 when the handsome and charismatic John F. Kennedy became president. Susan Mary had not yet moved to town, but she was on her way. Her diplomat husband had died the previous year, and the still-beautiful widow was engaged to Washington-based Joseph Alsop, a powerful newspaper columnist whose mother was a niece of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Joe Alsop was close to President Kennedy from day one. He hosted the only private inaugural party attended by the new president, and he was also one of ten guests at the first intimate dinner party given by the Kennedys at the White House. Likewise, when Susan Mary arrived in Washington shortly thereafter, Joe wasted no time in introducing her to the first couple. With the Francophile first lady, Susan Mary had her Paris years as a topic of conversation, and she soon found herself on the first lady’s committee to restore the White House.
Susan Mary was also friendly (but just that) with President Kennedy. Her knowledge of the latest international gossip both entertained and informed the president, who (contrary to popular wisdom) appreciated witty, articulate women. It was through Susan Mary that the president learned of the extramarital affair of Lady Dorothy Cavendish, the wife of JFK’s counterpart in Great Britain, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. This was of interest to him more than just politically. Lady Dorothy was the aunt-by-marriage of his sister Lady Hartington (Kick Kennedy), who died tragically young in a 1948 plane crash. See: A Quiz: When JFK Cried Uncle.
Joe and Susan Mary were regular guests at the Kennedy White House, and at dinners, Susan Mary often found herself sitting to President Kennedy’s right. This proximity made her a leading hostess of the Camelot era, and she remained so for decades to come. Nor was her clout reliant upon her husband Joe, whom she amicably divorced in the early 1970s. One example of her star power was a dinner party she hosted in 1991. It was the only such event Colin Powell attended “during the whole of the Gulf War.” Maybe he considered it good luck? During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy left the White House to attend a dinner hosted by Susan Mary.
Image Credit: To Marietta from Paris
“Duff and I agree we could live in California. It has a radio quality of having the world in this little space. You can tune in and live your day in whatever country, art or grade of intelligence or idiocy you feel inclined for.”
Lady Diana Cooper, Trumpets from the Steep
Image Credit: The Diana Cooper Scrapbook
“Duff [Cooper] considers there has been a greater revolution in England since 1914, or since 1939, than there was in France in 1789. Admittedly it has been bloodless, but the life of taste, culture, and refinement, as we knew it, has gone for good.”
Cecil Beaton, The Strenuous Years, Diaries: 1948-55
As Duff pursued a career in politics, it was incumbent upon Diana to keep them in the style to which she had been accustomed. She did so by becoming an actress. Over the next twelve she endured long separations from Duff as she traversed the globe performing in Max Reinhardt’s much heralded show, The Miracle.
Unlike some love marriages, Duff and Diana’s did not fade with age. They remained devoted even though Duff took many mistresses, which he chronicled in his (now published) diaries. One of the rare heterosexual men who truly appreciated the feminine sex, he attracted the most glamorous women in Paris. Among his conquests were Daisy Fellowes, Louise de Vilmorin, and Susan Mary Alsop (by whom he had a son). The early-marriage dalliances Diana minded very much, but the later ones, not so much. In fact, Diana's motus operandi was to become close friends with her husband's lovers, which prompted the sharp-tongued Duchess of Windsor to quip she herself “would never have an affair with Duff because it would mean having Diana around the house day and night being nice" to her.
Photo Credit: Society in Vogue