Susan Mary Alsop, American Lady, The Life of Susan Mary Alsop
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.
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.
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 power was a dinner party she hosted in 1991 that was the only such event Colin Powell attended “during the whole of the Gulf War.” Maybe he considered it good luck? At the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy left the White House to attend a dinner at Joe and Susan Mary Alsop’s.