Shirley MacLaine, My Lucky Stars
“During my teenage years, I slowly began to realize that really fine politicians were good performers. They knew how to communicate their feelings. If they did it well, my parents liked them, trusted them, and would vote for them. Later, when we sat in front of the new thing called television, we talked about people’s expressions and whether they were telling the truth or not. Television was a platform from which anyone able to ‘come across’ might take a position and be influential and effective. Daddy said the days of decisions made in smoke-filled rooms were over. A person who could make a clear and decisive point on television was a natural influencer, and he or she didn’t necessarily need to know anything about politics. He predicted political campaigns would shift their focus to the TV screen, and politicians would be called upon to succeed as performers.”
Shirley MacLaine, My Lucky Stars
Note: John F. Kennedy was the exception to Shirley MacLaine's rule. Exceedingly telegenic, he was also a bibliophile and a canny practitioner of politics. How seldom a politician has all of those attributes, and how fortunate a country is when such a person makes his way to the presidency.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
“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 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., which had long been overshadowed by the more vibrant and infinitely more glamorous New York City. That changed on January 20, 1961 when the handsome and charismatic John F. Kennedy was sworn in as 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 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.
Image Credit: To Marietta from Paris
“Bobby and I smile sardonically. Teddy will learn how to smile sardonically in two or three years, but he doesn’t know how yet.”
John F. Kennedy, Conversations with Kennedy
At his first inauguration, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously declared, "There's nothing to fear but fear itself." His successor, Harry Truman, admitted to being frightened of something, or rather, someone. He once quipped, “It’s not the Pope I’m afraid of, it’s the pop.” To whom was he referring?
HINT: Did the person Truman fear hire a Catholic nun to decorate the White House?
The answer is after the JUMP.
“You’re rich not because of money but only through what you give.”
Marion Davies, via Hedda Hopper's The Whole Truth and Nothing But
Yes, she had a drinking problem, but Marion Davies was that Hollywood rarity: an actor who remained unspoiled in spite of fame and fortune. She also possessed a wry (and self-deprecating) sense of humor. One of her lasting achievements was the financing of a children's wing at the UCLA medical school. When friends joked it was a memorial to her, she replied that this was not so. Quipped Marion, "It won't do me any good; I'll be down below where I can't see so high."
Though they never married, Marion Davies was the love of William Randolph Hearst's life. They met in 1918 and remained together until his death in 1951. Of their relationship, she told Eleanor Boardman (Mrs. King Vidor), “I started out a g-g-gold digger and I ended up in love.” The newspaper titan made Marion rich in her own right, and when his empire neared collapse, Marion unblinkingly used her fortune to save the him from ruin. [See: The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst.]
To those who never had the pleasure of meeting her, Marion might have seemed common. She was a live-in girlfriend of a married man in an era when that was outrageously taboo. In theory, she might have seemed like many of her peers—a parvenu actress with little formal education and no training in social etiquette. Yet, she had the natural good manners and affability that appeals to the best people in all social classes. Even Winston Churchill was enchanted. In a letter to his wife, Clementine, he said of Marion, “She is not strikingly beautiful nor impressive in any way. But her personality is most attractive; naïve childlike, bon enfant.”
Even after William Randolph Hearst died, Joseph P. Kennedy remained devoted to his old pal's longtime mistress. Marion Davies was invited to and attended Kennedy family events, including the 1953 marriage of John F. Kennedy to Jacqueline Bouvier and the JFK presidential inauguration in 1961.
Image Credit: The Book of Beauty
Jay Parini: If you could change anything about your life, what would it be?
Gore Vidal: My mother!
Jay Parini: Whose mother do you want?
Gore Vidal: I’ll take Whistler’s. I’ll take anybody else’s.
--Gore Vidal, via Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
Nina Vidal Auchincloss Olds, an alcoholic, was no one's idea of a perfect mother. She came with baggage. Yet, some of those bags were Louis Vuitton.
After Nina's marriage to Gore's father ended, she married Hugh D. Auchincloss. It was through Auchincloss that Gore became stepbrother (once removed) to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a connection that gave him entree to Camelot and that he would dine out on for the remainder of his life.
Just as importantly, Nina's frequent absences meant Gore was practically raised by her book-loving parents, U.S. Senator Thomas and Nina Belle Gore, whom Gore recalls with great affection in his memoir, Palimpsest. He spent much his childhood among the books in their well-stocked library, and in the end, a good library triumphed over a negligent mother.
Image Credit: Snapshots in History's Glare
“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent that has ever been gathered in the White House—with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
John F. Kennedy, via Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years
Image Credit: The Kennedy White House Parties
Who is the man in the photograph with President John F. Kennedy and why did JFK refer to him as uncle?
HINT: They carried on a special relationship.
The answer is after the JUMP.
“There are endless conspiracy theories about Frank Sinatra being in the pocket of the Mafia, involving trying to kill Castro, killing Marilyn, killing the Kennedys. What about a theory that Sinatra and the Rat Pack were pawns of the Mafia, which controlled America’s bar and liquor business? Wasn’t the whole Rat Pack phenomenon nothing more than a three-year liquor advertising campaign?”
--George Jacobs, Mr. S, My Life with Frank Sinatra
Image Credit: Mr. S, My Life with Frank Sinatra
"The President turned to me and asked: 'Is that a Givenchy you're wearing?'"
--Princess Grace of Monaco, 1965, via the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
The photograph of Princess Grace visiting the White House was taken during an informal luncheon in the Kennedys' private rooms. For an audio recording of Princess Grace's recollection of that day, check out this nifty animation at Blank on Blank.
Jacqueline Kennedy and Princess Grace's paths would cross again. As Mrs. Aristotle Onassis, Jacqueline was connected to Monaco by her new husband's business ties to the principality. When Onassis died and Jacqueline became a book editor, one of her early projects was the Princess Grace-authored My Book of Flowers, a rare signed copy of which is currently available via Nick Harvill Libraries.