Joseph Alsop, Eat, Drink and Be Thin
“The cocktail hour, now so drearily interminable in most American houses, is the moment of maximum danger. One stands around forever with nothing to eat but horrible canapés …. The simplest measure of self-protection is to eat a piece or two of bacon before going out to dinner.”
Joseph Alsop, Eat, Drink and Be Thin
Drink, Eat and Be Thin is available for purchase via the Nick Harvill Libraries store.
“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