Beautiful and Damned
Power, glamour, and the vagaries of transatlantic alliances.
Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By NOEMIE EMERY
In 1947, the Coopers were recalled to London when Susan Mary was newly pregnant with Bill. “It is hard to know whose departure my mother mourned most, Duff’s or Diana’s,” the author informs us. “She, along with some of Duff’s other mistresses, helped plan a secret farewell party for Diana before the Coopers left the Embassy in 1947, though there is no record of whether she joined her fellow mistresses in performing a unicorn ballet.” When Duff died suddenly on New Year’s Day 1954, en route to Jamaica on a cruise with Diana, Susan Mary left at once to comfort the widow. She spent the next six years devotedly nursing her husband, whose many health problems continued to worsen. Her love for Diana went on unabated, as she visited her in London 20 years later, spending her time, in the absence of servants, “scrubbing & cleaning & carrying trays up four flights.” The elder Bill Patten died in 1960, and one of the first letters of condolence came from Joe Alsop, his school friend and roommate. And the third and last of the fathers-who-were-not-quite-fathers entered the younger Bill Patten’s life.
Like Duff Cooper (and like Susan Mary), Joseph Wright Alsop V had an illustrious forebear, an addiction to power, a love of politics, the arts, and good living, and a desire to shine in the world. His maternal grandmother was a sister of Theodore Roosevelt, and as a young newspaperman in the Washington of the mid-1930s, he had been one of the few to be welcome both at the White House of cousins Franklin and Eleanor and at the mansion on Massachusetts Avenue where cousin Alice (Roosevelt Longworth) held court. After the war, he and his young brother Stewart joined forces in a widely read political column and he had emerged as a social, as well as a policy, arbiter, famous for the quality of the wine, food, and conversation served to a carefully chosen and powerful audience at his Georgetown residence. All he lacked was a hostess as refined as he was, and the death of his old friend presented a new opportunity. And so in a chapter coldly called “Nabbing My Mother” Patten describes a strange courtship that ended in a still stranger marriage, which nonetheless would last more than 12 years.
“Joe’s improbable campaign to nab my mother began with his condolence letter after Bill’s . . . death,” the author informs us. “Within a month . . . he was writing regularly. He spent two weeks in France in May 1960. . . . it was the beginning of a nine-month campaign.” Correctly, Bill ties this to the concurrent campaign of Joe’s friend John F. Kennedy to get into the White House, which was one of the lures Alsop held out to his bride. Apparently to her surprise, Alsop also informed her he was homosexual and that the marriage would thus be platonic, but that the merger would open up to both parties new social vistas that neither could reach on his or her own. At first, Susan Mary rejected the offer, but time (and Kennedy’s victory) may have altered her outlook. Bill Patten had died in March 1960; Kennedy won in November; and on February 19, 1961, Susan Mary married her husband’s old friend. Soon after, Bill and his sister were moved into Joe’s cinderblock mansion on Dumbarton Avenue in Georgetown, and the next phase in the story began.
Kennedy ended his first day as president by knocking on Alsop’s door around two in the morning, a symbol of Joe’s new importance in Washington, which would last something less than three years. There were visits of the Alsops to the White House for large and small dinners, and less frequent visits of the Kennedys to their house for dinners, including one in October 1962, at which Kennedy conducted talks with Russian experts during the Cuban missile
After Texas, of course, everything changed. The world that Joe promised her began to unravel, and so did the marriage, as Joe—distraught at his loss and events in the world and the country—took out his frustrations on her. He became truculent, drunk, and often abusive: Dinners turned into ordeals and arguments, as he harangued guests, and often their hostess, on the errors of their opinions and ways. Susan Mary moved out and into the Watergate (and five years later, into her mother’s big house in Georgetown) where, approaching 60, she began a new life as a writer, producing over the next few decades hundreds of essays and four books. This helped her reinstitute contact with Joe—now writing books in his own retirement—and the two resumed their former alliance, serving as co-hosts at each other’s dinners, and going out as a couple. Always, she remained plugged-in and connected, befriending Nancy Reagan in the 1980s, leaving her son amazed at her power to adapt to sudden and social changes. When she died in 2004, Bill would be surprised at the extent to which she had become a Washington legend, of sorts; but by that time he had long left her orbit and dwelt in another world.
Bill Patten writes his memoir through the prism of things that he learned only later, and how this may have changed his impressions of what he remembered can never be known. What is certain, however, is that as soon as he could, he had begun to distance himself from the high-powered and glittering worlds of access and privilege his mother and “fathers” had relished and craved. Step by step, he began edging himself out of their universe: “Launched by Joe,” as he put it, to enter his universe, he began his business life in the mid-1970s in a posh bank in Boston, wearing suits to the office and lunching in a Beacon Street club. But in another year he had taken a grittier job in real estate renovation, which led by degrees into moving to Maine. By 1977 he was living year ’round on an island and by 1979 was running a small weekly newspaper, locked into life in a small rural hamlet, a very long distance from Georgetown, or France. Doubtless his mother was mystified, but it was exactly the things that annoyed his mother that now appealed to him: “A friend . . . noted that I looked for what he called the ‘rawness’ in life,” Patten tells us, saying he loved his neighbors’ “rough honesty and lack of concern with appearance,” which he found such a contrast to his mother’s exquisite, mannered ménage.
On top of this, Joe’s efforts to network on his behalf had been counterproductive: “Joe’s intense supervision effectively helped undermine my own sense of career ambition. It was clear to me that I could not compete in the realm of giants that used to sit around Joe’s garden room.” What struck him as authentic looked to his mother like downward mobility, and he cites innumerable small instances that led him to believe, perhaps correctly, that she looked down upon him and his doings. Her friends were cabinet ministers in the British and American governments; his were small businessmen, teachers, and laborers who had never heard of Duff Cooper. He cringed when he visited his mother in Washington and she asked whom he wanted to see there—exposing that he knew, by her lights, no interesting or powerful people. Unlike Joe, he writes, she “made me feel like I had failed” by following paths other than those she had taken in life.
By her lights, however, it was soon to get worse. In 1994, he enrolled in a seminary, served for three years as the minister of a very small rural congregation, and from that moved on to an adjacent vocation: counseling violent men. He spends time now “in a state prison in Shirley . . . a maximum security prison [that] houses a large number of ‘lifers,’ ” talking to society’s outcasts who are guilty of terrible crimes. “It was a merciful thing that Joe was dead,” he writes of his decision to enter the ministry, adding, “I didn’t enroll in order to make him turn over in his grave nor consciously to make my mother uncomfortable,” but there can be no doubt that it was an act of rejection. As he would write later:
It is a strange life for a son of Susan Mary Jay Patten Alsop (and of Duff Cooper), who was conceived in a great country house by a king’s great-great-grandson, and had been brought up in Paris and Georgetown among (in the words of the Alsops’ biographer Robert Merry) people who “took on the world.” And it is a strange book he has written, too, for several things don’t seem to add up. It would make sense for somebody gliding along easily in life to be shocked into rebellion by the Duff Cooper revelation, but he had begun his rebellion years earlier. It would make sense for someone who found out that he had a new, different father to find in that father’s life solutions to things that had seemed inexplicable. But in this case, that just deepens the mystery: The younger Bill Patten makes more sense as the son of the gentle and quiet Bill Patten the elder than he does as the son of the restless and worldly Duff Cooper. The author seems also to conflate intrigue and deception with power-seeking and privilege. But many small towns have their secrets, too: He mentions that his plainspoken friends in Maine were indifferent to Duff because they resented his privilege; but Duff and Joe and, in her later years, Susan Mary, were hardworking, diligent people who might easily have risen on merit alone.
In her late seventies, Susan Mary developed a drinking problem and was packed off to a clinic, in the course of which her secret about her son’s biological father would at last be forced out. En route to the plane, she had gone through her messages, which included calls from Mrs. Colin Powell and Mrs. Yitzhak Rabin. Her son notes this wryly, as if her real addiction had been to people in power, which he considers a fraudulent and unworthy enterprise. Better to tend one’s own garden, he seems to be saying, than to aspire to power and changing the world. But of course, the world and the garden are not unconnected, and the motives of those who dwell in the world are not always vainglorious. And it is the Powells and Rabins of the world—not to say the Duff Coopers—who make it possible for the ministers, farmers, and part-time reformers to tend to their gardens in peace.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and columnist for the Washington Examiner.