The Women Who Wed
They’re people, too, and often based in Paris.
Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By JUDY BACHRACH
I’m burning with envy. Here I’ve been plugging away of late in places like Oklahoma City and Scottsdale. Meanwhile, both Susan Mary Alsop and Kati Marton, heroines of two ostensibly different books, had a much better idea. The only possible way to provoke interest in their surprisingly similar lives, they decided—separately, to be sure, and without communication—was to dateline a lot of events, however small or self-indulgent, “Paris,” throw in a few French phrases, perhaps the occasional reference to Ernest Hemingway, and then hope for the best. And, believe it or not, the best invariably showed up. Usually wearing trousers.
Boutiques, lovers, spouses, celebrity friends with and without accents, baguettes, and bistros—they all settle in, tiny pavé diamonds you might say, encircling two American Alma Mahlers who collect men for all sorts of reasons, including love.
Marton’s is actually an autobiographical, theoretically contemporary work that encompasses three husbands—the last two of whom are famous and peripatetic—and is titled (perhaps inevitably) Paris: A Love Story. On the other hand, Susan Mary Alsop’s life, made slightly less entrancing by both a lower number and caliber of husbands (just two, and only one, a bellicose newspaper columnist, famous during the sixties), is contained within the covers of something called American Lady, and it isn’t written by her, at least not wholly. As she died in 2004 at age 86, the saga of her long life and the recordings of her silly pronouncements regarding those world events she either witnessed or did not, are largely the result of author Caroline de Margerie’s frantic industry: i.e., reading many of her subject’s letters, and then quoting from them.
Here, for instance, is Alsop’s reaction to the tragic events that prevented her from visiting Cambodia in 1970 (when, as she knew, the United States was about to send troops there): “Tant pis, I’m off to Northern Thailand, said to be very pretty.” And here is Kati Marton’s sartorial take on her third husband, Richard Holbrooke, our late representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the successor in Marton’s life to her second husband, the late ABC News reader Peter Jennings:
Isn’t there something at once striking and a bit perverse in the publishers and authors of today, with their fondness for packing so much Marie Antoinette into such slender volumes?
There was a time, after all, when American ladies went around quoting Gloria Steinem: “We are becoming the men we wanted to marry.” Then, realizing that wasn’t perhaps such a terrific ambition, they modified both their yearnings and, with luck, their earnings. They became, for better or for worse, the women men were, after a few years of domesticity, retrospectively amazed they had married—something apart and distinct from their husbands.
But Madame Marton and Madame Alsop (or at least de Margerie’s depiction of Madame Alsop, which I’m mournfully certain is accurate) became the women men were desperate to marry. All men of all types. Even Joseph Alsop, a hardliner who happened to be a homosexual, begged (“as humble as a church pastor requesting a small donation to repair the church roof, who wrings his hands in anguish,” in the biographer’s unhappy phrase) for the dainty hand of Susan Mary—and Susan Mary, let us be blunt, did little in life besides wed, take impressive lovers, play hostess, and write letters. Kati Marton, who wed impressive men, took lovers, played hostess, and wrote letters and books, got the same kind of adulation. More, even.
You can mock these women, you can dismiss them; but here’s what you can learn from them.
First Lesson: Sweat the small stuff.
Current spouse a blustering, bullying fool who finds you repulsive in bed and insults your important guests? Focus on the bright side: “Her chaste companionship with Joe did not bother her,” we learn about Susan Mary’s early years with Joe Alsop.
So what are we to make of all this easy surrender, the dismal compensations of chatting with Ted Heath or George Cukor? Her biographer has the answer: “Susan Mary came from a generation whose intelligent women gracefully accepted their place as satellites orbiting masculine suns.” (So did stupid women, however, and with at least as much grace.)
But—and here’s the interesting part—orbiter-in-chief Kati Marton also accepts her place, her satellite rotations. And she was born three decades after Susan Mary Alsop. In 1979, Peter Jennings, then London-based, only had to whistle for Marton to relinquish the ABC Bonn bureau in order to embrace marriage and motherhood.
In fact, she continues, “The very qualities that my family and friends encouraged—my irreverence and my drive—through Peter’s eyes became liabilities. ‘Glib,’ he called me, and ‘ambitious.’ I vowed to change—to transform myself into a London ‘mum,’ content to push . . . prams in Holland Park and Hampstead Heath.”
Similar to Alsop however, bold-type name compensations soon came her way. And not just with Jennings, under whose roof (as Marton takes care to inform us) Pamela Harriman took shelter. While second husband Holbrooke lay fighting for his life during 21 hours of heart surgery, everyone who was anyone phoned Marton, as she recounts very early on—in chapter two, in fact: Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai; Pakistani president Asif Zardari (“Kati! I told Richard he was overdoing it! He must take it easy!”); President Barack Obama (“Michelle and I are praying for you both”). So much so that, when her cell phone rang yet again, and someone on the other end said, “Hello, Kati, this is Farzad Najam,” Holbrooke’s wife responded, “Oh hello. Which paper are you with?”
It turned out to be the surgeon, with bad news.
Second Lesson: Famous husbands mean famous guests. Invite Sarah Jessica Parker with George Soros, or Whoopi and Barbara, or Robert Schuman and Pamela Harriman.
Similarly, Alsop never missed an opportunity to bathe with celebrities. Yes, France was falling into crisis: Three million workers went on strike because of rising prices and falling wages, and telegraph lines were cut. So imagine Alsop’s relief when the strikes ended, the telegrams resumed, and she was free once again to socialize with Nancy Mitford, Odette Pol-Roger, René Mayer, and Winston Churchill. Moreover, the defeat of the underpaid workers had another upside: “It meant the Coopers’ farewell ball could take place,” her biographer blandly recounts. (Duff Cooper, aside from being Britain’s ambassador to France, also happened to be Alsop’s lover, so you can understand her degree of concern.)
Although the perverse Marietta Tree “did not think it fitting to dance while Paris burned,” Alsop found the resulting illumination so flattering to her “mauve satin and ivory grosgrain creation that Elsa Schiaparelli had insisted on making” that she danced at the British embassy until five in the morning.
Third Lesson: Le Chic is very important, and sometimes it’s free.
“Shopping in Paris is one of our rituals,” Kati Marton points out in her first chapter, and by “our” she includes Holbrooke, which is kind of interesting. But she doesn’t dwell on him long: “In a chic Right Bank boutique I parade several beautiful suits and dresses. Richard looks up at the phone and nods at the velvet suit I am modeling.”
“C’est aubergine, monsieur,” the sales-lady interjects, describing the unfortunate color.
And here is Susan Mary Alsop’s fashion take on postwar France, after the fall of Vichy and the rise of French communism: “She greeted the December 1945 devaluation of the franc with glee because it meant she could finally afford a dress in one of Paris’s coveted but expensive boutiques,” writes her biographer. “She wore New Look gowns that Christian Dior lent and even gave her because they flattered her slender waist and handsome bust. ‘Madame, it does me good to see so much joie de vivre,’ the maître d’hotel at Maxim’s exclaimed one evening after she had stumbled and fallen into his arms.”
Fourth Lesson: Always choose your amours from your circle of amis.
For example, not only was Ambassador Duff a dear friend of Alsop’s, but so also was Duff’s wife, Diana. All of this coziness, far from making Alsop miserable or conflicted, simply added to her personal happiness. In a similar mode, barely had Marton decided to divorce Jennings (they were at yet another party, and, in answer to Marton’s “Shall we go, sweetheart?” Jennings tossed the keys at her, snapping, “You can go if you want”—which turned out to be, as Marton might well say, the coup de grâce), than Richard Holbrooke, a longtime friend and, at the time, our ambassador to Germany, came knocking, quite literally, at her door. At the Hôtel Petit Trianon in Versailles, since you asked.
For many women, as I can personally attest, a breakup can mean centuries and centuries of social aridity. For Kati Marton, it was more like 24 hours. On Christmas Day, Jennings arrived in Paris, begging Marton to overlook the key-tossing and return to him. On December 26, “an armored Buick, the size of a small tank, the official car of the American ambassador to Germany,” rolled up, its occupant informing her that he “had been anticipating my separation for years.” And not only that: “He had known for years I was just right for him intellectually and emotionally, and in other ways too.” In fact, Ambassador Holbrooke “proceeded to list about a decade of sightings of me at parties, meetings, even in elevators.”
Then he whisked her off to the
Fifth Lesson: Never take a lover without leaving a big clue.
Alsop’s big clue happened to be her first child—a son she named after her husband but who bore, in his youth at least, a strong resemblance to Ambassador Duff Cooper. (“Oh yes, of course, and he’s your father,” she informed the poor guy in an offhanded manner nine years before her death—this during a family therapy session in a residence where she was being treated for alcohol abuse. Her son burst into tears.) Marton, being of another generation, offered clues even more pronounced. She told two husbands, Jennings and Holbrooke both, that she had taken a lover, a different one in each instance, and was forgiven by both men on the spot.
Personally, I’m longing for the merest hint of her explanations for these lapses—how she recounted, how she explained, defended, and then induced instant pardons—but explanations are the one thing Marton seems to leave out. It’s very unfair.
“Richard was my best friend and I could not keep anything from him long,” she writes about the second occasion. “He had given me such confidence, such unlimited support, how could I keep our first crisis from him?”
Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.