The Magazine

The Women Who Wed

They’re people, too, and often based in Paris.

Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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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.
“[I]t was compensated by privileges like regularly playing hostess to a brilliant cast of characters such as Ted Heath, I. M. Pei, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Moshe Dayan, and George Cukor.” Also, Susan Mary was equally fond of attending. For example, she did make it “to New York to attend the dinner given by Marietta [Tree] before Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.” (An aside: This carries, although the biographer doesn’t appear to know it, about the same social cachet as making it to a cocktail party before the Academy Awards.) 

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. 

It was clear to me that I could not combine life as Peter’s wife, the mother of his child, with the life of a full-time foreign correspondent. I threw myself .  .  . into my new domestic role with the same zeal with which I once attacked unmasking corruption in Philadelphia and spy stories in Germany.

 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. 

Richard always insisted that I give the welcoming toast, which he maintained I did better than he. I approached this task with some seriousness and tried to be both witty and topical. Barbara Walters .  .  . was a regular at our parties. After a dinner honoring First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barbara wrote, “What a special night, Kati! Your toast was very touching. I bathe in your happiness and success.”

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. 

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