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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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“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
châteaux of the Loire, Tours, and finally “the gabled rooms” of the Pavillon de la Reine on Place des Vosges. Their last night, they dined at Benoit, and whom do they see but Pamela Harriman, once Marton’s overnight guest. “The next day Pam put out word that Holbrooke was seen dining in Paris with a mysterious Swedish journalist,” Marton writes, and beneath all that print you can practically touch the bulge of pique. “Not worth the trouble learning her name, she told a mutual friend of ours.”

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?”

Beats me.

Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.

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