My Three Fathers
And the Elegant Deceptions
of My Mother, Susan Mary Alsop
by Bill Patten
PublicAffairs, 400 pp., $27.95
In 1996, at age 47, Bill Patten, son of Susan Mary Alsop, the author and doyenne of the great age of Georgetown, found out to his shock that he was the son not of his mother’s first husband, Bill Patten Sr., but of Duff Cooper, the British politician and diplomat (and with his wife, Lady Diana, one-half of one of the 20th-century’s most glamorous couples) with whom his mother had had an affair. Understandably poleaxed by this revelation, he embarked on a struggle to regain his bearings, which led him in turn to this book: a personal story, a social history, and a four-part assessment of his mother and the three leading men she encountered: his real father Duff Cooper; his putative father Bill Patten; and her second husband, Joseph Alsop, the well-known (and gay) American journalist, who entered into a chaste marriage with his boyhood friend’s widow, and served as the younger Bill’s stepfather and mentor until he, Alsop, died.
A personal journey, it is also a story of intrigue, deceit, and ambition, set in a background of upper-case History, in which Bill Patten’s real father is the only one he doesn’t perceive as a father; friends cuckold friends, and go on being friendly; and his mother’s second husband is not really her husband, as most people think of the word. The book refers at times to Susan Mary as a “Henry James heroine,” but this understates it: My Three Fathers in itself is three James novels, conflated and crushed into one. At times it is like The Europeans, in which American innocents (Susan Mary and the elder Bill Patten) are charmed and corrupted by scheming aristocrats (Duff and Diana). At other times it is like The Wings of the Dove, in which the elder Bill Patten plays the Milly Theale role of the American innocent doomed to die young who still wins the hearts of those who betray him. And sometimes it is like The Golden Bowl, in which a couple (Joseph Alsop and Susan Mary) wed in the interests of social advancement, and become the premiere host and hostess of John F. Kennedy’s Washington. Detailing it all is the narrator and critic, a detached and somewhat unhappy observer who longs to be in a less complex book altogether and, by its ending, has found his way out.
Susan Mary Jay was born in Rome in 1918 into a family of diplomats that went back to John Jay, the Founder, and had lived in San Salvador, Romania, and Argentina before she was eight. The family had been in Buenos Aires a matter of months before her sister Emily died, an experience from which she and her parents would never recover, and which may have bred in her the reserve, distance, and stoic detachment of which her only son later complained. Brought up in Maine, where her parents retired, she grew up a slender (if not anorexic) young woman, a serious soul and delicate beauty, with small chiseled features and dark chestnut hair. In spite of her looks and interest in style (she worked for Vogue for a few years before she was married), the impression she left on perceptive observers was one of resilience, endurance, and grim resolution.
She was a “tough, appreciative little guest,” Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford after she stayed with his family. “I thought of her as a brave little soldier,” the author confesses. “The woman I knew was a gritty survivor,” Edwin Yoder would write. The survivor and soldier would have her hands full when, in 1939, she married Bill Patten, whose lung problems were a perpetual problem and who also fell somewhat short of the drive and talent to make a name for himself in the larger political world that she craved. Susan Mary saw his limitations, and accepted them, without wholly forgoing her central ambitions. “Bill never had the standing in the world of power that my mother aspired to, but nonetheless she adored him,” the younger Bill tells us, adding that she later told him that, if she only craved power, “I wouldn’t have married your father, whose career was all too clear before we were married, and who was the best and bravest man I know.”
The elder Bill Patten, who had struggled at Groton, held low-pressure, midlevel jobs both before and after his marriage, and might have stayed in them happily if not for a chance meeting in 1944 with Sumner Welles—an old friend of Peter Jay, Susan Mary’s father—who pulled strings to get him posted to Paris as an economic analyst attached to the Foreign Service Auxiliary. And so in April 1945 Bill and Susan Mary landed in Paris, then the teeming hub of postliberation diplomacy, where Duff and Diana held court.