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:
As the freshly minted Mrs. Richard C. Holbrooke, I was about to have an eye-opening experience. Richard and I arrived at the Hotel l’Abbaye de Talloires in Annecy in the French Alps, for our honeymoon. As my first wifely gesture I unzipped his suitcase. To my horror, his honeymoon kit contained two suits, one black and one pinstriped, several white shirts, and some funereal ties and a pair of sinister-looking black brogues. “Did you pack for a conference or for your honeymoon?” I asked. “Gordon must have forgotten where I was going,” he answered, blaming his butler at the Berlin Embassy. “Gordon!” I exploded.
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.