She wasn’t born knowing Jackie Kennedy – but she dined often with the first lady, and Jack.
She wasn’t raised alongside Winston Churchill and Henry Kissinger – but she spent many hours listening to them, and captivating them with her witty and knowing conversation.
Susan Mary Alsop, it turns out, was like that familiar face you see at party after party, never quite remembering how she came to be someone you know. An in-law of an in-law? A friend from an old job? A neighbor left behind in a move?
History is full of Susan Mary Alsops: intelligent people – many of them, for reasons you can figure out on your own, women – who have had front-row seats and backstage passes to some of the most important events of any era, without moving into the spotlight on their own account. They see, hear and absorb enormous amounts of information and intrigue. Yet few think to ask them what they themselves feel about the world spinning around them. Pity, that.
But here is Caroline de Margerie’s thought-provoking new biography, a book about Alsop that is also a book about her place and time: upper-class and politically connected society on both sides of the Atlantic during a period of eventful history lasting from the Jazz Age to the beginnings of the 21st century. (Susan Mary was born, a member of the country’s prominent and well-to-do Jay family – yes, descended from that John Jay – in 1918. Her goddaughter, Frances FitzGerald, writes an introduction for this volume.)
Susan Mary Jay was married twice, first to Bill Patten, a diplomat for the United States abroad, then to Joseph Alsop, a Washington-based journalist and columnist who was well-connected inside the Kennedy White House. Her marriages – not that she was faithful to them, entirely – gave her access to the most influential figures on two continents. She managed to charm Jack Kennedy over dinners and cocktails – he did not seem to be interested in her romantically, but liked the gossip and charisma she brought to the table – and the Alsops became frequent guests at events in the Camelot administration. As de Margerie points out, the only private home Kennedy visited on the night of his inauguration was the Alsops’.
Susan Mary’s life story reads like a female version of Gatsby, in parts, and not unlike the recently republished memoirs of Consuelo Vanderbilt in others. Practicality is an odd thing to find in a woman of style, but both Vanderbilt and Alsop were loaded with it. “She had stopped loving her husband a couple of years earlier,” we read at one point, “and had taken pains not to let him notice.” Susan Mary was savvy and quick on the uptake, both emotionally and in social concourse; luckily for her, de Margerie, a Frenchwoman who has written one previous book, is her equal.
This reviewer will admit to beginning “American Lady” for the haunting photo of Alsop on the cover. In the vintage black-and-white photo, the subject of this biography looks pensive, apprehensive, appraising – it’s hard to tell which. She looks as if she were choosing not to say something she wanted to, very badly.
But if the cover or the conceit draws you to “American Lady,” the writing will hold you riveted to the page. De Margerie has a wonderful capacity for mixing fluid and flexible thought into elegant sentences and paragraphs. “Her beauty was more polished,” we read in one passage. “She had the kind of face that the fashion of the day preferred: black and white with a red mouth, carefully drawn eyebrows, and disciplined hair.” Of another character in the story, de Margerie writes that her “favorite house was always the one she was about to leave.” She writes with humor, too, which helps enormously in delivering the story of a largely unknown woman.
Susan Mary lived a life of questionable decisions, disastrous affairs of the heart, painful losses and sacrifices. All of that is here. She once said she would rather give up her own children than her paramour – which makes the reader wince.
Her story is one that carries with it warnings about what impact the choices and weaknesses of one individual woman can have, on her loved ones and friends, not to mention her times. Style and elegance count for a lot in life, but they do not outweigh the soul, and we wonder, in the end, how much of that Susan Mary realized.
Susan Mary Alsop died in 2004. She didn’t live to see “American Lady,” the slim work of biography that tells her story.
Again, pity. But perhaps Susan Mary didn’t need the narrative version. She had lived the life.
American Lady: The Life of Susan Mary Alsop
By Caroline de Margerie;
232 pages, $27
Charity Vogel is a News staff reporter.