Susan Mary Alsop: The Second Lady of Camelot

A new biography paints a vivid picture of the backstage power broker who crossed paths with every significant figure of the second half of the 20th century.

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The 1978 WWD interview with Mary Susan Alsop.

Photo By Tim Jenkins/WWD Archive

Mary Susan Alsop in 1983.

Photo By Guy Delort/WWD Archive

'Visitor From a Company Town,' Featured in WWD in 1978

“I think London society is infinitely the most interesting and stimulating in the world — without any question,” says Susan Mary Alsop, speaking in an adamant tone from the comfort of Evangeline Bruce’s turquoise silk sofa.

Although Susan Mary always stays at her friend’s pied-à-terre when she visits London, she says she still can’t find the downstairs loo. “Where HAS Evangeline hidden it?” she laughs, then, before the visitor can answer, “Isn’t this apartment divine? It used to belong to Lady Melbourne, the mistress of Lord Byron.”

Here to publicize her second book, “Lady Sackville” (her first, “To Marietta from Paris, 1945-1960,” was published in 1973), Susan Mary is surrounded by her friends and loving every second of her stay. “God, London is exciting,” she exclaims.

She has been wined, dined and praised for the book ever since she arrived. But the best thing of all is that Lady Sackville’s family and acquaintances, such as Diana Cooper, like it, she says. Dressed in a skinny navy blue Bill Blass evening dress, family diamonds and endless pearls given to her by ex-husband Joseph Alsop, Susan Mary sits for a quick interview before dining at the Café Royale with Nigel Nicholson (the book is about his grandmother); Lord Sackville, and Lady Alexandra Metcalfe. After dinner she is dashing to a ball at the Royal Academy.

So far it’s been a busy schedule, a weekend at Oxford with old friends Sir Isaiah and Lady Aline Berlin, who gave a luncheon for her at All Souls College. Guests included a galaxy of figures from Oxford and old friends such as Charles and Jayne Wrightsman, who traveled from London. Ann Fleming also gave a dashing lunch, also in the country, the next day.

Back in London, there were even more parties: Old friends Lady Cooper and Lady Hartwell gave glamorous lunches for her filled with politicians and literati. Susan Mary was impressed that all the politicians showed up at a party given for her by George Weidenfield on the night that an important vote took place in Parliament.

“In Washington,” Susan Mary says, “they would have got their secretary to call at 8 p.m. to say they couldn’t possibly make it. And you just wouldn’t get that mixture of literati, political figures and old friends in such a relaxed atmosphere anywhere else in the world.”

All of which sounds surprising coming from such a long-term member of Washington’s inner sanctum. “Joe and I attempted that kind of mix but never quite pulled it off. There’s no question that Washington is the smallest capital in the world, even though it’s improved since we have the great museums and the Kennedy Center. But it’s still a company town.”

This, she says, is as true today as it was nearly a century ago in Victoria Sackville’s day. In 1881, the young Miss Sackville arrived in Washington, an insecure 18-year-old.

She rapidly took the town by storm as her father’s hostess at the British Embassy and continued to kick up a storm for the rest of her life. “Washington is a provincial Southern city to this day,” says Susan Mary. “Everybody still knows when somebody steals a cook…even though there are practically no cooks left.”

But Susan Mary is much too polite to belittle Washington. (The nearest she approaches criticizing anyone is to call them parsimonious.) Washington society is improving, she says. For proof, she mentions her good friends the Peter Jays. “By God — there’s a salon,” she exclaims. “It’s the only house where the Carter administration members go the second they are invited. The other embassies are so jealous they could die.”

Recently, the Jays honored Susan Mary’s ex-husband. It was a very distinguished dinner, and Susan Mary and Margaret Jay chose the flowered tablecloths together at Bloomingdale’s beforehand. They replaced Lady Ramsbottom’s plain white ones, she explains.

At home, Susan Mary sees what she calls a mixed bag of people. Friends such as Nancy and Henry Kissinger. “Now there’s a house that’s enormous fun to go to. I think that he is even better in retirement than he was in office. He’s very calm, very unvicious and very kind. He wants to help the new administration all he can.” Of Katherine Graham’s evenings she says, “They are all pretty much political…which, of course, is natural.”

As natural as her own progression to biographer of a remarkable woman — skillfully mixing words and cultures like an ambassador without an embassy and observing it all with a meticulous eye for detail and accuracy.

She’s too meticulous to comment on her next project until absolutely certain what it is. One thing she knows is that it won’t be about a certain moment in Washington that she knew very well. “I wouldn’t think of writing another word about the Kennedys,” she insists.

 — Valerie Wade

An excerpt from 1983:

Five years later, in October of 1983, Susan Mary Alsop spoke to WWD again, this time with Susan Watters. Alsop, who had been widowed, married again and then divorced, said that she didn’t intend to ever remarry. “It’s a lot of work to take care of a man,” she noted. “And I’m still very much attached to my former husband [Joe Alsop]. We didn’t hit it off in the same house, but I talk to him at least twice a day.”

Single women today aren’t as lucky as those in her youth, she said. “My generation was spoiled and secure — life was a lot more fun. Now people are obliged to work their heads off; now women are worried about how to keep a babysitter for another two hours.”

As for the idea of women paying for dinner dates, she said, “Oh, that must be a howl. I can just imagine the dialogue. ‘I’ve had such a lovely time. I’ll have some more caviar. It’s on me.’ ”

Among Democratic politicians, she favored Sen. Ernest (Fritz) Hollings. “I think every word he says shows such wisdom and courage. He’s for conscription; so am I. He supports a moderate pro-defense budget; so do I. And he’s very just on civil rights.”


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