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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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Caroline de Margerie

Photo By Jacques-François Loiseleur des Longchamps

PARIS — Susan Mary Alsop crossed paths with every significant figure of the second half of the 20th century, from Winston Churchill and Wallis Simpson to President John F. Kennedy and Nancy Reagan.

“Henry Kissinger said of her that more diplomatic treaties had been signed on her drawing-room table than in ministries,” notes French author Caroline de Margerie, whose biography of the backstage power broker, “American Lady — The Life of Susan Mary Alsop,” was published by Viking this month.

“Her idea, as that of other men and women of her time, was that bringing the high and mighty together in congenial circumstances, plying them drink and with cigarettes, would help them relax, cut deals and work for the greater good,” adds de Margerie.

She paints a vivid picture of an elite social sphere, taking readers from postwar Paris to the Camelot years in the U.S. capital, and beyond. De Margerie found this world especially fascinating in light of her own former career as a diplomat, which included serving as European adviser to French President François Mitterrand in the run-up to the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.

“I saw ‘history on the boil,’ as Nancy Mitford said of Susan Mary — the fall of the Berlin Wall, the overthrow of the Soviet Union, central Europe coming into its own,” she recalls. De Margerie, who has also penned a biography of “Cyrano de Bergerac” author Edmond Rostand, is now a member of the Council of State, France’s highest administrative court.

But she was not just interested in Alsop’s brilliant social circle or her legendary style, which made her a magnet for couturiers like Christian Dior, who would regularly lend her gowns.

“I liked the fact that hers had not only been a life of glamour and privilege, but also of sorrows and hardships. I liked the fact that she was brainy as well as beautiful — very smart and very interested in history and current events,” she says.

The author goes behind the facade to reveal a passionate personality torn between her sense of duty and her personal desires. Namely, she provides fresh insight into Alsop’s affair with Duff Cooper, Britain’s ambassador to France at the time, with whom she had an illegitimate son while married to U.S. diplomat Bill Patten.

De Margerie had access to some 500 previously unseen letters written by Alsop to her lover, and was also allowed to read the unabridged version of Cooper’s famed diaries. “I could follow day by day, as nobody had, this love story,” she says.

During this period, Alsop also kept up a prodigious correspondence with her mother as well as her best friend, Marietta Tree.

“They chronicled not only her life in Paris, but life in Paris during the postwar years when Paris rebuilt itself, and the whole country rebuilt itself, so she can be thought of as a white-gloved version of Janet Flanner,” says de Margerie, referring to the longtime Paris correspondent of The New Yorker magazine.

The diplomat’s wife also used her social position to try to improve Franco-American relations.

“So, she would explain to General Marshall that France wasn’t always on strike. She would explain to young Senator Kennedy that it wasn’t so easy for France to renounce Algeria. She would explain to the French that not all American politicians were behind Joe McCarthy. She tried to bridge gaps, and she did so all her life,” de Margerie explains.

Following Patten’s death, Alsop married columnist Joseph Alsop, and the two formed one of Washington’s most prestigious couples in an era when the nation’s capital was packed with them.

“The fact that he was homosexual wasn’t known at the time in Washington circles. He kept it quiet. Those of his friends and family in the know kept it quiet as well. Susan Mary herself was aware of it, because he’d told her so, but I think she thought she’d changed him — a naïve way, probably, of seeing things,” says de Margerie.

“What was important was their public life together. They set out to be one of Camelot’s leading couples and they certainly achieved it, together. Both brought to the achievement their own qualities and knowledge, intelligence, relations, and more practical things, such as Susan Mary’s excellent wine cellar and her Dior and Balmain dresses. The fact that she was so stylish certainly appealed to President Kennedy and to Jackie Kennedy,” she adds.

In her later years, Alsop would have a second career as a writer, penning several books, including a biography of Lady Victoria Sackville, and becoming a contributing editor at Architectural Digest magazine. But the reed-thin doyenne of Georgetown also developed a drinking problem, a reflection of her hidden inner turmoil.

“Perfection was something she imposed upon herself, and it certainly is linked to the fact that she wanted to please her mother and felt she couldn’t,” says de Margerie.

“A great deal was expected of Susan Mary. She didn’t quite feel up to it, but she struggled to do her best all her life. When her mother died, she was a very old lady, and it was too late to make it possible for Susan Mary to relax, so the extra glass of sherry did help to unwind,” she adds.

Ultimately, Alsop comes across as a woman ahead of her time.

“If she’d been born a generation or two later, she’d have been a diplomat or a journalist,” said de Margerie. “But at the same time, one mustn’t belittle achievements these behind-the-scenes players had in a more modest and invisible manner.”

For more on Susan Mary Alsop, see WWD’s 1978 and 1983 interviews with her, as well as the slide show.

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