Beautiful, well-connected, and fascinated by power, Susan Mary Alsop was referred to as “the grand dame of Washington society” due to her political dinners attended by a who’s who of the capital city in the early 1960s. Born Susan Mary Jay in 1918, her father, Peter Augustus Jay, was an American diplomat and the great-great grandson of Founding Father John Jay.
In 1939 after completing boarding school Susan Mary began working at Vogue as a receptionist, writer, and model. That same year she married William S. (Bill) Patten, a Harvard graduate she met through friends. In 1941, they moved to Washington D.C. where Bill worked for the State Department. Her husband’s friend, Franklin Roosevelt Jr., invited them to supper with his parents at the White House. She said the president shook dry martinis, ”which I adored,” and served fresh caviar sent by Stalin. This was Susan Mary’s first taste of life in the social salon of Washington D.C.
In 1944, Bill was transferred to the US Embassy in Paris. The city was still reeling from the effects of the war, but Paris was the red-hot center of the diplomatic world, and Susan Mary was a part of it. She socialized with the Rothschilds, George Marshall, and Ho Chi Minh, and she became fast friends with Lady Diana Cooper and her husband Duff. Duff was the British Minister to France and the Coopers were adored by Parisians: first for Duff’s early refusal to placate Hitler, and later for Lady Diana’s over the top embassy parties. Lady Diana was who Susan Mary aspired to be. Soon she and Bill became part of the Coopers’ inner circle; the only Americans who were regulars at Diana’s dinners. Slowly, Susan Mary began to take on hosting duties of her own. When Susan Mary asked the secret of Lady Diana’s success as the best hostess in Paris, the ambassadress replied modestly, “Oh, just give them plenty of booze and hope it will go.”
By 1947 Susan Mary and Duff had begun having an affair. A chronic womanizer, Cooper had pursued her for some time. Susan Mary’s son Bill Patten Jr. wrote: “…her extended relations with the ailing and elderly Duff Cooper were almost a form of public service, an action of foreign policy in its noblest and most self-sacrificing form. It is likely that it embodied an even more passionate attachment to Duff’s wife Lady Diana than to Duff himself.” In 1948, Bill Patten Jr. was born. Susan Mary knew Duff Cooper was his father, something that did not become public for almost fifty years. At his christening Bill Patten Sr.’s best friend from college, Joe Alsop, was named the baby’s godfather.
By 1960 both Duff and Bill had died. After Bill’s death Susan Mary received a letter proposing marriage from Joe Alsop. Joe was part of a small elite group he named “the WASP Ascendancy,” whose male members belonged to the same clubs, had family ties, and ran the country. Joe was a powerful journalist and government insider who would come to advise and bully five presidents. And he had a plan. In the letter Joe explained that since he was homosexual theirs would be a loving platonic marriage, but one that would give Susan Mary the place she wanted among the Washington elite. Alsop was the only man in the Georgetown salon business, making his select social access the key to his power and his widely read columns. One of the men Joe had unfettered access to was Senator John F. Kennedy.
Joe and Susan Mary were married on February 16, 1961, shortly after Kennedy was sworn in as president. The timing was in no way coincidental; Susan Mary’s presence was important. At the time an unmarried man could be deemed suspicious, and Kennedy might be publicly embarrassed by visiting a gay bachelor—no matter how skilled and classy a host.
That February, Susan Mary and Joe endlessly celebrated her upcoming marriage: on February 9, with Phil and Kay Graham (owner of the Washington Post); on February 10, over drinks with Vice President Johnson and Lady Bird, and on February 14, with a toast from the President and the First Lady. It was salonisma at its height. Susan Mary became the rare woman his own age whom John Kennedy asked to be seated by at dinner. She had a style both mental and physical, that tickled the president’s fancy, as Joe Alsop had known it would. She soon became known as “the second Lady of Camelot.”
In October 1962, Susan Mary wrote to Jackie and John Kennedy, inviting them to a good-bye dinner for the new ambassador to France, Chip Bohlen. The dinner was Joe’s way of showing that he could provide Ambassador Bohlen with critical social access to John Kennedy. Unbeknownst to Susan Mary and Joe, ten hours before dinner, Kennedy was shown C.I.A. photographs of Soviet missiles newly stationed in Cuba. He was suddenly facing a military showdown with Nakita Khrushchev.
As Jackie and John Kennedy climbed the circular staircase to the cinder-block front of the Alsop house on Dumbarton Avenue, Susan Mary calmed her nerves. She had reread history books and political essays, she was wearing a black Balmain gown with black and white feathers along the hem, and the lamb was in the oven. She was sure the evening would run like clockwork.
After cocktails in the garden, guests Philip and Kay Graham, and British philosopher Isaiah Berlin strolled into the red-lacquered dining room, while President Kennedy drew Chip Bohlen, a known expert on the Soviet Union, to the end of the garden. The dinner could not have come at a better time for Kennedy. For close to a half-hour, delaying the start of the meal, the two men circled low boxwood hedges. Bohlen kept steadfastly refusing Kennedy’s request to postpone his trip to Paris, predicting that a delay might tip off the Russians that Kennedy knew about the missiles and was rattled. At dinner, Kennedy asked Bohlen and Berlin twice about how the Russians had behaved when boxed in militarily. Ultimately the insights of the two men helped to inform his judgments in his showdown with Moscow.
Despite the cold lamb, Susan Mary thought the party was a success. She later stated in an interview with The Post, ”If you’re fortunate enough to get the secretary of state and the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the night of an international crisis, it sounds ghoulish, but it’s something you want to have.”
Susan Mary and Joe had dinner with the Kennedys at the White House two weeks before they left for Dallas in November of 1963. The president planned to run for re-election the following year, and the trip to Texas was part of his campaign. When the Alsops left the White House that night, they didn’t realize it would be their last time dining with the Kennedys. JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963. Joe was shattered by the death of the President. Susan Mary “made herself useful” by helping Jackie respond to thousands of condolence letters. She even miffed Jackie at one point after observing how well she was holding up. “How did she expect me to behave?” was the First Lady’s response.
Kennedy’s death, as well as the social and cultural changes of the late sixties, took a toll on Joe. He often took out his anger on Susan Mary, publicly embarrassing her. In 1973, Joe and Susan Mary finally separated. She moved into an apartment at the Watergate and decided to put her life into writing. She published four books including Yankees at the Court: The First Americans in Paris, which was inspired by her ancestor John Jay and his career in foreign affairs.
Susan Mary continued her role as a Washington hostess up to her death at the age of 86 in 2004. One example of her star power was a dinner party she hosted in 1991. It was the only such event General Colin Powell attended “during the whole of the Gulf War.” Maybe he considered it good luck? During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy had attended a dinner hosted by Susan Mary and that conflict ended in a peaceful outcome.