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Not So Dangerous Liaisons

Two of Bill Patten’s three fathers were Alfred Duff Cooper and Joseph Alsop. What memoirist could ask for more? Duff and Joe, as they were known in the international set of their day, now seem like characters from an Evelyn Waugh novel about the batty doings of the very best people.

Politician, diplomat, author, and friend of Winston Churchill, Duff Cooper was born in the Edwardian Age, survived the trenches of the First World War, and married a celebrated beauty who encouraged and abetted his tireless pursuit of seducible women. He became a hero of the World War II generation as the only member of the British cabinet to resign when Neville Chamberlain knuckled to Hitler at Munich. He served as the government liaison to the Free French in 1945.

Joseph Alsop, friend of President Kennedy and journalist of warrior disposition, was a closeted homosexual whose bellicose newspaper columns had the power to make strong men tremble. I have heard it said in Washington that Lyndon Johnson’s fear of Joe Alsop explains LBJ’s self-destructive Vietnam policy, and, having known Alsop a little, I half believe it.

Patten’s memoir itself often seems like a satire on the international drinking aristocracy that flourished far back in the last century when life was more fun, as it always seems to have been in the good old days. The story opens in 1995 with Patten escorting his aged mother to a Minnesota rehabilitation center for alcoholics. There, at the urging of her counselors, she delivers startling news.

His father, the man who begat him, she says, was not William S. Patten, whose name he bears, but the British statesman and philandering bon vivant Duff Cooper. When he hears this news, the author is forty-seven years old. Duff has been dead some forty years, and the elder Bill Patten thirty-five.

The author, who was twelve when Patten Senior died, writes affectionately about him, but the reader cannot help wondering. Everyone in this book’s gaudy company—including Sir Isaiah Berlin, Lord Salisbury, and Sir Gladwyn Jebb, as well as Duff and Joe —seems to have loved Patten the False Father, yet he is the one character who does not come to life on the page.

We are told that he was Joe Alsop’s close friend and schoolmate at both Groton and Harvard, and later in the book we find Alsop exploiting this old relationship in persuading the widowed Mrs. Patten to marry him. Patten père’s charming affability and instinct for friendship are amply described, but he always remains a mystery.

Even the author seems puzzled, writing that he feels “disappointed that Bill tolerated my mother’s affairs so nobly,” adding, “I get tired of hearing what an ‘attractive’ guy he was, and sometimes long to discover some nasty little traits that would make him more human to me.”

The truly baffling figure in all this is the author’s mother. Born Susan Mary Jay, she was a descendant of John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States. (The book abounds in fancy bloodlines: Duff’s biological forebears included King William IV; Joe’s grandmother was Teddy Roosevelt’s sister; Susan Mary’s kissing cousins included Mrs. Winthrop Aldrich; Marietta Peabody Fitzgerald Tree was her good friend. The list goes on.)

Her family had a tradition of public service and the kind of money that nice people didn’t talk about. Her father had been Calvin Coolidge’s ambassador to Argentina. For education she was sent to the Foxcroft School in Virginia’s snooty horse latitudes. Summer meant Bar Harbor. Her mother might be heard scolding the butler for allowing “a tradesman’s car” to stop at the front door until he told her it belonged to John D. Rockefeller Jr., who was waiting in the parlor.

At home in Paris, London, and Washington, Susan Mary became a polished hostess, fluent conversationalist, and well-informed woman of the world—the very model of Sophisticated Transatlantic Woman in an age when Europe and America seemed to be merging in a common culture. Why she chose to marry Patten is a puzzle, since, good fellow though he clearly was, he seems to have had none of the qualities she found alluring in men. Her natural inclination seems to have run toward active public men who were heartily engaged in the era’s great political struggles. Patten was not a man for hearty engagement. At Harvard his career had “pivoted around” the elite Porcellian Club, and it is not clear that he ever outgrew the limited “high society” culture it represented. It was a boyish world where well-connected men enjoyed each others’ company and were quick to extend grace and favor to a member needing help.

The book suggests that Patten suffered from some form of invalidism. It is never precisely defined, though there are frequent references to severe bouts of asthma. Susan Mary’s friends “warned my mother against marrying someone in such poor health,” the author writes. “But I suspect that it was precisely Bill’s asthma, the very same illness her father had struggled with, that attracted my mother.”

Married in 1939, they settled into an insular social life with Patten holding a series of humdrum jobs—stock brokerage, fund-raising, that sort of thing. The reader imagines ambitious, restless Susan Mary wilting in the tedium until, one day in 1944, “a happy coincidence in Bar Harbor opened much wider doors.”

Happy coincidences occur often in the world of the well-connected; this one took the shape of Sumner Welles, formerly Franklin Roosevelt’s undersecretary of state, strolling the Shore Path in front of her mother’s house. As Susan Mary later wrote, Welles could “hardly avoid coming up the lawn, panama in hand,” since he had known her father.

The ensuing conversation turned to Bill’s “uncertain career,” and that autumn he was offered a job in Paris with the American Foreign Service Auxiliary. Susan Mary was about to be “catapulted into one of the most glamorous households in Europe.”

The catapult was Lady Diana Cooper, wife of the British ambassador in Paris, who was on the lookout for people to enliven the embassy in the rue St. Honoré. The Coopers were a generation older than the Pattens, but Diana was indifferent to conventions about age, and many of the others too. In her youth she had moved with the bright young things of London’s bohemian crowd and “was not above laughing at the novelist Maurice Baring when he set his hair on fire or sliced his fingers to amuse her,” the author writes.

The peerage directories recognized her as the daughter of the Duke of Rutland, whose main interests, according to his biographer, were “fly-fishing and fornication.” Her biological father was probably Henry Cust, editor of The Pall Mall Gazette from 1892 to 1896 and Conservative member of Parliament. Since young Patten did not know the Coopers, he relies here on the large literature generated by their notoriety—she starred in Max Reinhardt’s production of The Miracle in 1924—and on their own writings for his richly gossipy portraits.

Their relationship began before Duff went into the trenches in 1916. Although Diana ran with a group of rebelliously promiscuous women in her youth, she seems to have been, in Patten’s phrase, “relatively indifferent to sex.” By the time Susan Mary entered their world, the marriage to Duff had lasted thirty years. It thrived on mutual consent to “finesse” sexual matters, Patten says. “What replaced sex…was a vibrant feeling of companionship.”

Duff usually lied about his affairs and felt guilty about them “but not guilty enough to slow down,” Patten writes. If Diana was unhappy at first, over time she grew to accept his adulteries and often became friendly with his lovers. The Duchess of Windsor, who was aware of the Coopers when she was being courted by the Prince of Wales, once observed that the main drawback to having an affair with Duff was that after it ended one had to be comforted by his wife.

That Diana was a known enabler of Duff’s affairs only enhanced their reputations in French society as a charmingly eccentric couple restoring some much-needed glamour to Paris at war’s end. He was “an aging war hero,” she “a legendary beauty who had graced the cover of Time,” Patten writes. They were “like Olympians amid the rubble of a devastated country.” Well, perhaps. Patten relies on Diana’s biographer, Philip Ziegler, for an account of Susan Mary’s romance with Duff, though he thinks Ziegler “may overemphasize the extent to which Diana calculatingly recruited my mother.” It began when Diana seated her beside Duff at an embassy dinner party, a remarkable honor for the young wife of a minor diplomatic figure.

Diana seems to have viewed Susan Mary as human therapy for Duff’s physical ailments. He was then fifty-five years old and suffered occasional trembling and fevers and had gout pains in one foot as well as liver and kidney problems. Diana seems to have feared that he was not up to the strains created by the competing claims of two demanding women who engaged him in 1945.

Drawing on Ziegler, Patten writes, “Diana saw my mother as a ‘tranquil business, a refuge between the emotional storms of Louise [de Vilmorin] and the tempestuous orgies of the Whore of Babylon.’” The “Whore of Babylon” referred to the heiress to an American fortune who had been a flame of Duff’s in the 1920s, a woman who was “no nonsense” when it came to sex, according to Ziegler. Other women feared her even when she was fifty-five, as she was when she appeared that spring in Paris, and Louise was “genuinely alarmed.”

Since Louise was the kind of woman who “threw her butter ball to the ceiling of the British Embassy dining room one day when she was not the center of attention,” Diana apparently foresaw tense and trying days ahead for Duff.

By the summer of 1946 Susan Mary was a comfortable member of the Cooper circle, comfortable enough to solicit Diana’s help for a charity affair at which she would sit between Duff and Jean Cocteau. If his diary is to be believed, however, Duff was slow to catch fire. It is not until February 1947 that he writes “kissed Susan Mary for the first time.” By May, however, commenting on several letters from her, he writes that she is “sick” with passion for him but he is not “in love” with her. Elsewhere, “She is a sweet and charming girl whom I find most attractive, but it would be dishonest to pretend that I am madly in love with her.”

Writing about a mother’s adulterous affair with the man destined to be one’s father would seem to pose more problems than most writers would care to tackle. Patten, however, goes at it as coolly as an IRS auditor with a freshly sharpened pencil. He finds that she kept telling Duff about her cuckolded husband’s “unfailing kindness to her.” He reasons that they “may well have slept together during the summer of 1947.” He finds that the “first documented tryst” occurred that October.

Working back from my birth on July 4, 1948, it seems likely that the fateful event occurred during an October weekend in 1947 at Ditchley Park, the country house of Marietta and Ronald Tree,” he reports.

What is the point of all this gossipy detail? For Patten it seems to be an attempt to work out his own Freudian problems. Throughout the book, the reader senses an author in the grip of psychiatry’s ruthless demand for confronting what its customers would rather avoid. His final chapters disclose a long history in psychiatry. About to turn sixty, he seems to have had the fairly typical unhappy life experienced nowadays among well-heeled children of well-fixed parents: one failed marriage, some commonplace business problems, adapting to parenthood, the pleasures of grandchildren. What seems to gall him most, however, is the scandalously demonstrable evidence that mother preferred famous men to him.

He makes it clear that he was never very close to his mother, largely because she was never very close to him, nor wanted to be. Time and again he recalls moments when she treated him as a tiresome imposition who had to be humored with meaningless smiles and gestures.

It was not my mother’s fame that kept us apart,” he writes about visiting her in his adult years. She “met me in her red room, cigarette and drink in hand, struggling heroically to find a connection. She certainly knew how to look like she was listening, but the little gushes of flattery gave her away. They landed on me like raindrops, familiar and haphazard, reminding me that I was as invisible as ever.”

Elsewhere: “My mother was not a woman who was easy to genuinely please. I felt this from as early on as I can remember.” He “never saw her stroke a person’s cheek or give anyone—child or adult—a really warm or lingering hug.” She seemed to be “trapped in her iron cage of good manners,” which made it impossible to make “the sort of human connection I had been looking for all my life.”

Her son wonders about the “motivations” behind her sexual life. If incapable of “human connection” with her son, how could she have managed an intimate relationship with Duff? And not only Duff; later there would be Sir Gladwyn Jebb, British ambassador to Paris in the 1950s. And what could possibly explain the bizarre marriage in 1961 to Joe Alsop, whom she knew to be gay?

We seem to be dealing here with something very like a feminist tragedy, or if not tragedy, at least a romance of sexist oppression. Susan Mary is clearly a woman eager to play a role in the all-male world of her era, but forbidden entry by the prohibitive masculine rules. The best that a highly ambitious woman could hope for in that world is celebrity as a “hostess” with a gift for attracting and entertaining the great men of the day. With wit and intelligence, she may get them to listen for a few moments to her observations on this or that vital political matter, but her only reward will be a feature story in The Washington Post about the popularity of her salon.

In Susan Mary’s time, Condoleezza Rice is still a schoolgirl, there is only one woman in the Senate, and female reporters have just recently gained admission to lunches at the National Press Club, provided they sit in the balcony. Mary McGrory, one of the finest writers in American journalism, is offered a job with The New York Times if she agrees to work part-time on the telephone switchboard.

London, Paris, and Washington in those years all had famous “hostesses,” some of them very grand ladies indeed, though their grandeur consisted largely in the elegance with which they decorated their parlors and the charms with which they made politicians mind their manners. In her Washington years Susan Mary achieved major “hostess” stature, but Patten thinks she wanted better. In her affair with Duff, she seems to have been looking for entry into a world from which she was excluded by her sex. Patten thinks she was trying to fulfill a subconscious dream about becoming “a major ambassadress.” In any event, affairs with Duff, and with Jebb, also “offered the chance to be near what Nancy Mitford called ‘history on the boil,’” Patten writes.

Desire to be where history was happening would easily explain the marriage to Alsop. Alsop was close to President Kennedy and, as a gay man in an age brutally intolerant of homosexuals, he could use a “hostess.” To Susan Mary, recently widowed, the chance for a choice seat near the top in Washington must have been hard to resist. That Joe was gay seems not to have mattered, confirming Patten’s theory that sex didn’t matter much to her.

Patten is very entertaining on Alsop and seems genuinely fond of him. The reader comes away with the impression that Alsop was the best of the three fathers, perhaps the only one who had a gift for fatherhood and worked at it. Unfortunately, he worked at it with the same relentless intensity he brought to promoting the war in Vietnam.

He “came thundering into my life” in 1961, Patten recalls, “a bald man in an olive-green suit” calling with Susan Mary at the English private school where Patten was enrolled. The three went for a pub lunch. Patten’s most vivid memory of the lunch was that after a tasting Joe “seemed genuinely outraged” and “indignantly sent most of it back to the kitchen.” Patten was startled; it was only pub food, after all. “What was he expecting?”

At this time Alsop was one of the most successful syndicated columnists in the country; with his friend Jack Kennedy now in the White House, he was as close to the top of the world as a columnist can get. That spring, after a long and tireless campaign to “nab” the widowed Susan Mary, they married. “Nab” is Patten’s word, and his chapter about how it came about is titled “Nabbing My Mother.”

It was not a marriage made in heaven. “Joe’s decision to get married during the year of Kennedy’s presidential election does not seem coincidental to me,” Patten writes. Bill Patten died in the spring of 1960, Kennedy was elected that fall, and Joe married Susan Mary the following spring. The marriage “gave Joe legitimacy as a family man, someone who would seem above reproach as a confidante to the President,” he writes.

Patten’s mother told him she knew Joe was gay—he had told her in a marriage proposal he typed out on an airplane—but believed she could “cure” him. Patten’s portrait of Alsop as father will amuse those who remember Alsop as the mercilessly drum-beating hawk of Washington’s Vietnam years. The rigid certitude is still there when he deals with his stepson. A telegram declares: “YOU ARE DINING BRITISH EMBASSY WEDNESDAY PLEASE BRING DINNER JACKET AND ARRIVE IN TIME. JOE.”

As Patten progresses through Groton and Harvard, Joe constantly intervenes. He confers with a math teacher, hires a law school student to provide tutoring in German, conspires with Harvard officials about strategy for getting his stepson admitted.

Joe gives cagey advice for getting into choice clubs at Harvard. It is obvious that Joe is enchanted by the Porcellian Club; he himself was chosen and has never got over it. Young Patten lacks the club manner. He offends one club member by wearing bell-bottom slacks, is insufficiently deferential to another, so is blackballed at one club, ignored by another.

Hearing the grim news, Joe writes immediately: “It doesn’t matter a damn.” He flies to Boston, takes Patten and a friend to dinner at Locke-Ober, and, next day, buys Patten a new dinner jacket and orders two new suits for him from his London tailor.

In the end, this incessant intervention may have been destructive; Patten obviously thinks so. The more Alsop tried to help him succeed, “the more powerless I felt,” Patten writes. Joe’s heroic effort to succeed at fatherhood seems to have been one of the factors that drove Patten to seek psychiatric help in middle age.

Patten’s final chapters about Alsop and his mother see them unhappily into separation, divorce, old age, and other bleaknesses which remind us that it is a mistake to let a lively tale run on too long. In the end Susan Mary has died without overcoming alcohol. Joe Alsop has died without being “cured” of his homosexuality. Charming, cuckolded Bill Patten, dead nearly fifty years now, remains the man of mystery in this sad and comical tale.

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