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.…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.