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Review: 'American Lady' fine portrait of socialite

Associated Press Published: November 26, 2012

The roles of diplomat's wife and journalist's wife appear to have suited Susan Mary far better than those of caregiver to an asthmatic husband and of mother to a son and daughter. She once told the illicit love of her life, British politician and author Duff Cooper, that she would without question choose him over her young children if faced with a choice. She seemed to have plenty of time for a rendezvous with Cooper or his successor, another literature-loving British diplomat, while Patten quietly counted down the years to a premature death.

De Margerie doesn't depict Susan Mary's choices as stemming from a revolt by a brilliant and talented woman whose ambitions were stunted by a sexist culture. Nor does the author cast her subject as a self-centered opportunist — the marriage to Alsop, who was gay, was convenient for both. And, to her credit as a biographer, de Margerie doesn't contend in her slender book that Susan Mary Alsop was influential in American policymaking beyond determining the seating arrangements at dinner.

A fine writer who makes the most of letters and diaries, de Margerie leaves the judgments to God and her readers. Yet it's difficult not to conclude that Susan Mary Alsop was little more than an articulate and charming hanger-on. Yes, she witnessed history, but her biggest choices in life tend to make her seem terribly small.


Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks" (University of Wisconsin Press).