Why do so many respectable newspapers and magazines go weak at the knees the moment an unreadable autobiography of some illiterate rock star is published? I guess no hack, however literate, can resist dropped names, or perhaps it is simple hero worship, tout court, as they say in French. I’ve never read a single one, just the reviews of some, and they leave me absolutely cold. So they took a lot of dope and slept with lotsa groupies, and then trashed the hotel suite. Big deal. Seen and done that and it’s no longer fun. But give me something well written about someone I met, however briefly, when I was young, and I’m hooked. Elsa Maxwell, for example.
The great American critic George Jean Nathan said that what a man looks for in a woman is something like a good piano, minus the loud pedal. Elsa Maxwell was all pedal, without tone or modulation, just noise. And she was as ugly as they come. I used to see her in El Morocco, and at various chic parties on the Riviera back in the Fifties, and she once told me not to look as eager as I did when meeting some sweet young thing. It was good advice, but I never took it, because good advice is useless when one is very young.
Maxwell was born while Wagner was scoring Parsifal, in 1881, and died in 1963, just as the horrible Sixties were becoming the vogue. She was a gossip columnist, radio and television personality, and a party giver extraordinaire. Rich social climbers used to pay her to throw flamboyant bashes, parties that would include minor royalty — always the Windsors — Onassis, Callas, you get the picture. Maxwell’s great crush was la Callas, an unrequited love to be sure, and fans of la diva still curse Elsa for introducing her to the Greek tycoon.
Elsa grew up in San Francisco and her childhood was hardly humble, a fact she denied later on, posing as a poor girl who made it in society through talent and grit. She sang and played the piano in the manner of Princess Margaret, and would shout at people to be quiet while playing, just like the princess. She had great enemies, such as Lord Beaverbrook, and many, many friends, including Cole Porter and Marilyn Monroe. Her life partner was Dorothy ‘Dickie’ Fellowes-Gordon, although in print and on the radio she railed against bum boys and lesbian perversions. No, she was not a total hypocrite, just smart enough to keep it quiet when it was illegal for boys to kiss boys and girls to kiss girls — on the mouth or other places. I just read How to Do It, a new biography, and it sure brought back memories. Top Anglo-Saxon society types, especially in New York, turned up their noses at her, but European socialites liked the action at her parties, and she was a fixture in Venice and Monte Carlo.
A very different saloniste about the same time was Susan Mary Jay, descended from John Jay, a founding father and America’s first chief justice (American Lady, by Caroline de Margerie). She married an American diplomat, Bill Patten, moved to Paris and became the hostess with the mostest in the City of Light. She became a good friend of Nancy Mitford, although la Mitford skewered her as overearnest in one of her novels. Unlike Maxwell, Susan Mary was beautiful and elegant and very sexy in that American cold way of come hither. Here’s George Jean Nathan again: ‘Few women, as compared to men, marry for love. Four men out of five marry for love, not more than two women out of five marry for the same reason.’ Hear, hear!
Susan Mary did not love Bill in a passionate way — who could love a saint, and Patten was a saint — but she did fall for a non-saint, Duff Cooper, and later on for another Brit ambassador, Gladwyn Jebb. She was a fashion icon back when women were not referred to in that manner, chic and terribly elegant and very, very interested in politics. After Patten’s death in 1960, she moved to Washington and married Joe Alsop, the upper-class American right-wing columnist whose power was enormous, just as his homosexuality was well known but deeply embedded in the closet. It was a marriage made inside the beltway. He had power and all the social connections needed, she had the refinement and the background and knowledge to complement Joe’s strengths. The night JFK became president he went to the Alsops and stayed up all night talking politics.
Hacks who don’t know any better usually speak about Pamela Harriman as a powerful hostess in DC. She was nothing of the sort, being basically ignorant and much too greedy to learn about politics. The only one who ever took her seriously was Bill Clinton, but he grew up as trailer-park trash, so he’s excused. Although one should never kiss and tell, I did meet Joe Alsop when I was just starting my brilliant career as a journalist, in Athens of all places, because the colonels had just sprung a coup and Alsop was there to find out all about it. I believe he met with the King, who was at the time trying his best to get rid of the military, and then he took me out to lunch with Arnaud de Borchgrave. Not to brag, but he did tell me that I looked like a Turkish delight to him — I was wearing bathing trunks — and I answered I was from the Ionian, where the Turk never set foot. I only wish Susan Mary had said that to me.