Bill Patten's family acquaintances were some of the most powerful figures of the 20th century, names like Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. As the scion of a diplomat father and socialite mother, Patten grew up surrounded by people of wealth and influence. He attended some of the finest boarding schools, spent weekends at his family's country estates, and studied at Harvard and Stanford universities. But Patten eventually discovers his real father was not the man with whom he shared a last name: his mother conceived her son during an affair with another man.
Thus forms the backstory for Patten's memoir, My Three Fathers, a tale about a trio of influential men who shaped the author's life. The first was William S. Patten, an East Coast aristocrat who spent much of his life as a diplomat in Europe. In 1939, Patten married debutante Susan Mary Jay, a descendent of John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court. The Pattens moved to Paris for one of his diplomatic assignments, where they met Duff Cooper, a British war hero, Churchill confidant and fellow diplomat. Susan Mary Patten carried on an affair with Cooper, became pregnant and gave birth to a son. Whether her husband ever knew his son was not his biological child is unknown; Patten took that answer to his grave when he died in 1960.
A year later, the author's mother became Susan Mary Alsop when she married syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop, a longtime family friend. Bill Patten, then 12, was introduced to another social sphere when he moved from Europe to Washington, D.C., where Joseph Alsop rubbed elbows with presidents, senators and other Beltway luminaries. The Kennedys were regular guests, as were Henry Kissinger, newspaper publisher Katherine Graham, even Truman Capote.
It wasn't until 1996 that a 47-year-old Bill Patten learned the identity of his real father, revealed in an offhanded comment by his mother while she was in rehab for alcohol abuse. Initially crushed by the news, Patten came to terms with the revelation by researching the lives of his mother and her paramours, and expressing his words on paper.
My Three Fathers is the result of that effort, and, despite the title, is as much about Patten's tortured relationship with his strong-willed mother. It is also a fascinating glimpse into the gilded lives of the American aristocracy and how often glamorous appearances are a deceptive veneer that conceals the untidy truth.
John T. Slania is a journalism professor at Loyola University in Chicago.