Early in 1994 I interviewed Susan Crosland, the widow of the politican Tony Crosland, who sadly died last weekend.
The interview was never published as Susan, through her friends, asked me not to. She thought it was too intrusive and personal.
Because of my own friendhsip with her at the time, I agreed not to while she was still alive.
Now that she is no longer with us, I believe the interview deserves to be published for posterity’s sake – and for the insight it gives into Susan as a remarkable human being.
One Sunday in February 1977 Tony Crosland, Foreign Secretary and leading ideologue of the Labour Party, returned from a morning stroll round the village of Adderbury, his Oxfordshire retreat, and over coffee with his wife Susan suffered a massive brain haemorrhage from which he never recovered. A week later he was dead. The day before the Croslands had celebrated thirteen years of marriage.
By now Susan Crosland’s sorrow is well-seasoned. Thirteen years is a short span in a normal lifetime, but somehow she manages to suggest that her earlier life had been a preparation for her time with Tony, and everything since a recovery from the blow of his death. There is no morbidity, no sentimentality, just a recognition that she is ‘wrapped up in scar tissue’. The wound has mended, or so she says: ‘It’s got my skin over it, but I don’t want it disturbed.’
Susan Crosland, an attractive and sensual woman, is something of an enigma. She is an accomplished interviewer, full of insights and keen percipience. Her in-depth profiles of Melina Mercouri, Nancy Reagan, King Juan Carlos, Henry Kissinger and many others including Tory ministers of the seventies became prototypes of the analytic approach to interview. The addition of a good measure of feminine intuition made the dissection more human, also more humane.
When the roles are reversed, however, Susan Crosland’s poise and self-assurance seem to desert her. At first the halting sentences suggest a woman who does not know herself, who has never before considered the questions put to her. But as the interview proceeds her lack of articulacy reveals a nervousness and vulnerability which are at once puzzling and strangely moving. For this is a woman who does know herself; she has clearly experienced the extremes of joy and grief. The hesitation in the voice makes it seem as if she is unsure of her ground, but in fact it acts as a protecting veil. Only now and again is there a telling turn of phrase, a sudden revelation which slips out unbidden.
She wrote her biography of Tony Crosland during her five years of self-imposed social exile following his death. It is part political memoir, part love story, but it too belongs to the impressionist school of art. It is also a highly personal account of life with Tony, yet the details are sometimes sketchy and the significance of certain events and remarks is left hanging in the air for readers to make of them what they will. Her graduation from college, her meeting and subsequent marriage to Patrick Catling (special permission was needed for their church wedding because he had been divorced), the birth of their two daughters, the development of difficulties in the marriage – all this and more is dealt with in less than half a page.
In 1956 when Patrick was assigned for two years to the London office of his Baltimore newspaper their marriage was ‘very rocky indeed, but neither of us wanted a divorce and I didn’t dream of a life outside my marriage’. Was this because divorce was unthinkable? Or because she had made her bed? ‘Well, there were two young children … and I loved Patrick, and he loved me.’ Shortly afterwards she met Tony Crosland at a cocktail party; the fires were kindled and life was set to change.
She was attracted to his raffish good looks, his sense of humour, his self-mockery, his unpredictability and what she calls his smoothness. ‘Tony could be smooth, but he wasn’t a smoothie. There’s a narcissism in smoothies which was absent in Tony.’ She was also captivated by his intellect and his vision of socialism, though their friendship seems rapidly to have gone beyond the stage of platonic political discussion.
In her book she describes how one afternoon in 1957 Tony announced that he was ‘putting promiscuity aside’ until she left England. I asked her how she had interpreted that remark. ‘As a declaration of love, and also an awareness that this was – as we then believed – something which would end when Patrick and I left London.’ By then she and Tony were obviously lovers, but it is never explicitly stated.
The night before Patrick and Susan sailed from Cannes back to America a farewell party was held at 19 The Boltons, Tony’s London flat which she described then as ‘an oasis of happiness’. The goodbyes were to be final and they agreed that they would not communicate after Susan returned to America (the agreement was soon broken). But because of what she calls a ‘misunderstanding’ between Tony and her at the party, he chartered a plane to Cannes the following morning to see her once more before her ship set sail. Although she says this sort of romanticism was absolutely in character, there was clearly a deeper significance to the extravagant gesture. What had her husband made of it all I wondered? ‘Well, we were all such good friends, and Tony had brought along Lady Jane Heaton who sort of acted as a cover…’
By 1958 the Catlings were unexpectedly back in London, this time to make it their home. In the spring of 1960 ‘after long, sad indecision’ they embarked on a trial separation. The following day Susan dyed her hair pink – ‘not then a commonplace hue’ – and contemplated the future. In due course Patrick asked for a divorce.
When Tony Crosland proposed marriage Susan burst into tears. She had not wanted things to change and sensed that ‘his degree of passion for me had altered in some way’. She was afraid that Tony would feel ‘fenced in’ by marriage and that she would be unable to handle anything less than total fidelity. When they had first met she regarded Tony as something of an enfant terrible in his personal life – that was part of the attraction – ‘and this intelligent, you might even say cunning man took the trouble to explain to me that his promiscuity in no way diminished his feelings for me. But I didn’t like it, I was jealous…’
But if she knew about it and accepted it before, what difference would it make after marriage? ‘I haven’t said this before, and it isn’t perhaps always evident to others, but I have a very highly developed moral sense of what is proper.’ Here she seems to be repeating the contradiction in her upbringing which combined a kind of Victorian strictness with a dimension of women’s liberation. Her father was a Pulitzer prize-winning defence correspondent with a strong Puritan ethic, her mother was in some ways a typical southern belle, but she too had been a reporter and in her young days had flown in a tiny aeroplane scattering leaflets over Baltimore exhorting women to vote.
Susan also had a keen sense of what was ‘appropriate’ in the circumstances. ‘After all I had been married to one man and in love with another, so there was a limit to the restrictions I could have put on Tony, quite apart from it being unwise. He was not a person who would have responded to the lock and key attitude…’
The marriage went ahead in 1964 although ‘escape hatches were constructed in advance’. She writes in the biography: ‘We’d assumed there would be a certain asymmetry in the marriage, that he would once in a while benefit from an “adventure” without any disadvantage for anyone else,’ but in the event life with Susan appears to have been adventurous enough and the escape clauses were never implemented.
Tony Crosland might easily have been a casualty of the current moral climate in the political world. What are her feelings about the present preoccupation with the private lives of politicians? She thinks it is ‘absolutely terrifying’ and believes that ‘adultery, especially if it is discreet adultery, is of no interest to the public’. But as a journalist wouldn’t she always defend the public right to know? ‘What is really required is self-discipline on the part of editors if we are not to go down the American road where you can’t get a cabinet job if you’ve smoked pot at Harvard.’
The Crosland marriage seems to have had its fair share of ups and downs. There were tempestuous times – Tony sometimes accused her of putting the marriage at risk – but she regarded that as a kind of intellectual blackmail. ‘He was quite capable of threatening me in that way, but it just stiffened my spine.’ Tony favoured the cerebral approach to arguments and approved of Susan putting her case from prepared notes. When there were confrontations with the children she advised them to do the same so that he would be ‘emotionally disarmed’. In general Tony seems to have been a good stepfather, and the children have fond memories of him. Did she regret not having a child of Tony’s? ‘Yes at the time, but not subsequently. I have such great rewards and pleasures from my own daughters that I don’t require more.’
Over the years the storms abated and they grew to hate rows. It was Tony’s firm belief that ‘the pleasure of reconciliation isn’t worth the misery that precedes it’. Susan came to believe it too; life with Tony was ‘a tremendous growing-up process’.
The part of the biography which deals with the hammer-blow of Tony’s death is quiet and dignified and understated, and all the more affecting as a result. Susan Crosland embraced her grief, absorbed herself in it, and embarked on the book. She despises phrases like ‘the grieving process’; it felt right to withdraw from the world, and that is what she did. In an article on the subject she writes; ‘Looking back, I think one may as well make the journey in the manner one’s temperament suggests; it’s going to take how long it’s going to take, whatever one does.’
Tony Crosland was only 58 when he died and their marriage was relatively brief but Susan felt no anger, no sense of it being ‘unfair’ – a word she finds irritating. ‘How can you watch the television news and then expect life to be fair?’ Instead she felt a leadenness. ‘But between the bouts of grief I drew on the reservoir of happy memories, and I never doubted I was fortunate to have them.’
Susan Crosland has now carved herself a very successful career as a novelist. Her transatlantic tales of passion and intrigue have attracted much attention as romans à clef (her latest book Magnates is widely thought to be based on the lives of Peter Jay, former ambassador to Washington, and his ex-wife Margaret), which she feels has detracted from their literary merits. Victoria Mather, however, in the Literary Review compares her to Dominick Dunne and says Crosland is ‘today’s airport novelist’.
The one thing which everyone seems to know about Susan Crosland is that she will never marry again. When I asked her why she had made such a point of denying the possibility she replied with a girlish giggle that she might very well change her mind that night. Behind the flippancy lies a thinly disguised exasperation: ‘I find human beings strangely reluctant to believe that someone who has led one sort of life might later choose to live a different way. From time to time I have to jump up and down to make plain to those who want to save me from my singleness that there’s a freedom that goes with it, and I’m not about to give it up.’
There is a warm sensuality to Susan Crosland, an innate sexiness; she has impeccable manners, but one is left in no doubt that she is her own person. One can easily imagine unwanted suitors being persuaded to leave by the Baltimore boot method. In an article on life as a single woman she describes her tactics if a man outstays his welcome and becomes too comfortable on her sofa: ‘I shake him till his teeth rattle.’
My final question is whether it is always going to seem as if she will never again be as happy and fulfilled as during her life with Tony. She prevaricates and says that life is made up of several losses. She then tells a long story about her much loved Baltimore cousin with whom she shared the excitement and recklessness of youth. He shot himself – perhaps by accident, but probably not – and it seems that a part of Susan died with him. ‘I thought that loss would dominate the rest of my life. It didn’t.’ Then there was her father’s death which seemed ‘the most terrible thing’. She then discourses on finality which she says is what ‘wipes you out’. Tony’s death was ‘the ultimate finality, the intensity of which I have been able to measure only in hindsight’. She has answered my question, and part of the enigma is solved.