An Encounter with Susan Crosland

In March 1994, I interviewed Susan Crosland – but, for some personal reasons, this interview was never published.

With her death in February 2011 I now feel at liberty to publish it without the constraints I felt at the time.

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 healed or so she says – ‘it’s got my skin over it, but I don’t want it disturbed.’

Susan Crosland, an attractive and engaging woman with a soft American drawl, 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 analytical 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.

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 had 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 of 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.’

She was once made very cross when Michael Young said to her that she was ‘cut out’ to make another man happy as his wife. She resents the presupposition that she might want to be ‘a wonderful wife’ again. If she seems to protest too much, it is her way of dealing with people’s well-intentioned interference.

It would be easy to infer from the strength of her resolve that marriage to any other might strike her as a pale thing in comparison. But this interpretation, however tempting, is wide of the mark. Susan Crosland is happy and fulfilled as a single woman. ‘The freedom to make your own choices all day is very addictive.’

This was not possible in her previous life when she had to defer and conform, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree. She dislikes being typecast or being part of any clique. ‘I have never liked groups. One of the hardest things about being a cabinet minister’s wife was belonging to a group – not that we necessarily met as a group, but I was expected to share its loyalties. I prefer now being outside and attaching my loyalties when I wish.’

She has discovered contentment in not having someone else at the emotional centre of her life. In any case she was much too alive to the difficulties in Tony Crosland’s character to fall into the trap of over-romanticising him now. ‘I knew his flaws and I accepted them. I was dotty about the whole of him, so I don’t have the need, which many widowed people have, to present a perfect image.’

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 behaving 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 (two daughters by a previous marriage) she advised them to do the same so that he would be ‘emotionally disarmed’.

Over the years the storms abated and they grew to hate rows. It was Tony’s firm belief that ‘the pleasures 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’.

Susan Crosland, then, has come of age. The growing-up process on the question of sharing her life again would seem to be complete, so well-formed and considered are her opinions. ‘It’s quite conspicuous to me that in middle age where men and women are on their own, it is generally the men who are more keen to marry again, and sometimes quite frantically so.’ To illustrate the point she then constructs a broad generalisation, which one suspects includes herself: ‘A lot of women don’t want to be backed into a corner, and when they are told, “marriage or nothing”, they say, “nothing”, and they say it jolly fast.’ Back to the Baltimore boot.

‘I am not making comparisons. Because of my belief that I will not marry again, other things become fun. If you are not seeking to reproduce the ideal you have once known, then you’re much more likely to enjoy your friends.’ It is clear that Susan Crosland does enjoy her friends, and a good deal else besides. She is sociable and gregarious, although she enjoys, even requires, her own company. She rarely ventures out in the daytime; solitude is regarded as something of an indulgence, certainly a pleasure.

Although she moves in the smart sets of London, literary and establishment, she has fought shy of the limelight and has always found the public glare stressful. When she first came to London she was astonished that ‘educated, well brought up people’ actually courted publicly. One of the difficulties about being a cabinet minister’s wife was that she would have hesitated to complain to the butcher about the steak being tough ‘lest I appeared to be the colonel’s lady…it felt good to resume a normal way of life.’

Indeed, despite the fact that she has lived more than half her life in England there is a sense in which she still finds the natives quaint. Her cultural references tend to revert to her Maryland background 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 day had flown a tiny aeroplane scattering leaflets over Baltimore exhorting women to vote.)

However, where Susan Crosland comes from the parameters of women’s behaviour are nevertheless strictly defined. ‘Women drink a lot, but they are not meant to fall down.’ This might almost be the guiding principle in her own life. She draws heavily on the pleasures, she apparently lives ‘a full life’ in the Archer judicial sense, but it stops short of excess. Indeed one of her boldest acts of defiance seems to have been to dye her hair pink – ‘not then a commonplace hue’ – the day after she separated from her first husband.

In her now celebrated biography of Tony Crosland, part love story, part political memoir, written during her five years of self-imposed social exile following his death, she describes how one afternoon in 1957 Tony announced that he was ‘putting promiscuity aside’ until she returned to America. I asked her how she interpreted that remark. ‘As a declaration of love, and also an awareness that this was – as we then believed – something which would end when my husband and I left London.’ By then she and Tony were obviously lovers, but it is never explicitly stated.

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…’

Then comes a surprise: ‘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.’ Shades of the Southern belle.

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 appear 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 cant get a cabinet job if you’ve smoked pot at Harvard.’

The part of the biography which deals with the hammer-blow of Tony’s death as 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.’

When I ask 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. Although one imagines Susan Crosland will always carry pockets of sadness around with her, they are not excess baggage but an integral part of the person she has become.

When she was compiling her entry for Who’s Who, she realised that she has never done the same job for more than four years. Even though she stayed at the Sunday Times for eight years until the early nineties she moved from writing profiles to writing a column – ‘a job I swore nothing, but nothing, would ever induce me to do.’ Now she is four years into a successful career as a novelist. Victoria Mather in the current Literary Review compares her to Dominick Dunne and says Crosland is ‘today’s airport novelist.’ Tony regarded her as a good storyteller and Susan feels he would have been ‘tremendously pleased’ by this turn of events.

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. And with some justification. Her characters are not cardboard cut-outs of politicians and other prominent figures she may have known, but finely drawn, sensitively managed dramatis personae. Of course she draws on her experience – it would be strange if she did not – but she recreates the political hothouse atmosphere with the artistic ease of one who knew it intimately but was happy to renounce it. ‘It was a stimulant of a kind, and I believed it to be central to excitement. And then there was the happy discovery that there are other excitements in this world.’

Novel writing is the new passion in her life which she has embraced with characteristic zest. There is no wish to turn back the clock ‘I have no understanding of people who want to live their lives again, or wave a wand to make themselves younger. I have lived every stage of my life to the full, and I don’t want to live it again.’ Seeing her is believing her.

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