“Hi, I’m Sue Sullivan!”
Pert and perky, she walked up to Frank Alai on his first day as a freshman at Seton Hall University. For two weeks, he did everything he could to shake her off.
“I said, ‘Will you stop following me? I don’t like you. Please leave me alone,’” recounted Frank, now 70.
But Susan Sullivan Alai, who died last month, was a “tigress,” fearless and determined. She proved it as a star reporter and editor for Women’s Wear Daily, scoring interviews with icons of fashion and film, from Ralph Lauren to Faye Dunaway.
And she proved it with that testy boy at Seton Hall. Susan gave this account at a Morristown Rotary talk, quoted by Rotarian P.J. Thurkauf:
“I met Frank in one of my classes…I took one look at him and said to myself, Dear God, I need to help this man. He’ll never survive on his own!
“And then, I decided to keep him.”
Susan would support Frank through law school. They would raise a daughter in Morris Township. As “Top Dog” and “Mrs. Dog,” they would raise rescue dachshunds.
In time, they would lean on each other hard, like their lives depended on it. Which they did.
Susan stared down multiple sclerosis for the last 16 years. She was 70 when she died.
Her passing was a gut punch to her journalism friends, including this one, who worked with her at The Star-Ledger.
As lifestyle editor, Susan welcomed one and all into her made-for-TV test kitchen with chirpy humor and, if you were lucky, fresh-baked goodies. Colleagues remember that kitchen as a “decompression chamber,” a savory newsroom oasis.
“A lot of times you’d be on your way to someplace else, and you’d stop in and just chat with Susan, and it was like having a warm kitchen in your house,” said Jim Willse, retired editor of the Ledger.
While Susan’s professional achievements were many, those closest to her marvel at her personal final chapter, and the love story it underscored.
Susan faced her illness with grace and humor–while helping Frank survive a rare heart condition that seemed a cinch to take him first.
His heart stopped five times over a span of years, while Susan’s disease was in a holding pattern.
“My mom picked up the load and did the heavy lifting,” said their daughter, Julia Healey, 35.
Susan drove Frank to treatments in Philadelphia. She helped keep his law office running, just like she had helped him as an undergrad, meticulously typing the assignments he finished at the last-minute.
“She took care of me very well. There was nothing I needed that she couldn’t supply,” Frank said.
Around 2014, doctors finally tamed his condition. Susan, meanwhile, had to stop taking a powerful drug that became too risky. By 2020, she was wheelchair-bound.
“It was strange,” Frank said. “As I got better, she got worse.”
Now it was his turn as caregiver.
“My dad did everything for her,” Julia said.
Former Ledger columnist Mark Di Ionno jokingly called Susan his “work wife.” He shared countless laughs with Susan and her deputy, the late Robert Rastelli, in the fancy newsroom kitchen that hosted News 12 cooking shows back when the news industry was flush, in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
Susan was “fun, professional, light-hearted and loving, with a quick and sharpened sense of humor,” Di Ionno said in a social media posting.
After a dozen years at the Ledger, Susan took a buyout in 2008, about a year after her diagnosis.
But Susan’s laughter–and her real-life marriage–endured, Di Ionno said.
As every simple thing grew challenging, Frank was “absolutely heroic” in caring for his spouse, Di Ionno said. “He did it all. His devotion knew no bounds…Susan Alai died knowing she was loved, unconditionally and eternally by Frank and I know that brought her comfort and peace.”
“They were the other half to each other,” Julia said of her parents. “There was an ebb and flow. When my mom was strong, my dad could be weak. When my dad was strong, my mom could be weak.”
A TWINKLE IN HER EYE
Born in Hoboken, Susan graduated from Seton Hall in 1974 with a degree in English and journalism. She quickly became a star reporter at the Dover Advance, covering Morris County government.
“The Advance was the underdog to the hometown Daily Record. Nevertheless, she scored her fair share of exclusives,” said Rick Everett, her colleague in Dover. “Sue always had a twinkle in her eye, but she was very serious about her work.”
Decades later, as an editor at the Ledger, Everett was instrumental in hiring her there.
Susan married Frank when he was in law school. The Advance did not pay much. So she went to Fairchild Publications, climbing from Footwear News to Home Furnishings Daily to Women’s Wear Daily.
She pivoted effortlessly, it seemed, from hard news to frothy fashion, covering shows in Milan, London and Paris, where she stayed at the Ritz.
“She was one of the women who told women what they were going to wear next year,” Frank said.
“She had such an eclectic approach to journalism…she was super curious,” remembered Lisa Anderson, who worked with Susan at WWD before moving to the Chicago Tribune.
Anderson said her friend was held in such esteem at the fashion newspaper that its czar-like publisher John Fairchild for a time “banned Geoffrey Beene from the pages of Women’s Wear Daily for being disrespectful to Susan.”
Catherine Warren Leone, another friend from the WWD days, said Susan was efficient, organized, clever and unflappable.
“Whatever we gave her, she got it done well and on time,” Leone said. “There were no complaints about Susan Alai. She never had a writer’s block. She saw it as, ‘This is my duty, and I will do it as best as I can.'”
Susan covered everything from garment union contracts to celebrity pieces on Yves St. Laurent and Mel Gibson and Diane von Furstenberg. She went to Monaco to profile Prince Albert for W magazine, and landed the last interview with Sen. Jacob J. Javits before he died.
One of her coups, Frank said, was a profile of the late Leigh Perkins, who turned the Orvis fishing tackle business into an outdoor lifestyle brand.
She convinced Perkins to let her tag along at his annual hunting party in northern Florida. It was a stag event, where prominent men blasted away at birds, Frank said.
Susan and a photographer arrived at Mays Pond promptly at 3 a.m., and slogged through the swampy plantation with Perkins and his pals.
“Leigh Perkins never thought she could stay up for this,” Frank said.
Perkins, who died in 2021 at age 93, wound up inviting Susan back to Florida for some tarpon fishing. She got another story at his fly-fishing school in Vermont, Frank said.
Even fearless reporters can experience terror. Susan’s came during a fashion shoot on a sailboat. A squall erupted.
“It was the scariest thing in her life,” Frank related. “Left and right, the waves were so high, all she could see was water.”
She stayed with the heaving ship until all the models were taken to safety, Frank said. “After everyone else was off the boat, they finally came for her.”
GOOD YEARS, GOOD HUMOR
After a decade as a reporter and editor at WWD, Susan worked for Bergdorf Goodman, did contract writing for Gianni Versace and Giorgio Armani, and free-lanced for the New York Times.
“My mom lived for her family. She had an amazing career in fashion. She could have said, ‘Here’s a nanny.’ She turned down a bureau chief position to raise me,” Julia said.
That included stints as a Girl Scout leader and with parent teacher associations. Susan also joined a community advisory board for Morristown Medical Center.
Former Morris County Tourism Director Leslie Bensley has known the Alais for nearly three decades, as neighbors in Morris Township and as members of the Kellogg Club in Morristown.
Frank served on the tourism board, and Bensley remembers weeping with him in her office on the day Susan was diagnosed.
“We just knew the writing was on the wall. But she had 16 years. And many of those were still very good years—years filled with optimism,” said Bensley, professing awe for Susan’s ability to rise to any occasion as a journalist, as a cook, and as a mom.
Bensley echoed other longtime friends of Susan’s who said she refused to bemoan her declining health, and stayed active in the community as long as she possibly could.
Merle Johnson of the Morristown Rotary recounted a dinner where Susan’s hand shook so violently as she tried to slice her meat, her table companions good-naturedly cried out, “Don’t cut us!”
“She laughed,” Johnson said. “She was always happy, always fun.”
Wickedly funny, even. “She was hilarious,” Anderson said.
Leone recalled a conversation with Susan at Women’s Wear Daily. They were musing about someone who struck Leone as dysfunctional.
“Well, she can always work in a newsroom!” Susan suggested.
One Halloween, in a nod to Sweeney Todd, Susan donned chef’s garb and held a pie with a thumb sticking out of it. Leone still chuckles about one of Susan’s restaurant reviews, written with a colleague under the noms de plume Hansel & Gretel.
“She said the lobster was so tough, it could have walked in from Long Island.”
Although Susan’s health was in steep decline, family and friends thought they would have a bit more time with her. But a leg injury sent her to Morristown Medical Center on a Friday; she lapsed into a coma that afternoon, and died on the following Tuesday, March 7, 2023.
Leone said Susan showed spunk and stamina throughout her physical ordeal, setting an example of how to face mortality.
“She was a warrior, I think. She did her best to hang in. And she did. And under extreme, extreme circumstances,” Leone said.
“I look at my mom as my hero, because of the grace she exuded,” Julia said. “The way she handled herself under pressure, the way she was able to navigate a crisis, and take any bad situation and put a positive spin on it, was inspiring.”
As for Frank’s hard-to-get routine, that melted away one October night in 1970.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the featured attraction at Seton Hall, and every seat at the student center was taken. A bunch of mutual acquaintances were no-shows.
Frank found himself sitting on the floor, side by side with Sue Sullivan.
“I got hit by the thunderbolt.”