Kati Marton has lived a thrilling and turbulent life, from her days as a little girl in Budapest, where her journalist parents were imprisoned by the secret police, through her studies at the Sorbonne during the French student uprisings of the late ’60s to a tour of duty as ABC News’s Bonn bureau chief in the 1970s.
She fell in love with and married two famous men, the ABC anchor Peter Jennings and the diplomatic giant Richard Holbrooke, and cheated on them both. She has written seven books. She has been an eyewitness to history in all its cruelty, covering the Ayatollah Khomeini in exile planning his takeover of Iran and “the troubles” in Ireland.
In Belfast, “I interviewed masked gunmen I would later meet without their masks, in suits and ties, at the Council of Foreign Relations,” she writes in “Paris: A Love Story.” Observing a jarring development and then recounting it in detached, matter-of-fact prose is the journalist’s stock in trade, and that habit is what Marton relies on in this memoir as she grapples with an unexpected new stage of life: widowhood.
And so we see her in those dazed weeks before and after Holbrooke’s sudden death, at 69, on Dec. 13, 2010. She certainly understands what is expected of her: “As the wife of such a public man, my grief could not stay private,” she writes.
As a Washington insider, she carefully records her encounters with very important people. She slips out of Mass with Samantha Power to take a call of concern from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which is followed almost immediately by a call from Pakistani President Asif Zardari. The morning after her husband dies, she is packing up their Georgetown house, and President Bill Clinton stops by to reminisce for an hour.
She finds herself backstage at the Kennedy Center, waiting to speak at Holbrooke’s memorial service, leaning against President Obama for support. Even at such a wrenching moment, she is noticing “a tall blond woman, alone and hunched inside her black coat . . . Diane Sawyer — Richard’s partner for many years before I came into his life. She had written me the briefest and most generous note.”
After she has met her obligations, off Marton goes to Paris, a city she has returned to for the most intensely emotional episodes of her life.
As a young woman, she and Jennings had their trysts there in a hotel where the concierge named her “Mademoiselle Incognito.” As a mother of two, recently separated after a tempestuous 15 years with Jennings, she fled from New York to her sister’s Paris apartment for the Christmas holidays. When Jennings showed up to plead for their marriage, she moved to a hotel, only to get a phone call from Holbrooke, then the ambassador to Germany, offering to sweep her off to a tour of the countryside.
And off her feet: After five days, he told her he had been waiting for her for years, anticipating her separation, because “he said he had known for years I was just right for him, intellectually and emotionally, and in other ways, too.” Seventeen years after that dinner, Marton writes: “Now who am I? Why did no one tell me that we have love on loan? People should be told this.”
Of all the challenges that confront a writer, perhaps none is so daunting as crafting a memoir of love lost. It calls upon the author to turn the gaze inward, without flinching. Grief is an interior journey through intimacy and vulnerability.
Marton is the child of survivors and secret-keepers, she learns as an adult: Her parents were Jews who raised their children as Catholics, and her discovery of her roots came through research for a biography of Raoul Wallenberg. Like all resilient people, her parents seem to have resolutely marched forward, with little introspection; after all, too much self-analysis can lead to despair. Their daughter, who decided to leave Washington and started packing the day after her husband died, has written a topography of her life’s loves with similar dispatch.
It is as if Marton had set it all down quickly, gathering the notes scribbled on napkins, the trove of extemporaneous accounts uncovered in a box of saved letters and the daily journal she kept after her husband’s death, to affix it in her memory before it vanishes forever. As such, “Paris: A Love Story” often feels like little more than an annotated timeline, a brisk and sometimes delicious read by a well-connected author.
Toward the end of the book, we have a glimpse of what reflections may yet develop for Marton, as grief passes into wisdom, as it always does, in time. She wanders about the city with an an aimlessness that lends itself to new curiosities about its mysteries. She examines placards memorializing Jewish children spirited away during World War II and wonders if a Hungarian skinhead who asks her for a sushi recommendation can be an emissary for diversity in a suspicious city.
Paris may always have a hold on her, as the place where “Kati is more Kati . . . than anywhere else,” as Holbrooke used to tell their friends. But it also is a city where, she writes, “you smile only when you have something to smile about. Sorrow and pain are deemed part of life.”
And, recognizing she is born of Europe but resolutely American in outlook, she slips into a boutique and buys a pair of raspberry-colored suede pumps with “dangerously high heels,” with which to walk into her future.
PARIS: A LOVE STORY
By Kati Marton
Simon & Schuster. 199 pp. $24