"I HOPE," Marina Sulzberger wrote in a letter from Lahore, Pakistan, "I don't sound too much like the National Geographic." No danger of that. Her spelling extravaganzas and free-from punctuation would never have made it past the copy editors of that stately publication. Nor, quite likely, her cheerful irreverence towards civilizations old and new. Take what she wrote about Peshawar in 1957: "Really god was not at his best when he made that poor country. You feel that he just dumped things any old how. Sand and rocks and left overs."
Alas, the National Geographic missed a good bet. Marina Sulzberger was a first-rate reporter with more than three decades of foreign adventures to describe. Her letters were so vivid and entertaining that hundreds of them were saved by her friends. Now, three years after her death, they have been collected and edited -- along with bits of her diaries -- by her husband Cyrus Sulzberger, the former columnist for The New York Times .
He has wisely kept the words exactly as she put them down -- with spelling every which way. Although Marina Sulzberger spoke six languages, she could not spell in any. Instead, she elevated misspelling (noses are "nozes" in her lexicon) to a creative art. Her improvisations and flights of fancy give old words new flavor and make it possible to hear her Greek accent. As in this early account of a trip to Chantilly: "We went for a walk in the forest and imagine how crazy we went when we found fealds and feailds and feilds of defodils. We picked and picket until we could hold no more. The children were speechless with delight."
Marina Ladas was a Greek girl from a family with some connections but little money when she met Cy Sulzberger, foreign correspondent for the Times , in Athens in 1940. From the time she married him two years later in Jerusalem, to her death in 1976, she wrote hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of letters to her family and friends. From Paris, where they lived in winter, Greece in the summers and every continent on the earth -- except Antarctica where her husband could not take her with him -- came an outpouring of her colorful reactions. There is not a pompous political thought in the lot. She simply recorded the response of her fine mind and spirited good humor to everything she saw and heard. "So while Cy struggled with statistics and ever contradictory information, I just walked and looked and listened and talked" -- and put it down, with the help of her husband's typewriter, to mail to her beloved mother in Athens and a star-studded list of friends.
Of her first view of Russia in the winter of 1955, she wrote: "One is suddenly plunged into a sort of never never land where everything is both true and false, good and bad, where every preconceived idea is both confirmed and denied.... We have been here exactly a week today and it feels as if we had never been anywhere else.... For one thing the endless planes, all white, all flat make one feel that there is nothing but Russia all around one and that there is no use trying to get out. It has a strange horrid fascination however, like looking under the bed for a burglar and secretly hoping he is there."
She saw the unusual in the ordinary and the extraordinary in the usual. After fishing on Lake Albert in Uganda, she wrote: "The most unexpected thing of all... was when we were sitting in our little boat and suddenly there would be a swirl and a churning of water and there right under our nozes would slowly rise something looking exactly like the old leather sofa in the library, only with absurdly delicate pink ears and small malevolent pink eyes. Hypos. By the dozens." And of Afghanistan in the spring, she wrote: "The mudd which is just at its best now that the snow is starting to melt, is the most splendid you have ever seen. The gouey grey clinging type."
Greece was always her first love and it was Greece that brought out her best as a landscape artist: "The wide yellow fields with olive trees and figs and the smell of hot pine needels. Then a river... and plane trees all the way down and heards of baby sheep searching for shade. Huge walnut trees and black berries and then row after row of hills pale yellow turning into dark blue mountains in the distance. And Everywhere that most delicious of God's after thoughts the cyprus tree just to give the right proportion to everything."
One bumps into unexpected wisdom. Describing a high-minded symposium in Aspen, Colorado, she said: "We spent hours trying to define freedom and the only time I opened my mouth in exhasperation was then, just to say that we were all wasting our time as in my mind there were only two complete ones and one almost unconditional one, that is to love, to dream and to take one's own life."
In 30 years of her letters, there is almost no gossip and hardly an unkind word. Only a few trenchant comments. She found post-Watergate Washington "run by a bunch of self satisfied smug self important provincials. First and foremost the press, who has bamboozled everybody into thinking it almighty." And then there was the bitterness of working for The New York Times -- if your name is Sulzberger. Her only flash of anger is directed at the managing editor for his "jealousy of such proportions" over Cy Sulzberger's exclusive interview with President Nixon in 1970. But on a very sunny, broad horizon that is the only could.
Hers was a life to envy. She had a loving family, two children, houses in Paris and in Greece, friends who were mostly ambassadors or Rothschilds or Andre Malraux -- ("knee deep in Dukes" she once described herself). Name a head of state and she had dined with him -- or at least lunched. Ike invited her to his birthday party in 1951 and she was asked to the White House for a heart-to-heart with Mamie (who said "Mrs. Truman was 'too busy doing nothing' and Mrs. Roosevelt 'too busy running around the country'" to keep the place in good repair). In Indonesia, she did the national dancewith President Sukarno -- out in the noonday sun. Typically, she saw the funny side: "There we all were sweating like sponges and smiling bravely leaping and bouncing on terrace and lawn and getting down on our bended knees and squeeking up again and all together looking too absurd for words. Ah me this awful race for popularity with the underprivileged nations."
Marina Sulzberger remained amused and surprised by what she called "the delicious things that happen to me" -- which she was so gifted at sharing with others. Her grandmother described her as having a rare combination of "brilliance and goodness." And I would add, an unusual capacity to find and give pleasure as she does in these letters.