Lady Antonia Fraser is over here with her inamorato, Harold Pinter, but she doesn't want to talk about it. Don't ask.
She does want to talk about King Charles II. Lady Antonia often writes books about dead Britons, and now she has done it again. You can ask her anything you want about King Charles.
She has been giving interviews in New York, in her suite at the Carlyle, an apt address for an English historian. "It's a nice coincidence, isn't it?" she said. "I'm very keen on Carlyle." But the she remembered to add that Carlyle was mean to his wife, which was not so keen.
Harold Pinter is not giving interviews. He apparently manages to slip out before the interviewers arrive, but somehow it's hard to forget him for long. Maybe it's the large photo of him with Lady Antonia across the room. You can stare at it all you want, but no questions, please. Lady Antonia declines to respond, politely, softly, smilingly, but firmly. This leaves the interviewers in a dejected state and with no choice but to ask questions about Charles II.
For those of you who have trouble sorting out your dead Britons, Charles II is the one who had to leave England with great rapidity after monarchical popularity plummeted, to the point where his father, the king, (oddly enough named Charles I) suddenly lost all feeling below the neck. Oliver Cromwell ensued. But 11 years later, in 1660, all was forgiven. Charles returned to England and was crowned, which was a good thing, because otherwise they would have had to find a different name for Restoration Drama.
Meanwhile, however, he had acquired a reputation as a good-time Charlie. Wenching, theather-going, overspending and excessive wittiness, that's the rap. Not so, cries Lady Antonia, in 524 exhaustively researched pages. She is not kidding around. There are footnotes, maps, color plates, the whole caboodle. It's clear that Lady Antonia is out to permanently alter history's perception of King Charles II. No more of that merry-old-soul-was-he jazz.
"I think if you look at his experiences in exile, it's obvious that he could not have emerged as a sort of merry fellow," she said. "I also think he was a hedonist whose pleasures were intended to cure that melancholy, which I think is quite a common phenomenon."
A common phenomenon in jounalism is the sly segue. After numerous incisive and penetrating questions about Charles II, the interviewer subtly pointed out that the book is dedicated to "my mother and Harold," and asked whether one could assume that the Harold was Pinter.
"It's not Harold Wilson," laughed Lady Antonia. A stop sign appeared. "Sorry," she said. "I just don't ever answer questions about him." None whatever? "No. Not all the thousands of questions you're going to ask, like has he affected my style or anything. I don't answer them."
Uncanny. How could she have known that was the very question on one's lips? One had no interest in the obvious. After all, everyone knows about that boring business of Lady Antonia and Harold running off together five years ago, she divorcing her husband of 20 years, Hugh Fraser, the Tory M.P., to live with Pinter, who has yet to receive a divorce from his actress wife, Vivien Merchant, who used to call up the British papers and complain that Lady Antonia had cast a spell over her husband. There was little to fear on that score.
No, it was merely Pintersque literary gossip that one craved insatiably. How fast does the man type? What weight paper does he use? An all-black ribbon or black and red? And, of course, does anyone ever ask him, "Who was that Lady I saw you with last night?"
One had to settle for Philip Roth chat. That unexpected diversion emerged without warning out of a King Charles question. What would she have liked to ask old Charles, if she could? "I would really just like to meet him face to face."
She had described him as charming, attractive, perhaps a great lover. Was he her type?
"Oh, yes," she said. "Absolutely. I was talking to Philip Roth, who's a friend of ours, on the telephone. He'd been told by Claire Bloom, with whom he lives, he said, "She saw your book and she said that I look just like Charles II.' And I said, 'You do, Philip, you do. You have a saturnine look.' And he said, 'I haven't given Claire one of those in a long time.' He always makes me laugh."
Philip Roth. Not bad, but Harold Pinter would have been more to the point.
Once you tell a reporter he can't ask about something, he becomes obsessed with it. He can't keep his mind on dead Britons the way he should. He will tend to ask a 47-year-old distinguished biographer, who keeps pictures of her six children on her hotel room table, how she feels when every time she opens a newspaper she sees herself described in phrases such as "the most romantic, sexy woman," or " a femme fatale" or "blond and beautiful."
"Who wouldn't like to be described as blond and beautiful?" said Lady Antonia.
The reporter mentioned himself.
When the photographer arrived, Lady Antonia excused herself and went to another room. "I'm just going to change my dress," she said, "because I got up in a tremendous hurry and I know from experience that this dress doesn't look particularly nice in photographs."
While she changed, the reporter took the opportunity to slip his readers a long background sentence including such historic facts as that Lady Antonia has also written biographies of Cromwell and Mary, Queen of Scots and a couple of mystery novels; that almost everyone in her family writes books, including her father, the earl of Longford (who became known as "Lord Porn," because he investigated pornography in the House of Lords) and her brother, Thomas Pakenham, whose new book about the Boer War came out last week, and that we have somehow forgotten to mention the name of her own book, which is "Royal Charles," and goes for $16.95.
After Lady Antonia returned, in a blue dress, she was interrogated about her activities in New York. She admitted to visting her daughter, Rebecca, who studies history at New York University, and to giving a speech to the English Speaking Union on her biographical method, and to going to a Sutton Place party (with the unmentionable person), at which she met Barbara Tuchman, "a heroine of mine."
Next she would pop down to Washington for a weekend visit with Mrs. David Bruce, a good friend and widow of the former ambassador. Then back to New York to do some research on her next book, which will be about women in the 17th, her favorite century. She'll work in the New York Public Library, despite the fact that she once had her purse robbed there. Strangely, some of the best information on dead Britons is found in American libraries.
Once could not resist one more try. Reporters seldom can. Even though one must respect, perhaps even admire, Lady Antonia's heroic determination to keep this thing from descending into the depths of smarmy gossip, one had wondered for many years what Pinter is like around the house. (One imagines marvelously sinister conversations -- short, cryptic exchanges punctuated by long, ominous pauses and a growing sense of menace.)
"Keep wondering," said Lady Antonia.