An Affair to Remember

Article excerpt

Byline: Susan Cheever

Kati Marton spills her secrets.

He goes out to walk the dog, or he asks for another Scotch, or--if he is Richard Holbrooke described by his wife, Kati Marton--he is on the phone planning Christmas and saying, "It feels so good to laugh." Then life changes for her in a moment. Instead of shopping in Paris for aubergine velvet, late-night love calls from Afghanistan, and happiness so intense that superstitious fear tells you it is too good to last, you are catapulted into a world of hospital emergency rooms, doctors with grim faces, and closets filled with suits that suddenly have no one to wear them.

Marton is the latest of the unmerry widows, women who--since Joan Didion wrote about her husband's death in 2005--have described what it's like to suddenly lose a man you have loved for a long time. Holbrooke, Marton's husband of 15 years, died on Dec. 13, 2010, after doctors at George Washington University Hospital spent two days trying to repair his ruptured aorta. Like the others--Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, and Abigail Thomas, to name a few--Marton defies the conventional wisdom that good writing is Wordsworthian emotion recollected in tranquility; she seems to be writing the story as it is happening. The book, short and intimate, reads like the wind from the urgency of the opening scene--she is caught in traffic and late to meet Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, for a citron presse at the Cafe Flore in Paris.

Later, he sleeps in after a glorious night together in their perfect Paris apartment ("he appears a few hours later, looking sheepish and like an unkempt boy"). They shop for a suit for the upcoming party for her prize-winning memoir about her Hungarian journalist parents--Enemies of the People--and he heads back to Afghanistan.

Even then, life isn't quite perfect. In a bookstore after saying goodbye to Holbrooke, Marton picks up Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars, flips to her husband's name in the index, and finds an infuriating story. She writes, "The President soured on Richard when my husband asked him to call him Richard, not Dick, at the ceremony appointing him special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan." Holbrooke had explained to the president that Kati, who was in the audience, did not like the nickname Dick. Standing in a Paris bookshop, Marton is furious--how can Obama, who doesn't like to be called by his nickname, Barry, be irritated that she doesn't want people to call her husband Dick?

The rich are different from you and me--they are a lot more fun to read about. Marton and Holbrooke's first date was a three-day jaunt to Chartres and the Chateaux of the Loire Valley at Christmastime in 1993. He was in his 50s, the American ambassador to Germany taking a few days off; she in her 40s was just barely separated from anchorman Peter Jennings, one of the most famous men in the world. They talked about Gothic vs. Romanesque, spoke perfect French, and ate at Chez Benoit where they ran into Holbrooke's friend Pamela Harriman, the ambassador to France. (Harriman snubbed Marton.) No sweaty groping in cheesy hotel rooms for these two! Holbrooke's most excited moment was when he and Marton sat side by side in a pew of the great Chartres cathedral. "Just imagine," he whispered urgently, "the pilgrims' first reaction to these windows! The power of this place for medieval peasants." At the end of five days together, they held hands.

And that's not the only difference. Most of us, when packing to move, don't have Bill Clinton drop by to help with the boxes. (Clinton, opting out of the Richard/Dick controversy, diplomatically always called his friend "Holbrooke.") Most patients don't have Hillary Clinton sitting hopefully beside their hospital bed, or get loving advice from Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari about grief; he told Marton that he has kept his wife Benazir Bhutto's room just as she left it. …