Long Island Books: Love and Loss, Close to the Vest

By Ellen T. White
After the death of Richard Holbrooke in 2010, Kati Marton started her life over in Paris, alone.

“Paris: A Love Story”
Kati Marton
Simon & Schuster, $24

   In the age of too much information, a brief memoir looks like a welcome relief at first — a respite from the tell-all exposé. In her slender “Paris: A Love Story,” Kati Marton gives us the bones of a rousing tale, a portrait of love and loss, chock full of the political players who have shaped world events over the last 50 years. Yet her narrative restraint often dims the light on what has clearly been a rich and unusual life. We have the facts, but we’re still missing a lot of the soul.
    Ms. Marton was married to two very public men — the ABC News anchor Peter Jennings and the celebrated diplomat Richard Holbrooke, known chiefly for negotiating an end to the Bosnian war. Though Ms. Marton is formidably accomplished, it’s safe to say that the characters of these famously volatile men, both deceased, are the memoir’s draw.
    Jennings was Ms. Marton’s first great love, a man who played Pygmalion to her nascent career as a correspondent for ABC News, while insisting that her Ambition, with a capital “A,” compromised their relationship. Fifteen years and two children later, their marriage came to a grinding halt in an East Hampton driveway after a friend’s dinner party. Jennings’s hissy fit was not the first of such scenes, for sure, but it was the last Ms. Marton was willing to endure.
    In a charming conceit, Paris wraps itself around the story like a third romantic character. Ms. Marton studied at the Sorbonne as a young adult, and her letters home, excerpted at some length here, rhapsodize about the Paris of Montaigne, music, and sumptuous food. Later, while she was posted to Bonn with ABC, the agony and infrequent ecstasy of her relationship with Jennings, working in London, played out in swanky restaurants all over town.
    Ultimately, Paris became the springboard from which Ms. Marton leapt out of her troubled marriage into a new life. Mr. Holbrooke, as it happens, had been waiting patiently. Pulling up on his white horse (an armored Buick, actually) to the Hotel Petit Trianon, Mr. Holbrooke spirited a tearful Ms. Marton away for good. “Kati is more Kati in Paris,” Holbrooke later observed, “than anywhere else.” The apartment they bought in the Latin Quarter is where she still spends part of each year.
    Ms. Marton’s back story is surprising. As a girl, she and her family immigrated to New York from Budapest after the Hungarian uprising of 1956, around which her parents, also journalists, were seized and jailed for a time. Among the many languages Ms. Marton speaks is French, taught to her by a nanny — a Communist informant, as it turns out. In other words, though the details are bit sketchy, Ms. Marton comes from some measure of privilege, though her young life was harrowing in many respects.
    As a young correspondent, prized, she says, for her fearlessness, Ms. Marton covered everything from the neutron bomb crisis and Palestinian refugee camps to spies in Berlin, the civil war in Rhodesia, and the ascent of Pope John Paul II. Children and a demanding husband pushed her into a writing career she could do from home. “Paris: A Love Story” brings Ms. Marton’s book count up to seven, which includes “The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World,” “Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History,” and her notable biography of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swede who rescued hundreds of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. While researching Wallenberg, Ms. Marton discovered that she is Jewish herself — a revelation that takes up startlingly little emotional air time.
    Ms. Marton’s narrative is direct and clear. She has the reporter’s eye for the quotidian detail. Her descriptions of Paris often transport the reader to the scene with all its sights and sounds. For news junkies, there’s a political celebrity on virtually every page, as well as several funny stories that will make you wish for more. I laughed out loud at Ms. Marton’s account of taking a taxi from a Palestinian refugee camp to Jerusalem to surprise Jennings — the ultimate romantic gesture — only to learn a plane out of Paris was the only way back to Amman. Or a party that the man-eating Pamela Harriman, then ambassador to France, offered to throw for the newly engaged Holbrookes, to which Ms. Marton was not invited. (You had to be there.)
    As vivid as these stories are, the narrator is curiously elusive, even after 200 pages. I don’t know Ms. Marton much better today than I did at the start, even though I know a great deal more about her life. The private thoughts and feelings she records are often more dutiful than real. Sentences like “Really, it’s the simplest things in life that mean the most to me,” for instance, or “How enriched I am in every way” have a tinny and generic feel. In her writing, Ms. Marton is often more the informative observer than participant.
    As the gut-wrenching mourning memoir gains traction in the marketplace, Ms. Marton skims the surface of this emotional landscape. In a letter, excerpted here, Joan Didion writes, “I woke up this morning thinking of you, and all the mornings you will wake up without Richard.” Ms. Didion’s 2005 “The Year of Magical Thinking” shook the rafters of grief and, of course, took the National Book Award. “But I don’t want to be sad on all the mornings to come,” writes Ms. Marton, who in describing her feelings relies a little too heavily on platitudes. “I have just been made painfully aware of how fleeting life is and how unpredictable. In a sense, I have never wanted to hold life tighter, or to live more fully than now, reeling from loss.” Enough of that. Tell us how you really feel.
   Jennings comes off as a Dr. Jekyll — charming when it suited him; a nightmare when a shift in the wind threatened his shockingly fragile self-esteem. I wish we knew more about how he got that way. Holbrooke, by this account, was a pussycat — though newspaper reports credit his unpredictable rages as the reason he missed out on becoming secretary of state. Still, we can see he knew his way around a romantic negotiating table. He waited years for her marriage to Jennings to unravel, and then played the romantic lead with cinematic aplomb.
    “Paris: A Love Story” is a charming pastiche — and perhaps this is exactly what Ms. Marton intended it to be. But as a memoir, it comes up as a sketch in need of coloring. In a blurb on the book jacket, Barbara Walters claims to have stayed up all night to read “Paris: A Love Story” from cover to cover. Granted, the memoir is a diverting read. The drawback is that it doesn’t stick to your ribs.

    Ellen T. White, former managing editor of the New York Public Library, is the author of “Simply Irresistible,” a humorous how-to that culls the lessons of the great romantic women of history. She lives in Springs.
    Kati Marton has a house in Bridgehampton.