The Lady and the Playwright

He had her from “Must you go?”

It was Jan. 8, 1975—opening night of the revival of “The Birthday Party” at London’s Shaw Theatre. Lady Antonia Fraser—historian and author of the best-selling “Mary Queen of Scots”—was in the audience and then at the postperformance dinner for the play’s author, Harold Pinter.

[ccfraser] Lady Antonia Fraser

As the festivities wound down, Lady Antonia, daughter of the Seventh Earl of Longford, wife of British M.P. Hugh Fraser, and a brainy and very dishy mother of six—comparisons to Julie Christie and Marianne Faithfull were frequent and reasonable—accepted a ride home from neighbors. But first she wanted to offer quick congratulations to the man of the hour: “Wonderful play, marvelous acting,” she told Pinter. “Now I’m off.”

“He looked at me with those amazing, extremely bright black eyes. ‘Must you go?’ he said. I thought of home, my lift, taking the children to school the next morning . . . my projected biography of King Charles II. ‘No, it’s not absolutely essential.'”

So began a 33-year marriage of true minds that ended with Pinter’s death from cancer on Christmas Eve in 2008, at the age of 78. He was “loopy” about her. She was “dippy” about him. He called her his destiny, wrote her love poems, ordered up flowers for her in extravagant quantities and described their situation as “joyous, dangerous and unavoidable.”

Unavoidable indeed. Lady Antonia left her husband. Pinter left his wife, the actress Vivien Merchant. The British tabloid press, agog—titled Catholic aristocrat consorting with working-class Jewish playwright!—never left them alone.

The couple’s blazingly happy relationship—they married in 1980—is chronicled in Lady Antonia’s affecting new book, “Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter.” It is neither biography nor memoir, but an assemblage of gleaming bits and pieces fashioned from her diary—a mosaic of moments, low and high (his diagnosis of esophageal cancer in 2001; his 2005 Nobel Prize), private and public (the covert meetings in dark bars at the dawn of their affair; Pinter’s highly vocal railing at human-rights violations; his support of the Serbs and rage about the Iraq war).

An inveterate journal-keeper for more than 40 years, Lady Antonia began work on “Must You Go” a month after Pinter died. “I never intended to publish it. It wasn’t written for that reason,” she said, drinking coffee in the lobby alcove of her midtown hotel after an early morning swim. “But I was sitting in a restaurant with an old friend who was trying to cheer me up and who happened to ask, ‘Do you still keep diaries?’

“The whole thing, including the title, came into my head like that. It was an act of love and remembrance, really, a book of celebration at a time of such tremendous grief,” continued Lady Antonia, 78, who has a posh, creamy voice you must sometimes bend close to hear and who has a manner that is equal parts grand and grandmotherly. “It was a very surprising thing for me to do because I’m not a very candid person, and I don’t believe I would or could write it now. It was the effect of grief.”

There were no touch-ups of the text, no airbrushing, she insisted. “A sense of historian’s honor. I wouldn’t do that.” But 33 years did have to be shaped and arranged into manageable length. “This was not the American Civil War.”

In assembling the book, whose diary entries are sometimes appended with commentary and memories, Lady Antonia operated with one basic rule: “Everything had to relate to me and Harold. I couldn’t just put in things because they were fun.”

Fortunately, that self- imposed stricture allowed for anecdotes and encounters involving (in no particular order) John Gielgud, Joan Collins, Helen Mirren, Jude Law, Lauren Bacall, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Karl Lagerfeld, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael Gambon, Salman Rushdie, Steve McQueen, Vaclav Havel, Princess Diana, Warren Beatty (who put the moves on Lady Antonia) and Samuel Beckett. Duly recorded was a side-splitting exchange between the two giants of the theater. “I’m sorry, Sam, if I sound gloomy,” said Pinter, to which the “Waiting for Godot” author most courteously replied, “Oh, you couldn’t be more gloomy than I am, Harold.”

Lady Antonia began work on “Must You Go” “like a bat out of hell,” she said. Ultimately, however, the deeply ingrained habits of a historian took over. In the book’s more thematically arranged middle portion, “I did think ‘I am now exercising my profession. I’m seeing what fits where and how to construct it.’ That was rather fun, because I also thought ‘at the end there are going to be no references, no bibliography. It’s all me. I am the source notes.'”

Since the book’s publication last spring in Britain—it was released in the U.S. last week—Lady Antonia has grown to expect several things from reporters. There will surely be an exclamation of surprise that Pinter wasn’t really very, um (pause) Pinteresque at all. He was chivalrous and romantic, a doting stepfather and step-grandfather (and seriously afraid of bugs and heights). There will almost certainly be a request for Lady Antonia to read one of the poems from Pinter that are sprinkled through the diary (she complies with admirable composure). And of course there will be a question about what her late husband would make of the book. “As I was writing I was confident that he was, as it were, with me,” Lady Antonia said. “And I tell people that he would have loved two things about it, that his poems run through it and that I draw no veil over his politics at all.”

Lady Antonia, whose books include biographies of Oliver Cromwell, James I of England, the wives of Henry VIII and Marie Antoinette is currently without a subject for her next book. During Pinter’s final illness, she had done considerable work on a biography of Elizabeth I, but abandoned the project after finishing “Must You Go.” “I thought, ‘I can’t go back. I think it’s a fascinating topic but I don’t have anything special to say,'” she recalled.

“I’m very self-disciplined. If I’m going to spend years thinking about something, then the reader is going to have my best. They’re not going to have something I cobbled together because I said I’d do it,” continued Lady Antonia, who converted to Catholicism as a teenager and whose fascination with religion has found expression in almost her entire oeuvre. “So I repaid the advance—ouch, ouch—and there it is. I shall do something, but I really haven’t had a minute this year. On Jan. 1, I will go back to my usual routine.”

The work on “Must You Go” was no replacement for grieving—only a postponement. “After I’d written it and was getting it ready for publication, I did have a kind of letdown,” said Lady Antonia. “But by that time I was stronger, as one is.”

Closure? She recoils at the word and the notion. “Thank you very much. No closure,” she said tartly. “I don’t want closure in stopping mourning. I don’t want it to stop. But it is the oddest thing when something happens and I think ‘I must tell Harold.’

“And I can’t.”

Ms. Kaufman writes about culture and the arts for the Journal.


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