Paris: A Love Story
By Dr Syed Amir
Richard Holbrooke, the Special American Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan (2009-2010), was suddenly taken ill while visiting the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, at the State Department during one of his periodic official trips to Washington. He was rushed to the George Washington University Hospital. As he was being prepared for cardiac surgery to repair his ruptured aorta, he exclaimed to the chief surgeon, a Pakistani, Dr Farzad Najam, “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”
Those were to be his last words. The war and its devastation were still on his mind as he was about to undergo a critical surgical procedure. Dr Najam, an internationally recognized surgeon, attempted to comfort and reassure his nervous patient. Unfortunately, the arduous surgery could not save his life, despite the valiant efforts of Dr Najam and his team. Holbrooke died of complications on December 13, 2010, at age 69.
Now, Kati Marton, his wife and award-winning journalist and writer, has authored a highly readable memoir, Paris: A Love Story, to celebrate their love, honor the memory of her husband and commemorate the city where they spent the happiest days of their married life. Holbrooke’s death ended their fairytale marriage of seventeen years. One of the most touching notes she received after Holbrooke’s death was from someone she did not know that simply stated, “I woke up this morning and thought of you, and of the many mornings you will wake up without Richard.”
Marton describes an interminable grieving and healing process, as the family and friends shielded her with attention and care. She relates in fine details the memorial service for Holbrooke at Washington’s Kennedy Center, attended by dignitaries, including President Obama. Also present among the mourners were the president of Pakistan, Asif Zardari who travelled from Islamabad, and Pakistan’s ambassador at the time, Husain Haqqani. Marton drew much solace and emotional comfort from Zardari’s comments about the loss of his own wife, Benazir Bhutto, in a terrorist attack. Visibly moved, he advised her to let herself feel the pain, while revealing that he had not touched anything in his late wife’s room, “her clothes still hung where she had left them in the closet.” Holbrooke had developed a close personal rapport with the Pakistani president during the brief period he served as US special envoy, something that had not happened with President Karzai of Afghanistan.
Kati Marton’s parents had fled Hungary to escape communist repression and sought refuge in the US. Yet, she felt much more at home in Europe than her adopted country, the United States. She fell in love with the French way of life when she first visited the country as a young student at the Sorbonne. She adores Paris in particular, as she believes that many good things happened to her in this city of love and romance and it was here that in 1993 she got romantically involved with Holbrooke. Every section of her new book opens with a quotation from Earnest Hemingway’s highly acclaimed last book, Paris, a Moving Feast. “Every story with Paris at its heart is a love story,” she effusively pronounces.
At Christmas 1993, Morton had come to Paris to stay with her sister to escape from the feeling of despondency over her broken marriage with the legendary news anchor, Peter Jennings. Coincidentally, Holbrooke, the US ambassador to West Germany whom she had only known vaguely, was also in Paris and invited her out. He arrived “in an armored car the size of a tank officially assigned to the US ambassadors.” It was a grey, depressing post-Christmas day, with bone-chilling wind howling outside. They drove to the historic Loire Valley in central France, famous for its architecture and quaint small towns, exploring magnificent old churches and out-of-way restaurants. The tour greatly lifted her spirits. Holbrooke soon returned to his ambassadorial post in Bonn and she to her work in New York. Yet, their love blossomed during their frequent rendezvous in Paris and Bonn and led to wedding plans.
Marton had left her native Hungary as a child, but had not lost her attachment to that country. She and Holbrooke got married in Budapest in 1995, in what she characterizes a beautiful wedding ceremony in the gardens of the American ambassador’s residence, attended by the Hungarian president and other cabinet officers. Neither her parents nor her two children from the previous marriage attended, as they did not approve. It was the third marriage for both of them.
Kati Marton occasionally accompanied her husband on his various diplomatic missions to the Balkans, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Remarkably, the book has stayed clear of politics, even though she must have been privy to many confidential discussions. She has devoted some chapters in the book to narration of her previous failed marriage to Jennings, who died of lung cancer in 2005. Although the divorce was messy, she displays no bitterness or rancor. The style of her prose is polished and the narration flows easy. Yet, in places the time line gets a little confusing, as the events she describes don’t strictly follow in that sequence.
Kati Marton and Richard Holbrooke met in Paris for the last time in October 2010, just a few months before his death. He had flown overnight from Kabul in a military plane and was extremely exhausted. She describes how incredibly happy and contented she felt at the time as life seemed full of blissful joy. Then a feeling of foreboding seems to have overcome her, a feeling that some awful thing was about to happen. Reassuringly, Holbrooke appeared calm, strong and indestructible.
In Paris, they stopped at a sidewalk café to buy citrons presses, the popular French lemon drink. As Holbrooke took out his wallet to pay, Marton noticed that he still carried their faded, Polaroid picture taken sixteen years earlier in Tuileries Garden. She was touched. As he was about to leave Paris for Washington, he discovered that his wallet was missing. They searched desperately, but could not find it. Holbrooke was distressed; it had never happened before. There were no valuables, except their old, faded picture. Now, the picture and the wallet were gone, and so did Holbrooke just a few weeks later.