"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first of the mysterious Italian author's Neapolitan novels. The series tells the story of a life-long friendship between two working class girls in Naples. Critics have called Ferrante “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” Yet nobody knows her true identity. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “My Brilliant Friend.”
Diane talks with Lady Antonia Fraser about her memoir of living and loving through adversity. The best-selling historian recounts her three decades with playwright Harold Pinter — media hysteria surrounding their affair, his famous temper, and his long struggle with cancer.
- Antonia Fraser
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. After her husband's death in 2008, noted historian Lady Antonia Fraser turned to her diaries for comfort. For weeks, she read, edited and annotated the story of her three decades with Nobel prize-winning dramatist Harold Pinter. The result is a memoir of their shared life and her husband's courage in the face of death.
MS. DIANE REHMThe book is titled, "Must You Go?" and Lady Antonia joins me here in the studio. Throughout the hour, I'll look forward to hearing your questions, comments. You can join us on 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org You can join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you. It's so good to see you again.
LADY ANTONIA FRASERGood morning.
REHMI'm sorry about your husband.
REHMI know that that was a love affair of the first order. Would you read for us the part of your book -- I think it's on page five. You and your prior husband were both married. You and Harold Pinter were both married to other people. You had six children. He had two.
REHMTalk about that night and read for us.
FRASERThis is a diary entry dated the 8th of January, 1975, and even after we celebrated this anniversary for reasons you will see when I read it.
FRASER"A very enjoyable dinner party at Rachel and Kevin Billington's house in Addison Avenue, my sister and brother-in-law, a long and convivial table. I was slightly disappointed not to sit next to the playwright who looked full of energy with black, curly hair and pointed ears like a satyr. We'd been to the first night of his play "The Birthday Party." Gradually, the guests filtered away. My neighbors offered me a lift up the road. Wait a minute, I said, I must just say goodbye to Harold Pinter and tell him I enjoyed the play. I haven't said hello all evening. They waited at the door."
FRASER"I went over to where Harold was sitting, wonderful play, marvelous acting. 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, the exhausting past night in a sleeper from Scotland, my projected biography of King Charles II. No, it's not absolutely essential, I said."
FRASER"About 2:30 in the morning, poor Rachel and Kevin were visibly exhausted and we were the last guests. In the end, it was Harold who gave me a lift home in a white car with a driver. He never drove at night having once been found weaving, his word, in Regent's Park. I offered him coffee. I actually gave him champagne. He stayed until 6:00 o'clock in the morning with extraordinary recklessness. But, of course, the real recklessness was mine."
REHMWhat a wonderful first time together. It was extraordinary.
FRASERWhat would have happened if I'd said, I really must go home, got to take the kids to school, and all of that?
REHMHow do you answer that in your own mind?
FRASERWell, Harold and I had two different reactions. Harold was a great romantic, as I think people who have read my book are beginning to realize. He said, you were my destiny and I would have found you somehow. I took the Robert Frost line, you know. It would have been, "the road not taken." We would never know. But happily discussing the subject, we celebrated the 8th of January. He always used to give me presents and flowers.
REHMI love it. You know, the extraordinary part, too, was when you told your husband at the time that you wanted a divorce.
FRASERI think I feel nothing but respect for the memory of my first husband. He died about ten years later, unfortunately. He was a heavy smoker, but nothing but respect. But I think that we had very different interests. We had interests in common, the children obviously, but very different interests. He was a conservative politician. He was also the generation who had fought their way through the war. So although he was only 15, 16 years older than me, that was a great difference in the '50s between those who had gone through the war, in his case, a parachutist in occupied Belgium, very brave, and those like me who had simply been a child at the time.
FRASERSo I mean, I feel bound to say that I respect his memory. And in the remaining ten years of his life, after we were chairman and members of a board of a company of six children and it was very civilized.
REHMHe asked you who it was. And how did you tell him?
FRASERWell, I told him it was Harold Pinter and he said, well, very suitable, a great playwright. Because I loved the theatre, always did, loved it since youth in Oxford in the war where many theatrical productions remained because they couldn't go to London's West End because of the blitz. So I've always loved the theatre and I was always going off to the theatre, whereas he wouldn't because he'd be in the House of Commons. You know, so then, that was his reaction.
REHMI thought it was interesting that you described him as more comfortable in crowds than on a one-to-one basis.
FRASERYes. He was a member of a large family and he'd been sent to boarding school. It happens to the British upper class at age six. you know. Isn't it awful?
FRASERAnd he was a wonderful father and very -- he liked families. He liked my family and remained close to them. I mean, that's what he said really. I think you know he married at 39. Perhaps he didn't really -- I don't want to say anything critical of him, actually, because there is nothing critical to say. Just that for two very different people, we had a good time while it lasted.
REHMAnd Harold's family situation was perhaps less happy?
FRASERWell, you know, all of this would be second-hand. I only met his first wife, the distinguished actress Vivian Merchant, once before I knew Harold. So, you know, I know that he -- perhaps it's difficult for a playwright and an actress to be married. I wouldn't know because I'm not an actress.
REHMOf course, the tabloids went crazy.
FRASERI know. It's extraordinary now when we have this celebrity culture, you know, and people are famous for being famous. I still quite find myself baffled by all that tabloid interest. I mean, sometimes it was really sort of ludicrous, actually. It wasn't pleasant, but we just got on with our lives and ignored it.
REHMQuite intrusive, I would imagine.
FRASERYes, but, of course, it's as intrusive as you let it be. Once you realize what's happening, once you think, well, I can't stop them writing these things -- because I'm always campaigning for free speech. So this is free speech, but I also have freedom and the freedom is not to read it. So I just gave up reading it.
REHMYou had six children...
REHM...with your husband -- your first husband. How did you manage your own writing career throughout all that?
FRASEROh, Diane, if I knew, I'd sell it on E-bay, you know. I can't imagine. I see my children. I think we had no money, but help. You must have some help with six children if you're going to do any kind of work. But help in those days in England was much more plentiful and a great deal cheaper. You know, it's now -- well, you know, help works shorter hours and takes more money. So I think that was assistance, but, of course, nobody wants to come and work with six children. And agencies, when I'd ring up desperately, would say, oh, Lady Antonia, if it was only four children. And I would say, but what am I to do with the other two? Put them in a drawer?
REHMTell me the ages of the children? How far apart were they?
FRASERThey were born in ten years.
FRASERBut now, it's wonderful. They're in their 40s and 50s. And at one of my daughter's 50th birthday party, there were all six of them two years ago. And I thought they now all look the same age because, of course, the girls look younger in proportion to the boys because the boys don't bother so much. It's rather odd and it's lovely now because they're all very friendly with each other.
REHMHow did they get along with Harold Pinter?
FRASERThey got on very well. He loved children. He began -- he liked them and, of course, the boys -- he was a very athletic man, cricket and all those things -- football were of great interest to him. And then, of course, the great treat in his life was the grandchildren, 17 of whom were born in his lifetime.
FRASERI include only two photographs of him with grandchildren but they stand for a lot and when he was dying all the ones who were in England paid him a visit and it was like a Victorian picture, you know farewell to a grandfather.
REHMHow wonderful for him and for you. This diary that you kept, how soon -- how early in your life did you begin keeping that diary?
FRASERI used to keep childhood diaries which are best forgotten. You know, I got up in the morning and had breakfast, you know, that kind of thrilling tale. And I kept the odd diary when I went traveling. I went to Poland behind the Iron Curtain, when there was an Iron Curtain, or I went to Ethiopia on a mule with my brother. I kept those diaries, but I kept the virtually daily diary from 1968 after I handed in my first historical book, "Mary Queen of Scots."
REHMLady Antonia Fraser, her new book, "Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter." We'll take a short break and take your calls when we come back.
REHMIf you've just joined us, Lady Antonia Fraser is with me. Of course, so many of her books have been heralded, "Mary Queen of Scots," "Love and Louis XIV," "Marie Antoinette," but now a very personal book about her three decades with her husband of 30 years, Harold Pinter. Her new memoir is titled, "Must You Go?" which was the question Harold Pinter asked her one evening at a dinner party. And Lady Antonia said, well, no, I guess not. Now she is here in the studio with me and if there are questions you'd like to put forward, feel free to call us, send us an e-mail, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Your mother had a dire prediction when you and Harold married. What was it?
MS. ANTONIA FRASERWell, somebody who'd never met Harold, very well known commentator and journalist called Malcolm Muggeridge, was a neighbor of my parents in the country. I knew him quite well because he was a neighbor. My parents respected him and thought he was a man of the world, whereas they weren't. And he'd, I repeat, never met Harold and he said, oh, well, he'll never marry her. He's not at all uxorious. And, in fact, he couldn't be more wrong. Harold was the most wonderful husband -- most attentive, marvelous husband. It actually made me laugh afterwards. And I think I only knew about it reading my mother's diary after her death. I don't think I knew before.
REHMAnd she said that you would never be accepted in theatrical circles.
FRASERI don't know where she got that from because what did she know about theatrical circles? And, in fact, it used to make Harold and me laugh like anything. You know, it became a sort of joke with us. Oh well, off we go. Like, to a first night, off we go. Try your luck in theatrical circles and watch them all turning around. Actually, actors are the most friendly people. They really love communication and, you know, it's that trade really, their life. And so, I mean, I have many really good friends among actors and actresses.
REHMBut how did all the friends -- how did all the family react with your marriage to Harold?
FRASERWell, you see we had very -- we were -- he was 44 and I was 42. We were people who made our own lives. You know, we were over 20 years away from our upbringing and education. And we both liked the same thing. We liked writers. I mean, most of our closest friends were writers, playwrights, you know, Tom Stoppard, Ronnie Harwood, you know, Simon Gray, those kind of things. It was natural to us both, actually.
REHMAnd so they were welcoming to both of you.
FRASEROh, yes. But to be quite honest, even if they hadn't been, I didn't go off with them, you know. I went off with Harold.
REHMIt didn't make a difference.
FRASERNo. But they were definitely -- well, Tom Stoppard was already a friend of mine. I was a great admirer of his work.
REHMI must say Harold Pinter's work brought you here to New York. What about America?
FRASERYes. Well, we had -- I think in the early days of our relationship, before we managed to get married, we had such a happy time in New York in the fall of 1976. I've never forgotten it. It was a magic time because in New York, we were just people like anyone else, you know, none of this tabloid nonsense. And all the people we knew were interesting, very hard-working, women as well as men. And he was directing two plays back-to-back, one of which was a terrible flop and one was a great success. So we had the theatrical experience.
REHMWhat was the flop?
FRASERThe flop was a marvelous play, which is "The Innocents," which was the play William Archibald made after Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw." And he had a wonderful actress as the governess, Claire Bloom. But somehow -- I mean, if I knew why something succeeds on Broadway, you know, I'd be in a different profession.
REHMAnd what was the success?
FRASER"Otherwise Engaged" by Simon Gray with Tom Courtenay, which Harold had already directed in London.
REHMNow, another part of your career, Lady Antonia, comes in a question posted on Twitter. Rox says, "Please ask Antonia about her years on NPR's old favorite "My Word!" Did being on that show help with her public persona?"
FRASERWell, it certainly helped with my private happiness. I loved being on that show. I was on with late great Frank Muir and Denis Norden and Dilys Powell, a distinguished veteran film critic. We had such a good time. Frank and Denis were so nice to me and they used to tell me the arts under their breath so that I was enabled to shine on radio. Nine years, it was really so enjoyable. And I remember coming to Washington and suddenly finding that I was well known because I'd been on "My Word!"
REHMHow about that? And a weekly program, is that what it was?
FRASERYes. A weekly program down in front of a live audience in a place in lower Regent Street.
REHMAnd the questions would have been -- what was the discussion?
FRASERIt was sort of literary. It was all to do with the fun of words, to do with language. We were not prepared, by the way. You know, we weren't given notice, as people sometimes wondered. But other than sort of getting a sneak preview from Frank Muir, who's so frightfully clever, it wasn't prepared at all. It wasn't a set up. The idea was that we would enjoy ourselves with the fun, the art -- love of language. And in doing so, that other people would enjoy it. It had, as you say, a real following.
REHMCan you recall the kind of question that would be asked?
FRASERI'm going to recall one of my successes...
FRASER...which is that I was asked, what is it about this phrase? It must've been slightly more elaborate than that. And I started to type it out and I realized that all the keys were on the middle key of the typewriter, something like that. None of the other three could type to...
REHMAnd you knew how to type.
FRASEROh yeah, I'm a touch typist. Yes.
REHMOf course. Do you use a computer?
FRASERI do now, yes. And, of course, being a touch typist is very helpful.
REHMOf course. What was life in London like for you in Camden Hill Square?
FRASERWell, we had -- it's a lovely house which I bought very, very cheaply in 1959 when Nottinghill Gate -- nobody ever heard of it and who wants to go there, you know, and do we take a railway train and other bad jokes. And I'm still living there.
REHMYou're still living there.
FRASERYes, very comfortably at the house. I once said that my ideal happiness was to be alone in a room in a house full of people. And you know what they say, beware of what you wish for because, at the moment, I've got my son and his five children coming and going 'cause they're between houses in London.
REHMOh, I see.
FRASERSo it's very full indeed. But he was born in the house so it's rather nice.
REHMLady Antonia, tell us about the realization -- the first realization that Harold was sick.
REHMWell, we'd had a wonderful summer in July in New York. There was a Pinter Festival that seems be, in retrospect, to be idyllic. But when I say this is July, 2001, you can see it was idyllic, you know, before the fall, one might say, prelapse area and idyllic in other ways. And it was marvelous and he directed and he acted and his plays were put on.
FRASERAnd in the autumn, he started to feel not quite the same. But he was directing his own play, "No Man's Land," with Corin Redgrave. And I was going to say something -- you know what men are, you know. He wouldn't go to a doctor and I did the wifely thing of saying, I really think -- and he went to the doctor finally when the play had come on. And the doctor didn't quite like what he saw and, you know, then he went off for a test and it was a cervical cancer. Which, according to my computer, is 92 percent fatal, but Harold was the lucky 8 percent.
REHMSo that he continued with his work and had treatment.
FRASERHe had chemo first, which is what the royal master in our main cancer hospital recommended, and then he had an operation. But while he was having treatment, he insisted on going on stage and acting in his own sketches. And he didn't have a hair on his head. He had a wonderful skull. He looked like something from a gothic movie, but we'd been told that he must lead an easy life.
FRASERI argued like crazy and said, it is not easy going on the stage at the national theater when you're having chemo. But, in fact, I was quite wrong because his morale went up so much after doing it, that even physically -- well, you obviously don't feel at all well when you're doing chemo, but it was the right thing for Harold. Because with him, mind and body were so closely connected.
REHMNow, there is a poem he wrote, one that I particularly loved, and it was "To My Wife" on page 275. He wrote that...
FRASEROh, yes (unintelligible) .
REHM...knowing he was sick. But it's such a gorgeous poem.
FRASER"To My Wife. I was dead and now I live. You took my hand, I blindly died. You took my hand, you watched me die and find my life. You were my life. When I was dead, you are my life and so I live." That was when he'd got better. A lot of our friends took copies of that poem and crossed out and put the name of their own partner, you know. It meant a lot to people.
REHMIt must've meant so much to you. How did he give you that?
FRASERI think he came and recited it to me. That's what he generally did with his work, written out on a bit of yellow legal pad paper. It's a lovely moment to think of.
REHMAnd you recorded that then in your own diary.
FRASERYes, I did. I can't remember offhand whether I wrote it out in my diary. But sometimes he wrote out things in my diary and that may have been one of the things.
REHMSo he had access to your diary.
FRASERWell, Diane, when we went to live together, I don't think that -- I'd been keeping this full diary for seven years. I don't think you can live with someone and say, you shan't touch my diary. So I said, you're quite free to look at my diary anytime you like. And he didn't, but he sometimes would -- if we were on holiday, he'd say, can I read what you've written? And he sometimes wrote in it, you know, like I agree with all of this or on the whole, I think I don't agree with this. He didn't really write -- and it was a joke. I'd say, go on, write something in my diary. Make it more valuable.
REHMLady Antonia Fraser. "Must You Go?" is the title of her new memoir, "My Life With Harold Pinter." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have many, many callers. We'll open the phones now, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. First to Lisa, here in Washington D.C. Good morning, you're on the air.
LISAThanks a lot for taking my call.
LISAYou guys, I learn so much when I listen to your show, Diane. And I just really appreciate knowing somebody like you, Ms. Antonia Fraser, that I will know after this is over and I didn't know before I turned on this radio today. And I really just wanted to try to underwhelm you and myself by letting you know when I heard you speak about the NPR show "My Word!", I mean, I'm just a little over 40, but I used to carve my whole schedule out to listen to -- well, when I listened to it, it was called -- I thought it was called "My Word, My Music." But those two fellows and you and whoever else was on it, that show was very intellectually (sic) and humorous to me at the same time. And I love that you spark that memory in me because I miss that show and I often want to hear it.
REHMLisa, thank you so much for calling. As I recall "My Music" was a totally separate program.
FRASERWell, it was a totally separate program and I wasn't on it. I used to listen to it, but Frank Muir and Denis Norden were on it. So Lisa's quite right. Lisa, you were absolutely right. It was just I wasn't on it. I was with you listening to it.
REHMThank you for calling, Lisa. Let's go to Dallas, Texas. Good morning, Cameron.
CAMERONGood morning, Diane. An honor to be on your show.
CAMERONI had a question for your guest. I recently played the role of Robert in "Betrayal" at the (word?) theater here in Dallas. And she spoke about knowing many of the playwrights in London, like Tom Stoppard. I'm just curious how they reacted, as well as your family reacted, to that play, and as well as your reaction to being dramatized somewhat in one of his plays.
FRASERI wasn't dramatized, actually. It's an easy mistake to make because we were living together at the time. We'd been together about three years so I quite understand why you think it was me. Actually, it's nothing like me. It's, I think, a fascinating play. I think Harold would say that you had the best part...
FRASER...Robert being the husband.
CAMERONWell, I think so.
FRASERWell, he played it himself. He played it on radio, actually, when he obviously could've also played Jerry, the lover. I think he couldn't have played Emma very plausibly, the wife. But he always felt that what you think, that it was very much about the men's friendship and -- as well as, of course, the love affair. And there was more than one betrayal. You know, there's the wife betraying her husband, but also there's the best friend betraying his friend, the husband. And there's betrayal all around. Did you enjoy it?
CAMERONOh yes, definitely. Just having played the role, I guess I would further ask -- I'm sorry to take too much time, but was the reaction of Robert in the play similar to the reaction that your husband had?
FRASERNo. It wasn't based on our life at all.
CAMERONI realize that.
FRASERYes. No, no, really. I mean, as I said, I think it's quite easy to see why you think so, but it really isn't so. It was -- if based on anything -- and with creative artists, I think we've got to allow 90 percent imagination always. But the 10 percent was things from Harold's previous life, not ours.
REHMJust as we go to a break, would you read his -- your favorite poem on page 124?
FRASERThis is called, "It is Here," and it is my favorite because I think it stands for both our voices. "What sound was that? I turn away into the shaking room. What was that sound that came in on the dark? What is this maze of light it leaves us in? What is the stance we take to turn away and then turn back? What did we hear? It was the breath we took when we first met. Listen, it is here."
REHMAnd Lady Antonia Fraser is with me. Her new memoir titled, "Must You Go?" her life with Harold Pinter. And, of course, one of your and Harold's great friends was Salmon Rushdie. Harold took a defense of Salmon Rushdie. What happened?
FRASERWell, we both did. I was president of English PEN, the association for writers, and we were very active on his behalf. We were active both in principle -- the principle of free speech, but also because he had become a great friend of ours. And we met, oddly enough, when we were all demonstrating for solidarity -- the Polish freedom movement. And somehow, apart from being an extremely brave individual, he's also -- he's great fun. He's very lively and good company as, I think, everyone who knows him would agree.
REHMWhat happened in London when Salmon Rushdie wished to speak?
FRASERWhen he wished to speak -- to give a lecture, which he'd agreed to give at the ICA, that's Institute of Contemporary Arts, he was long booked. He wrote the lecture and then asked Harold if he would deliver it on his behalf. And Harold immediately said yes. And at lunch before -- it was in the evening. I said, are you worried? Are you frightened? Because I was. Of course, I didn't say so because, you know, in the circumstances, he doesn't want me pointing out the obvious.
FRASERBut I said, are you frightened? And he quoted Hamlet. You know, I shall misquote it, but, you know, "if it be not now, it will be tomorrow. The readiness is all." That was the word, the readiness is all meaning this is something I believe in and I'm -- if I'm going to be sort of got while doing it, well, that's the sort of fate. But I'm certainly not going to back off. And somehow, it was wonderful. He telephoned Harold afterwards and said, next time you write the letter and I'll give it.
REHMNow, Harold did get involved, you both did, in political issues. You mentioned Vatslav Havel.
REHMAnd your friendship with him.
FRASERThat was very important to us. Harold had always known Vatslav Havel as a young writer. They shared an agent in Germany and he'd always known about him. And he was in and out of prison and he was very obscure. Nobody knew his work in England. And Harold did a bit performing his plays, acting in them and trying to sort of call attention to him before anyone had heard of him.
FRASERAnd then, through a Czech friend, Diana Sternberg Phipps, we arranged to go to Czechoslovakia. Vatslav, however, was just out of prison and we went and stayed in his little country cottage. And, you know, it was quite frightening in a way with the police everywhere watching you. Not nice police, nasty police. And if I'd known then five months later he would be president of the Republic, I wouldn't have believed it possible.
FRASERBut, of course, having known him then, you know, it was thrilling to go back when he was president and a very exciting friendship which remains -- and remained.
REHMThis is an e-mail from Zach. He says, "in the book, you mention how Harold really enjoyed a good political argument and you were more than happy to give it to him. Was there ever a time when one of these arguments crossed the line?"
FRASERNo. We had a motto, let not the sun go down upon your wrath. And although, I think, we had some pretty late sunsets, we stuck to it, you know. We both enjoyed arguments. I mean, there's a difference between argument and a row. I think, even if -- both sides have to agree when it's an argument and when it's a row.
REHMWhat might you have argued about?
FRASERWe argued about Cuba. I was very interested in human rights in Cuba as my association with PEN. Well, Harold was also a vice president of PEN. Harold deplored the blockade by the United States of Cuba. Well, I mean, it's possible to hold both points of view.
FRASERIt certainly wasn't a row, you know, at all. It was interesting. I mean, it's great to discuss these things. You know, you don't only want to demonstrate in public. You also want to, in private, to be sure you're doing the right thing.
REHMZach goes on to say, "How much input did you have in the crafting of Mr. Pinter's controversial and much remarked Nobel acceptance speech?"
FRASERNo. It was entirely Harold's speech. He wrote it in-between bouts in hospital and massively when he received this glorious news. He was actually at home, but he was writing it. It was entirely Harold. I think it's a wonderful speech and I minded not going to Stockholm for him to receive it because he told me to go and buy myself a ball dress. I didn't -- to meet the King of Sweden. I was all for that. I didn't have a ball dress. I haven't had a ball dress for years.
FRASERAnd so I was rather sad when his health didn't permit him. And he was going to give tickets to all the children. We were all going to go. He didn't mind a bit because he wanted to put his views on television. So he went from hospital in an ambulance and I went with him. And he was recording in a television studio and he was in a wheelchair with a rug and he looked older than Methuselah ever looked. And then, in the television screen, suddenly he came to life and became vigorous, you know, and he seemed the same Harold. What a remarkable experience to watch it.
REHMEdward in Baltimore says, "Please ask Lady Antonia how she understands her husband's criticism of this country."
FRASERNot of this country, Edward. Very important distinction, if you don't mind me saying so. He criticized the foreign policy of the then government. And I should say that he criticized the foreign policy of his own government a great deal more strongly. Well, after all, there's no point in going round criticizing foreign governments if you don't criticize your own. So anything he may have said about the late President Bush was nothing compared to what he said about the late Prime Minister Blair. And it was entirely about foreign policy.
REHMAll right. Let's go back to the phones and to, let's see, Glen Burnie, Md., Rora, you're on the air.
RORAGood morning, Diane, thank you for taking my call.
RORAWhat an honor to be speaking to, in my opinion, two of the greatest ladies that I'm acquainted with in some fashion.
RORALady Antonia, I, too, enjoyed you on "My Word!" very, very much. But I wanted to go back further to the first time that I became aware of you. It was around 1970. I was in high school at the time and an avid viewer of PBS when none of my friends would watch public television. And they did a production starring Stacey Keach and his real-life brother, "The Wright Brothers" based on a biography you had done. Your introduction was, you know, wonderful.
RORAAnd then – but I wondered was two things. One, did you find the production true to your biography about the rather complex relationship between these two brothers? And number two, how did an English lady such as yourself become interested in a secondary American and rather off-the-beaten-path type of subject that you usually write about? I'll take your answer off the air and thank you.
REHMThank you for calling.
FRASERI am interested in the whole art of biography. I read a lot of biography and it doesn't necessarily have to be a subject I know something about because I welcome the opportunity of learning more. Actually, I so well remember that introduction and it – I'm not a very good actress and I probably got better at projection over the years, but it really took me a lot of trouble. But it was absolutely worth it. I'm so glad you recalled it to me.
REHMThere is one appearance you talk about in the book where you are on the stage in a white pants suit.
REHMAnd your knees are shaking. Harold Pinter is at the back of the auditorium and what happens?
FRASERWell, Harold's then wife, a distinguished actress, Vivien Merchant, was reading the narration of "Mary Queen of Scots" -- sorry, reading "Mary Queen of Scots" and I was reading the narration because it came from my book. And there was another male actor who was doing all the male parts. This was at our National Poetry Gallery where they have a picture of Mary Queen of Scots and we did it in front of the picture. And like an idiot, I wore a white trouser suit. And my best friend, who is in the audience -- don't you love best friends-- said, I think it was a fashion mistake. I said, why? It's a most beautiful white suit. And she said, no, no, it was that we could see your knees knocking together.
FRASERBut then, worse was to -- before, in the middle of it, we were being recorded for an LP, those were the days, and I was rather thrilled. And in the middle, there was a sort of eruption, a noise. I could hear sort of voices and I -- but I didn't stop, on I went. And afterwards, somebody came and said, that was Harold Pinter and I'm afraid it spoiled the recording so we can't use it.
FRASERSo Harold came up to me and I said, well, I hear that was you. He said, yes. I was telling the attendant at the door not to make so much noise. So I said, well, I couldn't hear the attendant. Meaning, I could hear you. And I used to think afterwards, well, I can't say I wasn't warned.
REHMThe question of Harold Pinter's temper has come up a number of times. I wonder if you can describe how you perceived it.
FRASERWell, it was really a public temper, the odd explosion. He would always say, well, people don't ask what I'm angry about. If you find out what I'm angry about, you'll see that I’m completely right to be angry about it. But I should say that in private, in the home, he was extremely good tempered, very undomestically demanding, which was just as well as I am not a domestic goddess. And I quote -- there's an old German saying which is, "haus teufel engel strasse, house devil, angel in the street." And I said Harold was the exact opposite. He was an angel in the house and a devil in the street.
REHMSo you were never the object of his temper?
FRASERAbsolutely never that I can say...
FRASER...with my hand on my heart.
REHMIsn't that lovely? As he was dying, he seemed to have spikes when somehow he would come back from the edge.
FRASERWell, his fortitude was extraordinary. He had so many things which were lethal. He did recover from esophageal cancer and then he got a very rare autoimmune blood disease where the body attacks the body, which I have no idea where it came from. I always suspected -- it's called pemphigus with an "m". I suspected that somehow chemo, in killing the cancer, killed the immunity, you know. And, finally, he died of liver cancer.
FRASERBut his fortitude was extraordinary. I mean, he acted in "Krapp's Last Tape," Samuel Beckett's great monologue at the Royal Court Theatre, in between in the mornings going to hospital for this, that and the other. And it was a wonderful performance, which is actually – you can see it on DVD. It must be somewhere in ether -- anyway, so he was amazing in that way.
FRASERI mean, I think I only began to realize how amazing he'd been when I reread my diaries. Because at the time, I was so busy trying to be support one day at a time, as you're told to do. You know, let's enjoy today because there may not be too many tomorrows, that I didn't realize his real -- and I have to repeat the word fortitude.
REHMLady Antonia Fraser, the book is titled, "Must You Go?" You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go to Tulsa, Okla. Good morning, Brad, you're on the air.
BRADGood morning. The director, Guy Vaesen, who considered Harold Pinter to be his best friend, spent two nights in my home, late 1980s, talked about Harold a great deal. And I'm wondering if Lady Antonia has any recollections of Guy Vaesen. He also produced Harold on BBC radio and was literary director of the National Theatre when it was established.
FRASERI have the most delightful, grateful memories of Guy and I'm so pleased to have the opportunity to think about him. For one thing, in my home, I've got -- in London, I've got some of his pictures. You know, you didn't even mention his painting.
BRADYes. He was painting in Greece when he visited here and we had an exhibition of his paintings here in Tulsa. He shipped them over and he came over and he spent the two nights at my home. It was wonderful. I had him talk with my theatre group here and he talked particularly about in this one production on BBC radio what a big deal it was to get Harold to remove one comma from what he had written.
FRASERI think that...
BRADHe was that meticulous.
FRASERYes. But I'm not sure he ever did get Harold to remove one comma. And I'm not sure anybody ever got Harold to remove a comma. But I was very fond of Guy. He was very nice to Harold and me when we were first together and he -- I shall always remember him with enormous gratitude and appreciation. He was such an amusing man, wasn't he?
BRADHe was. I enjoyed him very, very much.
REHMThank you, Brad. And thank you for calling. Lady Antonia, you knew that the end was coming. You were by his bedside.
FRASERI knew it, of course, but in that way, we sort of suspend belief. Nobody knows the exact moment -- I mean, nobody with illness. But I consider I was extremely lucky because I was actually there. I think it would have been terrible for me if I'd gone out of the room, you know, or something or had gone home to sleep. So I was actually there and that was a privilege and honor.
REHMHis eyes were closed...
REHM...and then suddenly opened wide.
FRASERThose extraordinary eyes opened wide. Apparently, this happens when somebody -- just at the point of death, the doctor explained to me. I can't remember what the explanation was. It doesn't matter because, for me, it was his last look at me, you know, our last shared look. So I prefer that explanation.
REHMAnd you held his hand.
FRASERI held his hand.
REHMLady Antonia Fraser, the book is titled, "Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter." It was lovely to be with you and to see you again.
FRASERThank you very much. I really enjoyed it.
REHMI'm glad. Thank you. I'll be off tomorrow at WGBH in Boston. Please have a good weekend. I'll be back with you on Monday. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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