hide captionAntonia Fraser and Harold Pinter were married for 28 years before Pinter's death in 2009 from cancer.
Doubleday/Courtesy of Antonia Fraser
Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter were married for 28 years before Pinter's death in 2009 from cancer.
Doubleday/Courtesy of Antonia Fraser
It was January 1975. They were both in their early 40s and married — though, not to each other — with children. He was Harold Pinter, a world-famous playwright; she was Lady Antonia Fraser, a respected biographer. His play The Birthday Party had just opened in London. She went to the after-show party. At the end of the evening, neighbors offered her a ride home. She accepted.
"But I just must say hello to Harold Pinter and say it was a wonderful play, wonderful actors, you're wonderful blah blah blah," Fraser recounts.
So Antonia Fraser walked over to see the playwright.
"I said all of that to Harold," Fraser says, "and I said, 'Now I must be off.' And he looked at me and with his very bright black eyes and said, 'Must you go?' And I thought, I have to get up in the morning, take the children to school, have to go to Safeway Supermarket, I have to write a book about Charles II. But I said, 'No, it's not absolutely essential' — and that changed my life."
That simple question — "Must you go?" – helped launch their 33-year relationship. Now it's the title of Fraser's new memoir about her years with Harold Pinter.
Piecing together scraps from her diaries, the book is full of lunches with friends who need footnotes for American readers, as well as marquee names including Beckett, Rushdie, Murdoch, Naipaul — major intellectuals and artists of the day who were their pals. Their social life was a reflection of their private life; they moved in loving circles, and lived in love as well.
Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter By Antonia Fraser Hardcover, 336 pages Nan A. Talese List Price: $28.95
There's a word that occurs when you read about Fraser and Pinter: uxorious. Google defines it as "having or showing an excessive or submissive fondness for one's wife."
"Nonsense!" Fraser says, "Hello Google, I don't agree at all."
She provides a different definition.
"Uxorious, from the Latin meaning: you're a good husband or wife," she says. "Some people just liked living with people and they're very good at it and Harold was uxorious."
He was crazy about her, his gorgeous, brilliant blonde. He said, repeatedly, that he was "the luckiest man in the world." He filled the house with flowers when they first moved in together — arrangements in the hallway, the drawing room, his study, her study and, of course, the bedroom.
The great playwright was known for crafting dramas and screenplays with minimal dialogue and an underlying sense of menace. You wouldn't think of him as a romantic. But with Antonia Fraser, he was.
Five months after Pinter asked "Must you go?" Lady Antonia Fraser told her then-husband, Sir Hugh Fraser, a Member of Parliament and the father of their six children, that she was leaving him because she'd found true love. Hugh Fraser's reaction was surprising. He said, "I'd like to meet him." So Pinter came over and the men sat down to chat.
"Hugh and Harold discussed cricket," Fraser says, "and actually — I mean this sounds so bizarre even as I relate it — I went to sleep! I think you can argue that I fell asleep because I couldn't think of anything else to do!"
All this was years before Diana and Charles and, despite the civilized encounter, the affair was a huge scandal. Fraser and Pinter were hounded by the press. The story of the famous dramatist and Catholic mother of six who ran away to be with a Jewish father of one and husband of a prominent actress was like toffee for the tabloids. But all the brouhaha eventually passed.
They lived together for five years, then married. Throughout their time together, Fraser kept a diary. Never thinking of publication, she was a witness to Pinter's genius — how he wrote and how an idea or a phrase would seize him.
hide captionHarold Pinter and Antonia Fraser married in London on Nov. 27, 1980, five years after they first met.
Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser married in London on Nov. 27, 1980, five years after they first met.
"He was like a writer in a novel," Fraser says. "He would get an idea in a taxi or on holiday, and he would write it down and then he would say, 'I want to find out more about these people.'"
Once Pinter started writing — in his studio at the bottom of their garden — he worked in a tear.
"He wrote and wrote and wrote," Fraser says. "Then he came, got into bed and it wouldn't let him go so he got out of bed and put on a robe and went down and wrote again."
Pinter was never happier than when he was writing, Fraser says. There was always an exciting feeling in the house then. He'd read the work to her and sometimes, very carefully, she'd make a suggestion. Once it was reaction to what would become his play, and later the film, Betrayal.
"I was in bed — I think I had the flu — and he came and read it to me at a very early stage and I said I thought there was a scene missing," Fraser says. "Harold was not best pleased, I have to say. He went walking round the park and came back and wrote the scene. But the thing is, the scene he wrote — which now seems to be absolutely integral to the play — was not the scene I had in mind."
Fraser says it was clear she was not a playwright — she didn't see what was missing; only that something was missing. It was the last time she made such a suggestion. But Pinter had reactions to her work as well, which included biographies of, among others, Mary Queen of Scotts and Marie Antoinette.
Back To The Beginning
Harold Pinter was diagnosed with cancer in 2001. In 2005, the ailing British playwright was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died three years later, after a seven year struggle with the illness. But Fraser says hers is not a “misery memoir." It's a collection of moments, encounters and writings.
One of those writings and moments is Pinter's poem, "Paris," about a trip they took to Paris in 1975.
The poem ends:
The lamps are golden. Afternoon leans, silently. She dances in my life. The white day burns.
It was the first poem Pinter wrote to Fraser — and it really was just the beginning.
Excerpt: 'Must You Go'
by Antonia Fraser
Must You Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter By Antonia Fraser Hardcover, 336 pages Nan. A. Talese List Price: $28.95
I first saw Harold across a crowded room, but it was lunchtime, not some enchanted evening, and we did not speak. I was having lunch in the Etoile restaurant in Charlotte Street; my companion pointed to a trio of men lunching opposite us. They were in fact Robert Shaw, Donald Pleasance and Harold; they were discussing Robert's play, The Man in the Glass Booth, in which Harold would direct Donald. My companion admired Robert Shaw intensely: the handsome red-headed star who was said to do his own stuntwork and embodied machismo. Apparently I said thoughtfully: 'I'll take the dark one.'
On the next occasion I heard Harold's voice, once aptly described by Arthur Miller as his 'awesome baritone', before we met. There was a recital about Mary Queen of Scots at the National Portrait Gallery, based on my book. Harold's wife Vivien Merchant took the part of Mary, an actor took all the male parts and I read the narrative. These were professionals and I was intensely nervous; a kind friend in the audience told me afterwards that my knees were visibly shaking in my natty white trouser suit which had perhaps been the wrong call as a costume. Nevertheless things were running along smoothly – Vivien was an accomplished reader who gave Mary the correct Scottish accent – when suddenly there was some kind of interruption, a man's voice raised, at the back of the gallery. Afterwards I enquired rather crossly what had happened. 'Oh, that was Harold Pinter,' I was told. 'He attacked the attendant for opening the door in the middle of the recital.' 'I didn't hear the door,' I muttered, having just learned that the projected LP of the recital would have to be abandoned due to the disturbance. Later, when I was introduced to Harold, I asked him if it had indeed been him. 'Yes,' he replied with satisfaction, 'I do that kind of thing all the time.' In similar situations in the future, I sometimes reflected wryly: 'I can't say I wasn't warned …'
And so to the evening of 8 January 1975 when I went to the first night of The Birthday Party at the Shaw Theatre, directed by Kevin Billington, husband of my sister Rachel. The author was of course there and there was to be a dinner party afterwards at the Billingtons' house in Holland Park.
At this point, Hugh and I, Harold and Vivien, had both been married, oddly enough, for exactly the same period almost to the day: that is, eighteen years since September 1956 when Harold and Vivien got married in a Registry Office in Bournemouth (they were in rep there) while I dolled myself up as Mary Queen of Scots and Hugh wore a kilt at the Catholic Church in Warwick Street, Soho, with a full sung Nuptial Mass. Hugh and I had six children; Harold and Vivien had one. Hugh had been a Conservative MP since 1945; Vivien was a celebrated actress. I was forty-two; Harold was forty-four.
I considered myself to be happily married, or at any rate happy in my marriage; I admired Hugh for his cavalier nature, his high spirits, his courage – friends nicknamed him 'Fearless Fraser' after some 1930s trapeze artist – his independence, his essential decency and kindness. I even admired him for his detachment, although his lack of emotional intimacy – he once told me that he preferred families to individuals – was with hindsight probably what doomed us. I on the other hand was intensely romantic and always had been since early childhood; the trouble with romantics is that they tend to gravitate towards other like-minded people, or people they choose to regard as such. So there had been romances. But I had never for one moment envisaged leaving my marriage.
Harold, I learned much later, did not consider himself to be happily married. He too had had his romances, perhaps more than the world, which cast him as the dark, brooding, eponymously 'Pinteresque' playwright, realized. Later he also told me that he had never been in love before, but had once loved Vivien very much, her essential vulnerability inspiring him with a wish to protect her, before other matters drove them apart. They led essentially separate lives in an enormous stately six-storey house in Regent's Park Terrace; but he too had never contemplated leaving his marriage.
8 January 1975
A very enjoyable dinner party at Rachel and Kevin's house in Addison Road: 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. Gradually the guests filtered away. Richard and Viv King 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. I went over to where Harold was sitting. 'Wonderful play, marvellous 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 the sleeper from Scotland, my projected biography of King Charles II … 'No, it's not absolutely essential,' I said.
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' in Regent's Park). I offered him coffee. I actually gave him champagne. He stayed until six o'clock in the morning with extraordinary recklessness, but of course the real recklessness was mine.
We sometimes speculated later what would have happened if I had in fact answered: 'Yes, I really must go.' Harold, convinced by then that I was his destiny, would gallantly reply: 'I would have found you somehow.' But we had few friends in common: Edna O'Brien was one, and the producer Sam Spiegel another. But fundamentally we lived in different worlds. The night of 8/9 January was the chance and our chance.
Excerpted from Must You Go?by Antonia Fraser. Copyright 2010 by Antonia Fraser. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.