Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In 2005, the ailing British playwright Harold Pinter accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Mr. HAROLD PINTER (Playwright): What is true? What is false? Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it, but the search for it is compulsive.

INSKEEP: He continued that search until he died three years later. Now, Harold Pinter's widow, Antonia Fraser, has written a memoir about their lives together.

Here's NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg.

SUSAN STAMBERG: January 1975, they were both in their early 40s, married, not to each other, with children. He was a world-famous playwright; she, a respected biographer. His play "The Birthday Party" opened in London. She went to the after-party. Neighbors offered a ride home. She said fine.

Lady ANTONIA FRASER (Biographer): But I just must say hello to Harold Pinter and say it's a wonderful play, wonderful actors, you're wonderful. Blah, blah, blah.

STAMBERG: So Antonia Fraser walked over to see Pinter.

Lady FRASER: I said all of that to Harold. And I said now I must be off. And he looked at me and with these 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. You know? And I said no, it's not absolutely essential.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Lady FRASER: And that changed my life.

STAMBERG: That simple question: Must you go, launched their 33-year relationship. Now it's the title of her memoir about those years.

The book pieces together scraps from her diaries. It's full of lunches with friends who need footnotes for American readers, and some marquee names: Beckett, Rushdie, Murdoch, Naipaul - major intellectuals and artists of the day who were their pals. They moved in loving circles and lived in love, as well.

Here's a word that I came across in reading about you and also in reviews of this book. And I'm not sure I know how to pronounce it, but I love it. It has an X in it: U-X-O-R-I-O-U-S.

Lady FRASER: Uxorious from the Latin, meaning you're a good husband or wife. Some people just like living with people and they're very good at it. And Harold was uxorious.

STAMBERG: Huh. Well, I Googled the word and Google says it means excessive fondness for one's wife.

Lady FRASER: Nonsense.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Lady FRASER: Hello Google, I don't agree at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: He was crazy for her, his gorgeous, brilliant blonde. Said he was the luckiest man in the world. Filled the house with flowers when they first moved in together - arrangements in the hall, the drawing room, his study, her study; the bedroom, of course.

This is a man known for dramas and screenplays with minimal dialogue and menace, an underlying threat. You do not think of Harold Pinter as a romantic but with her, he was.

Five months after he asked - must you go - Lady Antonia Fraser told her husband, Sir Hugh, a member of Parliament and the father of their six children, that she was leaving him, that she'd found true love.

Hugh Fraser's reaction: I'd like to meet him. So Pinter came over. The men sat down to chat.

Lady FRASER: Hugh and Harold discussed cricket. Harold was a cricket fanatic. And actually - I mean this sounds so bizarre even as I relate it - but I went to sleep.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: The two men were sitting there drinking, talking about cricket. And you fell asleep on the sofa.

Lady FRASER: Yes, I think you can argue I fell asleep because I couldn't think of anything else to do.

STAMBERG: Are those Brits civilized or what? It was a huge scandal. Years before Diana and Charles, they were hounded by the press. She's Catholic, all those children. He was Jewish, one son and a prominent actress wife. Toffee for the tabloids. That all passed eventually.

They lived together for five years, then married. And throughout, Antonia Fraser kept her diary. Never thinking of publication, she was a witness to Pinter's genius - how he wrote; an idea, a phrase would seize him.

Lady FRASER: I mean he was like a writer in a novel. He would get an idea in a taxi or on holiday, and he'd write it down and then he would say, I want to find out more about these people.

STAMBERG: Hmm, he got intrigued so he wanted to spend more time with them. So he created them.

Lady FRASER: Yes, exactly.

STAMBERG: Once Harold Pinter started writing - in his studio at the bottom of their garden - he worked all in a tear.

Lady FRASER: He wrote and wrote and wrote, and then came got into bed and it wouldn't let him go. So he got out of bed, put on a robe and went down and wrote again.

STAMBERG: 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 would make a suggestion. Once it was reaction to what would become his play, later the film, "Betrayal."

Lady FRASER: I was in bed - I think I had flu - and he came and read it to me at a very early stage. And I said I thought there was a scene missing. And Harold was not best pleased, I have to say. And he went walking round the park, came back and he 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.

STAMBERG: Fraser says it was clear she's 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.

Pinter had reactions to her work, as well. Antonia Fraser wrote biographies of, among others, Mary, Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette.

(Soundbite of piano music)

STAMBERG: Harold Pinter was diagnosed with cancer in 2001. He struggled with it for seven years, a long, terrible illness. But she says hers is not a misery memoir. It's a collection of moments, encounters, writings.

I would love you to read one of his poems to us. I'm sorry, because I know everybody asks you to do this and...

Lady FRASER: I like it. Can I read "Paris"?

STAMBERG: I'd love it. It's what I was going to ask you to read, please.

Lady FRASER: Well, it's the first poem he wrote to me. It was, we went in 1975, to Paris together. And so this poem is very dear to me.

(Reading) "Paris." The curtain white in folds. She walks two steps and turns. The curtain still. The light staggers in her eyes. The lamps are golden. Afternoon leans, silently. She dances in my life. The white day burns.

STAMBERG: Harold Pinter's very first poem to Antonia Fraser from her book "Must You Go?"

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of piano music)

INSKEEP: And you can learn more about that night when Antonia Fraser met Harold Pinter, in an excerpt from the book at NPR.org.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.