Must You Go? NPR coverage of Must You Go?: My Life With Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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Must You Go?

My Life With Harold Pinter

by Antonia Fraser

Hardcover, 328 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $28.95 |


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My Life With Harold Pinter
Antonia Fraser

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Book Summary

A tribute to the award-winning author's marriage to her internationally renowned playwright husband chronicles their initial meeting while married to previous spouses through Pinter's final illness, in an account based on the author's extensive diaries that also offers insight into their literary relationship.

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Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter were married for 28 years before Pinter's death in 2009 from cancer. Doubleday/Courtesy of Antonia Fraser hide caption

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Must You Go?

Chapter One 
First Night

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 Pleasence 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 WarwickStreet, 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 lackof 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 ParkTerrace; 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 Avenue: 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. My neighbours 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.

Subsequently the tabloids made much of our different backgrounds, the working-class Jewish boy from the East End and the Catholic aris­tocrat with her title. But we were, in our early forties, a long way from our backgrounds and, as usual with the tabloids, these descriptions were more for headlines than accuracy. Although Harold was technically born into the working class – his father worked in a tailoring factory – ever since the success of The Caretaker in 1960 he had been extremely well-off by most standards: he was able, for example, to retire his father, worn-out with his labours, to salubrious Hove where his parents would live happily for another thirty years.

Again technically, since my father was an earl and my mother a countess, I could be argued to be an aristocrat. But my father, born FrankPakenham, only succeeded to the Earldom of Longford when I was nearly thirty; my childhood was spent in a modest North Oxford house, my father, with no private income, teaching at the University. My mother, being a Harley Street doctor's daughter, was in any case convinced (and thus convinced us) that the middle classes were the salt of the earth whereas the aristocracy was feckless, unpunctual and extravagant, an assumption that our beloved father's attitude to life did nothing to discourage. I had no inherited money myself, and had earned my own living since the age of twenty-one, first working for a publisher and, after marriage, by journalism and books.

After the publication of Mary Queen of Scots, an unexpected bestseller in 1969, I found that for the first time in my life I had money to spend. Most of it went on the delightful taskof renovating Eilean Aigas, our house in the Highlands on an island in the River Beauly, which gave the impression of being untouched since the '45 rebellion. Our finances had been so perilous before this, since Hugh was entirely dependent on the then modest salary of an MP, that he had actually sold the house to a cousin by the previous Christmas – providentially the cousin's finances proved to be equally perilous and he reneged on the deal just in time for my windfall. To give only one example, I put in a heated open-air swimming pool round which the New Year celebrations regularly made the welkin ring. The truth was that by the mid 1970s, both in our different ways successful writers, Harold and I belonged to the same class: I will call it the Bohemian class.

13 January

While I was away, Harold had apparently called home on the public line; on Monday morning he called on my private line – I'm not sure how he got the number. We met for a drinkat the Royal Lancaster Hotel in Bayswater (`an obscure place' he said truthfully) at 6 p.m. The bar was very darkand at first I couldn't see him. That made it all the more like a dream. But `so it wasn't all a dream' was the verdict of us both at the end. Told me of numerous obsessional phone calls – no answer – often from the famous Ladbroke Grove telephone box opposite Campden Hill Square. Had evidently told Kevin Billington about the whole thing! I began to guess this and he then admitted it. Can't say I care. `I am loopy about you: I feel eighteen' was the general theme; I said I preferred the word `dippy' . . .

The truth is that Harold has mesmerized me. Kept waking all night on the subject of a) him b) Benjie's departure for boarding school at Ampleforth. But a) has quite taken my mind off the horrible sadness of b). (Our third child and eldest son, aged not quite fourteen, was setting forth for his father's old school.)

23 January

Met Harold at 5.30 in the Royal Lancaster Hotel (he has telephoned daily). Parted at 11.30 to our respective matrimonial homes. We never left the bar, just talked and talked. Discussed among other things No Man's Land, his new play – to open at the National in April – and how he started to write it. At first he thought he was echoing himself (`What, two old men together again . . .'), then he thought: `You are what you are.' He had sent me the typescript after our first meeting. I liked the character of Spooner, the failed poet. So I asked him: `Did Spooner get the job?' On the whole he thought: No. `But Spooner is an optimist and there will be other jobs.' I said I would have to stop my ears at the first night for the darkof the ending: Winter/Night forever. But I liked `I'll drinkto that' at the end. `That's the point,' Harold said, delighted . . . I am quite obsessed by him when I am with him. He tells me he is quite obsessed by me all the time – the days spent waiting to telephone, etc. . . . Described his life as a kind of prison, how, when can we meet, ever?

26 January

Taken to supper with Anthony Shaffer, author of Sleuth, by an old friend. The fashionable doctor for artists, PatrickWoodcock, warns me quite innocently against playwrights: `They're the worst.' Thought of Harold. I suppose I'm in love with him but there are many other things in my life. Yet: `oh, oh, the insomniac moonlight' in the words of the Scottish poet I like, Liz Lochhead.

30 January

Harold called. He asks: `Does it make you happy that we met? You wouldn't rather we hadn't met?'

1 February

I knew it would be a good day. Harold rang up in the morning and said, `Tea is on', having said two days ago `the situation is fluid'. Went at four, discreetly parking the car in Sussex Place. The house in Regent's ParkTerrace is vast, on first impression, and extremely sumptuous. I suppose it would not be so sumptuous if ten people lived in it. But with three, it is. A lot of large beautiful modern pictures in huge quiet rooms, apparently unlimited in number. Harold made tea. We went upstairs to the greeny-grey drawing room, vast pictures, few objects, greeny-grey light, enormous quantity of chairs and low sofas.

`I will show you my study presently.' And he did. At the top of the house, sixth floor in fact, we went up and up, like Tom Kitten. A marvellous room, much space, also less hushed. A deskwith windows overlooking Regent's Park and the other way, roofs. A chaise longue. A few chairs. Lots of books, novels and poetry. Harold presented me with his poems. `I would make a good secretary if you ever needed one,' I said, seeing the accommodation. He said: `the same thought had already crossed my mind.'

9 February

Joyous, dangerous and unavoidable – Harold's three words to Kevin Billington about us, quoted by Harold to me on the telephone. Not bad Pinteresque words.

19 February

Period of crisis. On Sunday Harold called to say that Vivien was very ill (pneumonia) in Hong Kong, with the dreadful possibility of not being able to go on and film Picnic at Hanging Rock in Australia – something she really wanted to do. He is racked with guilt. `Something of her own that I didn't write. That's what she wanted.' Much strain of cancellations and late-night calls. Nevertheless we met for drinks in the bar of the Churchill Hotel (twice).

21 February

Bought works about Harold at Foyles to feed my obsession. Seems to be in the class of Shakespeare judging by the nonsense that is talked . . . gave me a buzz all the same.

22 February

Harold in Hong Kong has written me two poems, one short, one very long, which he read to me twice: `I have spent the evening in my hotel room writing poems to you.' The long one began: 

   My heart is not a beat away from you 
   You turn, and touch the light of me. 
   You smile and I become the man 
   You loved before, but never knew

It ended: 

   You turn, and touch the light of me. 
   You smile, your eyes become my sweetest dream of you. 
   Oh sweetest love, 
   My heart is not a beat away from you.

This was the short one: 

   I know the place 
   It is true. 
   Everything we do 
   Connects the space 
   Between death and me, 
   And you. 

*   *   *

It subsequently became a favourite poem of Harold's to markthis stage in our lives and he often recited it. However, when the poems arrived on the pale banana-coloured paper of the Peninsula Hotel, I protested about the comma after `me' which divided us and left him on the side of death and it was eliminated (although not put immediately after `death' as I wanted!).