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The True Love Story Of Lady Antonia And Her Harold

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.

True Love

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.

Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser married in London on Nov. 27, 1980, five years after they first met.
STR/AFP / Getty Images
Getty Images
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.

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Susan Stamberg
Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.