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She Reported From the World’s Combat Zones, at the Cost of Her Life

Category: Art & Culture,Books

[ Despite a new movie based on Marie Colvin’s life, Hollywood has a spotty track record when it comes to female war correspondents ]

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Colvin grew up in Oyster Bay, Long Island, the daughter of schoolteachers who doted on their five children. Her upbringing was Roman Catholic, suburban and comfortably middle class. At Yale, she fell under the tutelage of John Hersey, author of “Hiroshima,” one of many influential figures who would shape her career. She got her start livening up a newsletter for the Teamsters in New York, jumped from there to U.P.I. and was soon dispatched to Paris. Hired away by Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, she made her name in 1987 with a story about watching a young woman die after being shot by a sniper during a militia siege of a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. The reporting she did there — excruciatingly close, filled with intimate glimpses of human suffering — established a template. “It has always seemed to me that what I write about is humanity in extremis,” she would say in a 2001 feature article, “pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in wars.”

Hilsum unpacks one terrifying story after another to illustrate how far Colvin was willing to go to expose the truth. Trapped in Chechnya in December 1999 during an aerial bombing campaign by the Russian Army, she and a young Russian photographer were forced to hike for days through the snowbound Caucasus to the Georgian border. Stopping to rest meant becoming a target for bombs. “She struggled to breathe, regretting every cigarette she had smoked,” Hilsum writes in an excruciatingly vivid account. “Dima sat down, saying he could go no further. Marie knew that despair was even more dangerous than the cold. ‘Get up! Keep moving!’ she urged.”

Colvin also had a knack for gaining the confidence of dictators and demagogues. In 1986 she talked her way into the compound of the Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi in Tripoli. Hilsum delights in describing their first meeting: “After a few minutes Qaddafi entered dressed in a gray padded flight suit, sockless feet peeking from lizard skin slip-on shoes. ‘I am Qaddafi,’ he announced. ‘No kidding,’ Marie thought.” She landed an exclusive interview and maintained contact with him for years. She befriended Yasir Arafat in exile in Tunisia, joined him on his return from the 1993 Oslo Accords and visited his Ramallah compound when it was besieged by the Israel Defense Forces in 2002. Colvin liked Arafat but sparred with him over his failure to suppress Palestinian violence; she was commissioned to write an Arafat biography, but could never find the discipline to finish it.

Away from combat zones, Colvin moved easily through London high society and hosted memorable soirees in her Hammersmith home. “Elegant in a black cocktail dress, she mixed vodka martinis, the house full of actors, poets and politicians as well as journalists,” Hilsum writes of one such gathering. She drank to excess, took many lovers and married twice. Her relationships with gifted but unreliable men who abused her trust left her emotionally shattered. Some anecdotes that Hilsum relates will be familiar to those who have read Marie Brenner’s fine profile of Colvin in Vanity Fair, now adapted for film and republished in an anthology of Brenner’s pieces, “A Private War: Marie Colvin and Other Tales of Heroes, Scoundrels, and Renegades” (Simon & Schuster, paper, $16). But Hilsum, who had full access to Colvin’s notes and journals, is able to delve far deeper into her subject’s complicated inner life. “I was blinded by your looks and the sex and so tried to ignore what my brain was telling me,” Colvin writes in her diary after discovering her longtime partner’s multiple affairs. “So I drank more and read less and my world telescoped down to yours — sex, looks and money.”


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