"Now, thanks to Hilsum’s deeply reported and passionately written book, [Marie Colvin] has the full accounting that she deserves." Joshua Hammer, The New York Times
The inspiring and devastating biography of Marie Colvin, the foremost war reporter of her generation, who was killed in Syria in 2012, and whose life story also forms the basis of the feature film A Private War, starring Rosamund Pike as Colvin.
When Marie Colvin was killed in an artillery attack in Homs, Syria, in 2012, at age fifty-six, the world lost a fearless and iconoclastic war correspondent who covered the most significant global calamities of her lifetime. In Extremis, written by her fellow reporter Lindsey Hilsum, is a thrilling investigation into Colvin’s epic life and tragic death based on exclusive access to her intimate diaries from age thirteen to her death, interviews with people from every corner of her life, and impeccable research.
After growing up in a middle-class Catholic family on Long Island, Colvin studied with the legendary journalist John Hersey at Yale, and eventually started working for The Sunday Times of London, where she gained a reputation for bravery and compassion as she told the stories of victims of the major conflicts of our time. She lost sight in one eye while in Sri Lanka covering the civil war, interviewed Gaddafi and Arafat many times, and repeatedly risked her life covering conflicts in Chechnya, East Timor, Kosovo, and the Middle East. Colvin lived her personal life in extremis, too: bold, driven, and complex, she was married twice, took many lovers, drank and smoked, and rejected society’s expectations for women. Despite PTSD, she refused to give up reporting. Like her hero Martha Gellhorn, Colvin was committed to bearing witness to the horrifying truths of war, and to shining a light on the profound suffering of ordinary people caught in the midst of conflict.
Lindsey Hilsum’s In Extremis is a devastating and revelatory biography of one of the greatest war correspondents of her generation.
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Dead Man's Branch
She had lived with bad dreams for many years, but nothing prepared Marie for the recurrent nightmare that plagued her after she was shot. As she drifted into sleep, her subconscious reran what had happened, the fear and indecision never resolving, like a horror film stuck on a loop, repeating into infinity.
In the dream, she is lying on the ground, seeing the flares, hearing the machine-gun fire and the soldiers' voices exactly as she heard them that pitch-black night in Sri Lanka before the moon rose over the fields. These are her choices: She can stand up and shout, hoping they will see that she is white and female, obviously a foreigner. She can try to crawl away, knowing they will shoot at anything they see moving. Or she can lie still, awaiting her fate. The decision will determine whether she lives or dies, but nothing will undo what is about to happen. She cannot roll back time, nor can she push it forward. Stand up? Crawl away? Lie still? Stand up? Crawl away? Lie still? The choices repeat and repeat, a drumbeat of fear pounding louder and louder, as she lies paralyzed.
In real life, it was hard to figure out exactly what was happening, although later, she understood that it had been quite simple. The Tamils guiding her from the rebel-held part of Sri Lanka into government territory ran into an army patrol as they crossed the front line. Marie dropped to the ground as the bullets whined past, but her escorts fled into the jungle, back the way they had come. She lay there for about half an hour, alone and petrified, before making her fateful decision.
"Journalist! American journalist!" she shouted as she rose with her hands up. Suddenly her eye and her chest hurt with a pain so acute she could scarcely breathe. One of the soldiers had fired a grenade at her. As she fell, she realized that blood was trickling from her eye and mouth. She felt a profound sadness that she was going to die. Crawling toward them in the desperate hope that they would stop shooting and help her, she shouted, "Doctor!" Maybe they would see that she was a wounded foreign civilian and not a guerrilla fighter. They yelled at her to stand up and remove her jacket. Somehow she managed to stumble forward, hands in the air. Every time she fell, they shouted at her to get up again.
In the nightmare, time freezes before the shot is fired and her life passes before her. Scenes from conflicts she has witnessed flicker across her mind: the old man with rasping breath in the basement in Chechnya, the back of his head blown off by a Russian rocket; the body of a peasant dressed in a worn woollen suit she came across under a bush in Kosovo; the young Palestinian woman she watched die from gunshot wounds in Beirut. The human body, fragile and broken. Her own body. The images rerun until she wakes, unrested, terrified, safe in her own bed but dreading the next night, when she must live through it all again.
Marie Colvin went to Sri Lanka in April 2001 because no foreign journalist had reported from Tamil Tiger territory in six years. In nearly two decades of war, some 83,000 people had been killed. Barred by the government and mistrusted by the fanatical guerrillas fighting for independence, reporters had dared not cross the front line, so the pitiful situation of Tamil civilians, who bore the brunt of the violence, had gone largely unreported. That was why she went. That was why she thought it worth the risk.
She was flown to New York for treatment. The surgeon said he couldn't save the sight in her left eye, but he would try to save the eye itself. Frantic with worry, her mother insisted Marie come home to Long Island, where she could nurse her, cook her the meat loaf she had loved as a child, ensure that she had everything she needed to recover. Marie's ex-husband flew in, and he and her mother agreed that this time she would have to submit to their ministrations.
Why did she resist? To be looked after was surely exactly what she needed, but somehow it felt unbearable. As if it weren't bad enough to lose the sight in one eye, now she would lose her independence, too. She wanted to stay at a fancy hotel in New York, to smoke, to have a cocktail, to spend time with her best friend, Katrina, who would make her laugh. She needed to recover what she could of the self she had become in two decades as a journalist. It was sixteen years since she had left America. She had lived in Paris, London, and Jerusalem and had traveled to conflicts all over the world, taking chances, beating the odds, and earning her reputation as one of the toughest but most compassionate reporters in the world as well as the best and funniest company. That was who she was. She feared the waves closing over her, feared being subsumed by her family, by the cloying parochialism of her hometown, by a promise of safety that would crush her essence. However desperate her situation, she could not let herself be pulled back to where she had started.
* * *
The town of Oyster Bay, on Long Island, where Marie spent her childhood and adolescence, was quintessential suburbia. The families in the Colvins' neighborhood were America's new postwar middle class: teachers, small-business owners, government employees. This was the era when mothers stayed at home and fathers came back from work to a cigarette and a highball. They watched Leave It to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show, genial TV sitcoms about family life. It was Marie's father's claim to fame that his eldest sister, Bette, was a hostess on the quiz show Beat the Clock.
Marie, the Colvins' first child, was born on January 12, 1956, in Astoria, Queens, a restless baby who soon sprouted a head of thick, dark curls. America was changing fast. Dwight D. Eisenhower, reelected that year, was the last U.S. president born in the nineteenth century. Elvis Presley scandalized the nation with his hip thrusts as he sang "Hound Dog" on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Cold War was escalating: it was the year of the Suez Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Marie's parents had more immediate concerns — Marie's mother, Rosemarie, struggled to get her and her brother, Billy, born the following year, up and down three flights of stairs in their apartment block. Now she was expecting again. Long Island, with its beaches, fields, and potato farms, looked like a perfect solution. They found a new build in East Norwich, adjoining the more upmarket Oyster Bay. By the time Michael was born, the family was settled in the house where Marie's parents would have another two children and spend the rest of their lives.
For Rosemarie this was a huge step up in life. She had been raised in the working-class South Bronx in the lean times between the wars. Like many others in the area, her parents, James and Rose Marron, were of Irish descent. After her father died when she was just a few months old, Rosemarie's mother struggled with three children, becoming ever more religious and unyielding. Rosemarie had to work her way through Fordham Jesuit University, where she trained as a teacher. "I didn't feel I was ready for a relationship," she recollects. "I had to educate myself and had no help at home." But when she met William Colvin (six feet tall, slim, confident, with dark wavy hair), she changed her mind. "He was very kind and accepting of anything or anyone," she says. "I had grown up in a family that was dogmatic, but I wasn't that way. It was a great relief to meet someone who felt the same as I did." This, she thought, was how she would like to bring up her own children: good Catholics, disciplined and studious, but tolerant and open-minded.
The Colvins were what Rosemarie called "lace curtain Irish": middle class and relatively privileged. Although Bill's father's side was descended from Scots, they identified as Irish Catholic, and Bill had attended Saint Augustine's Catholic High School. Writing for the school newspaper made Bill dream of becoming a journalist, but in 1944, aged seventeen, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was still undergoing training when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Posted to the Chinese port city of Tientsin (now Tianjin), he and his platoon on occasion "tangled with the gooks," as he put it, when Communist units attacked U.S. forces. After he left China in September 1946 he rarely spoke about his experiences, but years later, Marie would recall marching around, aged six, singing, "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli," the Marines' Hymn, which her father had taught her. It seemed, she said, "very romantic and exciting." All her life she got along well with military men. Her father had a soldierly bearing and was determined that his children uphold the high standards of behavior he had learned in the marines.
After finishing his military service, Bill started to feel unwell. He had contracted tuberculosis in China and spent two years at the U.S. Marine Hospital in Queens. Journalism was not an easy profession to enter, and upon discharge he went for a safer option, training as a teacher at Fordham. When he met a tall, determined young woman five years his junior with red hair and an open face, one who shared his passion for self-improvement, he felt that at last everything was falling into place. Bill Colvin and Rosemarie Marron were married at St. Luke's Church in the South Bronx. She wore a long white silk dress with a scalloped neckline and carried a bouquet of lilies. He was in a morning suit and striped cravat, his hair shining with pomade. They went to Bermuda on their honeymoon and started their family immediately.
Bill Colvin was a dedicated and, by all accounts, exemplary English teacher, spending his entire career at Forest Hills High School, in Queens. He led a Boy Scout troop and was active in local politics, but he never lost his youthful passion for writing. Like millions of Americans, he responded to an advertisement in The New York Times Book Review for a correspondence course at the Famous Writers School, in Westport, Connecticut, which promised to "teach you to write successfully at home," holding out the possibility of "financial success and independence" as a writer. The application form he completed in 1967 reveals a lot about the father against whom Marie would soon rebel. His main ambition, he said, was "to be a good person, lead a full life and create something with beauty and meaning before I die." Interests: politics and reading. Favorite classroom subjects: English and philosophy. Favorite writers: Walt Whitman, William Faulkner, and Shakespeare. His chosen magazines and newspapers were Good Housekeeping; the Jesuit weekly magazine, America; and the Oyster Bay Guardian. "Maybe I just want to wrestle with eternal conflicts on paper," he wrote in a piece about why he wanted to write, but more may have been revealed in a story he wrote about a teacher, who just happened to be called Bill. "Society won't accept a man simply as a teacher," he wrote. "He must really be something else in order to justify his existence."
* * *
Marie's sister Aileen, nicknamed Boo, was born in 1960. Four years later, just before Marie turned nine, Rosemarie gave birth to her fifth and final child, Cathleen, always known as Cat. Marie had taken little interest in the birth of her other siblings, but she was enchanted by the new baby. The feeling never faded, and from the moment she could toddle, Cat was Marie's shadow. As the eldest, Marie had a small room of her own, on the first floor. Cat remembers lying in Marie's bed playing "postage stamp kisses," a game her big sister invented. "She would tell me a story about a place — Brazil, maybe, or China — with parties and dancing women or Amazon queens. Then she would give me as many kisses as hours it took to get there by plane to send me to my dreams."
Life for the Colvin kids took place largely "down the hill" at the back of the house. Bill mobilized the fathers of the neighborhood to dig out the sandy slope, shoring up the retaining wall at the top with old tires and creating a flat play area at the bottom, where they planted ivy, honey locust, and dogwood trees. There the neighborhood kids and Marie's siblings trailed in the slipstream of her enthusiasm. She was not only the oldest, but also tall, wiry, strong, and game for anything. With her shock of dark curls and her determined manner, she commanded attention. "She was the person to follow," says her brother Michael. "I thought if I tagged along with Marie, everything would be fine."
Their favorite game was Dead Man's Branch. "We each had our own tree," recalls Billy. "You had to climb out along a branch to see whose would break first." Invariably, it was Marie who pushed out farthest. If her branch broke and she took a tumble, she'd just pick herself up and find another branch. On the whole, though, the other kids would have given up long before she reached the flimsy end. The game appealed not only to Marie's physical bravery but also to her competitiveness: she liked to win. When the first snows fell, the neighborhood fathers would carve out a snaking toboggan run, which, when the grown-ups were safely out of sight, Billy would douse with water to ice it up so the toboggan went faster. When she was about ten, Marie careered full tilt into an oak tree, breaking her nose and splitting open her forehead. She was taken to the hospital and ended up with a scar. It was one of the rare occasions when the Colvin children ran for help — their parents' rule was that you could come home in tears only if you were bleeding.
The sea was a constant in the Colvins' lives, just a bicycle ride away. In winter, when the bay froze at the edges, they would drift out on ice floes, daring one another to go out farther. In the summer, they would spend the whole day at the beach. They joined the Scouts and went camping at Planting Fields, a nearby park and arboretum, green and lush in the summer, sparkling with orange, red, and gold by October. The leader of Marie's troop noticed that at the end of a hike, Marie would frequently be on her own rather than sticking close to the others. "She was not naughty, only curious and unafraid," she noted later. "Her dominant, courageous personality stood out even then."
The center of Oyster Bay comprised a handful of shops, a railway station, the municipal buildings, and that was about it. The loudest noise came from the gulls that lifted and hovered over the ocean. It was a safe place, one where everyone knew everyone and children wandered freely, but nevertheless, the dangers of the world beyond Long Island hung over them. The elementary school Marie attended held periodic nuclear drills, in which the children were told to gather in the hallway, where there were no windows, and crouch against the walls. (How this was meant to save them in the event of nuclear war was unclear.) One day in November 1963, Marie arrived early to take Billy and Michael home from kindergarten, about a mile from the house. "I didn't know what it was, but I could see that something horrible had happened," Michael recalls. "She was crying so I started crying, too, as we walked." The teacher had broken the news to Marie's class: President Kennedy had been assassinated.
For Bill and Rosemarie it wasn't just a question of remembering where they were when they heard the news. As mainstays of the local Democratic Party, they had campaigned tirelessly for Kennedy. When he came to office in 1961, the Democrats, who had previously been the underdogs, gained control of the Oyster Bay Town Council, a sign of the new liberal mood sweeping America. Local politics gave Marie her first glimpse of power and corruption. Oyster Bay was a Republican bastion, the Grand Old Party in Nassau County reputed to be the most powerful in the country. The party chairman, Joseph Margiotta, drove a car with the license plate "GOP-1." Municipal hiring, promotions, and contracts all went through him, and he was eventually convicted of collaborating in an insurance scheme to benefit his political cronies.
In 1965 a newly elected Democratic town supervisor sacked the town historian and appointed the "young and dynamic" Bill Colvin. Marie's father did the job, unpaid and part-time, for a year until he was appointed to a full-time salaried position as county treasurer that required him to take a leave of absence from teaching. When he ran for election within the party, the kids were dragooned into making buttons in red, white, and blue with the slogan "Count on Colvin." When he was defeated, his loyal eldest daughter declared it "a conspiracy." In the evenings, after the children tumbled into the house, conversation round the dinner table frequently turned to politics. Marie heard her parents lamenting America's deepening involvement in the Vietnam War. She saw their despair when Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were also assassinated, and understood their disappointment when, in 1968, the Republican Richard Nixon was elected.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In Extremis"
Copyright © 2018 Lindsey Hilsum.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsCONTENTS
PART I : AMERICA
1. Dead Man’s Branch 3
2. Father and Daughter 26
3. Lovers and Mentors 51
PART II: MIDDLE EAST
4. The Path of Death 81
5. In a Man’s World 109
6. War, Peace, and Love 138
PART III: THE WORLD BEYOND
7. We’re Gonna Make You a Star 167
8. Leap Before You Look 196
9. The Face in the Mirror 229
PART IV: LONDON
10. All at Sea 261
11. A Reckless Tide 290
12. Baba Amr 319
“REPORTS OF MY SURVIVAL MAY BE EXAGGERATED,” BY ALAN JENKINS 355
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS 357