Lindsey Hilsum, Channel 4 News’ international editor, is on the sofa in her north London home, describing the memorial of her friend, and subject of her new book, renowned war correspondent Marie Colvin. “I can remember it so clearly,” says Hilsum. “I got through the whole thing, but at the very end, as people were filing out, they played Passionate Kisses by Lucinda Williams and I completely fell apart, because that was so Marie. So Marie.”
It was “so Marie” because Colvin loved Lucinda Williams and country music, and the genre’s drama-fuelled tales of heartache were something Colvin experienced so painfully in her own life. This narrative is central to Hilsum’s depiction of her, thanks to access she’d been given to the diaries Colvin had kept since she was 13. Initially, Hilsum was worried that she’d fallen into the sexist “trap” of writing about men and relationships in a woman’s biography. But, she says passionately, “If people ask me what is the book about, I’d say it’s about war and love and sex and death. Because those are big themes that Marie lived large throughout her whole life. So all of those things have to be there because that was the kind the life that she led. In some ways, the love and sex bit is as important as the war and death bit, and it’s all tied up.”
The book’s title, In Extremis, is taken from a quote by Colvin, but also reflects the way she lived. From a young age, Colvin was searching for something, never satisfied, always restless. Colvin thought Oyster Bay, where she grew up on Long Island, with her Catholic parents and her four siblings, “was a nowhere town”, one of Colvin’s high-school friends told Hilsum. “I really liked that line,” says Hilsum, “because it was that sense of Marie’s impatience. She was impatient with this suburban life and wanted something much gritter. ‘Do I want too much?’ Lucinda Williams sings in the final verse of Passionate Kisses. ‘Am I going overboard to want that touch?’”
As a child, Marie had played “dead man’s branch” with her younger brothers and sisters. The aim of the game was to climb a tree, pick a branch and move further out along to see who would break it first. “Invariably,” Hilsum writes, “it was Marie who pushed out furthest.” Her ability to push on, for longer, despite the looming danger, would eventually give her the reputation as one of the greatest war reporters of her generation. And, arguably, it was why she went back into Baba Amr, a neighbourhood under siege in Homs, Syria, in February 2012, through a storm drain for the second time – which Hilsum describes as “reckless” – and was killed by a rocket. She was 56.
Her drive to leave what was behind her, and her determination to go further into what was in front of her, was a potent mix, resulting in incredible stories, which Hilsum powerfully brings to life in her biography. Colvin’s breakthrough came in 1987, when she and a photographer made it across a no man's land in a refugee camp in Beirut, bribing the militia to hold fire for just one minute. Colvin poignantly told the story of a 22-year-old woman shot dead in the crossfire. The story went round the world and three days later a ceasefire was called. Next came East Timor in 1990, when, along with 80 UN workers, Colvin refused to leave despite Hilsum describing the decision as “at worst, suicidal”. Colvin then went to report in Chechnya, which saw her trek through mountains with little food and Russian jet fighters flying overhead, eventually saved by a CIA agent and, she believed, the Harrods fur jacket she was wearing. Two years later, she was reporting on the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, which is where shrapnel robbed her of the sight in her left eye – and when she began to wear her famous patch.
Indisputably brave, exceptionally glamorous – the smoking, drinking, untameable American war correspondent, wearing La Perla underwear and coming home to cocktail parties with poets and politicians, was “charismatic, magnetic”, says Hilsum. “It does make her a bit like a character in a movie.” It can’t be easy to have Colvin as a peer, and Hilsum, internationally regarded in her own right, laughs that she’s going to start a “dull war reporters’ club” (an oxymoron, surely?). But Hilsum expresses nothing but an abundance of love and admiration for her friend, saying, “She was bolder and braver.” And although Hilsum felt occasional bouts of frustration and anger at Colvin, which she writes about in the book, “you always forgave Marie,” she says, “because it was Marie.” They were, as Hilsum writes, “the Thelma and Louise of the press corps”.
There is a line between you and the people you are reporting on. There is a step back that most of us have. Marie didn’t have that and it’s certainly what set her apart
Behind the charisma, Colvin was brilliant at her job. She forged incredible relationships with figures like Gaddafi and Yasser Arafat, gaining access in a way that not many others could. She kept streams of meticulous notes; she could drink whisky and smoke cigarettes endlessly with the right people to get the story. And her reporting put the plight of the underdog at its heart – the human story of suffering which was her “moral” duty to tell to the world. “I think most of us,” says Hilsum – who has reported in Libya, Serbia, Iraq and Rwanda, among many other places – “do what we can and leave. You feel huge sympathy and connection, but there is a line between you and the people you are reporting on. There is a step back that most of us have. Marie didn’t have that and it’s certainly what set her apart.”
The stack of Colvin’s diaries that are now in Hilsum’s study are a gift to any biographer. Hilsum says one of the most “heartstopping moments” was opening Marie's first diary, with a white plastic cover, the key long gone. “I realised that nobody had looked at this since she had locked it with that key, maybe at the age of 14, and that was the most extraordinary moment for me, and that was when I found this rebellious girl.” She recalls one of her favourite entries from 2 January 1969: “Everyone is wearing pants. I’ve got to talk Mommy into letting me do it, for honour's sake. I’m not sure I want to but I must.”
The diaries seem to have been particularly helpful in understanding a woman who had a dazzling persona but a very different interior – two In Extremis identities that struggled against one another. From 17 August 1992: “Horrible disturbing anxiety dreams, can't remember them. Realisation today; first I was bulimic, then discovered smoking.” From 8 August 2003: “Drink until I sleep, relief I have had not to appear as Marie.” After the break-up of her second marriage, the diaries become “very very raw”, says Hilsum. She sighs. “I mean, she’s a great chronicler of her own heartbreak.”
Arguably, the real love story in Colvin’s life is her female friends. She was part of a glittering Notting Hill set featuring aristocracy, former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman and author Helen Fielding, all of whom became a sort of family for Colvin – she spent her time with them when she was back in London; they tried to “create safety nets” when she was drinking too much. When Colvin hurt her eye, she rejected her mother and husband’s efforts to be looked after at home and instead chose to drink cocktails in a hotel with her best friend, Katrina. “Her friends adored her,” says Hilsum, “and she adored them.”
What is her legacy? Where would she be today? “She’d be in Yemen, but I like to imagine her on a yacht,” says Hilsum. (Sailing was one of the few places she seemed to find a sense of balance.) Like Hilsum herself, and despite the advances in technology, Hilsum stresses that Colvin believed in being there. “It was Clare Hollingworth, a great World War Two reporter, who said, ‘I like to smell the breezes but you can't smell the breezes on a computer,’ and I think that’s a brilliant thing. You have to be there.” Hilsum has also help set up the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network to specifically help young women journalists in the Arab world. In some ways, it's a surprising move. “I think she, like all of us, has a slightly complicated relationship with this ‘woman’ thing. In some ways, it is insulting to point out our gender because what I don’t like, and Marie certainly didn’t like, is this idea that to be a man in this environment as a foreign correspondent, a political conflict reporter, is normal. And that’s very irritating, because we are normal.”
In her preface, Hilsum said that after Colvin died, “she was always there, her ghost challenging me to discover all that I had missed when she was alive”. Now, Hilsum feels it might be time to move on. “When I started, she came to me in a dream and I said, ‘Is it alright?’ and she said, ‘Yeah, it’s alright,” but then I thought, OK, you can have me for two years and then you have to let me go once I’ve written the book. And now I’ll find out if she will.”
In Extremis: The Life Of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum is out now