Book People | December 2008 | Nicholas Basbanes

Harold Pinter

The death yesterday at 78 of Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter brings to mind a very brief discussion I had with the great British playwright twenty-four years ago, and how I acquired what is easily one of the most unusual author autographs in my collection of inscribed first editions.

On Oct.3, 1984, I was in Boston interviewing Lady Antonia Fraser, Pinter's wife, and a distinguished author in her own right. The occasion for our meeting was the publication of her book, The Weaker Vessel, a richly informative study of women in seventeenth-century England.

It was a gorgeous fall day--no city in America is more beautiful than Boston in autumn--and  Pinter, who was traveling with his wife on her publicity tour across the United States, was anxious to see a famous Rembrandt painting on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on the Fenway (the same painting, in fact, that was stolen by masked bandits six years later). About twenty minutes or so into the interview--I usually had an hour to talk with the authors I profiled for my literary columns--he walked briskly into the main room of their suite at the Ritz-Carlton, and said, "I think it's time we got going. Do you mind terribly if I take my wife to the museum?"

Lady Fraser looked at me apologetically; I assured her that I had plenty of material for my piece, and thanked her for her time. But I did wonder aloud if she could inscribe my copy of her book before they left, and opportunist that I am in these matters, asked Pinter if he could sign it as well. "It's not my book," he said with an edge of annoyance. "I know," I replied, "but I'd love to have your signature in it anyway."  So there, on the title page of The Weaker Vessel, beneath the nice inscription from Antonia Fraser, is the signature of her husband, Harold Pinter. I'm very pleased to have the book on my shelves

The obituary in today's New York Times, I might add, is curious for the fact that it was mostly written by Mel Gussow, the outstanding critic and cultural reporter for the newspaper who died three years ago. The Times is famous for writing obituaries of notable people well in advance of their deaths, then keeping the articles on file and updating them only with the particulars of their passing. This is a most unusual instance--I'm sure there have been others, but I can't think of any more at the moment--where the principal reporter of an obituary has predeceased the subject of the article. It's a beautifully insightful piece of writing about a major contemporary writer, and I recommend it highly.