Cashmere & Pearls Beneath the Combats

By Alex ShulmanThe Sunday Times of London

As is the case with many extraordinary people, ordinary things were difficult for Marie, but friendship was not one of them. She was surrounded by friends the world over and had developed a particularly devoted and large network in London. Her talent for friendship involved her being constantly in touch (apart from when she would terrifyingly go Awol), being always admiring and loyal (Marie’s friends could commit murder and she would find a way to see it from their point of view) and making us feel like she really needed us.

You remember where you meet your great friends, and I first saw Marie sitting by the fireplace in the flat of the man who was to become her husband, the journalist Patrick Bishop.

I recall her there on the floor with a mop of thick black curls, an opinionated, deep drawl, an enormous number of cigarettes and wearing khaki combat pants. This last detail became a joke between us, since Marie swore that she had never, ever, worn such a garment for dinner. “Khaki combats, Alex — are you kidding?” she would chuckle.

My memory was probably at fault because Marie was the most feminine of women, the girliest of girls. To the many who read her dispatches, Marie was one of the great foreign correspondents of her age, known to plunge to the point of deepest conflict and remain there for longer than anyone else. Her byline picture would gaze seriously out of the pages of this paper. But although she was, of course, serious, brave, clever and phenomenally daring, those weren’t the qualities that made her such a great friend.

As the writer Helen Fielding said: “She was a true role model, committed and brave, but she was a total girl’s girl. It was that segue she did when you talked to her. The conversation would go straight from war to boys. It was amazing. And there was a lot of boy talk when Marie was around. Men loved her as much as women, and she was scarcely ever without an admirer of some kind, although the path of Marie’s love life was always littered with dramas. How many evenings have been spent draining at least a bottle too many as we exchanged confidences and shared wails? How often would Marie leave the house or restaurant bestowing a huge hug and saying, “I know you’re right,” and then ignoring every word of advice?

As one of Marie’s friends, one’s own dramas tended to pale in comparison, both because of the nature of her work and the toll it took on her, and the intensity with which she experienced life.

Not for her the tranquil pool (other than on a well-earned holiday, of which we shared many).

As a way of keeping in touch when she was away so much, Marie loved both giving and going to parties. You would often find dinner for four at her house had turned into a meal for 20, involving the most complicated of dishes that would be finally served up close to midnight, and usually delicious. She could be in the Middle East on Friday and throwing a huge bash on Saturday night.

Her guests were always an exciting mix, and her parties were proper parties with industrial quantities of alcohol, fights, gatecrashers and unexpected arrivals. General Sir Mike Jackson might well be squashed up against the wall as Bianca Jagger climbed the staircase, negotiating crowded rooms of writers and journalists. Marie was always happy to see everyone, and if you were giving a party you could rely on her to be there till the end, chatting with genuine interest and enthusiasm to whomever you introduced her to, her broad smile a beacon and her long arms waving around in one of the shortest dresses in the room.

Marie had a great body, athletic and lithe and enviably unaffected by the forces of gravity, and she liked to show it off, in part because so much of the time she was swathed in various forms of camouflage. She cared deeply about how she looked, yet she was without vanity. It was simply something that was important to her and she didn’t want to let herself down.

As soon as she returned to London she would head to Robert at John Frieda to get her curls tamed into a sleek blow-dry, and I scarcely ever saw her without her nails immaculately manicured. There was something old-world grand about Marie, with the pearls she always wore and her love of fine underwear, cashmere, lovely bed linen and tailored leather jackets.

Although Marie was able to penetrate the most difficult and dangerous of territories, she was tremendously vulnerable. She was not fearless. She was often fearful and apprehensive about what she was doing, which makes the fact she did it even more impressive. She was also chaotic in managing daily life.

She might — tragically — have reached Homs, but a journey to Oxfordshire would invariably involve the loss of either a ticket, a mobile phone or a wallet. Her great friend, the television producer and writer Jane Wellesley, was on constant red alert to provide all manner of bailouts, from replacement front door keys to launching manhunts when Marie’s deadline was in jeopardy and there was no word from her.

I last heard from Marie on my voicemail about three weeks ago. She was checking in as she always did, never aggrieved by my poor record on returning calls. I had been meaning to call her this weekend. As I sit in a comfortable hotel room in Milan during the fashion shows, surrounded by her obituaries, it is hard to take in the loss that I know I will continue to feel for years to come. But she is going to be the most glamorous of ghosts.