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Ambassador A-List


For Holbrooke and Marton, both previously divorced twice, it wasn't love at first sight -- although perhaps, in hindsight, there were romantic glimmerings. Marton, a stylish, animated woman with a brilliant smile, is the daughter of two Hungarian journalists who were jailed -- her father for a year, her mother for two -- when she was 6 years old and later fled to the U.S., where her father became an Associated Press correspondent and her mother a French teacher. Brought up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, divorced after a brief marriage, Marton was working as an ABC-TV journalist in London when she met and married Jennings. By the time the anchor-couple moved to Manhattan in 1983, she had started writing books, which have included biographies of Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg and journalist George Polk. Walking with me through the sprawling, handsome Central Park West apartment she once shared with Jennings, Marton explains, in one of those classic small-world New York stories, that Holbrooke used to be one of her neighbors. He and Diane Sawyer were living together in an apartment in the same building, and the two couples socialized. "I remember Diane and Richard sitting in those chairs," Marton says, pointing across the living room (Holbrooke and Marton live here, using the Waldorf suite for entertaining), "and Diane crumpling balls out of paper to throw to the kids." (Besides their son, Christopher, Marton and Jennings have a daughter, Elizabeth, now a college sophomore.) "Richard was helpful to me on writing projects. Maybe once a year we'd have lunch." But there was nothing between them. Holbrooke's seven-year romance with Sawyer ended abruptly in 1987. As one of his friends tells the story, Sawyer came home one day and announced she'd had lunch with Mike Nichols, and said she thought it might turn into something. Soon after, Holbrooke moved out. (Searching through a box of photos in his office one afternoon, Holbrooke paused upon coming across several photos of himself and Sawyer. "I was going to throw these pictures out, but Kati said I had to keep them." Why? "To show how open-minded she is.")

The troubled Jennings-Marton marriage was tabloid fodder for years, replete with rumored infidelities on both sides, before Marton finally told the anchorman she wanted a divorce in the fall of 1993. By then, Holbrooke was ambassador to Germany. Upon learning that Marton was in Paris that Christmas ("I was as sad a sack as you can imagine," she says), he tracked her down, and the two of them went off on a four-day road trip. "Our first stop was Chartres. Richard was really knowledgeable about architecture; we had something to talk about that wasn't my situation. Occasionally I'd go off to the bathroom and have a good cry and come back. He was a great companion."

What stunned Marton, however, was a scribbled document Holbrooke gave her after they began seeing each other seriously several months later. "Richard gave me a list of every time he'd seen me in nine years. He has a phenomenal memory. It included things like elevator sightings, large parties, small parties. I was so overwhelmed. Even if I wasn't already half in love with him, that would have pushed me over, because of that sustained devotion and the fact that he never let on." Mention this missive to Holbrooke and he growls, "I wanted her. But the point of the story is that she remembered those times, too. She was in denial -- she didn't realize she was irresistibly drawn to me."

"I yell at my staff but not at negotiators," says Henry Kissinger. "He's probably nice to his staff but yells at the people he's negotiating with."

The two have more in common than overlapping social circles. Marton didn't discover until she was researching her Wallenberg book in the early eighties that her grandparents were Jewish and had died in Auschwitz, a fact her parents, who raised her as Catholic and are still alive, chose not to disclose. Holbrooke, also the son of Jewish refugees, knew about his roots but was brought up as a Quaker. Married in 1995, they have spent a lot of time together talking about this unusual shared past. "I had a rift with my parents over withholding something so enormous," Marton says. "Richard helped me put their decision in the context of this nightmarish period."

For Marton, now researching a book on the complexity of presidential marriages, the United Nations has become the equivalent of a second full-time job. Joining Holbrooke on the Africa trip, Marton, a former director and current board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, skipped the typical spouse sightseeing to meet with journalists in Angola and Congo who had been tortured and imprisoned by their governments. Back in New York, not only can you see Marton at a United Nations Security Council meeting, sitting in the visitors' gallery, but she also does the wife thing, planning menus and guest lists for their constant entertaining. "For both of us, this is a very happy time," she says. "I'm completely addicted to him. And he never stops telling me, whatever he's doing, he couldn't do it without me."

Friends who knew Holbrooke during his romance with Sawyer or his two previous marriages -- to college sweetheart Larrine Sullivan (the mother of his two sons, Anthony and David) and to TV producer Blythe Babyak -- say Marton has been a soothing influence on the ferociously driven Holbrooke. He rolls his eyes at this theory: "Did Kati transform me from an ugly duckling to something more presentable? She thinks she did, and that's fine with me."

On the top floor of the U.S. Mission, with its spectacular view of the East River, Holbrooke is circulating among diplomatic reporters at a meet-the-new-ambassador reception, introducing a short, dark-haired older woman by his side -- his mother, Trudi Kearl. Including her in this gathering seems like the ultimate act of a thoughtful son, but when I mention that sentiment to him in an aside, Holbrooke confides, "I didn't know she was coming." Indeed, Mrs. Kearl cheerfully admits that she crashed the party. Alerted about the event by a German newspaper reporter, she decided to show up and surprise her son. "I didn't know if Dick would be mad at me or pleased," she explains, adding that since recently being widowed for the second time (Holbrooke's father, Dan, died in the mid-fifties), she likes to get out: "I'm social." Kearl, who was born in Germany and fled in the early thirties, as Hitler was taking power, to Buenos Aires and then New York, does a virtuoso proud-mother act. "Dick was always the best at everything," she says. "That's what the teachers told me." ("Actually, I was not that good a student, but I had high college-board scores," he tells me later.)

Holbrooke, looking bemused, quips to the crowd, "My mother is holding her own press conference in the back -- and anything she says is off the record." Holbrooke's friends say he inherited his extraordinary confidence from his mother. As for his father, a refugee from White Russia who arrived in New York in the late thirties, Holbrooke describes him as a brilliant and compassionate doctor and the ultimate believer in the American dream. He became ill with colon cancer when Holbrooke was 7 and died eight years later. "He wanted me to be a scientist," says Holbrooke.

Like many other immigrant parents, his father was intent on his son's education, refusing to allow Holbrooke to cut classes to attend the greatest day in Yankees history, Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. The little boy in Holbrooke comes bursting out as he says, "The most famous game in history -- and I could have been there." Eager to Americanize themselves, the Holbrookes rarely spoke about their pasts. "They came to the New World full of idealism, fleeing a Europe in flames, and they didn't want to think about it or talk about it," Holbrooke says. "They didn't teach me foreign languages, even though my father spoke eight or nine; my mother speaks six." He and his younger brother Andrew, now a photojournalist, were brought up as members of the Society of Friends. "The joke at our Quaker meeting house," Holbrooke recalls, "was, 'Some of our best Friends are Jews.' " Only when Holbrooke became ambassador to Germany in 1993 did he belatedly become curious about his Jewish roots. James Hoge recalls Holbrooke's describing his first visit to Washington's Holocaust Memorial Museum: "I've never seen him so devastated." In Germany, he made pilgrimages to concentration camps.

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