Marie Colvin: her Yale sweetheart remembers

“There was a story on the Guardian, 11 minutes old, saying she had been killed. I drank for five straight days.”

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When the journalist Marie Colvin died, on 22 February 2012, in the besieged Baba Amr district of the Syrian city of Homs, she was carrying a backpack containing basic supplies: a change of underwear, two satellite phones – and a weighty black box with a 387-page manuscript inside.

Since crossing illegally into Syria eight days earlier, Colvin had dragged the box through a two-mile sewer and hurled it over a barbed-wire fence. It was buried with her, for a short time, in a garden close to the building in which she and the French photographer Rémi Ochlik died during shelling by the Syrian army. When her body was exhumed for repatriation to her native Oyster Bay, New York, the box came with her. Marie’s sister Cathleen set about looking for the author, Gerald Weaver, a man Marie first met at a Yale University party 37 years earlier.

“She had this ride of curly brown hair, like Ava Gardner,” Weaver recalls when we meet at a hotel bar on Park Lane in London. “She was always bold, jumping into ponds not knowing what was underneath, or running through cemeteries at night.” Colvin joined the Yale Daily News during her third year, but unlike her student colleagues she had no interest in ascending the editorial ranks. “She just wanted to be a reporter,” Weaver says. “In a way, she didn’t have any of their petty ambitions. But, in another way, she was far more ambitious. ‘I want to throw myself in head first,’ she told me. ‘I want to be a star.’”

After stints with a truck drivers’ union magazine and working as a New York police beat reporter while living in the West Village – “a needle-strewn, horrible place back then”, Weaver adds – Colvin moved to Paris to become bureau manager for United Press International. Weaver married (someone else) in 1981. After almost a decade of “exclusive moments”, the couple drifted apart.

Meanwhile Weaver had forged an equally impressive career, becoming the youngest ever chief of staff in Congress in 1983, aged only 25. “Socialising with a consequence,” is how he thinks of politics today. In Weaver’s case, that consequence was a two-year prison sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine on the Hill. “In prison, you have to avoid three things: violence, boredom and dissipation,” he says. The first he avoided with the help of a Brooklyn mob boss (Weaver is of Sicilian descent); boredom and dissipation he escaped by burying himself in literature.

Colvin began her celebrated partnership with the Sunday Times in 1985, first as Middle East and then as foreign affairs correspondent, reporting everywhere from Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka – where she lost the sight in her left eye in a grenade blast. (After which she traipsed through 30 miles of Tamil-held jungle to file a 3,000-word report.) “In a way, she was like Ulysses,” Weaver says. “She was an amazing, mythical character – but you knew there’d be a price to pay if you got in the boat with her.”

At a lunch in London in 2010, Colvin encouraged her old friend to write a novel; and the densely allegorical Gospel Prism has now been published (though in press interviews, such as this one, Weaver continues to remember Colvin foremost). They emailed each other every morning at 5am for two years to exchange ideas. He urged her not to go to Syria. One morning in winter 2012, for no discernible reason, he googled her name. “There was a story on the Guardian, 11 minutes old, saying she had been killed. I drank for five straight days.” Today the manuscript sits in Weaver’s bedroom cupboard. “People ask if I’ve checked for notes or blood, but, to tell you the truth, I can’t look at it. She was a once-in-a-lifetime woman.” 

Philip Maughan is an editor at 032c magazine and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta