Love in a Time of War

Lara Marlowe chronicles an impossible romance against the backdrop of war and journalism.

di-Giovanni-Janine-foreign-policy-columnist7
di-Giovanni-Janine-foreign-policy-columnist7
Janine di Giovanni
By , an FP columnist and director of The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies.
Robert Fisk and Lara Marlowe in a burning Kuwait oil field in 1991.
Robert Fisk and Lara Marlowe in a burning Kuwait oil field in 1991.
Robert Fisk and Lara Marlowe in a burning Kuwait oil field in 1991. Lara Marlowe personal collection

As readers of Ernest Hemingway know, war can be a powerful aphrodisiac. In her book Love in a Time of War: My Years With Robert Fisk, the French American foreign correspondent Lara Marlowe tells the autobiographical story of two reporters and their intense and stormy love affair against the rough and dangerous background of war.

Their love story spans decades, skipping across the Middle East and Balkans while the two report, argue, and love—in short, live life to the fullest. They drink, write, and interview warlords against a backdrop of front-line battles—when they aren’t taking a break in Paris or Dublin. The couple were part of a journalistic tribe then called “firemen,” reporters sent at a moment’s notice by their media organizations to cover a hot spot. In a sense, the book is two things in one: a memoir of Marlowe’s journalistic career and a poignant tribute to a man she loved and revered.

Fisk, who died in 2020, was a towering icon of British journalism. “You cannot get near the truth without being there,” he would often tell Marlowe. Swaggering, arrogant, eloquent, with a stack of writing awards, he was also mercurial and complicated. While a reporter at the London Times and later the Independent, he published remarkable accounts of the wars in Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian territories. His first big story was a series exposing then-U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s record as a Nazi officer during World War II. Later, Fisk was one of the few Western journalists who interviewed Osama bin Laden.

As readers of Ernest Hemingway know, war can be a powerful aphrodisiac. In her book Love in a Time of War: My Years With Robert Fisk, the French American foreign correspondent Lara Marlowe tells the autobiographical story of two reporters and their intense and stormy love affair against the rough and dangerous background of war.

Their love story spans decades, skipping across the Middle East and Balkans while the two report, argue, and love—in short, live life to the fullest. They drink, write, and interview warlords against a backdrop of front-line battles—when they aren’t taking a break in Paris or Dublin. The couple were part of a journalistic tribe then called “firemen,” reporters sent at a moment’s notice by their media organizations to cover a hot spot. In a sense, the book is two things in one: a memoir of Marlowe’s journalistic career and a poignant tribute to a man she loved and revered.

Love in a Time of War: My Years With Robert Fisk, Lara Marlowe, Head of Zeus, 448 pp., .25, October 2021
Love in a Time of War: My Years With Robert Fisk, Lara Marlowe, Head of Zeus, 448 pp., .25, October 2021

Love in a Time of War: My Years With Robert Fisk, Lara Marlowe, Head of Zeus, 448 pp., $27.25, October 2021

Fisk, who died in 2020, was a towering icon of British journalism. “You cannot get near the truth without being there,” he would often tell Marlowe. Swaggering, arrogant, eloquent, with a stack of writing awards, he was also mercurial and complicated. While a reporter at the London Times and later the Independent, he published remarkable accounts of the wars in Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian territories. His first big story was a series exposing then-U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim’s record as a Nazi officer during World War II. Later, Fisk was one of the few Western journalists who interviewed Osama bin Laden.

An Arabic speaker and a passionate writer, Fisk wrote essays that soared off the front page. He gained an enormous following: Fans clipped his stories and wrote heartfelt letters. He could depict the suffering of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp massacre (which Marlowe considered the “defining moment” of his career) or Bosnian civilians during the Balkan wars with a razor-sharp eye while delivering level-headed analysis.

In later years, Fisk blotted his copy book by sympathizing with Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. During that country’s brutal civil war, Fisk was embedded with Assad’s army and became an apologist for his atrocities.

Still, the legend of Fisk will go down in journalistic history, not least on account of Marlowe’s book. Every correspondent who experienced the golden age of foreign reporting knew someone like Fisk—a brilliant storyteller with the ability to write fast and beautifully. Marlowe’s account of that journalistic archetype is much more romantic.

Marlowe isn’t just the partner in the background. When they meet in Damascus in 1983, she is a reporter for CBS, fluent in French and covering Hafez al-Assad’s Syria. She is bowled over by his courtship. “My darling, brave and beautiful lover,” Fisk writes to her from besieged Sarajevo. His letters are epistles of passion: He calls her his angel, his beauty, his love. It’s easy to see why Marlowe fell so hard.

She leaves her first husband and the U.S. foreign service before joining Fisk in Beirut at the height of the Lebanese civil war. She struggles to support herself as a freelance writer, while Fisk, well established as a reporter by then, had the comfort of a padded expense account. She also struggles to come into her own as a reporter, not easy with a partner whose ego was as mammoth as Fisk’s.

“If there is a shadow on our happiness,” Marlowe writes of their early years, “it is the professional frustration that hangs over us like a minor ailment.” She worked first for Time and eventually became a staffer at the Irish Times, a position she still holds today, winning her own awards and finding her own well-respected place. Her work exposing Islamist and Algerian government atrocities during the Algerian civil war in the 1990s was groundbreaking, and she continued to work nonstop from Somalia, Sudan, Bosnia, and Kosovo—anywhere there was a conflict going on and suffering to describe.

Marlowe doesn’t say it, but I will: Being a woman and working alongside hyper-macho men like Fisk in a hyper-macho environment like war is not easy. Like all the best love stories fueled by passion, the romance is destined to fall apart. There are affairs on both sides. One painful story recounts Fisk going to the Saudi desert with an attractive French photographer who later comes to dinner at Marlowe and Fisk’s home and blithely writes in their guest book: “Robert, you really ‘made’ it with me, and you Lara, you’re the woman in the middle of it.” It was cryptic, but Marlowe suspects the worst.

Despite the subterfuge, they finally marry in 1997, many years after their love story began. One wonders why it took so long, but Fisk called those who live and work in war-torn countries “invisibly mutilated.” It is an apt description of personal demons and private obstacles.

The couple made a tradition of drinking champagne in Ireland's Wicklow mountains on Christmas morning.
The couple made a tradition of drinking champagne in Ireland's Wicklow mountains on Christmas morning.

The couple made a tradition of drinking champagne in Ireland’s Wicklow mountains on Christmas morning. Lara Marlowe personal collection

Pain, suspicion, and arguments are followed by roses and yet more romance. It is not to last. In 2000, “Fiski” returns from a trip to Pakistan and meets Marlowe at a favorite restaurant in Paris. Just from seeing his jaunty pose, Marlowe immediately deduces: “He is in love with someone, and it is not me.” Maddeningly, she describes Fisk’s refusal to forgive Marlowe for an affair she had many years before even as he continues his own. He even insists Marlowe be the other woman’s friend.

Marlowe quotes the great French writer Louis Aragon: “There is no happy love.” When it finally breaks, Marlowe is heartbroken yet gracious and composed. Fisk goes on to marry the other woman, but they continue to work together, most notably during the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the aftermath.

Their last meeting is, by chance and poignantly, at the airport in Dublin, both returning from Paris. All the weight of their years comes rushing forward. “I carry you in me like a wounded bird,” she quotes Aragon earlier in the book. It is the last time she sees Fisk alive.


In many ways, Love in a Time of War is also a testament to a kind of journalism that no longer exists: that of the freewheeling foreign correspondent who rocked up in war zones with a few hundred dollars and a notebook. Despite the grim reality they described, they loved their subjects and their work. “Pretend you are writing to a friend,” Fisk coaches Marlowe early on. “Journalism is fun.”

Iconic reporters like Fisk and the Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski—who roamed Africa, Central America, and the former Soviet Union with little more than a backpack and lots of courage—are far and few between, and the opportunities to follow in their footsteps are dwindling. Quick takes and armchair analysis have replaced long-form, deeply reported stories.

Marlowe’s book describes an old, almost-lost world of on-the-ground journalism: “Be a camera, be a machine. … Just record it,” Marlowe tells herself during more gruesome assignments. “My notebook and pen are a lifebuoy in a swamp of agony and death.”

COVID-19 may have been the nail in the coffin of the roving reporter, but even before the pandemic, the risks of kidnapping, imprisonment, and murder were making a war reporter’s life more precarious. Last year, the Committee to Protect Journalists published its annual report with a grim message: More journalists are imprisoned for their work than ever before. As of Dec. 1, 24 journalists were killed in 2021.

Love in a Time of War is a beautiful book that chronicles the story of two people whose relationship and careers were shaped by the journalism of a different era. It is full of pain and longing but also joy, adventure, and excitement. Having lived my own love in a time of war, I understand Marlowe’s conclusion: A life lived in extremis is the most rewarding kind of life.

Correction, Jan. 6, 2022: This article has been corrected to reflect Marlowe’s reporting on Algeria and the timing of her relationship with Fisk.

Janine di Giovanni is an FP columnist and director of The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies. Twitter: @janinedigi

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