Sitting in the warm, wood-paneled living room of Kati Marton’s apartment overlooking Central Park, it’s hard to imagine the fascinating and, at times, courageous journey that shaped her life. Born in Cold War Budapest to Ilona and Endre Marton, correspondents for the UPI and AP respectively, Kati’s family including sister Julia, lived in circumstances and conditions that are the stuff of spy novels. She recently captured the time and their story in a memoir titled: Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America. The book is now a finalist for the National Book Critics Award and while much of it is Kati’s parents’ story, it is her story too.
Kati’s parents lived through two difficult periods in 20th century European history: first the Nazi and then the Soviet occupation of Hungary. In the former, Kati’s father participated in the underground, while witnessing the anti-Semitism that led to a short, but brutal Hungarian holocaust. Endre and Ilona emerged from their experiences as “remarkable characters.”
“Given their place in history, I have great pride and awe for all my parents endured. They were never dragged down by their history. I would have wanted to know them even if they hadn’t been my parents,” Kati says with more than a daughter’s love.
Kati describes her parents, who were Ph.D.s, as “worldly, secular, and intellectual.” When asked what characteristics she shares with her father, Kati points with pride to his “discipline, work ethic, and love of books and knowledge.” From her mother, she learned to appreciate “beauty in all its manifestations.” And, of course, Kati says with a twinkle in her eye, “My mother loved men and men loved my mother. She was an intellectual with a killer sense of humor.” Looking at her parents’ impact on her life, particularly in writing this book, Kati says unhesitatingly, “They gave me a great start in life. My memories of Budapest are so precious.”
Kati and her family escaped the “Communist Terror State” and came to America in the late Fifties, settling in Bethesda, Maryland and suburban American life. After graduating from high school there, Kati attended Wells College, which had “too many girls” and where she missed “city life.” She went on to study at the Sorbonne and the Institute des Etudes de Science Politique in Paris, graduating with a B.A. in Romance languages and a M.A. in international relations from George Washington University.
While Kati didn’t have a “grand scheme,” journalism was in her blood. Shortly after graduation, she worked for National Public Radio for two years, and then WCAU (the local ABC affiliate in Philadelphia). While working at WCAU, Kati won a George Foster Peabody Award for a documentary about the Philadelphia Orchestra’s trip to what was then a still-closed China. With a Peabody in hand, Kati moved on to become the Bonn Bureau Chief and Foreign Correspondent for ABC. While Bonn may not have been the most exciting place, Kati covered stories in Berlin, other European cities, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East—catching the eye of ABC’s London-based correspondent and rising network star, Peter Jennings.
It became not only a professional relationship, but soon a “big romance and love affair.” Marton and Jennings were married in 1979, spending five years in London, before moving to New York with their young children: Elizabeth and Christopher (now 29 and 27). It was while living in London that Kati started writing a column for the London Times, and where she wrote her first book, Wallenberg, about Swedish humanitarian, Raoul Wallenberg.
The success of Wallenberg led Kati to a full-time writing career. She is now the author of seven books, including the New York Times bestseller, Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages that Shaped Our History.
On the personal front, Kati and Peter Jennings divorced in 1994 (Jennings died in 2005) and the following year she married Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. Kati and her husband travel extensively given his role and her interests. Holbrooke is now serving as the Obama Administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kati is the former Chair of the International Women’s Health Coalition, a non-governmental organization that promotes and protects the rights and health of girls and women worldwide, as well as the Committee to Protect Journalists.
And, she is soon to be Professor Marton: Kati will be teaching a course in Jerusalem, in conjunction with Bard College, on great books dealing with the theme of exile. As part of the course, she’ll be drawing on recent readings of The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, Ghost Wars by Steven Coll, Unaccounted Earth by Jumpa Ilhiri, and Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization. Yes, Kati does indeed share her father’s love of books.
In anticipation of this course Kati sees parallels between the role of religion in European history and what is taking place in the 21st century, particularly as it relates to relations between the West and the Arab world. Her parents thought religion was “backward thinking.” Having witnessed the “troubles” in Northern Ireland and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, Kati regrets that religion sometimes brings out the negative side of human nature. The course will provide her with the opportunity to reach out to both Palestinians and Israelis.
Writing the book, Kati came to a full appreciation of her parents and the amazing heritage they gave her. They stressed the importance of independence and self-reliance. Kati very much believes that “Children should have their own lives.” To this end, Kati remains her own person— sharing her life generously with her family and friends while engaged in a wide-range of personal projects and interests. Life has a way of coming full circle.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions:
Favorite Place to Eat: Downtown, Odeon, 145 W. Broadway; West Side, Gabriel’s, 11 West 60th Street, and Pasha, 70 West 71st Street; East Side, Lumi’s 963 Lexington Avenue
Favorite Place to Shop: Theory and Max Mara on sale, Club Monaco and J.Crew
Favorite New York Sight: The silver New York skyline—my first glimpse as I come in from the airport. It makes me breathe easier.
Favorite New York Moment: When a Pakistani cab driver on learning that my husband is the special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan thanked me and refused to accept payment for my cab ride. He shook my hand and said “This one’s on me.”
What You Love About New York: New York is my hometown and the hometown of my children.
What You Hate About New York: There’s very little I hate. I wish the subways ran as well as the Paris Metro.
Other books by Kati Marton:
Hidden Power: Presidential Marriages That Shaped Our History
The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World
The Polk Conspiracy
A Death in Jerusalem
The novel, An American Woman