Marlene Hobsbawm: life with Eric and footsie with Kirk Douglas

At 87, she discusses Meet Me in Buenos Aires, her memoir of her adventurous early life and her 50-year marriage to the great historian

Marlene Hobsbawm is the author of Meet Me in Buenos Aires – a memoir described by Claire Tomalin as a “delight – courageous and warm-hearted”. Now 87, she fled with her family from Vienna in 1938 and grew up in Manchester. A talented linguist, she worked in France and Italy in her 20s and spent a year in what was then the Congo before settling in London, where she met and married Eric Hobsbawm. A lifelong Marxist whose socio-political convictions were reflected in his work, Hobsbawm was one of the 20th century’s best known historians. They were together for 50 years until his death at 95 in 2012 and had two children, Andy and Julia.

What made you decide to write a memoir?
Soon after Eric died, Richard J Evans [the historian] came to me and asked if he could write his biography. It took him seven years to finish Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, and it is very good, marvellous on the history, the politics and the books. But I felt it would be nice if there were a complementary book showing my version of my own life and our life together. And I didn’t want to die before getting my story down on paper for my grandchildren.

Your early life sounds wildly adventurous for a young woman in the 1940s and 50s, leaving home at 16 to work first in Paris, then Rome…
It was a much less dangerous world at that time. It seemed like nothing for a girl to go to places alone. When I went to work for the UN in the Congo it never crossed my mind that I might come to any harm. It felt like a much safer world for women.

Did you really play footsie with Kirk Douglas on an Italian train?
Actually, he played footsie with me. It was the 1950s and my friend Mariella worked at [the film studio] Cinecittà. She had been sent to Capri to find Kirk Douglas, who hadn’t returned from a holiday there, and bring him back. I went along to keep her company and we had a lot of fun on the way back to Rome. Mr Douglas was rather outrageous.

Your account of first meeting Eric at the home of your brother Walter Schwarz [a foreign correspondent for the Guardian] sounds like a classic coup de foudre. Is that how it felt?
There was chemistry immediately between us. I wore an ocelot coat of my cousin’s and I told him I’d shot it in Africa. He believed me – at least for a minute. He had this wonderful voice, a light tenor, which I liked. And I could see that even when he was talking to other people he always knew where I was in the room. When he said he was about to go off on a long trip to Cuba I remember thinking “what a shame”.

Neal Ascherson wrote in his review of Richard Evans’s biography that marrying you “really saved” Eric, who had been living a somewhat rackety life up to then. Do you agree?
In a way, I do. His first wife had left him after having an abortion and he’d had a breakdown. He was for 10 years alone. He had many friends because he was good company, but things had been very difficult for him. As soon as we met life for him became good, everything came together, so I did save him in that sense. He’d thought he would never have children but he was the most wonderful father.

In your book you describe marriage to Eric as like living with “a human encyclopedia”. Did his intellect ever feel daunting?
Never. My mother often said she didn’t know how I managed living with someone who asked so many questions. She couldn’t understand how I had ended up with the cleverest man in Europe. But Eric wasn’t intimidating to me. He was just an ordinary person at home. He could relax. And he liked talking about all sorts of things. He was very gregarious. We had fun and we were in love. It wasn’t complicated.

Your married life sounds very sociable and your dinner guests sound like a who’s who of London’s intelligentsia: Michael Frayn, Marina Warner, Neal Ascherson, David Cannadine, Roy Foster, the list goes on...
We had a wonderful core group of friends, many of them stemming from Cambridge, and big dinner parties were the norm. I spent a lot of time planning and organising who would fit together. There is an art to it. But it wasn’t fancy. We wanted peace and quiet to talk and you couldn’t do that if you ate out because the music in restaurants in those days was awful.

It emerged a few years ago that your family was spied on by MI5 for decades. Were you aware of this at the time?
Oh yes, of course. I knew our phone was tapped. There was a click every time you used it. I used to feel sorry for the person listening in: all they heard most of the time was me talking to my mother about children and nappies.

What books are on your bedside table?
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, a book I first read only recently, and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Her writing is so fresh and different. Also in the pile is Clean Young Englishman by John Gale, the autobiography of a soldier and foreign correspondent [for the Observer] who was driven to depression and suicide by the atrocities he saw reporting from war zones. I return to it again and again. It’s absolutely a golden book, perhaps the best I have ever read – so moving and beautifully written.

Which novelists and nonfiction writers working today do you admire?
I love Jane Glover and very much want to read her new book, Handel in London: The Making of a Genius. I also like Elizabeth Strout. My Name Is Lucy Barton was wonderful. I liked the way it had the feel of a memoir.

What sort of a reader were you as a child?
I didn’t read much as a child. I was six when my family emigrated from Vienna and for a year or so afterwards I became a self-imposed mute. I didn’t know it at the time but it was a protest. I was furious about being uprooted. My cover was blown when my mother overheard me talking to my dolls in perfect English. But I was very screwed up as a child because of the war. I hated being evacuated and loathed being sent to boarding school, supposedly for my own safety. I ran away when I was 10. Once my parents realised I just wanted to be allowed to stay at home I was fine, I was happy.

You have so many books – how do you organise them?
They’re arranged by genre. We had so many more books when Eric was alive. A lot of them have been sold or are in storage. But quite a few of them I still have on my shelves. So you see, he is still here.

Meet Me in Buenos Aires by Marlene Hobsbawm is published by Muswell Press (£12.99)


Lisa O'Kelly

The GuardianTramp

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