Thursday, October 11, 2012
Happy Birthday, Clare Hollingworth
Tonight, I went to Clare Hollingworth's champagne-fueled 101st birthday party at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club.
I first met Clare in 1999, when I was a young editorial assistant at the now-defunct Boston Globe Hong Kong bureau, and Clare was a sprightly 88-year-old retiree.
She was far more active then -- rolling down the hill from her book-filled home on Upper Albert Road to the F.C.C., where she'd have a dry white wine and light lunch while listening to the BBC on the Club's headphones.
She was still willing to humor the odd journalist who wanted to interview the celebrated journalist who broke the story of the outbreak of World War II on the Polish-German border in 1939, as one of the few female war correspondents at that time.
We became friends of sorts, as I volunteered to read the paper out loud to her. Her hearing was going, so I'd had to shout -- and sometimes she'd yell back that I'd pronounced something terribly wrong, and embarrass the hell out of me.
In 1999, her eyesight and hearing were beginning to fade, but her mind was still sharp.
As the years went on, I watched the rest of her fade, too. Her short-term memory went -- though, oddly, she could remember distant events from her childhood and her early adulthood with startling clarity.
It was almost as if the senile dementia was working backwards. The family's pet pony was still vividly there, as was her beloved and long-lost husband Geoffrey, who had died more than 30 years prior. Her greatest journalistic exploits were firmly entrenched, but she had only fragmented fond memories of post-war Paris. The tales started to blur and tangle as she recounted later work in the Middle East, the Vietnam War, and the opening up of China.
As for the present -- it was a struggle. It was sad watching her great intellect trying to break through the fog. How frustrating it must be for an intelligent person not to remember who visited her yesterday, or whether she'd had lunch yet, or who the nice young lady was reading with the Canadian accent.
She could still hold a conversation, though. She could respond to what you said, the news you reported to her, with great wit and energy.
She was -- and you must excuse my language here, as I don't think tough-talking Clare would mind -- a supremely good bullshitter. You could see the sneaky old reporter in there somewhere, nodding and smiling and prodding with questions, even if she couldn't totally understand what was going on. I wonder how many visitors she fooled.
Clare's greatest defender and supporter has always been her great-nephew Patrick Garrett, who has arranged everything in her life, from homes to helpers, and who continues to fly to see her even though he has long moved from Hong Kong to Moscow. He has also researched and written a book about her.
Clare and Patrick are now unfortunately embroiled in a financial mess, an unfitting end to Clare's extraordinary life.
As the South China Morning Post reports, Hong Kong's High Court ordered a PR executive, Ted Thomas, to repay a large sum to Clare, after he withdrew more than HK $2.2 million from her bank account over a two-year period, including HK$1.4 million in one five-day period. He said had taken over the management of her finances, as she was unwell.
He has not repaid the moneys, and Clare is in no state to chase him again through the courts.
Clare was never particularly rich -- though she was frugal in saving her salary and book revenues over the years. That money was for her retirement, including the help she now needs in her old age. I don't know what will happen next.
I remember attending Clare's 100th birthday at the F.C.C. last year, when Patrick showed a film about her life. I had given birth less than two months prior, and was still on maternity. I remember it was my first night out alone since having the baby. I winced a bit as I found a place to sit cross-legged on the floor -- that's how packed the screening was.
Patrick wanted to show the film again this year -- it's not a mass-marketed work, and would probably not be seen otherwise.
But Mr. Thomas, who is also an F.C.C. member, objected, as the film mentioned the court judgements against him. (Though his dealings are only a small part of a larger work that's mostly about her career).
I am not entirely proud to say that the F.C.C. seemed to bow to this pressure. The irony didn't escape me: If Clare were still young and active, this is exactly the sort of story she'd jump on and publicize herself. She was never one to tone down anything for anyone.
The film was discussed at at least two board meetings. They asked Patrick if he would cut the offending few minutes, which he rightly refused to do. They then issued a statement saying that the film couldn't be shown, since it was already shown once -- which is a reason I'd never heard in my 13 years as a member there. They also implied that it was not a fitting tribute to her. But if there's one person who knows what's fitting and what's not, that would be her closest relative.
It seemed like a petty dispute to be having. And I'm disappointed that the Club didn't just come out and say that they refused to show something because of a member request, and made up excuses instead.
Patrick was there tonight, having flown in from Moscow, and looking very well after recovering from a serious illness.
There was lots to drink and eat, and the usual throng of well-wishers, photographers and cameramen. Clare was dolled up in a silk blouse with a striking dragonfly brooch -- her blind eyes closed, but still animated and talking to guests. I told her an amusing story of how scientists had recently dug up Richard III's bones in a car park in Leicestershire, where she is originally from, and she laughed.
There was strawberry cream cake and Champagne, caviar for Clare and very good mini roast beef sandwiches for the rest of us. There were balloons and flowers and a giant card that everyone signed. But there was no film, and nobody mentioned there was no film. And while it was an otherwise lovely celebration, it had a strange stilted feel to it for those of us in the know.