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'In Extremis' review: Lindsey Hilsum on life, death of LI-raised war correspondent Marie Colvin,

Marie Colvin in 2011. The journalist, a graduate

Marie Colvin in 2011. The journalist, a graduate of Oyster Bay High School, was killed in Syria in 2012. Credit: AP / Writer Pictures / Sheila Masson

IN EXTREMIS: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin, by Lindsey Hilsum. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 378 pp., $28.

Marie Colvin — the war correspondent killed in Syria in 2012 while covering the siege of Homs — is having a moment.

The new biopic, “A Private War,” starring Rosamund Pike, is inspired by her life. The film is based on “Marie Colvin’s Private War,” an article by veteran journalist Marie Brenner that appeared in Vanity Fair. That article opens Brenner’s just-released collection of profiles, “A Private War: Marie Colvin and Other Tales of Heroes, Scoundrels and Renegades.”

Finally, Colvin is the subject of “In Extremis: The Life and Death of War Correspondent Marie Colvin” by Lindsey Hilsum, the international editor for England’s Channel 4 News, where Colvin appeared as a guest. In the preface to her excellent biography, Hilsum sums up the enigma of Colvin: “Marie knew where the story was, and would stop at nothing to get it.”  The biography’s aim is to illuminate that fact.

Colvin was born to two schoolteachers in 1956 in Astoria, Queens, but grew up in East Norwich, what Hilsum calls “quintessential suburbia.”  While attending Oyster Bay High School, Colvin studied as an exchange student in Brazil and missed deadlines for college applications. Upon her return, she drove to New Haven and, pointing to her status as a National Merit Scholarship finalist and two 800s on her SAT, talked her way into Yale University.

At Yale, she wrote for The Yale Daily News, and studied with John Hersey, whose masterpiece, “Hiroshima,” a nonfiction account of the atomic bombing of that city at the end of World War II, had a profound effect on Colvin. “Marie would always say…[it] was the best book on war she had ever read,” Hilsum notes. While she attended Yale, her father, Bill, died of cancer, a death that taught her “LIFE IS TOO SHORT,” as she wrote in her diary. 

After Yale, Colvin moved to Manhattan and worked at United Press International, ending up in the Washington bureau. From there, she became the UPI Paris bureau chief in August 1985. “I’ve done it,” she wrote in her diary. “Exultant.” 

As she joined the ranks of foreign correspondents such as Judith Miller of The New York Times and Jon Swain (whose reporting on the Vietnam War was depicted in “The Killing Fields”), she landed a headline-grabbing interview with Col. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya — a scoop that earned her a job at The Sunday Times of Britain.

Colvin reported on Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, with whom she developed such a close reporter-subject relationship that he gave her a double strand of pearls. She wore her “Arafat pearls”  often and attempted a biography of him that she never finished. She married British journalist Patrick Bishop at a ceremony in Oyster Bay in August 1989 — a marriage friends believed was doomed from the start. It lasted two years.

She covered Operation Desert Storm; the conflict in Kosovo; the unrest in East Timor where she risked her life by refusing to evacuate a United Nations post filled with refugees; the Russian invasion of Chechnya where she and her photographer were forced to escape the country by walking miles in frigid conditions that almost killed them; and the refugee crisis in Sri Lanka where a grenade explosion caused her to lose sight in her left eye. The black eye patch she wore afterward — Prince Charles once called it “very fetching”  — became her signature. During all of this, a second marriage, to fellow foreign correspondent Juan Carlos Gumucio, ended in divorce.

People close to Colvin warned her not to cover the unrelenting assault on Homs being carried out in early 2012 in the midst of the civil war in Syria. But she went anyway. It was some of the worst destruction she had ever witnessed. While she described the ground conditions on CNN, government forces tracked the satellite signals she used for the broadcast and began shelling her location within hours. She was killed in one of the explosions.

Her death was front-page news. After some intergovernmental bureaucratic wrangling, her body was returned to Oyster Bay for a funeral. At the service Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sunday Times, called Colvin “the greatest war correspondent we’ve had and, I think, probably the best in the world.” 

Absorbing and meticulously researched, “In Extremis” documents Marie Colvin’s quest to bear witness to the atrocities perpetrated by oppressive forces throughout the world — a calling she ultimately paid for with her life.

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