In conversation with FRANCES O'ROURKE
is a writer, TV producer and journalist and the author of seven best-selling non-fiction books. Summers – whose father was Irish – has lived here since the 1970s, and has worked for more than 20 years with Robbyn Swan, his co-author and wife. Their account of 9/11, 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist The Eleventh Day, has just been published in paperback
‘I’VE MARRIED four times, the first time when I worked for the BBC. It didn’t last long – my job meant I was home for about three months a year. The second time I married, I brought my wife to Ireland and she said ‘ no no, that’s not for me’ and went off with an Iranian oil sheikh. The third time, I married a woman who was too young.
“And then I met Robbyn, around 1988.
“The beginning of things for me was, I wanted to get away from the BBC because I’d been typecast as a war reporter; I had been covering wars from Vietnam on. A friend of mine, Nick Tomalin, died on the Golan, and I thought, ‘why am I doing this?’ – the same story against different backdrops.
“Publishers had approached me to write a book arising out of a documentary I’d done on the Romanovs. The night Nick died, I sent them a message from Cairo saying I would do it. I came to a friend’s cottage near Youghal on the Blackwater and spent a year there writing it.
“By 1977 I’d bought a cottage further up the Blackwater – I’ve lived in Ireland now for more than half my life. Then I did a documentary on the Kennedy assassination, and wrote my book about it.
“For a long time after Robbyn and I met, there was nothing romantic between us at all. I hired her as a researcher for my book on J Edgar Hoover and thought she did the work terrifically well.
“One day Robbyn had come to see me in Brooklyn, where I was staying with friends, to deliver some research. We went off and had a long lunch: there was a glass of wine or two and when she left me on the front doorstep, in broad daylight, she administered a kiss which I remember to this day. I was genuinely surprised, I thought, the girl’s got a little drunk. And still nothing started, but things had changed somehow.
“I called her from Ireland to say, we’ve got to finish the book, we can’t be involved in a big thing. Then there was a moment when I clapped my hand to my brow and realised my God, this is a lovely woman.
“Things happened in reverse: in most relationships the lovely things come first and then you learn about the A, B, Cs of ordinary life. We worked together for a couple of years first – and it was a much better way of establishing a relationship. Now we have two boys and a girl – Colm, who’s 18 and just starting in Trinity, Fionn (14 and a half) and Lara (13 going on 30). My eldest son, Ronan, born in 1983, is an actor in London.
“There are so many bests about Robbyn: I came away from the war stuff quite beat up in ways I didn’t really understand myself. I didn’t express this to anybody until we were together and Robbyn, without going on about it, made it all go away. And she’s brought me family and constancy.”
is co-author with Anthony Summers of bestsellers The Arrogance of Power, about Richard Nixon, a biography of Frank Sinatra, Sinatra: The Life and The Eleventh Day. She and Summers are married and live with their three children on the banks of the river Blackwater in Co Waterford
‘I’M ITALIAN-American from a small town, Milford, Connecticut, the first in my family to go to an Ivy League college, Smith. I was lucky enough to stumble into a job as a researcher in Washington DC with the then-new English Independent newspaper. I was about 24 and was doing this while living as a house mother in a shelter for schizophrenic homeless women.
“Peter Pringle, one of the journalists I worked with, introduced me to his old friend Anthony Summers, an author who needed a researcher. Tony didn’t really want to hire me, he wanted to hire Mark Champion, who went on to work for the Wall Street Journal. He knew how to wear a suit and tie whereas I was wearing torn jeans and combat boots. Tony did ask my then boss if I knew how to clean up so he could send me to do an interview. We met over a whiskey in a Thai restaurant in Washington. My entire career was built on the fact that when he walked in, I was drinking a Jameson. He said well, you’re hired and handed me a stack of research for his book on J Edgar Hoover.
“Working with Tony was an extraordinary thing for a young journalist: the level and kind of digging he made me aware of was trial by fire.
“That’s the discipline that we now bring together to all of our books.
“Things were beginning to take a romantic turn, but nothing happened. I came to Ireland for a christening and spent the best part of a week at Tony’s place in Waterford, working. Every night he read me poetry. When I had to leave, Tony drove me to Limerick Junction. He lifted my suitcase onto the train; I looked out the window, he looked up at me and said, ‘Robbyn, it was ever so nice having you’. I looked down and said, ‘You haven’t yet, but you’re still young’ – and the train pulled out of the station.
“It says something either frightening or important about the two of us that I accepted it when even after that, he called to say, we can’t get involved, the work’s too important.
“And then we got married. I wanted a wedding somewhere Tony hadn’t got married before and we were married in a boat off Turkey. We had a hooley back in Ireland and we had to have the Italian wedding in Connecticut – my dad had had a stroke and my mother’s goal was that he was going to be at home for the wedding party with a marquee in the garden that he’d always wanted for his daughter.
“I’d never been to Ireland or Europe until I met Tony. It immediately became apparent that Tony loved his home in Ireland, and it was easier for me to move than him. Our children were all born in the Bons in Cork.
“I love the place I was born with a deep passion – but have a great love for the place I am now as well.”