When Robbyn Swan was growing up in Connecticut during the Travolta-saturated 1970s, she was gifted a copy of The File on The Tsar, a riveting study of the 1918 attempts to spirit the Romanov family out of Russia after the revolution. It was a sombre tale, lit with intrigue and the dark-eyed tragedy of the last Russian royals. Swan was 12 years old when she read it, and the book made a lasting impression: she ended up studying Russian history at university.
The author was Anthony Summers, a BBC broadcast journalist who had been caught in the adrenaline of war reporting until a good friend, the journalist Nick Tomalin, was killed on the Golan Heights when they were both reporting on the Yom Kippur War. Tomalin’s death occurred 50 years ago this year, although when Summers remembers it, that time seems much closer.
“My cameraman and I had spent a very foolish day in which we had both nearly got killed. We came back that night and I learned Nick had been killed on the Golon,” he recalls as we sit in his home on a dry-leaved November morning.
“And I just thought, I don’t want to do this anymore. There were older journalists you saw tramping around the wheel – another war, another war. It wasn’t just that. It dislocated your life – an attempt to have some kind of steadiness. And I came back here and came up the river and saw this place – I’d lived in a cottage nearby and kidded myself that I would be able to come back in the summer.”
By “this place” he means a wonderful, ambling and impossibly secluded house flush against the banks of the Blackwater in Co Waterford, which he shares with Robbyn Swan, his writing collaborator. The couple has raised three children here. Summers first set eyes on it when rowing the waters: it was 200 years old, and the roof was collapsing. An adjacent cottage was also falling apart: clearly, a massive, foolhardy project. He was smitten. After Tomalin’s death, experiencing a kind of low-burning grief, Summers decided to reconsider a book offer to turn a documentary series on the Romanovs into a book. He didn’t really know what he was doing but applied the traits that would come to distinguish him as an investigative reporter – impeccable pronunciation, a relaxed charm, a kind of open curiosity, a natural narrative style, and an inexhaustible energy for chasing stories. He teamed up with his BBC colleague Tom Mangold to write a book that became an international best-seller – “an intriguing investigation into one of the mysteries of the century” was the verdict of Anthony Forsythe.
“It is lovely how life pushes you around the board,” Summers says.
“Tom and I were both of us firemen, basically, with Panorama. Can you be in Libya in the morning, sort of thing.” They began digging into the Romanov story after reading a letter published in the Times and produced a story sufficiently compelling for the BBC to fund a full year they could spend in Moscow with their families. The book’s title came from a file that Summers discovered in the Houghton Library in Harvard, containing documents from the chief investigator into the Romanov deaths. “A fairly large volume of documents that suggested some of the family may have survived. They were covered in dust – still with their seals on. It was all in Russian, but I had a bilingual student with me and we read these first-hand testimonies. It was...exciting.”
He laughs as he ruefully notes that nobody now ever asks him about the Romanov book even though it was the book with which he had “real, ludicrous” commercial success. Summers would go on to write intensively researched and lauded accounts on the assassination of President Kennedy, Conspiracy (1980), later reissued as Not In Your Lifetime, and Goddess (1985) on the life and death of Marilyn Monroe. He and Swan have co-authored biographies of Frank Sinatra and J Edgar Hoover, and their investigative The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of Osama Bin Laden and 9/11, published in 2011, was a Pulitzer Prize in History finalist.
The couple met by chance. In the early 1990s, Swan was working as a young reporter in the Washington office of the London Independent. Her editor, Peter Pringle, mentioned that he knew of someone looking for a researcher. Summers’ name didn’t immediately register and it wasn’t until Pringle mentioned that he had written a book on the Romanovs that she remembered the hours she’d spent lost in that story. She found her old copy of the book.
“And there’s a picture of a long-haired Tony Summers looking very 1976,” she laughs. “And I thought, ‘Ah, he has a good honest face, I’ll meet him.’ He came into a bar in Connecticut Avenue with a stack of files he claimed was two weeks’ work. I couldn’t get away from it. We have a very anti-MeToo story in that Tony hired me to work for him – and then I married him. Now, I hasten to say that we dated for two years! And I was in the US and he was here. That said, I married the man who paid me – when he could no longer afford to do so. So ironically, we met because of the File on the Tsar. But what we do is such a privilege. And to be able to do it with someone you respect and love is even better.”
The couple has managed the delicate act of raising a family in pastoral Waterford while taking periodic free dives into the lives and deaths of 20th-century icons. Just last year, Netflix based a Marilyn Monroe documentary on the series of interviews Summers conducted during his research of the film star. The opening of that film is eerily beautiful: a montage of a wintry Irish landscape and Summers sitting in the boathouse where he sometimes writes, overlooking the Blackwater against a recording of Monroe saying “How do you go about telling a life story? Because the true things rarely get into circulation.”
On this morning, we are in the upstairs study in the family home. The children are grown up: Thump, the family retriever is mooching about. The study is cosy, book-laden and crammed with mementos. Summers points at an old cassette recorder on the desk, with the piano-key buttons for stop, play, record. It was on this machine that he recorded those who worked with and knew Monroe, from Jane Russell to Monroe’s housekeeper Eunice Murray.
“Oh Eunice Murray, you never knew. She was like quicksilver in your hands. I interviewed her many times in part because she hadn’t told everything or was making bits and pieces of it up. And why? Is it because she wants to deceive me or is she embellishing for the oldest human reason in the world - that she wants to feed you with more information.”
Stacks of those interviews and recordings on files on Kennedy and Monroe sit carefully labelled and boxed in a shed close to the house. His obsession with the Monroe story began when Ron Hall, an editor at the Observer, asked him to go to Los Angeles to write a story about the decision to re-open the investigation on the actress’s death. He knew little about Monroe. “As a teenager, Natalie Wood had been my pin-up.” When he arrived, he began to ask questions and never stopped.
“I just dove into the crazy Los Angeles every day for 18 months. I just did endless interviews. I hesitate to say how many.”
Over 650 recordings survive, now stored in Waterford. Monroe’s death seems a distant event now but when Summers began asking questions, she still remained a vivid persona for many in Los Angeles.
“It’s an inflated circle because so many people liked to say they have knowledge or think they do, or that they own the ghost of those people in some way. Particularly Marilyn’s ghost, I think.”
We are always trying to find what the evidence supports— Robbyn Swan
In those tapes, you can hear the pitched regret in the halting voice of John Huston. There is the sense of an era of Hollywood hitting the skids, all the martinis drunk and the scandals taking their toll. Once, Summers met a contact at a truck-stop on the way to the San Fernando Valley, who told him to get off the story. “‘You are playing a very dangerous game.’ Which is bizarre if you are looking into a case well over a decade later.” In the Netflix documentary, Summers names the contact as Reed Wilson, an electronics expert who had been hired to bug the homes of Monroe and Peter Lawford, brother-in-law to the Kennedys. Along with other interviewees, he was able to piece together a series of accounts which “dovetailed into a credible, supportable scenario of the watching of the Kennedy brothers as they went about their womanising in a way that exploded in everyone’s face with whatever caused Marilyn’s death.” Goddess was published five years after Summers’ book on the assassination of President Kennedy. Now, Summers opens up the screen before me to scan dozens of emails that had come in overnight from the sleuths and the merely fascinated who still want to crack the Kennedy case. Strangers want to share information, to offer opinions. The recent book by Paul Landis, the secret service agent who was with JFK on the afternoon of the Dallas assassination, brought a fresh wave of messages. In one way, Summers has moved on from the Kennedy project. But he acknowledges that it’s impossible to spend years immersed in the lives of others without carrying them with you.
In 2013, in a revised edition of Not In Your Lifetime, he named Hermino Diaz, a Cuban paid assassin, as a possible second shooter in Dallas, having tracked down and interviewed an elderly associate who wanted to get something off his chest. Notre Dame law professor Robert Blakely described the interview as being of historical importance. Summers allows that it offers a plausible link, nothing more.
“We are always trying to find what the evidence supports,” Swan says.
“And sometimes that will lead to big revelations. And sometimes our portrait of a human being or narrative is very different from the accepted narrative because of what we have found. But we always let what we have found lead us there. And we are quite proud of what we found. We found Hoover’s psychiatrist’s widow who, over the rose bushes, told me that her husband burned all her Hoover files because Hoover had come to him torn up about his sexuality in the 1940s. That’s a big thing. But it is a believable thing. It is her own bit of knowledge that changes our portrait. Or when Tony stumbles across a man who is standing behind [Lee Harvey] Oswald in the line to get a visa and that man is a fully paid-up CIA person, then that is something you found. That is tangible. These are legitimate facts that change our interpretation of who is to blame. And you only get that by being absolutely bloody relentless. When I took the job with Tony, a wonderful Sunday Times journalist Cal McCrystal said to me: Ah, Jesus Christ, he is relentless.”
And Marilyn…you see her there and the word ‘luminous’ is what you see. In the shimmering dress into which she has been sewn in, you see her fragility— Robbyn Swan
Summers laughs at this. But there is a truth to it. Summers is 80 now, Swan 61. That relentlessness and patience they share is a scarce commodity in an increasingly surface world of what Swan describes as “just the bluster now – and who makes the most noise”. The market for slow-burning, research-driven books is diminishing. The couple are working on a new project. Still, the 60th anniversary of the death, on November 22nd, of President Kennedy will inevitably turn their heads for a moment: Camelot shattered, all that. For those born in the 1940s and 1950s, Kennedy’s visit to Ireland, in June of 1963, remains a vivid memory. Summers never encountered John Kennedy but was part of a BBC team that interviewed Robert Kennedy in Flagstaff, Arizona. The interview went disastrously, with the Democratic presidential candidate taking exception to a line of questioning and storming out issuing a slew of curses.
“He looked so tired. He really looked so worn. The reporter whom I won’t name, just a good reporter, asked a couple of questions. “Senator, aren’t you splitting the Democratic party?” Three times. And eventually: ‘F**k you I answered you already. And he stormed out. He was dead 10 days later. I liked many, many things I read and now know about him. But that wasn’t the man you want to be in the White House, I think, making world decisions.”
The day is turning towards lunchtime; shadows already forming on the Blackwater. Talk turns finally to the famous black and white photograph of Marilyn Monroe standing with both Kennedy brothers. It was taken on the night of Kennedy’s birthday celebrations in Madison Square Garden in May 1962. What makes the photograph so magnetic, apart from the fates we know awaited all three, is that we can’t really see their faces. The brothers are obscured; Monroe is in profile. I ask what they think when they look at that photo now.
“It is that thing, again, about power and glamour and Hollywood and why these things should meet,” Swan says.
“Why those two poles seem to fit together. My own impression of Jack Kennedy is different from Tony’s. I think there has been a lot of hagiography in his portrayal. People forget the Cold War era. There was a lot of cynicism about Jack Kennedy and a tad of ruthlessness. Although much to be admired for some of the things he came to embody and symbolise. It wasn’t so much what he did as what people attached to him. I feel differently about Bobby. Because if anything Bobby was a tougher, colder, harder character than his older brother. But I have more respect for the extraordinary moral and intellectual journey he went on after his brother’s death that led him to that place where he rightly or wrongly entered the presidential race. And Marilyn…you see her there and the word ‘luminous’ is what you see. In the shimmering dress into which she has been sewn in, you see her fragility. In a way, you see the tightrope in which she as a star - as a woman – was walking in those days. There wasn’t really a place for her. It was: all the men in their dark suits – and the decorative woman. And I can’t look at that picture without thinking that they didn’t want that picture seen, so it was written out of history. It is the only one left. Because those pictures were all searched out and destroyed. Pre the dawn of the internet age, evidence and truth were always being manipulated. And that is what that picture represents.”