Skip to content

All the Diplomat’s Women

Richard Holbrooke’s affairs, foreign and domestic

“I am not really as mad as I might be. But certainly not happy. Why don’t you get smart once and do the right thing? I mean do, DO, that is, do. Remember what is true in foreign policy is also in this case true in love: Inaction, inactivity is as much an action as action itself.” So wrote a very angry Richard Holbrooke to the woman who would become his first wife: Larrine Sullivan, whose father owned among other things their town’s Republican newspaper, and who went by Litty. In this case, Litty’s transgression was writing a confessional letter to the young Holbrooke in which she admitted to having posed nude for an old painter. The content was bad, but the timing was bad too, the letter arriving in Holbrooke’s mailbox a week before the Cuban missile crisis, in October of 1962. Litty, whose beau was, in Packer’s words, “the most interesting man she’d ever met” learnt her lesson after this episode; her actions from then on were only those that would meet Holbrooke’s approval as being the “right” thing.

A diplomat’s professional life and his bedroom pursuits aren’t normally considered all part of the same story. But they are for George Packer, the author of Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, who spends as much time focusing on the details of Holbrooke’s relationships with women as on his diplomatic escapades. We see Holbrooke, who would at different times serve under Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama, accompanied by a varying cast of wives and girlfriends. And perhaps the two run parallel and inverse; Holbrooke the virile and pedantic diplomat-to-be, is by the end of things a jet-setting special envoy who sometimes needs Viagra.

The chastised Litty and Holbrooke marry two years after the scolding letter, while Holbrooke is posted in Vietnam. For all her deficient “inaction,” Litty makes the move to Vietnam, and the couple set up in Saigon, having held their wedding reception at the nearby villa of their friends Tony and Toni Lake. It appears to be an adventurous start for all four; the young men, Tony Lake and Richard Holbrooke, compete at tennis and everything else, the women feigning mock disapproval or wifely pride as their husbands’ antics demanded. This halcyon scene of youth and hope and ambition is interrupted by the advent of the Vietnam war when diplomats emptied out and soldiers began to pour in.

Back home in 1966, Holbrooke with Litty in tow set out to conquer the dinner party circuit, on which Packer’s readers learn foreign policy is really fraught. Holbrooke, ever determined to rise fast within the foreign service (he told a personnel counselor that he wanted to be an assistant secretary of state by the time he was thirty-five) puts his experience in Vietnam to good use. At gatherings and galas he offers up his real experiences in the Delta (omitting, of course, his low station as part of an agricultural program) with the puffery and bravado that guaranteed attention at a time when few knew much about Vietnam. In the course of this, Holbrooke also makes lifelong alliances, the power-broker dinner table of Averell and Marie Harriman (eventually supplanted by Pamela) becoming the staging ground that would define his trajectory within the ranks of the Foreign Service. Holbrooke and the Harrimans would remain tight until the end, the cast of wives and girlfriends rotating around them. Women, Holbrooke seemed to know, would come and go, but benefactors were forever.

The women did indeed come and go. The first wife Litty was soon discarded. Holbrooke worked long hours and took little interest in his two boys or in the details of domesticity which parenting inevitably involves; he was an absent father and a distracted husband. Unhappy with the pace at which his career was progressing (he had not forgotten the high-station-by-thirty-five timeline), he admitted that he was depressed about the last seven years of his career—and the hopelessness of the Vietnam war. Nixon had won the 1968 election. And Holbrooke was determined not to work for Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger; his prospects seemed dim.

A miraculous rise appearing untenable, Holbrooke settled on an affair instead. Ever insecure that his best friend Tony Lake (at whose house in Saigon he celebrated his marriage to Litty) would rise faster and outdo him, he proceeded to sleep with Lake’s wife. The extent of Mrs. Lake’s sentiments for him is unknown, but Holbrooke made his known to the long-suffering Litty: “I’ve fallen in love with someone else. But she’s married and does not want to leave the marriage so it’s over” he declared before Thanksgiving, 1971. As Packer aptly says, poor “gaslit” Litty is “the last to find out” that the other woman was in fact her best friend. It’s a telling episode; where intrigue and excitement were lacking, Holbrooke would create some—making even his own marriage the venue of scandal and subterfuge. The unfairness of it all is that there was nothing and no one to stop him. As Packer puts it, “Dick never faced the depth of the wrong he had done” because everyone involved kept his betrayal a secret.

In Our Man, George Packer spends as much time focusing on the details of Holbrooke’s relationships with women as on his diplomatic escapades.

The post-Litty phase involved a new set of women (Toni Lake proving uninterested in leaving Tony for Holbrooke). The gutsiest seemed to be Ann Crile, a woman whose pedigree (she was related to John Jay) was an elixir to the decidedly plebeian-descended Holbrooke. Unlike others to come, Crile did not fall for the diplomat pomp and puffery that would work so well on other women. When Holbrooke answered “I want to be the next Henry Kissinger” to a question of where he wanted to be in the next five years, Crile rapidly dumped him, wafting back to the high-born and ultimately less boring husband she had strayed from.

Holbrooke must have been at least a bit injured at the successive rejections by Toni Lake and then Anne Crile, so he set his sights lower in the next round. Gail Malcolm was a young brunette who didn’t mind his lack of commitment and happily babysat his sons when it was Holbrooke’s turn to take them for a weekend. Her major shortcoming may only have been her inability to help him up the rungs of the diplomatic ladder. Sincere and seemingly lacking the proclivity at emotional manipulation, she never got a commitment out of Holbrooke, who kicked her out of his D.C. condo as soon as a more demanding woman came along.

Holbrooke for his part could not help but be strategic. He courted his next wife, Blythe Babyak, with a display of the diplomatic plumage that his new post with the Carter Administration afforded to him. It was during this time that he and Blythe hung out on Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’s Presidential yacht “eating, drinking, dancing, water-skiing, and warning Marcos that human rights was a top concern of President Carter.” When he eventually gave Blythe the cold shoulder, it was again at the urging of a woman. Blythe wanted to be a writer and was encouraged by Holbrooke to write a sharp little essay for Newsweek (the editor had been seated next to her at a dinner) in which she pilloried the D.C. dinner and diplomacy circuit. All was well until Pamela Harriman raised her eyebrows at Holbrooke and chided him for his wife’s journalistic indiscretion. Not long after, Blythe was gone.

By the time Diane Sawyer, perhaps the best known of Holbrooke’s women, came along in 1979 it was tough to tell whether Holbrooke could love women who did not possess promise and potential to push up his stature as a public figure. Packer details the shenanigans of the Holbrooke-Sawyer Manhattan power couple enterprise (starting in 1981, Holbrooke took a break from diplomacy to make money in consulting) with inflections of lascivious delight. Holbrooke, he notes, fell for Diane despite the fact that she had worked for Nixon, an otherwise important detail overshadowed by her “long legs, sensuous mouth, opaque blue eyes, and hair so silky and lustrous that you could use it as a high end comforter and reading light.” Holbrooke, portly and pompous, made himself eligible in other ways. Eager to keep the eventual co-host of CBS Morning News and first female correspondent of 60 Minutes by his side, he coached her on politics and world affairs, feeding her questions to ask on air and leaks he had access to as an old State Department hand. At other times, he served as her handler, even negotiating contracts with CBS executives on her behalf, so that she could continue to be the charming golden girl unsullied by the inevitable brusqueness of demanding more money.

By the time Kati Marton, who would end up being Holbrooke’s last woman, arrives toward the end of the book, both the reader and Richard Holbrooke are a bit fatigued. The relatively fallow period for serious relationships of the late eighties, when Litty finally made him take part in the care of his sons (one by then a teenager and the other a young adult), ended in 1993 when he began seeing Marton (they married in 1995). In Packer’s telling, Holbrooke had been pursuing Marton “for years, if only in his own mind” even though (or perhaps because) she was married to Peter Jennings. In this, his last romance, Holbrooke happily deployed all his diplomatic swank and circumstance as a means of romantic conquest. For their first official date, Holbrooke picked up Marton in Paris in his “armored Cadillac” driving over from Germany where he was installed as ambassador. Behind the armor of state power though, the man himself seems to have softened. When after the whirlwind day the exhausted Kati suggests “let’s not make love tonight” Holbrooke says “Okay,” and then the couple laugh about whether he was too “intimidated” to perform.

Holbrooke’s relationship with Kati Marton lasted until the sudden end of his life, without the usual interruptions and distractions that plagued his other relationships. Now both important and powerful, Holbrooke seemed less motivated by conquest, less prone to sidelong glances for better, younger, prettier, more famous, more useful women. The sly subtitle of Our Man is “Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century” enclosing within it all the insinuations that the age of bully diplomats which began with Henry Kissinger ended with Holbrooke (the wanna-be Kissinger). This may well be the case, but it seems more a cause for celebration. Indeed, why mourn a worldview dominated singularly by male ambition and conquest? There is more than a little connection between the avaricious foreign policy wrought by men like Holbrooke who treated women as dispensable objects at home and other countries as pawns abroad.

Halfway through Packer’s book is a scene of Holbrooke and his one-time pal Tony Lake having “a loud and public fight over who of the two was the senior official entitled to ride in the assassination seat, the right rear seat of the President’s decoy limousine.” The image lingers to the end: it is an apt summation. Holbrooke often won the fight but the spoils were small, not the ultimate or actual seat of power but simply the one proximate to it. Holbrooke may have gotten away with a patriarchal, self-serving, and largely shortsighted view of the world before him, treating one and all like the gaslit wife. One cannot but rejoice that the century of such men is past, even if their bullish escapades have left the world losses that weigh heavy and deep on the shoulders of the present.