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‘Cowboys and Indians’

Anthony Blunt
Anthony Blunt; drawing by David Levine

On March 30, 1951, a British cryptographer working on the Anglo-American VENONA counterespionage project cracked a coded message from Russian Intelligence which identified Donald Maclean as a Soviet agent. Maclean, son of a Liberal cabinet minister and a graduate of Cambridge University, had worked in the British embassy in Washington for four years, from 1944 to 1948, during which time he had passed to the Russians extremely valuable information on, among other things, the American atomic weapons program. After Washington he moved to the embassy in Cairo, where he suffered a nervous collapse brought on by stress and overdrinking. Nevertheless, after six months’ leave he returned to work for the Foreign Office in London, and was appointed head of the American Department. Before being exposed, he had been in the habit of telling friends that he was a Communist agent. They did not believe him, even after he had punched an acquaintance for saying that Whittaker Chambers had been right in identifying Alger Hiss as a spy. “I am the English Hiss,” Maclean declared.

Maclean the spy presented MI5 with a problem. If he were to be arrested, the Soviets might well realize that their codes had been broken. So the security service, in its almost endearingly Gilbert and Sullivanesque way, contented itself with having him followed by the Special Branch, but only when he was in London, and only during office hours, since MI5 and the Special Branch felt that the overtime that would have to be paid for round-the-clock surveillance could not be justified in the circumstances.

In the meantime, in Washington, Kim Philby, the trusted MI6 liaison officer with American intelligence, and also a Soviet agent, had been tipped off by London that Maclean was about to be exposed. In those days before cell phones and e-mail, Philby had no direct means of warning Maclean. He found a solution in the bizarre figure of Guy Burgess, who was also working in Washington, and had lived for a time there with Philby and his wife. Burgess, a leading member of the Cambridge spy ring, was rapidly falling to pieces. Like Maclean, he had for many years been telling anyone who would listen that he was a spy, but he too was not believed. In Washington, he would spend his days drinking in the bars below Capitol Hill, denouncing America and its policies. At a party at Philby’s house he insulted the wife of a senior CIA officer. In April 1951, in his pink Cadillac, he managed to pick up three drunk-driving charges in three separate states on the same day. London was not amused. Burgess was summoned home by the Foreign Office to face sacking and disgrace.

When Burgess arrived in London, the first person he sought out was Anthony Blunt, who, hearing the news about Maclean, contacted his Soviet controller in London, Yuri Modin, author of an irresistibly jaunty and, according to Miranda Carter, wholly unreliable memoir, My Five Cambridge Friends. In her new biography of Blunt Carter writes that Modin in turn spoke to his masters in Moscow and arranged for Maclean’s defection. Maclean refused to go to Russia without a companion, and Modin urged Burgess to accompany him. He also asked Blunt if he would go with the hapless and increasingly unstable Maclean. Blunt said that he would commit suicide rather than face the prospect of life in Russia. Later, after Burgess and Maclean had fled, Modin again urged Blunt to defect, promising him various inducements. According to Modin, Blunt, a world-famous art historian, again gave him a dusty answer: “No doubt you can also guarantee total access to the Château de Versailles, whenever I need to go there for my work.”

The story of the so-called Cambridge spies is one of the unlikeliest episodes in the history of modern England. Here was a group of gifted and for the most part privileged young men, the flower of their generation, who deliberately set out to betray their country’s secrets, and the secrets of their country’s allies, to an enemy power. Without scruple, and with only contempt for the values and even the lives of their fellow countrymen, they handed over to Communist Russia, a dystopia ruled over by a latter-day Ivan the Terrible, the hard-won fruits of years of painstaking and often perilous work by the combined intelligence agencies of London and Washington.

Or that, at least, is how the story was told by the British establishment; the truth is more intricate, and more interesting. In fact, many of the so-called secrets that Philby, Blunt, Burgess, Maclean, John Cairncross, and possibly others as yet unnamed passed on to Moscow consisted of vital information about Germany’s war aims and military capacity that the British and the Americans should by rights have been handing over freely to their ally the Soviet Union, a country that was prepared to sacrifice tens of millions of its people to the struggle against Nazism. Even Maclean, perhaps the most effective member of the ring, who leaked highly important information on America’s H-bomb project, said he did so not in order to give the Russians a lead in the arms race, but out of the conviction that America was preparing to destroy the Soviet Union in a first-strike nuclear attack, a not entirely improbable belief in the latter half of the 1940s, an unprecedentedly dangerous period in world history.

What were the convictions that drove these men to risk everything, including, possibly, their lives, for the sake of an ideology that, on the face of it, should have been entirely inimical to them and a country in which repression was endemic? Maclean was the most obviously committed of the group, with Philby a close second. Burgess since his youth had been a fervent and, in the early days, vociferous believer in the Communist faith, yet the years in Russia after his defection were unrelievedly miserable, for he found the reality of life under communism wholly intolerable for an English gentleman; it was, he said, like being in “Glasgow on a Saturday night in the nineteenth century.” Blunt, too, had been infected in his youth with the Communist bug; after he had been exposed as a spy, however, when those of his friends who had stayed loyal to him asked why he had done what he did, he would merely shake his head and say, “Cowboys and Indians.” So much for dialectical materialism.

Anthony Frederick Blunt was born in the staid seaside resort of Bournemouth in 1907, the youngest of three sons of Stanley Blunt, a vicar and later a bishop, and Hilda née Master. The Masters were by far the grander half of the family. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was a cousin, if a distant one, while Hilda in her childhood had for neighbors the Duke and Duchess of Teck, whose daughter would become Queen Mary, wife of George V. “The great secret of the family,” Miranda Carter writes, “was that the Queen passed her cast-off dresses on to the Master women, who altered them and wore them with suppressed pride.” The only odd bird perched in the Blunt family tree was Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, “atheist, libertine, Lothario, anti-imperialist, adventurer, and not a bad poet.” He was also a champion of Home Rule for Ireland, and corresponded with Roger Casement while the latter awaited execution for his part in the Easter Rising of 1916, a curious little fore-echo, for Casement was one of only two men in the history of England to have their knighthoods revoked: the other would be Anthony Blunt.

On the evidence available, Anthony had a happy childhood, being, as his brother Wilfrid wrote, “so obviously brilliant and successful and attractive.” The most notable circumstance of his early years was the family’s move, in 1912, when he was four, to Paris, where his father had been appointed chaplain to St. Michael’s, the British embassy church. The Blunts lived for ten years in France, during which time Anthony, as he later wrote, “developed a very strong French leaning which has coloured my whole attitude towards things ever since.” Wilfrid, who was six years older, took young Anthony with him when he went exploring the city; “I was the guide,” Wilfrid wrote in his memoirs, “and my brother Anthony the eager pupil; roles that were subsequently to be reversed.” All the same, Wilfrid did not do badly, making contacts that later on led to a job as secretary to the legendary Comtesse Greffuhle, one of Proust’s models for the Duchesse de Guermantes, while Anthony only got to spend a summer as tutor to the two sons of the art dealer René Gimpel. The Gimpel connection would redound to his discredit many years later, when, after he had been exposed as a spy, it was bruited about in art circles that he had behaved dishonestly in the matter of the attribution of a painting by Poussin that the brothers owned.

Back in England, Anthony was sent to Marlborough, a good but not absolutely top-notch public school, where life was harsh, with, as Carter has it, “endlessly clanging bells, freezing dormitories, and total lack of privacy,” as well as bullying, beatings, and the dreaded compulsory games, which Anthony, known as “the Taper” because of his emaciated physique, was no good at, since, as a fellow pupil later wrote, “his knees went in all directions.” His life at school brightened considerably, however, when he met Louis MacNeice, another bishop’s son, from Northern Ireland, who was to be his firmest friend and chief influence until the advent, at Cambridge, of the Mephistophelian Guy Burgess. The schoolboys Blunt and MacNeice—they were both sixteen when they met—formed a two-member society of aesthetes, sharing and encouraging each other’s enthusiasms for the very latest in art and literature. Blunt was already a passionate art lover, admiring especially Cézanne and the Post-Impressionists, as well as, somewhat improbably, William Blake, while MacNeice was busy making himself into a poet. The inevitable shadow, or sunlight, of Brideshead Revisited falls over the Marlborough pages of Miranda Carter’s book:

The summer term of 1926—their last—“was an idyll.” Blunt and MacNeice went for runs and walks over the Downs, Blunt “wearing a blue silk handkerchief floating from the strap of his wrist watch, and we would come back with our arms full of stolen azaleas.” They walked to nearby Martinsell Hill to get apple blossom, “And we would spend whole afternoons lying naked on the grassy banks of the bathing place, eating strawberries and cherries.”

It was, says Carter, “a kind of love affair,” minus the sex, which “was rarely at the heart of [Blunt’s] closest relationships.”

It is not clear when Blunt realized his homosexuality, or began to act on the discovery; indeed, in early adulthood he was passionately friendly with a number of women, and may even have had an affair with Tess Mayor, who was later to marry Victor Rothschild. Carter also recounts a fascinating anecdote from the late 1940s when a female student at the Courtauld Institute, where Blunt was director and where he lived in the top-floor flat, saw him receiving on a number of occasions a mysterious woman in furs with “a sultry, musical but distinctly foreign accent”—who can she have been, this scented and bejeweled Mata Hari?

Blunt was never overtly “gay” in his behavior, but neither did he seek to conceal the nature of his sexuality, and seems to have felt no shame about it, as did so many of his kind in those days when homosexual activities were still a criminal offense. Boys sought to alleviate the misery and loneliness of life in boarding school by developing passionate crushes on their fellow pupils or, less often, on masters. The ambiguity of these attachments is summed up by Alastair MacDonald, another Marlborough aesthete, who recalled that “Blunt was primarily a homosexual, but it didn’t go very far at Marlborough, and it didn’t impinge on our friendship. He was friendly with a boy called Basil Barr, who was very homosexual, but I don’t think he had a crush on him.” The strongest effect that Marlborough had on Blunt was the antipathy it engendered in him toward the establishment and its values. Miranda Carter is shrewd in her judgment:

The irony was that the public-school system, designed to be a factory for gentlemen, also offered an excellent training in dissidence. It inadvertently fostered a questioning and subversive attitude, and a profound distrust of authority, necessary for any intellectual class and vital to the manufacture of an artist, writer or spy.

If Marlborough was dalliance, Cambridge was total seduction. Blunt arrived at Trinity College in October 1926, and at first found the place intimidating and cold. Carter quotes the historian G.V. Kiernan’s description of Cambridge’s “stifling atmosphere of closed windows, drawn blinds, expiring candles,” and certainly Blunt was unhappy there for the first couple of terms. He sorely missed MacNeice, who had gone on to Oxford, not to mention “John,” a younger boy at Marlborough with whom Blunt was in love. To add to his woes, he did badly in his chosen subject, mathematics, which he quickly abandoned in favor of modern languages. College life brightened after that as he began to find his true way in the world, and, not incidentally, began his first serious love affair, with Peter Montgomery, another Northern Irelander. He also met George “Dadie” Rylands, an influential and attractive young don, “the most beautiful blond at King’s,” who introduced him to the milieu of Bloomsbury, the “dominant force” in the university, according to Blunt himself—later he was briefly to become the lover of Julian Bell, Clive and Vanessa Bell’s son, and nephew of the Queen of Bloomsbury herself, Virginia Woolf. Julian, like Blunt, was a member of the exclusive debating society known as the Apostles, presided over by the economist John Maynard Keynes, another key Bloomsbury figure.

Commentators have perhaps sought too hard to make a direct link between the secretive world of the Apostles and the world of spying that Blunt would later enter, but certainly the members of the society regarded themselves as a sort of gilded fifth column quietly promulgating their aesthetic doctrines amid an ignorant majority of “hearties” and sportsmen and political ignoramuses. However, Carter is skeptical, as she hearteningly is on so many other matters, of claims that between them Blunt and Guy Burgess dominated the society and used it as a recruiting base for spying and for homosexual conquests. All the same, if Blunt was diffident, Burgess certainly was not, for he never missed an opportunity either in espionage or in sex. Carter describes Burgess at eighteen as having “the look of a slightly overripe cherub”; he was noisy, truculent, unwashed, and totally promiscuous, but also, in the words of a contemporary, “marvellously irreverent, amusing, quick and clever.” He was also a committed Communist, organizing strikes among college staff and joining marches in the town by striking workers. He was ripe and ready therefore when, as Carter writes, Marxism was brought to Cambridge with a vengeance in the autumn of 1933 by two determined activists, James Klugman and John Cornford, the latter of whom was to be killed in the Spanish Civil War at the age of twenty-one.

What was the lure of Marxism to the well-heeled young men of Cambridge? Louis MacNeice, never a fellow traveler, put it succinctly when he wrote that “the strongest appeal of the Communist party was that it demanded sacrifice; you had to sink your ego,” and therefore could achieve “self-fulfillment through self-abnegation.” Communism offered to the “bright young things” of the 1930s an escape from triviality by way of a harsh and serious dogmatics, but there were considerations other than the personal. Blunt’s was an angry generation. He and his coevals had been only a decade too young to fight in the First World War, and inevitably they suffered something of the guilt of the survivor. The futile sacrifices of that war they blamed on the “old men,” the blinkered politicians and asinine army commanders, not to mention the arms dealers and market profiteers, who between them had conspired to send a generation of young men to die in the killing fields of Flanders. Nor did the world seem to have learned any lesson from that willed catastrophe. Poverty in England was widespread, even in the midst of plenty. “It had become evident that the structure of capitalist society in its old form had broken down, not only in Britain but all over Europe and even in the United States,” wrote Harold Macmillan, hardly one of history’s firebrands. “The whole system had to be reassessed. Perhaps it could not survive at all; it certainly could not survive without radical change.”

Spain was the acid test; with Franco’s victory, the choice was stark: Stalin or Hitler, while the mealy-mouthed democracies dithered irrelevantly between the two. By the end of the 1930s Anthony Blunt had established himself as an art critic and a historian of art, specializing in Poussin, on whose work he would become the leading world authority. He at first attacked Picasso’s Guernica, painted after a German bombing raid on the Spanish town. “I was very much moved by it,” he wrote later, “but I was horrified by it from a theoretical point of view.” At this time Blunt’s critical writings were heavily, and clumsily, influenced by Marxist theory. One has only to glance at these pieces to know that Blunt the critic, at least, was never comfortable with communism. Great leaden lumps of dogma lie heavily upon the instincts of a delicate sensibility. Here he is writing on a series of Picasso etchings attacking Franco: “The etchings cannot reach more than the limited coterie of aesthetes, who have given their life so wholly to the cult of art that they have forgotten about everything else. The rest of the world will at most see and shudder and pass by.” In later life he recanted these opinions, but they have left a question mark upon his probity as a critic.

The fact would seem to be that in political matters Blunt was wholly naive. The most plausible explanation for his commitment to communism is that the people he most loved and admired were Party members or supporters; in the notorious press conference he gave after his exposure in 1979, he dragged up E.M. Forster’s fine-sounding but highly problematic wish that if he were forced to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped he would “have the guts”—imagine E.M. Forster having “guts”—to betray his country. However, as Miranda Carter perceptively observes, Blunt’s was the kind of dry, slightly enervated personality which delights in being overwhelmed by strong forces, grand natures, violent loves. Besides the flamboyant Burgess, in whose rackety doings Blunt loved to be, however tentatively, a participant, the world of undercover spying in the 1930s boasted some irresistible figures, such as the ex-priest Theo Maly, who eventually returned to Russia knowing an NKVD bullet awaited him, and Arnold Deutsch, the Viennese Jewish polymath who had studied with the Vienna Circle and who after graduation worked with Wilhelm Reich’s Sexpol project. Cowboys and Indians, indeed.

When war came, Blunt was recruited to MI5, the main intelligence section of the armed forces, and at once began to pass information to the Russians. The most significant material was that gathered from intercepts of German wireless signals which were decoded by the Enigma operators at Bletchley Park. How useful all this was to the Russians is open to question. Blunt accepted two gifts of £100 sent him, Carter writes, after Moscow “deemed his contributions particularly useful,” including the information he turned over on the eve of the battle of Kursk, one of the turning points of the war. But it seems the Russians never really trusted the Cambridge spies, being unable quite to credit that these English swells could really be in favor of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Indeed, the philosopher Stuart Hampshire, a former intelligence officer, speculated, according to Carter, that in 1945 Blunt might have confessed to “at least one if not two” British intelligence officers and thereafter worked as a double agent for MI5 against Russian intelligence. (Carter, however, writes, “It is…extremely hard to square the scale of help and protection Blunt gave to Burgess in the late 1940s, with a conversion to MI5.”) After his exposure it was charged that Blunt had been responsible for the deaths of agents in the field, as Philby had been, but Carter insists there is no information to support these claims: a report in the London Sunday Telegraph that he had sent forty-nine Dutch secret agents to their deaths was the result of a mix-up between Blunt and a Special Operations Executive officer of the same name; the Telegraph never retracted the story.

In his 1979 interview Blunt claimed that he had stopped spying for the Soviets in 1945, but this was a lie, although his dealings with his London controllers after that date were sporadic and for the most part trivial. He was involved in arrangements for the defections of Burgess and Maclean in 1951, but it could be said that he was doing no more than coming to the aid of friends; after Burgess fled, one report had it that Blunt went to bed for a week. (Nor was Burgess himself overly happy at the prospect of accompanying Maclean into exile; he was outraged by a suggestion in the press that the two had been lovers: “It would have been like going to bed with a great white woman!”)

After the defections, everyone in Burgess’s old circle became suspect, including Blunt, who for a dozen years was subjected to repeated interrogations by the security services. At last, in 1964, he confessed, in return for a guarantee of immunity from prosecution. By then he was a leading if not exactly prominent figure in English life: director of the Courtauld Institute and Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. He retained his position as an insider at Buckingham Palace, where he was a particular favorite of his cousin the Queen Mother, who after his disgrace continued, in private, to defend him. Rumors about his past persisted in security and newspaper circles, but it was not until 1979, when the satirical magazine Private Eye, on the strength of a forthcoming book by the journalist Andrew Boyle, named him as the “fourth man” along with Burgess, Maclean, and Philby, that the authorities decided the time for silence was over. On November 19 that year, Margaret Thatcher told the House of Commons that Blunt was indeed the fourth man.

Press reaction was astonishing, even by the standards of English journalism. “The Spy with No Shame,” shrieked the Daily Mail. (Blunt, in his one press conference, said that although he acted “according to my conscience” at the time, he “bitterly regretted” what he had done and that he realized he had been “totally wrong.”) A columnist in the Daily Express described him as a “treacherous Communist poof,” and Malcolm Muggeridge in the Evening Standard called him a “pansy aesthete.” The art world, too, took its revenge. Before his exposure Blunt had been involved in a couple of disputes on the subject of Poussin with the art historian and connoisseur Sir Denis Mahon, and now Blunt’s enemies and some of his former colleagues, who felt they had been personally betrayed, took the opportunity of this open day on an eminent figure to question not only his competence as a scholar, but his motives as a judge of pictures.

Why such vituperation? The simple answer would seem to be that the ruling class had been deceived by one of its own, and for that there could be no forgiveness. The spying might have been overlooked, but not the fact that Blunt had remained cocooned at the very heart of upper-class English life, and had been allowed to pace unhindered the richly appointed corridors of power. The establishment, like God, will not be mocked.

Miranda Carter’s account of Blunt’s final years, which were horrible, despite the loyalty and support of the few friends who stood by him, makes for grim reading. The stress of keeping his secrets for so long had taken its toll on his health, and by now he was afflicted with numerous painful and humiliating maladies. He lived in virtual house arrest in an unlovely flat in Portsea Mansions, in the bitter and increasingly hysterical company of his last companion, John Gaskin, a former Guardsman whom Blunt had met in the jewelry shop in the Burlington Arcade where Gaskin was working. He was of working-class Irish descent, and possessed what Carter describes as “dark, brawny good looks” that had thickened with age and too much drinking. Early one morning in 1980 he fell from the balcony of the flat, apparently attempting suicide. Somehow he survived the eighty-foot plunge, and was taken to the hospital, where the press got wind of the story; the Evening Standard ran it under the headline “Traitor’s flatmate plunges six floors.” Eight years later he had another go when he threw himself under a train; this time he was successful. One of the causes of death the coroner gave was “blunt force trauma.” Blunt himself had already died, in March 1983, of a heart attack. Even now the newspapers were unrelenting: “Blunt the high-class spy dies in disgrace at 75,” trumpeted the one-time decent Sunday Times.

What are we to make of this peculiar story, so well and sympathetically told by Miranda Carter? Who was Blunt, and what was he? Enigma is an easy word, and accounts for little. Had he not done some spying for the Soviet Union at a time of great danger not only to that country but to the entire world, most people would probably never have heard the name of Anthony Blunt. What was his significance? Indeed, did he have any significance, outside the relatively circumscribed world of art history? It is possible to finish this fascinating book with the niggling suspicion that its subject was, for all the notoriety he suffered, a not very interesting man. Perhaps the best insight was provided by Blunt himself when, after the Thatcher statement to Parliament, he turned to his brother Wilfrid “almost proudly,” Carter suggests, and said, “You must admit I’m a very good actor.”