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Cowboys and Indians’

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?

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