As we know, the camera does lie, frequently and flagrantly—consider the fashion industry—but sometimes, with some people, the lens insinuates itself behind the mask to starkly revelatory effect. Look, for instance, at almost any photograph of Georges Simenon, and you will see not only the enormously successful creator of the phlegmatic Chief Inspector Maigret, but also the man whose mother told him after his brother’s death that she felt the wrong son had died, and who, when he was writing, vomited almost every morning before he could bring himself to sit down at his desk.
David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, was tall, muscular, and physically forceful, even into old age, and possessed of what used to be called film-star good looks. He seemed, on the face of it, wholly at ease with the world and with himself. But what the camera so often revealed, behind the confidently winning smile, was the wounded man whose mother, when he was five, abandoned him without even saying good-bye, and who after he had become the successful novelist John le Carré was asked by his father to reimburse him for the cost of his education.
The father, Ronnie Cornwell, whose natural camouflage was top hat and tails, was impervious to the camera’s truth-seeking eye. An international crook and con man extraordinaire, he dominated his son’s life. Cornwell fils regarded his “accursed progenitor,” as Beckett’s Hamm would have it, with appalled fascination. All who met him remarked that hardly five minutes had passed before he had launched upon the topic of his father, speaking in a kind of wonderment of Ronnie’s exploits and escapades, his criminal entanglements, his repeated bankruptcies.1
More than once David had to bail him out of jail, notably in 1965 in Jakarta, where the old rogue had been arrested on gunrunning charges. Le Carré’s biographer, Adam Sisman, writes that the British embassy in Jakarta reported in a memorandum that
Ronnie had mentioned that he had already signed a contract with the Indonesian government for the supply of 8,000 trucks from Italy, and that other contracts would come for two million barrels of oil to Japan from Indonesia and for the building of three ships.
The stuff of Ronnie’s fantasies was never modest.
Despite the shame that the father brought upon the family, his son at some deep level loved him, and in a way even envied him for his insouciance and untarnishable brass neck. And of course he recognized an affinity: Is not every fiction writer something of a con artist, and is not every reader a mark? As Sisman records, the novelist realized “that Ronnie, in his own way, had been as much of an addict to the process of artistic creation as he was himself.”
The difference is that readers are willing, indeed eager, to be gulled, and derive more or less delight from the experience. In some aspects—the gaiety, the girls, the extravagant gifts, most of which turned out to be unpaid for—Ronnie Cornwell may seem a lovable scamp, but there can be no doubt that he damaged the many people he conned, and perhaps destroyed the lives of some of them. In A Perfect Spy (1986), le Carré’s openly autobiographical novel and possibly his masterpiece, there is a harrowing episode involving a widow whose crippled husband had been cheated out of his disability settlement by the British double agent Magnus Pym’s father, Rick, an irresistible con man based closely on Ronnie Cornwell. Not only does Rick make off with the cash, he also persuades the afflicted man to sign over his farm to him—and then proceeds to seduce the penniless widow.
What steel, what fortitude, what fire le Carré must have needed to survive his youth and subsequent emotional travails: to survive and triumph. There is ample evidence of how difficult it all was. In the mid-1980s, a decade after Ronnie’s death, two of his sisters, Ella and Ruby, complained of le Carré’s characterizations of their brother both in fact and in fiction. Le Carré wrote to his aunt Ella on May 3, 1986:
Like all of us who were obliged to live with Ronnie, to be charmed and ultimately deceived by him, you have surely suffered great pain. In writing as I have done, I believe that I have not only alleviated my own pain, which has been prolonged and crippling, but lightened the burden of others who, in cloistered situations, are enduring similar miseries without being able to share them.
From his earliest days, one of David’s strategies for survival was to take on the protective coloring of others.2 Sisman singles out a significant passage in A Perfect Spy in which Magnus Pym’s friend Axel, the Czech spymaster, says of him, “Magnus is a great imitator, even when he doesn’t know it. Really I sometimes think he is entirely put together from bits of other people, poor fellow.” This, remember, is le Carré/Cornwell writing in consciously autobiographical mode. Le Carré was aware of what lurked behind David’s splendidly convivial exterior. He was a chameleon from the start. At the age of seventeen he left England for Bern in Switzerland and spent nine months at the university there. In 2020, the year of his death, he recalled the many exiled Germans with whom he mingled: “I assumed German identity and German culture as a replacement of my own. That’s where it began.” That “it” has a telling resonance.
He was forever watching, studying, memorizing, borrowing. Those who encountered him in person were frequently startled afterward to find fragments of things they had said to him echoed in his writing, unconsciously, surely, but often word for word. In this he was not unique: all novelists watch, study, memorize, and borrow—or steal; so do actors;3 so, to an extent, do we all. But there was an extra dimension to his hooded vigilance. At university he informed on fellow students involved in left-wing causes, an act of betrayal about which he remained unrepentant to the end of his life. He said in an interview in 1999, “Somebody has to clean the drains, and I found that I did do things that, although they were in some way morally repugnant, I felt at the time, and still feel, to have been necessary.” His biographer is less indulgent:
There is something especially troubling about informing on those one knows personally; it feels like a betrayal of the trust implicit in friendship. And befriending somebody in order to betray him is perhaps even more so.
In a sense, he couldn’t help himself. He was perfect spy material, if not by nature then certainly by nurture. As the son of an international swindler, he had to learn early to dissemble, to dodge and delude, to put up a front, to lie. But we would do well to keep in mind that deceit is not exclusive to the tradecraft of a spy. Consider the cunning and ingenuity of any couple embarking on an adulterous affair.
As a public man, David Cornwell was a model of probity, clear-sightedness, and fearless criticism. In his novels and interviews he lambasted the hypocrisy and humbuggery of the English establishment, as represented especially by the intelligence services of his time, and thereby drew sharp criticism and made not a few enemies. However, in “my own messy private life,” he was not above double-dealing. Following the stupendous success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), he embarked on a reckless series of affairs. Of these, the most serious and most disruptive was with Susan Kennaway, the wife of the middlingly successful novelist James Kennaway, one of his closest friends—perhaps the closest. The liaison began in the early winter of 1964 and did not last long, but long enough.4
In 1971 le Carré divorced his wife, Ann, and the following year married his lover, Jane Eustace. Jane worked in publishing, which was how he had met her, when she helped him with his novel A Small Town in Germany (1968). She remained loyal to him through many vicissitudes and died in 2021, shortly after he did. In the biography, published while le Carré was still very much alive, Sisman writes:
From an early stage in their relationship Jane has suffered David’s extramarital adventures, and tried to protect him from their consequences. Though it has not been easy for her, she has behaved with quiet dignity. “Nobody can have all of David,” she said recently.
Le Carré was not the first writer, and will not be the last, to suggest that his philandering was a necessary spur to the creative process. According to Sisman, “David’s infidelities…created a duality and a tension that became a necessary drug for his writing, often brought about by deliberate incongruity.” And indeed, “deliberate incongruity” might be the very term with which to describe the affair recounted in intimate detail in Suleika Dawson’s eyebrow-raising, not to say hair-raising, memoir, The Secret Heart.
The title would be suitable for a piece of Mills & Boon pulp romance but is probably a reference to Joseph Conrad’s short story “The Secret Sharer,” a formulation that le Carré took over and made his own—the spy, he liked to say, is the ultimate secret sharer. Dawson’s pseudonym is a variant of Zuleika Dobson, the eponymous femme fatale of Max Beerbohm’s 1911 novel. When Zuleika visits the University of Oxford, her beauty drives all the undergraduates to kill themselves for love of her. As the book ends, she is about to set out for Cambridge, with probably similar fatal results. It is to be hoped that there is not a cupboard out of which Dawson is planning to drag the clattering skeletons of yet more famous lovers. What T.S. Eliot said of Finnegans Wake—that one such book was enough—can be said also, with added emphasis, of The Secret Heart.
Dawson and le Carré first met in the 1980s, when she was working in London with Graham Goodwin, “the man who single-handedly started the whole audiobook business,” she tells us. Le Carré had come into Goodwin’s Soho studio to record Smiley’s People (1979). It was his first time putting an entire book on tape, but to the surprise and delight of the professionals recording him he carried it off with persuasive aplomb. Dawson was straightaway smitten: “This man, I now knew, was going to become my lover.”
Her story is an odd mixture of hedonistic adventure and wry regret, interspersed with sharp insights and passages of shrewd analysis. She had given up not one but two lovers in favor of le Carré,and from the start was determined to get as much fun, foie gras, Bollinger, and sex out of the affair as might be on offer—and on offer they were, by the ice-bucketload. She may not have had “all of David,” but by her account she had a lot of him. Here is the illicit couple on their first night in a Zurich hotel, on the way to a clandestine holiday together in Greece:
A vast canopied bed held us in a luxurious embrace while we drank champagne and made love in almost continuous rotation throughout our three-day stay, David passing the first mouthful from his glass to me in a kiss and giving me the first of many pieces of jewellery.
There is much of this kind of thing, along with frequent references to le Carré’s unflagging potency and her long, lace-stockinged legs. Yet she never forgets her lover’s background, both under the greasy thumb of Ronnie and as an agent in Her Majesty’s secret service. She suspects at one point that he has arranged for the Special Branch to tap her phone. “I loved and adored David completely and utterly,” yet she wondered too if he was “running” her, if she was his “agent,” his “Joe.” She writes, “Even when I wasn’t physically with him, I could still feel his control.”
But all is not solipsism here. Further on in the book she is very astute about le Carré’s relation to that cleverest, most treacherous, and most enigmatic figure, the double agent and le Carré’s former MI6 colleague Kim Philby, whose “absolute Miltonic Fall seems to have left David with a quantum of baffled leftover love…that he needed to pour into all the fallen idols he would create in his books.” In A Perfect Spy, Magnus Pym loves the Czech agent Axel, Dawson writes, “loves him deeply, more than he loves his own father, more than he loves any woman,” and thus Magnus’s suicide at the end of that book is less felo-de-se than auto-da-fé:
As the novel closes, in a final act of exorcism, Pym calmly wraps a towel around his head and, looking at his reflection in a mirror, puts a gun to his temple and dispassionately pulls the trigger. After internalising Philby in his hero, awarding him the “quasi-homophonic” name Pym and fusing his own past life with the traitor’s in his great autobiographical novel, David finally watches himself kill the turbaned Punjabi-born Kim.
Pym kills Kim? It’s a plausible thesis, whereby it is not the slaying of the father but the extirpation of the treacherous friend that is the point. After Philby’s flight to Moscow, le Carré rebuffed all approaches from him. On a visit to Moscow in 1987 Philby requested a meeting but he refused, and afterward made much of his refusal. “I couldn’t possibly have shook his hand,” he said. “It was drenched in blood.” However, Sisman informs us that the diary of a person traveling with him on that Moscow trip “records David as saying at the time that one day he would ‘dearly love’ to meet Philby—‘purely for zoological purposes, of course!’”
After all the champers, sex, and—albeit fictional—revenge killings, it is a relief to return to A Private Spy, a magnificent collection of le Carré’s letters edited by his son Tim Cornwell. Cornwell/le Carré was a wonderful letter writer, generous, incisive, funny, candid—mostly—and fairly bursting with vivacity. He had a gift for friendship—with men, usually, but not exclusively: some of the tenderest letters here are to his stepmother, Jeannie Cornwell, whom Ronnie married in 1944 and who survived him by many years, dying in 2013 aged ninety-six. During the war she had a job at the BBC broadcasting coded messages over the radio.
According to Tim Cornwell, only one letter survives from le Carré to his father. It is dated March 20, 1965. Ronnie had been angered by an extensive interview his son had given to the influential journalist Robert Pitman of the Sunday Express and had written to the newspaper to say so. Pitman had not identified Ronnie by name, but, the editor writes, the interview “included details that would become staples of le Carré’s future writing about his father.”
Le Carré’s response to his father’s letter is fascinating mainly for all that it does not say. It is measured, polite to the point of iciness, and reads more like a communication with a bank manager than a letter from a much-put-upon son to a rascally father. The only hint of a rebuke is more ironic than annoyed: “If you have become shy of publicity I suggest you refrain from writing provocative letters to such skilled newspapers as the Express.” The only hint of filial warmth comes at the close: “I, like you, hope you will be spared for many more years on this planet. It would certainly be poorer without you.”
Perhaps the most unfortunately revealing letter included here, also from the mid-1960s, is a tormented but squirm-making exercise in doublespeak. Le Carré is writing to his mistress Susan Kennaway, at once declaring his undying love and breaking off the relationship:
Look, this is the truth, what I am going to say. Your marriage is sane and real; I love your marriage and James [Susan’s husband] almost as much as I love you, because I love your way of living and understanding, I despise what you despise, and if you had made a silly marriage, as I have, you wouldn’t be Susie.
One wonders how the recipient reacted to this self-justifying, self-pitying screed. Probably as all rejected lovers react to a Dear John or Dear Joan letter: with shock, fury, sorrow, and that particular bleak fear at the prospect of a future from which the beloved is suddenly absent. In the end Susan acquiesced, agreeing that they could not be responsible for breaking up two families. It is to the credit of both that they remained on friendly terms, even after James’s death.
It is perhaps unfair and misleading to single out those letters that show le Carré at his least attractive. This is a big book, and in it there are many, many examples of him at his best, when he is writing to his family and friends, to his publishers and editors, to the actors who brought his characters alive on-screen—“If we were to cry for the moon, we would cry for [Alec] Guinness as Smiley”—to admiring readers. One superb letter is a response to a protest from the pharmaceutical company Novartis over The Constant Gardener (2001) and his comments on “big pharma” in subsequent interviews. In April 2001 Andreas Seiter, head of the company’s “stakeholder relations,” and Katharina Amacker, the president of the Employee Representation Council, wrote to question “whether Mr. Cornwell is in a very strong moral position to attack us in public, when at the same time he has a clear commercial interest to boost the sales of his book.” The reply is le Carré—David Cornwell—at his endearingly and magisterially outraged best:
I am not employed by an industry accused, by the most sober critics, of amassing excessive wealth at the expense of the wretched of the earth. I am what used to be called in German a free writer. Nobody buys my opinions. In your world, that is unusual and perhaps unsettling.
But the noblest, most loving, and most touching of all is the scrap of paper torn from a phone pad on which he had scrawled his last farewell to his wife Jane, who above all the numerous others was surely the love of his life. Both of them were in the same hospital in 2020, David suffering from pneumonia and Jane being treated for the cancer that was to kill her less than three months after his death. Because of Covid, they were not allowed to see each other, a cruel circumstance for this most devoted couple. Among the few things Jane had brought with her to the hospital was an envelope of correspondence, including an undated note from David, which read in full:
You are the only woman This is the only place In the end, we have to know the one thing. Our year was extraordinary, but we didn’t say goodbye to it properly: so much effort, at such cost, such reward.
From the London Evening News, July 1954: “A forty-eight-year-old London property dealer [Ronnie] who formed sixty companies and bought about four thousand properties admitted in the Bankruptcy Court today that he had contingent liabilities of £1,359,000.” That’s the equivalent of about £30 million today. ↩
It is no coincidence that he was a superb mimic. His Margaret Thatcher in particular was wonderfully droll, but almost alarming in its verisimilitude. ↩
For a time, as a young man, David acted in amateur theatricals, with some success. ↩
When Kennaway found out about the affair, David wrote him a letter of apology, saying “I failed you most terribly” and asking his forgiveness. “I describe you in conversation as my best friend. If you can, say the same.” The two did not meet again. In 1968 Kennaway died of a heart attack at the wheel of his car while driving from London to his home in Gloucestershire. He was forty. ↩