James Hanning is the author of the recently published Love and Deception: Philby in Beirut (Corsair, September 2021). Hanning is a former deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday and previously wrote for the London Evening Standard. He is also the coauthor, with Francis Elliott, of a highly regarded biography of David Cameron, titled Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative (Fourth Estate, 2007). His latest book builds on the continued fascination in Britain for the double agent Kim Philby, who spied for the Soviet Union while being a senior official in the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6. In October 2019 Diwan published a photo essay looking back at his time in the Lebanese capital, where he arrived in August 1956 as a journalist, after he had come under suspicion momentarily at home. In January 1963, Philby learned that MI6 had uncovered proof that he had worked for Moscow. Shortly thereafter he fled from Beirut, boarding a ship that would take him to Odessa. We interviewed Hanning in early October to get his insights into Philby’s seven years in Lebanon.
Michael Young: Why write about Kim Philby’s time in Beirut? Most writers have tended to focus on other dimensions of his life, but not his years in Lebanon.
James Hanning: Partly, honestly, because the germ of my book came from something I was told by Brian Sewell, my art critic colleague on the London Evening Standard. Sewell was a former student and sometimes confidant of Sir Anthony Blunt, the person responsible for the Queen’s collection of paintings. Unknown to her, he had also been an undercover Soviet agent, like Philby. When Sewell agreed to talk to me about a trip Blunt made to Beirut a few weeks before Philby disappeared, I was delighted. The more I looked into this, the more interested I became in Philby’s life there, as well as the fact that he seemed to be mixing freely with senior spies and journalists, while remining as watchful and, I assume, as nervous as ever.
MY: A central figure in your book is Philby’s third wife, Eleanor. In what way was she essential for understanding his character?
JH: I suppose as a journalist one is forever on the lookout for untold stories, and the more I learned about Eleanor, the more I realized how little not just I but others with an interest in the subject knew about her. She was artistically minded and had quite an impressive early career. During the war, she worked initially in the United States but quite soon in Europe, often engaged with public service information campaigns, propaganda, and so on. I don’t entirely know what she did in the war’s later stages, but she was in Istanbul at one point, which, though neutral, was quite a hot spot. In much of the literature, she was treated as collateral damage, a pitiable victim figure, the hapless dupe of this monster, master spy. That chimed with the Cold War rhetoric of the time. Yet those who knew her found her gently witty, intelligent, and decent. The appeal she had for Philby seems to me interesting. She was a very straightforward, trusting, and apolitical person, all things Philby wasn’t. I can’t help feeling that he found a degree of refuge in that simplicity. He knew where he stood with her.
MY: What is the most important new revelation in your book?
JH: The one I am keenest on is the fact that Blunt, whom I mentioned earlier, turned up in Beirut a few weeks before Philby disappeared. I think I have proved that he did so, which makes the reason for Blunt to deny it all the more intriguing.
Another story, which I haven’t really made much of, concerns the decision to send Philby to Beirut in 1956 after he had initially been cleared of being a Russian agent. He was sent ostensibly solely as a journalist, but he also did work for MI6 on the quiet. The new head of MI6 inherited this decision, taken by his predecessor. I discovered that he protested to the then foreign secretary, Harold Macmillan. Macmillan overruled him, and insisted that Philby be allowed to go, so the foreign secretary was complicit in the decision to send Philby. In hindsight, this caused much finger-pointing and accusations of sleepiness on the part of the British. Certainly, I imagine the Americans, long on Philby’s tail, would have been furious had they known—and in fact they may well have. MI6 had not only signed him up again, but conspired to find him his cover job as a journalist. This makes Macmillan’s desire seven years later to hush the whole thing up all the more significant.
MY: As you noted, while in Lebanon, Philby continued to work with MI6 and his old friend Nicholas Elliott, the MI6 station chief in Beirut between 1960 and 1962. Did he have much access to important information then? Did he remain useful to his Soviet handlers?
JH: Nobody knows for sure what Philby did for MI6. My impression is that he was told by MI6 on arrival in Beirut to steer clear of the Russians. His father, St. John Philby, was a noted explorer and fixer in the Arab world, and his contacts were undoubtedly useful to his son. That was part of the reason why Kim was sent to Lebanon, to take advantage of his father’s contacts. My sense is that he was simply required to keep his ear to the ground and keep his London bosses informed of anything he might pick up. He was ideally suited for that, being personable, popular, and well informed.
We know even less of what he was doing for the Russians, although it is pretty clear he didn’t pick up his work with them again until, I think, 1959. It looks as if he had a contact he met once a week or every ten days when he would presumably pass on to them what he had told the British. But there is no sense that he was shoveling priceless secrets to his Russian minders. In fact, in a book he prepared with a Russian journalist, he seems to have been very honest about how frustrating his time was in Beirut. He would have liked to have been more useful, but wasn’t entirely trusted and wasn’t naturally in possession of great secrets in any case.
MY: How does Beirut figure in your account of Philby? And in retrospect, did the city have any lingering impact on him?
JH: My impression of Beirut at that time was that it was something of a playground for wealthy Westerners who enjoyed a slightly exotic high life in an area that had become a magnet for journalists, spies, and intriguers of all sorts. Philby fitted perfectly in that milieu, even if, as I said, it was probably not his most productive time as a spy, either for the British or Russians. He had no great affinity with the Middle East, though, and had little time for Saudi Arabia in particular. He once wrote, “The limitless space, the clear night skies and the rest of the gobbledygook are all right in small doses. But I would find a lifetime in a landscape with majesty but no charm, among a people with neither majesty nor charm, quite unacceptable. Ignorance and arrogance make a bad combination, and the Saudi Arabians have both in generous measure.” But he mixed very easily, drank copiously, and enjoyed the expat socializing as much as anyone.
As for whether Beirut left much of a mark on him, I’m not sure. I think he very much regretted the end of his relationship with Eleanor, of whom he had been very fond. But his last wife Rufina once said she had no impression he missed Beirut, and that in Moscow he rarely if ever talked about the city. He affected to be fond of those people he knew there, but by disappearing he let down a great number of them.
MY: You mentioned Blunt’s visit to Beirut earlier, and speculate in the book that he is the one who might have tipped Philby off about MI6’s discovery of his betrayal. Can you elaborate?
JH: I believe that the purpose of Anthony Blunt’s visit in December 1962—which he denied but I am convinced took place—was to warn Philby that MI6 had new information about his work for Moscow. I do not believe that Blunt knew in detail what this new information was, but I think he wanted to get to his friend before the British did. So, at short notice, he invited himself to stay with his old friend Sir Ponsonby Moore Crosthwaite, the British ambassador to Lebanon. And it was then, I believe, that he contacted Philby.
Now this raises a number of questions. One is how did Blunt know that there was new evidence, and I cannot answer this conclusively, although I speculate about it in my book. I find it almost impossible to believe that any of the handful of people whose job it was to know about the plan to question Philby would have mentioned anything to Blunt. It was a highly secret mission, and in any case Blunt was under suspicion himself from colleagues in MI5. But one of the sources of the new information against Philby had given her evidence to Victor Rothschild, formerly of MI5. Rothschild’s wife was Blunt’s closest female friend, and had worked with him during the war. They had almost no secrets between them, and she trusted Blunt entirely (and was shattered when his treachery was confirmed). I can well believe that she might have mentioned to him something her husband had said, which made Blunt think he needed to get word to Philby.
The second question is, if Blunt wanted to warn Philby why did he need to go to Beirut? Why not simply call his Russian contact in London? Again, I speculate about this in the book, and I must emphasize it is guesswork. My sense is that Blunt had long had enough of communism. He had only continued working for the Russians after the war because he felt he had to help his British friends, like Philby and Guy Burgess. Similarly, he may have wondered whether Philby himself wanted to escape to the Soviet Union. And so, the only way Blunt could enable Philby to choose between going to Moscow or some other option in the West was to speak to him himself. It was a secret between them. Had Blunt told the Russians, Philby’s ability to choose would have been gone.
MY: Do we have any sense of what happened at the meetings between Philby and Elliott in December 1962 or January 1963, when Elliott revealed that MI6 knew about Philby’s betrayal?
JH: Only part of the meetings has been made public, and I wonder if we will ever know for sure what happened. Elliott let off steam, as well he might, given how he had defended Philby so vigorously against the charges of working for the Russians. We know that much, and we know there was more than one meeting. We also know that Philby provided a confession of sorts. Now it turned out later that, first, the confession may well have been prepared well in advance (encouraging the idea that Blunt had a hand in it), and second, that many of the names he gave in the confession were of no use. They were either inaccurate, already known, or of no use for other reasons.
In any case, the partial confession seems to have been enough for Elliott and the British to think the game was over. Philby had cracked, and the British then, I believe, were convinced that he would be fully cooperative and name his co-conspirators. This was the object of the exercise in the first place—to find out what damage had been done, so they could reassure the Americans that they need have no fears about the damage to their security, in the past or future. Elliott then left Beirut, and a few days later Philby himself disappeared.
MY: Finally, many people think Philby was allowed to escape, thereby avoiding an embarrassment for MI6. You have a different view. Can you explain?
JH: Again, we may never know the answer to this. There is a strong case to be made that the British were desperate to avoid Philby coming back to London and standing trial, at which all sorts of secrets might have come out. Far easier for him simply to slip away and, with the press far less aggressive than it is today, the public would never have known about it. I spoke to a man, an old friend of Nicholas Elliott. He said that he had lunch with Elliott and described how Elliott, after unburdening himself of his anger toward Philby, recalled that Philby had asked him, “What happens now?” Elliott, according to this friend, replied, “You’ve got a 24-hour start, Kim.” That, he believes, was the signal for Philby to run.
I can’t deny that man’s recollection. But my sense is that this was not what happened. Philby’s return to London need not have caused a public trial and bad headlines. The British simply believed Philby would play the game and come clean. They could not believe he wasn’t the lovable, decent soul they had always known and that he wouldn’t return to the fold and help them out. In short, they couldn’t understand the strength of his ideological conviction, which to them was just so un-British. So once the British had “broken” him, as they saw it, they eased up. He waited for a while, and then decided the coast was clear and he could make a dash for it.
I think it was a huge embarrassment to the British, and still they cannot bring themselves to admit it. They hoped to clear the whole thing up their way, and reassure the Americans that all was well. Instead, they had another piece of bungling on their hands that now needed to be explained to the Americans.