Andrew Lycett

Under deep suspicion in Beirut, Kim Philby still carried on regardless

Before fleeing to Russia, the Cambridge spy appeared remarkably carefree, drinking in Beirut’s bars and seducing the married Eleanor Brewer, says James Hanning

Kim Philby’s third wife, Eleanor, at the time of publishing The Spy I Loved in 1968. [Getty Images]

The story of the Cambridge spies has been served up so often that it has become stale — too detailed, too predictable, too firmly etched in Cold War monochrome. So it’s a good idea to seek another angle, through the warmer lens of a love affair involving its main protagonist Kim Philby and his wife Eleanor. It humanises the tale, particularly as it draws on a vivid and neglected personal source — The Spy I Loved— Eleanor’s own book centred on their romance in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

That was where Philby was despatched in 1956 to play out the penultimate act in a drama stretching back to the 1930s, when he and his fellow Cambridge students were recruited to spy for the Soviet Union. Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess were rumbled, and fled to Moscow in 1951. Philby beat the rap for a bit longer, but was damaged goods. So, needing him out of the way, his MI6 employers arranged him cover as a correspondent for the Observer and the Economist in Beirut, which, like Bucharest in the 1930s and Lisbon during the second world war, was enjoying a post-Suez moment as a hotbed of international espionage.

With nothing much to occupy him (he still performed minor tasks for MI6, between journalistic sorties involving, as someone noted, little Observing or Economising), he fell in love with Eleanor Brewer, the bright but frustrated wife of the often absent New York Times bureau chief. It didn’t take the libidinous Philby long to ditch his own spouse Aileen, an embarrassing alcoholic, and hitch up with Eleanor.

James Hanning has a fine feel for the mutually advantageous relationship between newspapermen and spies. With the often sozzled Philbys at the centre, he wheels us through Beirut’s bars and hotels, notably the Normandy and St Georges.

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