Love and Deception: Philby in Beirut by James Hanning review – the spy who loved, maybe

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<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

In a coolly furious essay published in book form in 1968, Hugh Trevor-Roper singled out Kim Philby’s “truly extraordinary egotism and complacency” as forces that seemed to the historian “to have dominated Philby’s character and determined his lonely and difficult course”. Trevor-Roper knew whereof he spoke, for he had served with the British Secret Intelligence Service during the war and saw much of Philby during those years. His observations on his former friend are shrewd. Only a man who believed in himself utterly could have given himself utterly to a cause, as Philby did.

Yet he was no fanatic; anything but. John le Carré – who, incidentally, Trevor-Roper strongly attacks in his Philby monograph – pointed out that in the depths of the “fanatic heart” there lurks a doubt, and doubt, in such a heart, is a fatal weakness. There is a question as to whether Philby had a heart at all. His capacity for self-control was well nigh inhuman. He was a secret communist as far back as 1933 – though never a member of the Communist party – and for nearly 35 years, no one in British intelligence knew.

Indeed, it seems that no one knew the man at all. Yuri Modin, the KGB controller of the Cambridge spy network, said of him: “He never revealed his true self. Neither the British, nor the women he lived with, nor ourselves, ever managed to pierce the armour of mystery that clad him … in the end I suspect [he] made a mockery of everyone, particularly ourselves” – a judgment that is especially suggestive in its last two words.

It might seem that by now everything has been said about Philby that is worth saying, but James Hanning’s book is excellent and fascinating. It is not that he has many new revelations to make, although he does offer fresh material on, for instance, Anthony Blunt’s espionage activities as late as 1962. The fascination of Love and Deception lies in the meticulously detailed account it gives of Philby’s strange half-life in Beirut, where he was banished in 1956 mainly under pressure from the American counter-intelligence agencies. Suspicion had fallen on him after the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean in 1951, and he was quietly fired from MI6, with regret all round. Many in the service considered that he had been shabbily treated merely because he had been loyal to his friend, the drunken and increasingly desperate Burgess.

The heart – in all senses of the word – of Hanning’s book is the story it tells of Philby’s third marriage, to Eleanor Kearns, an American he met in 1956 in Beirut. In fact, it was she who met him, at her husband’s behest. She was the wife of the New York Times correspondent in the Middle East, Sam Pope Brewer. Brewer had known Philby in the US, and when the latter arrived in the Lebanese capital to take up a job as a journalist, Brewer was keen to renew an old friendship. Hanning writes: “He knew Philby as a family man who had had to leave his wife and five school-age children behind in England, and wanted him to feel welcome in Beirut.”

Brewer had already cancelled two appointments to meet him in the St Georges hotel, the expatriates’ favourite watering hole in the city, and having to cancel yet a third time, he sent his wife in his place to greet the newcomer. The folly of an overly complacent husband knows no limits.

Eleanor Philby met Kim Philby in Beirut at her then husband&#x002019;s behest.
Eleanor Philby met Kim Philby in Beirut at her then husband’s behest. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

The Beirut of the 1950s is a storyteller’s dream, and the St Georges is a dream within the dream. Hanning makes rich use of both the city and the hotel, to the point that they are supporting characters in his book. When Eleanor met Philby on 12 September 1956, the consequences were inevitable. Philby was polished, witty, handsome in a shy sort of way, and as one observer put it, “his very being carried a sexual suggestiveness”. Even Trevor-Roper, in his essay, admitted that he “still look[ed] back with pleasure to the time which I spent in his company”.

Eleanor was no slouch herself – one of Philby’s sons, who was a teenager when he met her, described her as “hot”. She had worked in advertising before the war, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor she went into public service as an information specialist, drawing up papers on matters of civil defence. Hanning writes that the US office of war information “considered her reports the best any government agency had produced”. In 1943 she was sent to Istanbul to work in propaganda aimed at persuading neutral Turkey to join the Allied cause. She probably did some spying on the side, and was taught how to look after herself – in her 1968 book, The Spy I Loved, she reveals that she knew how to kill a man in 30 seconds. Hot is the word, all right.

But, at whatever temperature, she was a gentle, loving soul, and remained loyal to Philby despite his repeated betrayals of her. As suspicions about Philby’s guilt increased among British intelligence officials, so did his drinking, which led to repeated domestic accidents and injuries. When his old friend Nicholas Elliott, an MI6 officer also stationed in Beirut, met him in 1962 he found him helplessly drunk and with a bandaged head – he had fallen in the bathroom and cracked his skull on a radiator.

Drunk or sober, he clung on to his secrets. When, under Eleanor’s care, he sobered up and recovered from his wounds he was again his old, eminently clubbable self. However, he must have known the game was very nearly up. When Elliott confronted him, saying British intelligence knew he had been spying for the Russians for years but was willing to offer him an immunity deal, Philby confessed.

In her book The Spy I Loved, Eleanor Philby revealed she knew how to kill a man in 30 seconds

Yet this part of the story is exceedingly murky. Was Elliott bent on unmasking him, or was he there to alert him that arrest was imminent? One source is adamant Elliott told him that, at the end of the confrontation between the two men, when Philby asked, “What now?” Elliott replied: “You’ve got 24 hours’ head start.”

On the evening of 23 January 1963, Philby disappeared from Beirut. Eleanor heard hardly a word from him for months. When he did contact her, he was as cool and charmingly insouciant as ever. Eventually she joined him in Moscow, where matters ran smoothly between them until he began an affair with the wife of his fellow defector Donald Maclean. Even this affront Eleanor might have put up with. The last straw, however, landed on her already heavily burdened back when she challenged her husband to say, if he were made to choose between her and the Communist party, who would win. A friend reported, according to Hanning: “She said he looked at her in disbelief and just said: ‘The party, of course.’”

Related: Kim Philby: new revelations about spy emerge in secret files

And yet. Anthony Cave Brown, the author of a book on Philby, suggested that the affair with Melinda Maclean was embarked on at the behest of the KGB, who wished him to be rid of Eleanor because she was an “operational embarrassment”. Despite his love for Eleanor, did Philby choose the party over her, and deliberately drive her away? Hanning dismisses the notion, but, in the case of Philby, can we ever be sure of anything?

Love and Deception: Philby in Beirut by James Hanning is published by Corsair (£25). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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