Spy author John le Carré tarnished MI6 and his novels were a ‘stain’ on the secret service, its former head has claimed.
Sir Richard Dearlove blasted the writer – real name David Cornwell – for ’successfully tarring the moral reputation of his former colleagues’.
His comments come in stark contrast to current ’C’ Richard Moore, who called him a ‘giant of literature’ as he led tributes to le Carré after he died from pneumonia on Saturday aged 89.
Sir Richard told the Telegraph: ‘Le Carré never claimed that he was writing anything but fiction.
‘But because he was a great story teller, inevitably his pen both enhanced the mystique of MI6, but also stained its reputation – and there was a large dollop of vitriol in his ink for MI6.
‘The impression that he leaves – and it lingers to this day – of the workings of MI6 is corrosive.’
He said le Carré had enjoyed tarring the reputation of his former colleagues in the eyes of the public.
Sir Richard, who retired from the service in 2004, added he had met the writer once ‘but it was clear that he disliked, perhaps even detested, the service’.
Sir Richard Dearlove (left) blasted the writer (right) – real name David Cornwell – for ‘successfully tarring the moral reputation of his former colleagues’
His comments come in stark contrast to current ‘C’ Richard Moore, who led tributes to le Carré (picturedin 1965) after he died from pneumonia on Saturday aged 89
Key events that forged literary giant John le Carré
- 1948: He is approached by the security services while reading German at the University of Bern
- 1949: He joins the Intelligence Corps in the British Army and undertakes National Service in Austria
- 1952: Spies on left-wing groups at Lincoln College, Oxford, to detect any potential Soviet agents
- 1958: Having taught at Eton for two years, he joins MI5
- 1960: Moves to MI6 and is sent to Bonn then Hamburg pretending to work for the Foreign Office
- 1961: Call for the Dead is published – his first spy novel, featuring George Smiley
- 1964: Leaves the secret service after fame from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
- 2000: Reveals details of his time in the service for the first time
- 2008: Claims he was thinking about defecting to the USSR during the Cold War
- 2019: Sir Richard Dearlove says Le Carré’s novels offer ‘corrosive’ views of agents which had left them angry
- 2020: Richard Morre dubs him a giant of literature’
Meanwhile current ‘C’ Mr Moore on Sunday commended le Carré as the ‘giant of literature’.
Le Carré used to work at MI6 himself and its previous boss had once claimed his thrilling books had given the group a ‘bad name’.
But current chief Mr Moore had nothing but praise for the author, even using his real at the end of his tweet.
He said: ‘Very sad to hear the news about John Le Carre. A giant of literature who left his mark on #MI6 through his evocative and brilliant novels.
‘My thoughts are with his family, friends and fans. Condolences from all at the #RiverHouse. #RIP #DavidCornwell.’
Sharing news of Le Carré’s death, literary agent Jonny Geller on Sunday said: ‘His like will never be seen again.’
Confirming the death was not Covid-19 related, Mr Geller added: ‘Our hearts go out to his four sons, their families and to his dear wife, Jane.
‘For six decades, John le Carré dominated the bestseller lists and review pages with his monumental body of work.’
The former British spy, born David Cornwell, transitioned from espionage to become one of Britain’s most critically acclaimed authors.
He had written 25 books under the pen name John le Carré, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardener and The Night Manager.
His body of work dates back to 1961 – with his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, catapulting him into global acclaim in 1963.
Actor Gary Oldman, who starred in the 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy film, posted a tribute saying Cornwell was ‘a very great author, the true ‘owner’ of the serious, adult, complicated, spy novel – he actually owned the genre… He was generous with his creativity and always a true gentleman’.
John le Carré, 89, died in Cornwall on Saturday following a short battle with pneumonia
Actress Florence Pugh starred in the BBC’s mini-series adaptation of le Carre’s novel The Little Drummer Girl which aired in 2018.
Sharing a photograph of herself with the author, Pugh wrote: ‘Not this beautiful man too. Just heard the news of the legend John le Carre’s passing and my chest is heavy.
‘I was lucky enough to meet this man, drink with this man AND work with this man! I still pinch myself about our friendship to this day.
‘The first time we met we were in our last few days of filming ‘Little Drummer Girl’ in Prague and I was finally meeting the person who it all came from. THE John le Carre! I was so nervous. Obviously.
‘I remember sitting down next to him at dinner and after a while of back and forth, realising that we were both trying to figure each other out. Sizing one another up, testing and teasing each other constantly. Until, I called him an old fart. I watched his eyes light up with glee and we both cackled until we cried.
‘He peered at me over his glass and giggled, ‘I think we’re going to get along just fine.’
‘We knew a magical friendship had arrived’.
Pugh went on to recount being ‘enticed by a story teller telling his stories.. but I really was. Am. Will be forever’.
She ended her message writing: ‘David, I shall hear you in your writing, drink to you with a martini and thank the stars for our paths crossing’.
Margaret Atwood tweeted Cornwell’s Smiley novels were the ‘key to understanding the mid-20th century’, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore called him ‘the titan of English literature up there with the greats … in person, captivating and so kind and generous to me and many others’, while Brazilian author Paulo Coelho said: ‘John Le Carre, you were not only a great writer, but a visionary. Enjoy your new home.’
Stephen Fry tweeted ‘if there is a contemporary writer who’s given me richer pleasure I can’t for the moment name them’, while quiz show host Richard Osman called Cornwell ‘the finest, wisest storyteller we had’.
US comedian and talk show host Seth Meyers posted a tribute calling Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the ‘gold standard for espionage fiction’.
Stephen King tweeted: ‘John le Carre has passed at the age of 89. This terrible year has claimed a literary giant and a humanitarian spirit. Little Drummer Girl was one of the best novels I’ve ever read.’
Le Carre, who was born in Poole and educated at Sherborne School, worked for both MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s and 1960s.
After joining the Intelligence Corps of the British Army in 1950, he later worked covertly for MI5, spying on left-wing groups at Lincoln College, Oxford, to detect any potential Soviet agents.
Le Carre’s third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was made into an acclaimed film starring Richard Burton. The actor and author are pictured together on set above
The 89-year-old penned hugely successful novels including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which was made into a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth (pictured at the premier together in 2011)
Novelist Robert Harris called le Carre ‘one of those writers who really was not only a brilliant writer but he also penetrated popular culture – and that’s a great rarity’
He graduated from Oxford in 1956 with a first class degree in modern languages and began teaching at Eton College.
In 1958 he became an officer at MI5 where he conducted interrogations and carried out more covert activities like tapping phone lines and effecting break-ins.
Le Carre was drawn to espionage by an upbringing that was superficially conventional but secretly tumultuous.
His father, Ronnie Cornwell, was a con man who was an associate of gangsters and spent time in jail for insurance fraud.
His mother left the family when David was five and he didn’t meet her again until he was 21.
It was a childhood of uncertainty and extremes: one minute limousines and champagne, the next eviction from the family’s latest accommodation.
‘These were very early experiences, actually, of clandestine survival,’ le Carre said in 1996. The whole world was enemy territory.’
As a British spy, David Cornwell worked for both MI5 and MI6, even carrying out interrogations and tapping phone lines as a means of surveillance
David Cornwell (pictured receiving the Olof Palme Prize in January 2020), who gained critical acclaim under the pen name Le Carré, started writin novels while working as a British spy
The pseudonym John Le Carre was created upon publishing his first book, Call for the Dead, as a means of getting round a ban on Foreign Officers publishing works under their own name.
His career as a spy came to an end when it was revealed Kim Philby, one of the infamous Cambridge Five, had shared his true identity with Soviet Russia.
The works of le Carre were often praised for stripping away the glamorous life of a spy often depicted in James Bond novel and instead focusing on the grittier, darker aspects of the job.
Mr Geller said: ‘His like will never be seen again, and his loss will be felt by every book lover, everyone interested in the human condition.
‘We have lost a great figure of English literature, a man of great wit, kindness, humour and intelligence. I have lost a friend, a mentor and an inspiration.’
Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman starred in a 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with Oldman playing George Smiley
Richard Burton starred in the 1965 adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was praised for its darker portrayal of spying, as opposed to Ian Fleming’s Bond novels
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was Le Carre’s first major success and the first to be adapted into a film, which starred Richard Burton, in 1965
The author felt a particular connection to the character of George Smiley, who was first introduced in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
He would later re-emerge in his trilogy Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.
According to the BBC, Cornwell once said of the character: ‘The moment I had Smiley as a figure, with that past, that memory, that uncomfortable private life and that excellence in his profession, I knew I had something I could live with and work with.’
The late author’s family said tonight: ‘David is survived by his beloved wife of almost fifty years, Jane, and his sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon. We all grieve deeply his passing.
‘Our thanks go to the wonderful NHS team at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro for the care and compassion that he was shown throughout his stay. We know they share our sadness.’
The novelist Robert Harris called le Carre ‘one of those writers who really was not only a brilliant writer but he also penetrated popular culture – and that’s a great rarity’.
Harris told Sky News television le Carre was a ‘brilliant novelist’ and said ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’ was a ‘masterpiece’.
‘It’s an incredibly engrossing tale and very deep, and it transformed the writing of spy fiction. It was a brilliant, psychological portrait of spying and of betrayal and of the decline of British power.’
The 89-year-old had spent lockdown in Cornwall and had been highly critical of the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, describing Boris Johnson as ‘pig ignorant’
David Cornwell is survived by his wife of almost fifty years, Jane, and his sons Nicholas, Timothy, Stephen and Simon, his family said they ‘grieve deeply his passing’
Le Carre was a pseudonym created by Cornwell to get around a ban on Foreign Office staff publishing work in their own name. His books gained worldwide acclaim and were translated into different languages. Cornwel is pictured holding a French edition of his novel The Looking Glass War in 1965
The acclaimed author spent lockdown at his Cornish home and was outspoken about the Government’s handling of the pandemic.
Speaking in May, he said: ‘There are signs everywhere of a tragic national cock-up but it really has a history of at least 10 years of austerity behind it and running down of the National Health Service.’
Referring to prime minister Boris Johnson, he added: ‘A man can be pig ignorant and very well educated. There’s a line of that through politics.’
The father-of-four also stated he hoped the pandemic would lead to a ‘fairer society’ with a ‘more equal distribution of wealth’.
Le Carre, who turned down literary honours and a knighthood, said in a 2017 US interview he was ‘so suspicious of the literary world that I don’t want its accolades’, adding: ‘and least of all do I want to be called Commander of the British Empire or any other thing of the British Empire, I find it emetic.’
He told 60 Minutes: ‘I don’t want to posture as someone who’s been honoured by the state and must therefore somehow conform with the state, and I don’t want to wear the armour.’
Asked if he considered himself an Englishman, he added: ‘Yes of course I’m born and bred English, I’m English to the core.
‘My England would be the one that recognises its place in the EU. The jingoistic England that is trying to march us out of the EU, that is an England I don’t want to know.’
He had a home in Hampstead, north London, and a cliff-top home in St Buryan, Cornwall, where he took up residence with wife Jane before the coronavirus lockdown.
Mr Geller said Le Carre defined the Cold War era: ‘With the help of his character, George Smiley, and through his complex plots and beautiful prose, beamed a harsh light at the injustices of our world.
The BBC adapted Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy into a series in 1979, which featured Alec Guinness
Le Carre was described as a ‘friend, mentor and inspiration,’ by those closest to him, following his passing on Saturday
‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy came in the 1970s and its accompanying landmark TV series with Alec Guinness.
‘The 1980s brought the novel that is often heralded as his masterpiece: A Perfect Spy.
‘With the fall of the Berlin Wall, David’s focus extended beyond the Soviet/UK/US relations to arms dealing with The Night Manager.
‘The first decade of the new millennium brought us The Constant Gardener, a passionate critique of Big Pharma and this current decade brought back his favourite creation, George Smiley, in A Legacy of Spies.
‘His last novel, Agent Running in the Field, was published in October 2019. David wrote twenty-five novels and one volume of memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel (2016), and has sold more than sixty million copies of his work worldwide.’
Some of Cornwell’s novels made into films included The Tailor Of Panama, filmed in 2001 starring Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush and Jamie Lee Curtis; The Constant Gardener, filmed in 2005 starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, filmed in 2011 starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy.
The childhood betrayal that forged a master spy writer: He fantasised about killing his conman father, and his mother abandoned him when he was five. No wonder John Le Carré, who has died at 89, was such a sardonic observer, writes RICHARD KAY
- Celebrated spy author John Le Carré died in Cornwall on Saturday aged 89
- The former spy’s upbringing helped forge his ability to write thrilling novels
- His father was a ‘five-star conman’ and his mother deserted the family home
- Secret services taught him that: ‘Nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it seems’
by Richard Kay for the Daily Mail
His books are a masterclass in the dark arts of concealment, offering up their secrets stealthily, with one invariably leading on to another.
But figuring out their author, the spy writer John Le Carré, is like peeling off layers of the Russian dolls made famous by the TV adaptation of his most successful novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Le Carré, whose death at the age of 89 from pneumonia was announced on Sunday, wrote about treachery, betrayal and tragedy.
Yet it was only decades after the publication of his breakthrough book — and international bestseller — The Spy Who Came In From The Cold that we learned how much the morally ambiguous world he described was formed by personal experience.
That his father was a philandering fraudster and ‘five-star conman’ and his mother deserted the family home when he was five would surely make any young man secretive and inward-looking.
This wounded, shaming childhood turned Le Carré into someone who, as he put it, ‘had to protect myself from discovery’.
John Le Carré, pictured with his family, died following a short battle with pneumonia on Saturday. He was 89. RICHARD KAY has revealed how the acclaimed author’s upbringing helped him develop into a successful spy and novellist
This ability to hide in a crowd would make him a natural recruit for the intelligence services and later allow him to conduct an affair with his best friend’s wife.
When, aged 25, Le Carré — whose real name was David Cornwell — was formally inducted into the secret services as a junior officer, he was told that rule number one was: ‘Nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it seems’.
Yet even as a teenager he was capable of leaving questions unanswered, quitting fee-paying Sherborne School in Dorset — he didn’t demur when interviewers called it ‘absconding’ — to study German at Bern University in Switzerland.
He told the thriller writer Robert Harris how, as a young boy, he was sent to boarding school and so longed for physical contact that he arranged to meet his older brother Tony — his only sibling, at another school nearby — in a field so the two could hug.
Their upbringing was forever marked by the behaviour of their father, Ronnie, and how they were transfixed by his duplicity.
In one unsparing account, Le Carré revealed that his father would think nothing of sporting a top hat in the owners’ enclosure at Ascot on the same day he appeared on a wanted list for fraud.
He described him as ‘bent from the day he shook his first rattle’, adding: ‘Killing him was an early preoccupation of mine, and it has endured on and off even after his death.’
He would fantasise about chopping off his father’s head, studying Ronnie’s neck for the best point to aim his axe.
When, aged 25, Le Carré — whose real name was David Cornwell — was formally inducted into the secret services as a junior officer, he was told that rule number one was: ‘Nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it seems’. His works include The Night Manager, which was later adapted for television starring Tom Hiddlestone
As teenagers, he and Tony were sent on errands to extract money from his father’s creditors. On a visit to Paris, he was entertained by Panama’s ambassador, who was involved in a whisky-smuggling ring.
Later, he was despatched to see the concierge at the George V hotel, with orders to ‘slip him a tenner’ to recover a set of golf clubs.
The brothers were sent away by the manager, who hissed: ‘No golf clubs until your father’s bill is paid.’
On another occasion, Le Carré was told ‘with shame’ to reassure an elderly diplomat and his wife in Chalfont St Peter that a cheque was on its way.
‘With profound reluctance we went and drank their sherry and did our feeble best to vouch for Ronnie’s integrity, while Sir Eric and his Lady peered at us with terrified disbelief.
‘We’re living on our pension,’ Sir Eric said. ‘And a bit of capital my wife inherited. We’ve given them to your father to invest.’
Ronnie, who perfected ‘an air of injured sanctity if his word was doubted’, fleeced widows of their pensions and served time in the prisons of Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta.
Alec Guiness stareed in the 1980s televsion programme Smiley’s People, which was adapted from Le Carre’s work. Born David Cornwell, the former British spy was raised by a philandering fraudster and ‘five-star conman,’ while his mother deserted the family home when he was five
His phony schemes included dodgy football pools operations, amphibious vehicles, gun-running, slum property development and even signing copies of his son’s books in return for a percentage.
One improbable get-rich scheme involved a fleet of giant airships, backed by the Aga Khan.
This flamboyant man-about-town also liked to throw lavish parties. Maurice Winnick and his band, who played at every deb dance, were hired and there would be lots of pretty girls — ‘lovelies’, as Ronnie called them.
Le Carré recalled how in 1948 his father had entertained the Australian touring cricket team, including the great Don Bradman (who was knighted the following year). But other guests were distinctly shady.
‘One or two were frightened senior civil servants who’d been drawn in because my father always wanted things like concessions to build runways at airports. Huge dinner parties had to be laid on and compromising relationships encouraged.’
Years later, the author recalled being shown a picture of his father in a family photo album owned by the gangster Charlie Kray.
it was only decades after the publication of his breakthrough book — and international bestseller — The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (adapted into a film in 1965, pictured) that we learned how much the morally ambiguous world Le Carre described was formed by personal experience
Le Carré would spend unexplained periods with relatives whenever his father’s collar was being felt. He invented the fiction that his father was in the security services to explain these absences.
The author was born in Poole in 1931 and his early life was marked by domestic unhappiness.
His mother Olive, who he says never hugged him, walked out on her violent, womanising husband and abandoned her sons. He traced her when he was 21 and found her living in Suffolk, the mother of two other children.
‘In the creaking jargon of the secret world I later entered, her departure was a well-planned accordance with the best principles of need-to-know security.’
He said he had no idea what his mother was like, except that she was ‘thin and bony and very tall’ and her voice sounded like ‘Mrs Thatcher halfway through her elocution course’.
He later wrote to his brother about the effect of their mother’s desertion, saying: ‘We were frozen children, and will always remain so.’
This loveless, itinerant childhood, devoid of female affection, prepared him perfectly for his future life as a spy and a novelist.
His father, who craved respectability for his children, did at least see the value of a good education, sending his son first to St Andrew’s prep school in Pangbourne, where the Duchess of Cambridge was later a pupil, and then Sherborne, which Le Carré later recalled as being ‘too pious’.
He chose ‘neutral’ Switzerland to get away from the muscular Christianity of his boarding school and ‘crazy lifestyle’ at home.
While he was in Bern he took his first steps for British intelligence, when he was recruited by the visa section of the British embassy as a ‘travelling evangelist’ for Britain’s entry into the Common Market. After National Service he went up to Oxford to read modern languages.
But two years into his degree, his father suffered a spectacular bankruptcy and Le Carré had to go down.
He married his first wife Ann — with whom he had three sons — and taught at Millfield in Somerset for a year as a prep school master at £8 a week.
Then his college, Lincoln, where many of the dons were covertly recruiting for the intelligence services, lent him the money to come back to Oxford.
Having secured a First, he moved to Eton as a languages beak for two years.
Soon after, he worked first for MI5 and then in espionage for MI6 and was sent to the embassy in Bonn under the cover of Second Secretary.
The success of the The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was made into a hit film with Richard Burton (pictured together with Cornwell) and Claire Bloom, changed his life irrevocably
He later moved to Hamburg as political consul and it was then that he began penning spy novels.
To avoid controversy, he wrote under a pen-name, choosing Le Carré because it was slang for someone who was a ‘square’.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, published in 1963, was a runaway critical and commercial success.
His career as an intelligence officer ended a year later, following the betrayal of British agents’ covers to the KGB by the infamous traitor Kim Philby.
The success of the book, which was made into a hit film with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, changed his life irrevocably.
The work was an essay on loneliness as much as spying and was dramatically different from the escapism of Ian Fleming’s Bond stories.
But domestic happiness was eluding him. Ann had hoped for the certainties of a life as an ambassador’s wife, not that of an author, however successful he might be.
Around this time, Le Carré had become close friends with the novelist and screenwriter James Kennaway and his wife Susan.
Kennaway had adapted his own novel Tunes Of Glory into a highly praised film, starring John Mills and Alec Guinness, and he and his wife were a glamorous couple. Their marriage seemed to Le Carré to have everything his own lacked.
In fact, Kennaway was repeatedly unfaithful and it wasn’t long before Susan, wanting to give her husband a taste of his own medicine, embarked on an affair with Le Carré. It became an extraordinary and tempestuous triangular affair.
To avoid controversy, David Cornwelll wrote under a pen-name, choosing Le Carré because it was slang for someone who was a ‘square’. His career as an intelligence officer ended in 1964, following the betrayal of British agents’ covers to the KGB by the infamous traitor Kim Philby
When he discovered it, Kennaway went berserk with jealousy, threatening to shoot Le Carré and stab his wife. On one occasion the two men had a tug-of-war over Susan, each pulling one arm in opposite directions.
In a scene that could have come from the pages of Le Carré’s favourite author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Susan ran off to try to find a train that she could throw herself under.
But Le Carré would not leave his wife and the Kennaways were reconciled. Le Carré wrote to his friend: ‘Dearest James, I have failed you most terribly.
I describe you in conversation as my best friend. If you can, say the same.’ But Kennaway was distraught and never saw Le Carré again.
He died in a car crash in 1968.
The Le Carré marriage ended in 1971 and, a year later, he married Jane Eustace. The couple went on to have a son. Jane recognised early in their life together that she would have to share him with other women, admitting: ‘Nobody can have all of David.’
Meanwhile, the books — almost all bestsellers — kept on coming. In all, he wrote more than two dozen. But while commercial success was assured, Le Carré was not accepted by the literary establishment.
Reviewing The Russia House in 1989, the writer Salman Rushdie, with whom Le Carré later had a feud, wrote: ‘He is as close to a serious writer as the spy genre itself has thrown up. Close but — this time — no cigar.’
Despite his acclaim, Cornwell turned down honours and declared he would never accept a knighthood, commenting: ’I have the most profound contempt for the system — a total alienation from it’
If he cared, he never let it show, turning down honours and declaring that he would never accept a knighthood. ‘I have the most profound contempt for the system — a total alienation from it.’ He refused to allow his books to be entered for prizes such as the Booker.
When the Cold War ended, he turned to the Middle East, African corruption and the world of gun-running for inspiration.
In 2003, he joined a number of writers attacking the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in an essay entitled The United States Of America Has Gone Mad.
Betrayal and the deceptive maze of human relations remained his themes. Wry and with a dry sense of humour, he might have made a good actor. In the BBC version of his book The Night Manager, he had a bit-part confrontation with star Tom Hiddleston.
At home in Cornwall, where he had a clifftop house near Land’s End, and in London’s Hampstead, he avoided the literary social scene of book launches but was a generous host — particularly for spies, who treated him as a venerable oracle of the profession.
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