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I went to the rue Kantari in Beirut to try to find Kim Philby’s flat. The street, which stands on top of the hill of Ras Beirut and looks out over the sparkling lights of St George Bay, is full of handsome limestone buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in the 16th arrondissement. Most are now abandoned shells, the balustrades and architraves still spattered with bullet holes from the civil war, the windows missing their glass. Around the corner on the buzzy rue Hamra the bars and shops blazed with light and music, but rue Kantari, site of one of the most famous acts of the Cold War, was dark. On the night of 23 January 1963, during a fierce rainstorm, Philby walked down the five flights of stairs from the flat he shared with Eleanor Brewer, the former wife of the New York Times Middle East correspondent, Sam Brewer, and disappeared. It was six months before the Soviets announced that he had defected to Moscow and another five years before the British government fully acknowledged what had happened.

Philby lived for four years on rue Kantari with Eleanor, by the end of which she had become his second wife. ‘Early in 1959,’ Eleanor wrote in her strange and vulnerable book, Kim Philby: The Spy I Loved, ‘we moved into a fifth-floor apartment in the rue Kantari, whose main feature was a large semicircular terrace commanding a great sweep of mountain and sea. In the four years we lived there this flat gradually filled up with the loot of our Middle East trips, with Oriental rugs, pictures, archaeological treasures and with my own sculpture.’ I noticed a stone balcony right above my head that had somehow escaped damage. It was from one of these balconies that Jackie, Philby’s pet fox, fell to its death. He suspected the housekeeper of pushing it off the ledge: she was known to dislike it. For a man who betrayed scores of agents to be tortured and executed, Philby was remarkably sentimental about animals. Eleanor said that after Jackie’s death he embarked on a drinking binge that lasted several days. He even wrote a mawkish article for Country Life called ‘The Fox That Came to Stay’.

Following the route that Philby had taken many times, I walked down the hill to the sea. On the Corniche, Lebanese girls in luminous Lycra shorts rollerbladed past clusters of black monoliths in full hijab pushing buggies. I thought I recognised one of the buildings on the seafront from old black and white photos as the former French restaurant Lucullus, a favourite haunt of Philby’s, famous for its bouillabaisse. But I later learned that the restaurant had been demolished in the 1990s to make way for a Hilton hotel. The countries and organisations Philby worked for have changed beyond recognition, but the Beirut of today would feel quite familiar to him. It isn’t just the party atmosphere. The unrest in Syria has drawn journalists and spies of various stripes back to the city. Damascus is less than three hours’ drive away and Lebanon, with its multiple confessional communities and networks of patrons and supporters stretching out across the Middle East, is still a valuable place to find information, even if much of it is rumour.

Philby arrived in Beirut in August 1956, just as the Suez Crisis was brewing. Ever since the defection of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean five years earlier, he’d been living in something of a twilight zone. Intercepts of Soviet communications decrypted by the Venona Project had pointed to there being a ‘third man’ inside British intelligence who had helped Burgess and Maclean to escape; it was also clear that he’d been living in the US. Philby, one of the few British intelligence officers operating in America at the time, was an obvious possibility. He was known to have been friends with the brazenly gay and immoderate Burgess, who had lived for a time in Philby’s house on Nebraska Avenue in Washington. But MI6 found it hard to believe that Philby could be a Soviet agent. He had been talked of as a future head of the service – the next M – and as Washington station chief he was the most senior British liaison with the FBI and CIA. Brilliant and mercurial, he had charmed Hoover, who dined several times at his house, and mentored James Angleton, the future CIA head of counterintelligence. As Allen Dulles later said, Philby had the keys to the CIA safe.

An internal investigation was inconclusive. He was asked to tender his resignation and, according to his highly unreliable autobiography, My Silent War, he tried to make a living as a freelance journalist, ‘a most arduous occupation calling for a depressing amount of personal salesmanship – never my strong point’. But Hoover was determined to see him exposed, having taken the news that he was a possible traitor very personally. Philby had threatened to sue any British newspaper that implied he was a double agent, but Hoover suggested to a couple of friendly American journalists that they take a look at him, and in October 1955, the New York Sunday Daily News named Philby openly for the first time. There was nothing he could do since the US media were beyond the reach of British law, and two days later a backbench Labour MP, Marcus Lipton, repeated the claim in the House of Commons under parliamentary privilege, thus enabling the British media to report the allegation.

In an effort to defuse the ensuing uproar, the government agreed to a debate in the Commons. There was no more proof of Philby’s guilt than there had been five years earlier. ‘I have no reason to conclude that Mr Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of his country or to identify him with the so-called third man if indeed there was one,’ Harold Macmillan, then foreign secretary, said at the close. The next day Philby called a press conference, at which he acknowledged knowing Burgess but said he had no idea that he was a communist. ‘The last time I spoke to a communist, knowing that he was a communist, was some time in 1934,’ he said. It was a masterful piece of sangfroid, captured for ever in grainy black and white television footage. A few weeks later, the FBI closed its file on Philby. Instead of smoking him out, Hoover had unwittingly cleared his name.

MI6 had promised the Foreign Office it would never put Philby back on its staff, but there was no reason for him not to be paid as an ordinary freelance agent. Since diplomatic cover was not an option, his schoolfriend and fellow MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott got him a job as a stringer for the Observer and the Economist. Beirut made good sense as a posting: his father, St John Philby, a well-known Arabist, was living there at the time, and the Middle East was an area of growing interest to British intelligence. For the first few months, Philby lived with his father in the village of Ajaltoun a few miles outside Beirut. Despite being in the pay of the secret service like his son, Philby senior worked as much against British interests as for them and was eventually forced out of the civil service, as too pro-Arab even for the notoriously ‘Arabist’ Foreign Office. He took his revenge by becoming a paid adviser to American oil companies and helped them to secure priceless oil concessions with the Sauds at the expense of the British. When Ibn Saud died, St John Philby lost his most important patron and decamped to Lebanon with his Saudi wife and their two sons.

Today, Ajaltoun is no longer in the countryside; the suburbs of Beirut stretch up the flanks of Mount Lebanon. I took a taxi up the mountain, following trucks that slowed nearly to a halt on the bends. The only information I had was that St John Philby lived in a small white stone house called Mahalla Jamil (‘beautiful place’). I had been told it was still standing as recently as four years ago. Asking around in the village, I was eventually directed to Ajaltoun’s petrol station tucked into the rock on the steep road facing the sea. The manager, it turned out, was too young to know anything, but when my driver started to explain the story a smile crept over his face. ‘The house of the spy!’ he said: ‘It’s above here, right on top of us.’ He pointed up the steep rock face. I stepped back and noticed for the first time a small stone building almost wholly obscured by the station’s roof.

‘My father remembered Philby,’ the manager said. ‘He had two sons and a Saudi wife. My father even helped him escape.’ He seemed to be confusing the father and son but there was no doubt that this was the house.

‘Where’s your father?’

‘He’s not here,’ he said, and flicked his hand. ‘Far away.’

My driver was getting uneasy. There were too many questions for his liking. ‘If we are asking about the house of a spy maybe they will think we are spies.’

‘It was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter now.’

‘They still remember, as you can see.’

On the way back down, he told me stories of other passengers, mainly Gulf tourists in town for the booze and the girls. ‘Sometimes I feel like a pimp. They say to me, go get three girls and bring them back to hotel. I ask the girls how much they charge. And they say what nationality is your client. When I say Saudi, they put their fees up four times. Twenty minutes later, they come out of the hotel. “He’s gone,” they say to me. He thought he was such a playboy demanding three girls but he was asleep. They can’t take their alcohol the Saudis, they’re not used to it.’

Finding his father’s Bedouin hygiene and his stepmother’s cooking less than agreeable, Philby soon moved out of Ajaltoun and down to the city. He turned out to be a diligent journalist. His articles – you can find them in the archives of the Economist and the Observer – were solid and impartial, betraying neither the views of a British intelligence officer nor his true opinions as a Soviet ideologue. He quickly cultivated contacts. The place to meet was the bar of the St George Hotel, which dominated the seafront and St George Bay.

One afternoon, while browsing in a bookshop in rue Hamra, I came across a book called The St George Hotel Bar by Said Aburish, a Palestinian journalist who was living in Beirut in the late 1950s, a young fixer and stringer for various Western newspapers and magazines. If Aburish is to be believed, the bar of the St George was filled most lunchtimes with a collection of spies and journalists. The first to arrive at the bar would be Sam Brewer, ‘a large man, about six foot three, who always dressed in a sober grey suit and waistcoat’. He would order a Gibson cocktail and sit at the bar reading the morning papers. Around 11, he would usually be joined – according to Aburish – by Bill Eveland, who worked undercover for the CIA in the Middle East for a number of years. Around noon, John Mecklin of Time magazine would appear, soon to be followed by Kim Philby, acting out his role as correspondent for the Economist, along with Ralph Izzard of the Daily Mail.

Philby met Eleanor in the bar of the St George shortly after arriving in Beirut. He had known Sam since the Spanish Civil War. Sam, who was away on a trip, had told Eleanor to look out for him. ‘If I should meet Kim,’ Eleanor wrote, ‘I was to introduce him to our friends and do what I could to help him.’ That day at the St George, Philby was having lunch with his father; Eleanor sent a note to his table inviting him to join her party for a drink. ‘What touched me first about Kim Philby was his loneliness. He knew no one in Beirut … a certain old-fashioned reserve set him apart from the easy familiarity of other journalists. He was then 44, of medium height, very lean with a handsome, heavily lined face. His eyes were an intense blue.’ And so a love triangle developed, in a manner faintly reminiscent of Rick, Ilsa and Laszlo in Casablanca. The Aburish book is full of colourful stories about Philby, mostly involving his capacity for drink and his attractiveness to women, both undoubtedly inflated by the mythic status that he subsequently attained. Aburish claims that a few CIA operatives were convinced of Philby’s guilt and tried repeatedly to trap him, sometimes using women as bait, sometimes following him in the street. They even tried to pay Philby’s daughter Josephine for information.

The St George no longer exists, though the building – untouched since the civil war due to a commercial dispute – still dominates the waterfront of the bay. Grass grows through the paving stones of the terrace where coups were once plotted and bribes exchanged, and where Eleanor watched ‘the fashionable set sip aperitifs, admiring the bikinis on the beach below and the water-skiers in the bay.’ The fashionable set has long since moved down the beach to other pleasure palaces and the hotel is notorious today for marking the spot where Rafic Hariri, Lebanon’s most powerful Sunni politician, was blown up by a car bomb in 2005.

In time, Philby’s affair with Eleanor became an open secret among Beirut’s press corps. When the earnest, courtly Sam Brewer went away on reporting trips, they would take off up the coast. In 1958, Eleanor secured a quickie divorce while home on leave, and Philby went to tell Sam that he intended to marry Eleanor. ‘That,’ Sam said, ‘sounds like the best solution.’ He clearly knew what was going on and immediately changed the subject by asking Philby what he thought of the situation in Iraq, where a coup had just taken place.

Very little is known about the seven years Philby spent in Beirut. In his autobiography he devotes only three and a half pages to them and Eleanor Brewer is not mentioned once. Phillip Knightley, the only journalist to have interviewed Philby after his defection, believes that he spent his first couple of years there just biding his time. ‘His problem was that his Moscow masters could not use him again until the British did,’ Knightley wrote. ‘If MI6 was not using him, he was of little use to the Russians.’ But that changed in 1960, when his old friend Nicholas Elliott was posted to Beirut as MI6 station chief. Elliott began pushing him to get information, and suddenly Philby was barely at home, hyperactively crisscrossing the Middle East on what were supposedly reporting trips. But however good the information he gathered, he was not on the MI6 staff and had no access to MI6 files. This must have made him much less valuable to his Soviet masters. In his autobiography, he devotes a large part of the brief section on Beirut arguing that official files are often overhyped as an intelligence source: ‘An hour’s serious discussion with a trustworthy informant is often more valuable than any number of original documents.’ This suggests that he wanted to rebut any notion that his lack of access to documents had diminished his value to Moscow.

Why MI6 used him remains an open question. It may be that both London and Elliott genuinely believed he was innocent and that he was too valuable a resource to leave unused. But in 1956, MI6 acquired a new chief, Dick White, who had long suspected that Philby was playing a double game. It’s possible that White instructed Elliott to get Philby working again in order to trick the Russians: they could feed him certain pieces of information to see if there was any reaction in Moscow and thereby prove his treachery.

At the end of 1960, St John Philby died. ‘God, I’m bored’ were his final words. He was buried in the Muslim graveyard in the Basta district of Beirut. Though he had a difficult relationship with his father, Philby was badly shaken. A few months later, George Blake, who’d been studying at the Arabic language school run by the Foreign Office at Shemlan just south of Beirut, was arrested under the Official Secrets Act and put on trial at the Old Bailey. The Soviets had been careful to keep Philby in the dark about Blake’s existence as a double agent, so he was alarmed by the trial and even more alarmed by Blake’s 42-year sentence. He felt the walls starting to close in and began to drink more and more heavily, both at the flat in rue Kantari and in the bars of the Hotel Normandy and the St George. On picnics, friends noticed that he and Eleanor sometimes consumed fifty liquor miniatures between them: the ‘snakebite’, as he and Eleanor called it, was beginning to consume him.

In December 1961, Anatoly Golitsyn, a senior KGB officer, defected to the West. He brought with him a number of clues which substantially strengthened the case against Philby. In early 1962, Flora Solomon, a longtime friend of Philby’s, revealed to MI5 that he had confessed his communist sympathies to her. One way or another, he now had to be dealt with. Elliott, who had recently finished his stint as station chief, was sent back to Beirut to extract a confession. He arrived on 10 January 1963 and invited Philby to supper. Philby turned up with his head in bandages, having got drunk on New Year’s Eve and smashed his head on the bathroom radiator. According to Knightley, Elliott went straight on the offensive, laying out the evidence against him and offering him immunity from prosecution in return for a full confession. Philby agreed in principle but stalled for time, handing over information bit by bit over the next few days. He named several agents who he claimed were working for the Soviets, all of whom later turned out to be innocent. A week later, Elliott went back to London, without enough evidence even for a prosecution.

On 16 January, Peter Lunn, who had replaced Elliott as Beirut station chief, ordered Philby to report to the British Embassy, where it would have been possible to arrest him. Philby pleaded continued problems with his head injury and didn’t go. He later told Eleanor that ‘the minute that call came through, I knew the balloon was up.’ The day he fled, Aburish remembered seeing him coming into the bar at the St George around one p.m. as usual and having his ‘customary five or six afternoon drinks’. He then returned to his flat, telling people he would be back the following day.

‘In the late afternoon,’ Eleanor wrote, ‘Kim grabbed his raincoat saying he had an appointment and would be back around six, in plenty of time to change for the Balfour-Pauls’ party.’ Glen Balfour-Paul was first secretary at the embassy and apparently unaware that anything was going on. It would be logical to assume that MI6 were keeping the flat on rue Kantari under constant surveillance. Perhaps someone remarkably incompetent was monitoring his movements; perhaps something else was going on. In any case, it seems that no one tailed Philby when he appeared on the street around four in the afternoon. A torrential rainstorm had just begun.

By evening the streets of the city were awash, the pavements lost in swirling water. The sea rose and lashed the waterfront, tearing up paving stones and pouring rubble and flotsam into the roadway. It was a wild night. Every winter four or five fierce storms, each lasting a few days, break over Beirut, giving the town the deserted and stricken look of a city under siege. This day was the violent, dangerous peak of such a storm …

He rang up an hour or so later. I was in the kitchen preparing the children’s supper. Harry, Kim’s youngest boy, who was then 13, took the call. I remember him calling out: ‘Daddy’s going to be late. He says he’ll meet you at the Balfour-Pauls’ at eight.’ For months and months I wished I had taken that call.

Philby had told Eleanor that he was going to meet a contact, a neat half-truth. Eleanor assumed Philby had continued to work for MI6 throughout his time in Beirut and that by ‘contact’ he meant someone from British intelligence; she could hardly have imagined he meant his Soviet handler. Eleanor went to the Balfour-Pauls’ alone but eight o’clock came and went with no sign of him. She returned home around midnight, wondering if her husband had fallen into the sea in the storm. Eventually, she rang the British Embassy and asked for Peter Lunn, who she knew worked for MI6. In a panic, Lunn appeared at the flat and listened to Eleanor’s account of what had happened. Had he taken anything with him, he asked. Clothes? Documents? Typewriter?

Philby refused to tell Knightley how he’d disappeared, preferring to keep at least some mysteries intact. The most likely explanation is that, after meeting his contact, he was instructed to head to Beirut’s cargo port. Did he walk or was he driven? No one knows. To reach the cargo port now, you have to traverse Zaitunay Bay, Beirut’s newest stretch of waterfront, opened last year. The crisis in Syria has cut down on the number of Saudis and Qataris who drive overland to summer in Beirut, but the elegant new boardwalk of teak and basalt is packed even so with wealthy young Lebanese enjoying the $15 mojitos and $40 entrées. I walked past the newly finished marina, where a hundred super-yachts sat cheek by jowl. The Lebanese treat them as superior beach huts rather than seagoing craft, and were sitting on the decks yelling jokes out to their friends on the boardwalk. The yachts are a portable asset which can be quickly moved out of town.

Philby’s contact arranged for him to be smuggled aboard the Dolmatova, a Soviet freighter that was loading cargo on the night of the storm. In the early hours of the morning, as Peter Lunn was hurrying over to Philby’s apartment, the Dolmatova weighed anchor and sailed out into the Mediterranean, vanishing in the rain and sea mist. Journalists later reported that she left in such a hurry that some of her cargo was still scattered on the dockside. Four days later, Philby arrived in the Soviet Union, probably at some port on the Black Sea. He badgered Eleanor to join him in Moscow and eventually she did, leaving behind her children and arriving there on 26 September. Soon after she arrived he repaid her loyalty by having an affair with the wife of Donald Maclean.

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Vol. 34 No. 22 · 22 November 2012

Tom Carver repeats the canard that Kim Philby’s father also worked for the British secret service (LRB, 11 October). He didn’t, but the Soviets thought he did, one reason they wanted Kim as an agent despite his obvious drawbacks as a young recruit – a stammer and a desperate lack of self-confidence. Carver’s account is largely accurate, but in the last few lines he descends into the kind of blackguarding that has been a feature of writing about the Cambridge spies ever since the 1950s. ‘He badgered Eleanor to join him in Moscow,’ he writes. ‘Soon after she arrived he repaid her loyalty by having an affair with the wife of Donald Maclean.’ This continues the tradition of describing Philby as a ‘philanderer’ and, to borrow Hugh Trevor-Roper’s melodramatic description in his 1960s book The Philby Affair, someone who ‘touched nothing which he did not destroy … Institutions, persons, friendships, marriage, all crumbled around him.’

The point that Carver glosses over is that Kim and Eleanor’s marriage survived for more than two years after his defection, and that they built a life together in Moscow against the odds (the cold, the erratic food supply, her lack of enthusiasm for the Soviet system). What ended things was Eleanor’s need to return to the US to see her daughter, and the confiscation of her passport by the US government, preventing her return for five months. Communications from her to Philby were blocked, and he thought she might never come back. In that time Philby, lonely and vulnerable, fell prey to the discontented and nervy Melinda Maclean, whose marriage to Donald had long been on the rocks, and who envied the Philbys’ happiness. When Eleanor eventually returned, Philby found it impossible to make a decisive break with Melinda, who had become emotionally dependent on him, and in the end Eleanor pulled out. The regret was mutual.

All this is told by Eleanor Philby in Kim Philby: The Spy I Loved (1968). Was she deluding herself about her ex-husband’s character? It seems unlikely. His fourth wife, Rufina, a Russian and a very different type from Eleanor, tough and politically astute, also wrote an affectionate memoir of her life with Kim, to whom she was married for 18 years until his death. The picture of Kim Philby as a husband that emerges from the two accounts is remarkably similar: a gentle, faithful, home-loving, sentimental man, an excellent cook, a creature of habit, amusing and kind, whose only fault was his love of alcohol. Not many men can have received glowing book-length testimonies from two former wives.

It’s always the way with the Cambridge spies. Burgess is written off as a slovenly, chaotic homosexual – only part of the truth about him, as a recent biography by Michael Holzman points out. Maclean has been variously described as a closet homosexual (he may well have been bisexual), a pederast (untrue) and a drunken degenerate (there were occasional drinking bouts at times of stress, but aside from those he was a diligent and serious man). In the 1980s Noël Annan wrote a damning account of Philby as a sexual predator: ‘After he fled to Moscow he took Melinda Maclean away from her husband, and then realising that advancement in the KGB would be more likely to come if he married a Soviet citizen, he ditched her.’ In fact Rufina was not at all to the KGB’s taste, given her friendships with political dissidents prior to meeting Philby. She was outspoken enough about her political sympathies to put him at risk with the KGB men who listened in on their private conversations via bugging devices in their flat. Only Anthony Blunt, in Miranda Carter’s biography, is shown as a complicated man with many qualities, a man of several distinctive and apparently incompatible parts.

Linda Gamlin

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