The Secret Lives of Ian Fleming & John Le Carre, the Spymasters Shaped by Lack of Parental Love

Suleika Dawson, a writer from 2022, published a refreshingly honest firsthand account of her passionate extramarital relationship with David Cornwell. Cornwell was an intelligence agent in the 1950s & early 1960s for MI5 & MI6 and wrote spy novels under the pseudonym John le Carre.

Dawson and Cornwell met for the first time in September 1982. Dawson, who graduated from Oxford with a degree in English Literature and Language, was working in London for an audiobook company.

Dawson describes Cornwell as the “premier fabulist” of the Cold War. He was invited to her recording studio in 1979 to read an abridged version of his ninth novel, Smiley’s People. In 1982, an adaptation with Alec Guinness was released.

David Cornwell, aka John le Carre. AAP

He had stopped working as an intelligence officer to become a full-time writer a year later, after his diplomatic cover in West Germany (where he was stationed when the href= “”>Berlin Wall/a> was erected). After his cover as a diplomat in West Germany, where he was posted when the Berlin Wall went up, was blown – or that’s what he claimed – he quit working as an Intelligence Officer to become a writer full-time a year later.

In Le Carre’s 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, George Smiley hunts a fictional version of Philby.

Dawson recalls that “we both felt an extraordinary bond from the first lunch. David, whose entire life was devoted to love, felt it even more strongly than I did.”

Alec Guinness in Smiley’s People, 1982. BBC Images

Off-limits: ‘Messy Private Life’

Adam Sisman’s Secret Life of John le Carre, a biographical addition to his 2015 book John le Carre The Biography, is a great example of Cornwell’s constant search for love.

Cornwell initially agreed to work on Sisman’s bio and was enthusiastic about it. However, when asked about his “messy private life,”” he became cautious. Sisman quickly learned that it was strictly off-limits.

Errol Morris, the famed documentary filmmaker, would face this problem in The Pigeon Tunnel (2020). His documentary adaptation of Le Carre’s 2016 memoir The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life focuses on Cornwell’s relationship with his conman dad, as well as his career in British Intelligence and his novelist work. However, it is noticeably thin on details about certain aspects of Cornwell’s private life.

The Pigeon Tunnel, a documentary by Errol Morris, focuses on Cornwell/Le Carre and his relationship with his father as well as his career.

Morris asks Cornwell, at a particularly poignant moment in the film’s final act, about the “betrayal theme” that runs throughout his career and life. Cornwell’s reply is well worth quoting.

You’ve certainly squeezed every drop of water out of that sponge. I will answer all questions honestly. […] You and I will not discuss my sexual life. This seems to be a very private matter. As you might imagine, my love life was a difficult one but has ended beautifully. That’s all I have to say about that.

The film has a brief but significant moment that is reminiscent of Sisman’s situation when he was working on his biography in 2015. The relationship between the biographer and his subject became more strained as Cornwell threatened to ruin the project.

Sisman then turned to Cornwell’s eldest child, Simon. Simon suggested that the biographer keep a “secret annexe” of material which could be published after David and Jane has passed away.

Sisman wrote in the preface of The Secret Life of John Le Carre that “now that [Cornwell] is dead, it is important to add this final chapter to the biography he encouraged, partially authorised, and tried to sabotage.”

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