Facing exposure by MI6 and almost certainly the death penalty, Kim Philby had fled to Moscow — from where he wrote to his wife pleading for her to join him. It would be a comfortable life for them with all mod cons, he promised.
In the second part of our gripping serialisation of a new book about Britain’s most notorious Cold War spy, Eleanor Philby wonders: will the man she loves keep his word?
Her husband had disappeared in mysterious circumstances and tongues were wagging among the expat community in Beirut, when at long last a letter arrived for Eleanor Philby.
It was a handwritten note from Kim, telling her he would be in touch soon, that everything was going to be all right, and that she should tell people he was off on a long tour of the Middle East for his work as a journalist.
He had failed to put a stamp on the letter, which had delayed its arrival.
The letter also contained instructions. Hidden in an old copy of The Arabian Nights, she found $300 to pay the rent. Later she found more money and a gold bracelet. And, in a typically romantic move, a note explaining that he hoped she would have some material he had brought back from a trip to Aden made into ‘a sari for my adored beloved’.
She must have had her suspicions about where Philby was — that he had fled to Moscow — but the idea that this most loving and gentlest of men could willingly deceive and abandon her was hard to compute. She clung to the idea that he could not possibly have chosen to inflict such distress on her and must have been kidnapped.
‘I was in total disarray,’ she wrote later. ‘Had he left voluntarily? Was he a free agent? Was he dead?’ She was in torment. A friend recalled her being ‘in disbelief, crying a lot, mourning the loss of her husband’.
Her husband had disappeared in mysterious circumstances and tongues were wagging among the expat community in Beirut, when at long last a letter arrived for Eleanor Philby
She wrote numerous letters to him but had nowhere to send them. Then, about two weeks after his disappearance, another letter arrived. ‘My darling beloved’, he wrote, assuring her he had no intention of deserting her.
The tone was upbeat and slightly larky, suggesting he was unaware of the total bewilderment and distress he had caused her.
There was no explicit mention of the future or even of where he was, but he signed off with his customary outpouring of affection: ‘Happiness, darling, from your Kim.’
A week later, there was another, with a Syrian postmark this time. He urged her to tell no one where he had written from. It ended: ‘All love again, K.’ This was followed by a telegram from Cairo with the assurance that ‘arrangements for [our] reunion [are] proceeding’.
The story had now hit the newspapers back in the UK, with The Observer, Philby’s employer, declaring that it had not heard from its Beirut correspondent for five weeks. ‘Journalist missing in Middle East’, was its headline.
Eleanor denied the story, claiming her husband had not vanished but had gone off suddenly on a story assignment. Asked if he might have gone to Moscow, she replied: ‘That is a ridiculous idea. He is not behind the Iron Curtain — and he did not leave by submarine.’ (Somebody had suggested this.)
But rather than quelling media interest, Eleanor’s brief remarks multiplied it. Everyone pestered her on where Philby was and refused to accept that she didn’t know. It defied belief that a couple so publicly and obviously in love could be separated in this way and that one should have no idea where the other had gone.
Her day-to-day life was monitored by all sorts of people, including British and American security officials. The Lebanese police moved into the block opposite her flat to spy on her.
Then, fully ten weeks after Philby vanished, a small, bedraggled man appeared at Eleanor’s door early one morning, gave her an envelope and hurried away. The envelope contained a three-page typewritten letter, with detailed instructions and $2,000 in notes.
Hidden in an old copy of The Arabian Nights, she found $300 to pay the rent. Later she found more money and a gold bracelet. And, in a typically romantic move, a note explaining that he hoped she would have some material he had brought back from a trip to Aden made into ‘a sari for my adored beloved’
She was to buy herself a return ticket to London, plus two one-way tickets for Harry and Miranda, Philby’s children. A day or two later, she was to amend the tickets to ones that involved changing in Soviet-controlled Prague.
As a signal that she had done this, she was then to write the date on a wall near their flat, and she would meet Kim in the Czechoslovakian capital. If there was a problem, she was to draw a large ‘X’ on the wall instead.
Eleanor was worried. The Prague plan smelled odd, quite apart from the red-tape problems it presented. How much autonomy did Philby have? Even if he was free to decide, what would happen once the three of them landed in Prague?
She decided not to play ball: she would be helped by British officials to go with the children to London, omitting to mention the Prague plan to them. She scrawled an X on the wall as instructed.
Later, another mysterious Russian appeared on her doorstep to assure her that Philby was well and was dying to see her. He offered her money to help get her out but she refused.
Word of this approach got back to Whitehall. Up until that point, the Government had said as little as possible, not being sure where Philby was and deciding to ‘play it long’. But now an internal MI6 memo declared there was every reason to suppose Philby was behind the Iron Curtain and trying to persuade his wife to join him.
What worried them was that his escape would be seen as bungling on their part — that he had run after being invited to confess in return for amnesty.
In London, Eleanor met Philby’s old friend and fellow MI6 official Nicholas Elliott, who told her that he and his colleagues believed Philby was an active communist agent and that she should on no account try to join him in Moscow.
Once there, he said, she would find the Russians extremely reluctant to let her leave and she might never see her daughter (who had gone to the U.S. to live with her father, Eleanor’s ex-husband Sam Brewer) again.
Elliott tried to bring her round to this view by putting the fear of God into her about demonic Soviet behaviour, but without success. She continued to doubt that Kim could just abandon her and insist that if he was in Russian hands, he must have been kidnapped.
To convince her, Elliott sent for MI6 boss Sir Dick White, who told her in person that ‘we have definitely known for the last seven years that Kim has been working for the Russians’. It wasn’t strictly true but it did the trick. Eleanor was in tears.
‘Much against my will, I had to begin to think along the same lines,’ she wrote.
Four-and-a-half months after Kim had vanished and all the other possibilities had been eliminated, she had run out of alternatives.
Shortly afterwards, the House of Commons was told that Philby was indeed the ‘Third Man’ whose treachery had allowed Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess to escape — and that it was now assumed he, too, was behind the Iron Curtain.
An internal MI6 memo declared there was every reason to suppose Philby (pictured) was behind the Iron Curtain and trying to persuade his wife to join him
Four weeks later, the Soviet state newspaper Isvestia reported that Philby had applied for and been granted political asylum. Eleanor could kid herself no longer.
‘Now I had to believe he was a Russian agent,’ she recalled. ‘But I still wondered whether he was in Moscow of his own free will.’
She was not letting go of her faith in him.
So what precisely had happened to Philby to make him run?
Back in Beirut, he had been confronted by Elliott, who told him the game was up. He was a spy for the Soviet Union and he would now face the consequences. Philby protested his innocence but Elliott told him there was now certain proof of his guilt.
If he didn’t confess and co-operate, his life would be made a misery. His passport would not be renewed, banks would turn him away, his jobs would come to an end. On the other hand, in exchange for a full confession and the names of his fellow conspirators, he would be offered immunity from prosecution.
‘I’m offering you a lifeline, Kim,’ Elliott told him. And Philby duly confessed. Over the next few meetings with Elliott, he even handed over typewritten pages about his early contacts. Only later would it emerge that much of the information was either redundant or outright lies.
Job seemingly done, Elliott went back to London in triumph. At MI6, Dick White, who had been convinced of Philby’s guilt for more than a decade, was delighted. The traitor had been broken. He believed Philby would stay and co-operate, quietly revealing all his secrets in return for amnesty.
Philby, though, had other plans. He contacted his Soviet controller, telling him what was happening. Moscow, terrified of the damage Philby could do to their interests if he changed sides and MI6 got him back to London, told him he would be welcome in Moscow. It was time to move.
With false papers arranged by the KGB, and wearing seaman’s clothes, Philby was transported to Beirut’s quayside and onto a Russian freighter. As the ship eased out of the harbour, its priceless propaganda asset settled down on board with a bottle of brandy.
Eleanor, of course, knew none of this as she sat in London in the summer of 1963, pondering what to do next.
She loved her husband and wanted to understand. She knew that spies could only tell their spouses the barest minimum, but the lack of an explanation for so long was beyond reason — and so unlike him.
In their first few weeks in Moscow together, they renewed their closeness like giddy teenagers. That was Kim the husband. But Kim the spy rarely shared with Eleanor the operational details of his own experiences
But maybe he had chosen this fate. In that case, she admitted later, it occurred to her that she was ‘the victim of a monstrous and prolonged confidence trick’.
But if, as she still suspected, he had been forced to go to Moscow, it would have consequences for her if she was to visit him there.
Elliott and his wife, whom she considered friends, were constantly in touch with her, badgering her tirelessly not to go. Moscow’s claim of offering personal freedom for its citizens was a sham, they said. Did she really want to sign up with a regime like that, as her husband had done so idealistically and misguidedly nearly 30 years earlier?
Nicholas Elliott asked whether Philby had been in touch, knowing how persuasive his former friend could be. For Eleanor’s part, Elliott’s insistence that banal politics should override the love of her life was not a message she wanted to hear.
She had been open with Elliott up to that point, and liked and trusted him. But now she was more sceptical.
She worried about whether her husband was happy in Moscow. Did he not miss his wife and children? She still believed he had gone there under duress and wondered whether she should go to him to offer support.
But if he had gone of his own free will, where did that leave their relationship? Had he made a fool of her? Was she making a fool of herself?
She flew to New York to see her daughter Annie, and it was there that several letters arrived from Philby. He sounded in good health and expressed the strong hope that she would join him in Moscow. He was insistent that if she didn’t like it, she could simply leave.
He gave her a PO Box number in Moscow where she could write to him. Although she assumed her letters would be opened by security officials at least twice before they reached him, she wrote, pouring out her frustration at all she had recently endured.
He replied very promptly, saying how delighted he was to hear from her after so long and desperate for news of family and friends.
He told her the Russians had treated him not merely well but with extreme generosity and, just in case Western accounts of the lack of Russian technology were worrying her, assured her he had been supplied with the last word in fridges, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, floor-polishers, radios and a television.
He discussed how she might travel to Russia, and reassured her how rewarding she would find Moscow. On her 50th birthday, he sent a telegram hoping they might spend the next half-century together.
The old softy had done it again. This was what Eleanor wanted to hear. She flew to London and went to the Russian consulate, where she was given £500 — equivalent to about £10,000 today — to spend, not least on the warm clothes she would need in Moscow.
Then she took a taxi to London airport and was met by a large, nervous-looking Russian, who took her bags and ticket and led her across the tarmac to the Aeroflot flight, with no checks to be endured, into an empty first-class cabin.
As she landed in Moscow, night was falling. She saw three men in long, heavy coats, all wearing hats. She heard a familiar voice calling her name. It was Philby, in a dark-blue felt hat, looking tired and thin. They hugged before being ushered into a big, black official car. He was ecstatic to see her.
She recalled later: ‘All my fears in the plane, the piled-up tensions of months of uncertainty, the real horror of discovering that my husband was not the man I thought he was — all this was blotted out in the sheer pleasure of seeing him again.’ As they sped away to his flat in a grey tower block, she burst into tears.
In their first few weeks in Moscow together, they renewed their closeness like giddy teenagers. That was Kim the husband. But Kim the spy rarely shared with Eleanor the operational details of his own experiences.
Nor, in their excitement at seeing one another, did they ever confront some basic issues.
Eleanor wrote later: ‘He never once said to me: ‘I’ve landed you in a situation you perhaps did not anticipate when you married me.’ He never seemed to think that any justification was necessary and I, in turn, never asked him why he had not told me the truth.’
A week or so after she arrived in Moscow, Eleanor was invited to meet Donald Maclean. It was thanks in large part to Philby, who tipped him off that he was about to be arrested, that Maclean had been able to flee Britain 12 years earlier. His American wife, Melinda, had joined him in the Soviet Union with their three children.
The Macleans were extremely friendly to Eleanor, but were anxious for news of the West and couldn’t disguise the fact that life as a family in Moscow was not without its challenges. The couples met two or three times a week to play bridge and celebrate how they had outwitted the flat-footed British authorities.
But it was hardly the high life and Eleanor found herself growing frustrated. The trouble was that her independent spirit could not comply with the heavy constrictions of Moscow life.
She found Russia impenetrable because of the cold, the shortages, the security concerns, the language. She had not the faintest interest in communism. She was at a loss to know how to achieve any sort of fulfilment there.
Philby’s life, on the other hand, was an investment in an ideal. He wanted to believe, and retained a sentimental, patrician empathy with the Russian people whose interests he had sought to serve.
She began to resent that, just when she wanted to grow her own wings, her dependence on him was greater than ever. And just when she needed his support — and he sought to provide it — she sensed a previously unnoticed weakness in him.
For the first time, Eleanor came to detect what she called ‘a sea of sadness which lay beneath the surface of his life’.
It was not that he ever criticised the Soviet way of life. But after nearly 30 years of subterfuge and living on his nerves in the cause of a brighter tomorrow, the reality of that tomorrow was disappointing him.
She was also yearning to see her daughter again, and booked a trip to the U.S. The Soviets were wary, worried that she might say unguarded things, such as giving out Philby’s Russian name and their address. She hadn’t realised that these were state secrets.
The KGB told him he should stop her going but he refused. He had always promised she could leave if she wanted to and was sticking to it. So off she flew.
When she got to New York, the authorities seized her passport and she had to endure a grilling by FBI agents about her husband.
There was also a dispute with Sam Brewer, her ex, about how much she could see her daughter, even though legally she had joint custody of the 15-year-old. Brewer went to court, seeking sole custody on the grounds that Eleanor’s present husband ‘was a spy for the Soviet Union and that the girl might be taken there by her mother and indoctrinated with communist principles’.
Even when she eventually conceded custody to him, he refused to let her see Annie and she had to resort to subterfuge to do so for just a few days. Meanwhile, all the time she was away in America, she was receiving a barrage of loving letters from Philby, pouring out how much he missed her.
After nearly five months away, Eleanor left America, having finally secured her renewed U.S. passport from immigration authorities who had intentionally taken their time to process it.
She flew back to Moscow, pausing en route at Copenhagen airport to buy the bottles of whisky Kim had been badgering her for. In the car from the airport, he opened one and, despite his minder’s protests that it might be poisoned, swigged it down as fast as he could.
When she got home, she realised that things had changed in her absence. There had been a distance between them before she went away but now it was widening. Yet even she could not have imagined the terrible bombshell of betrayal that was about to be dropped.
Extracted from Love And Deception: Philby In Beirut, by James Hanning, to be published by Corsair on September 30 at £25. © 2021 James Hanning.
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