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The Secrets of Author John le Carré Revealed

A new book and documentary tell the author’s startling life story

spinner image best selling author john le carre poses for a portrait at a hotel in hamburg germany
John le Carré
Christian Charisius/picture alliance via Getty Images

In the same week, Oscar-winning Fog of War director Errol Morris, 75, premieres The Pigeon Tunnel, his documentary about The Spy Who Came in From the Cold author John le Carré — the pen name of real-life British spy David Cornwell, who died at 89 in 2020 — and Adam Sisman, 69, publishes the book The Secret Life of John le Carré.

It’s a good idea to read the book, then see the movie. Here are some of their eye-opening revelations.

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The book shows that le Carré kept lots of secrets — especially from women.

Sisman discovered that le Carré betrayed almost everyone he knew: agents, publishers, his British secret service employer, his friends, his children, two wives and scads of lovers. One friend said le Carré had 53 mistresses. He may have been joking, but Sisman found 11, including the novelist’s young secretary, his best friend’s wife, a sexy model le Carré invited for a threesome with his own wife, and his son’s au pair.

They fouled him up, his mum and dad.

Sisman’s fascinating book, a sequel to his 2015 le Carré bio, which le Carré called “conscientious, fact-based, and, for me, a horrible mirror” reveals a damaged man.

His mother, sick of his father Ronnie’s infidelities and scared of his gangster pals, including the infamous Kray brothers, coldly abandoned the future writer when he was 5.

Ronnie was a con man who swindled old people out of their life savings, sexually molested his son and was repeatedly imprisoned. When le Carré was a British spy in Germany, Ronnie tried to become a spy for East Germany.

spinner image author adam sisman and the book cover for his book the secret life of john le carre
Author Adam Sisman and his new book "The Secret Life of John le Carré."
HarperCollins Publishers

Le Carré gave Sisman a list of his reasons for adultery.

1. Ever since childhood, a search for elemental creature warmth & love.

2. A recognition — at 30 — that I had given my youth away to a marriage that only made me sad.

3. An ignorance & suspicion of all women, a never-ending search for love; carnality, self-destruction, reckless despair, hope.

4. Depression.

5. No self-esteem.

6. Fury at the chains of convention.

7. Utter loneliness.

8. Fury at my own conformity with convention.

spinner image author john le carre writing at a desk inside a room with a large bookshelf
John le Carré in “The Pigeon Tunnel.”
David Appleby/Apple TV+

Le Carré said he needed adultery to write.

He told Sisman his affairs “produced in my life a duality & a tension that became almost a necessary drug for my writing, a dangerous edge of some kind. ... They are not therefore a ‘dark part’ of my life, separate from the ‘high literary calling’, so to speak, but, alas, integral to it, & inseparable.”

“Just as infidelity enlivened his real life,“ Sisman writes, “so betrayal became the underlying theme of his fiction, the one reflecting the other.”

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His lovers inspired his fiction.

Sisman identifies the women who became characters in The Honourable Schoolboy, The Little Drummer Girl, A Perfect Spy, The Russia House, The Tailor of Panama and The Constant Gardener. One of the women le Carré whisked around the world told Sisman, “I liked the whisking.”

The greatest character David Cornwell created was John le Carré.

Sisman says the author feared that “when the innermost Russian doll of his personality was opened, there would be nothing inside.” He likens him to Magnus Pym in le Carré’s autobiographical novel A Perfect Spy, of whom a friend says, “I sometimes think he is entirely put together from bits of other people, poor fellow.”

“People who have had very unhappy childhoods,” le Carré wrote, “are pretty good at inventing themselves.”

Errol Morris’ movie shows le Carré confronting his life on camera.

The author tells Morris that his father, who went bankrupt after stealing about $16 million in today’s dollars, was beloved even by some of the people he robbed. Le Carré paid to bail Ronnie out of prison in Zurich and Jakarta, where he was trying to run guns after a massacre that killed hundreds of thousands. He suspects Ronnie also tried to profiteer off Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War.

When Morris asks if he loved Ronnie, the author replies, “I really don’t know what love is. I must have loved him as a child. I had to master hatred in order to escape him.”

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His dad took money from him repeatedly — and sued him.

After le Carré got rich, Ronnie sued him because the author didn’t say he owed all his success to Ronnie. “The reality probably is, in many ways, that I do,” le Carré tells Morris. “I’ve never felt I belonged anywhere. I’ve been very lucky in that respect. I’ve had a very rich life. I’ve seen a lot of institutions and a lot of things. I’ve led a lot of lives in an odd way. I didn’t feel that I belong to anyone.”

spinner image john le carre sitting in a chair next to a table with eggs lying on it
John le Carré, the pen name of real-life British spy David Cornwell, died in 2020 at age 89.
Des Willie/Apple TV+

The father’s con man fantasies helped inspire his son’s fictions.

“Reality did not exist in my childhood,” le Carré says in the film. “Performance did. My business has been to try to make credible fables out of the worlds that I visited, or visited me.”

In a way, he owes his greatest creation, sad spymaster George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — played by Alec Guinness, Gary Oldman and James Mason in TV and film adaptations — to Ronnie. “In writing about George Smiley,” le Carré tells Morris, “of course, I’m writing about the ideal father I never had.”

His early sense of betrayal made him the perfect spy.

His childhood made him aware of what he calls “the duality all the time of being the opposite of your outward self.” Though he was disillusioned by the amorality and betrayals of the spy trade, he never succumbed to the temptation to be a double agent, like his British spy colleague Kim Philby, who infamously sold out Britain to the Russians.

“There came a point in my life where I seemed to be offered the crossroads — I could become a really bad guy. And mercifully I found a home for my larceny.” That is, by heisting people’s real stories for his fictions. He tells Morris his books are meant “to make people feel, not a la James Bond, ‘I wish this was me,’ but more kind of, ‘Jesus! I hope this isn't me!’ ”

spinner image author john le carre stands next to errol morris in a tunnel
(Left to right) John le Carré and Errol Morris
Des Willie/Apple TV+

Morris gives him the perfect description of a le Carré story.

Morris tells him, “You've written, ‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is.’ And then I have my le Carré version: ‘The cat betrayed the dog by sitting on his mat.’ ”

Le Carré laughs and replies, “I think the cat was a double.”

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