Kim Philby’s Beirut: the missing years in the life of the notorious British spy

In an edited extract from his acclaimed new book, James Hanning evokes the conspiracy, suspicion and intrigue that stalked the streets of Lebanon’s capital in the 1950s

In the summer of 1956, an English journalist arrived in Beirut to take up a new posting. This impressive Cambridge graduate had worked for the Times of London, mostly covering the Spanish Civil War, but then came the Second World War, when he joined British intelligence in the struggle against the Nazis. But unknown to the British, he had a previous allegiance – to the Soviet Union. He had signed up with Moscow in the 1930s in the belief that Britain would not be serious in the fight against fascism.

In 1945, with Nazism defeated, Kim Philby chose to remain an undercover supporter of Moscow not merely working for MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service, but heading the department responsible for catching moles – such as himself! He was, in short, a traitor, and suspicions against him grew in the following decade. In 1955 the whispering against him reached such a pitch that the British government was forced to make a statement. And, for lack of hard evidence, it cleared him. Cleared the man eventually exposed in 1963 as one of Britain’s most notorious spies.

But at the time his former colleagues in MI6 were convinced he was blameless. Further, they said, he ought to be given his job back. The Americans, though, still doubted him and wouldn’t have stood for it. So, in the most British of ways, he was found a job as the Lebanon correspondent for the Economist and the Observer, while secretly also doing work for MI6 “off the books” (and eventually, also, and even more secretly, once again for the Russians). Even the boss of MI6, who inherited the decision from his predecessor, was unhappy, but the then Foreign Secretary Harold Macmillan persuaded him to let sleeping dogs lie.

So Philby left his wife and children in England in September 1956, arriving in a country for which he had little natural sympathy. His father had a distinguished past as an explorer and fixer for the region’s movers and shakers, and any intelligence Kim could pick up through his father’s outstanding contacts would be useful to the bosses in London. Nobody knew for sure if he was a Russian spy, so – just in case – the most important thing for him to do was to just be out of the way, somewhere he could cause no embarrassment.

As it happens, the British government was more than capable of embarrassing itself, and launched the disastrous retaliation against President Nasser’s nationalisation of the company that owned the Suez Canal just as Philby was settling in. In Beirut, he quickly established himself as a likeable, worldly and highly courteous counterpoint to the colonialist drumbeat from London. This was a remarkable achievement, given that unlike his father he had little natural empathy for the Arab world with which Lebanon overlapped so markedly. For example he had said he felt not the slightest temptation to follow his father’s example of converting to Islam.

Such remarks may say as much about his conflicted feelings about his father as about the people among whom his father spent so much time. In any event, in cosmopolitan Beirut, such feelings were not held against him. On the contrary, because of his father he was assumed to be pro-Arab at a time when Lebanon was accommodating an initial 120,000 refugees following the creation of Israel in 1948.

Lebanon was and remains a melting pot of religious and ethnic groups. France had an interest in the region going back centuries, including as protector of the Maronite Christians in the 1860s, and had ruled the country directly following the First World War. Independence from France was established over a few years during the Second World War, and in its aftermath a parliamentary system of government was established, but democracy was always going to be a work in progress.

After the war a ‘confessional’ regime came into being, to reflect the heterogeneity of the country and keep all factions happy. Compromise was written into a ‘National Covenant’. The president would be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the parliament would be a Shiite Muslim, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the deputy Speaker and deputy PM should be Greek Orthodox.

A visitor to Beirut today would find a city on its knees, where even ‘the basics’ of life – petrol, electricity – are hard to come by for much of the population. Political corruption and upheaval, sectional squabbling and superpower indifference (though not regional indifference – all the neighbours seek to have a say) have all played a role, leaving the capital of a stunning, vibrant nation looking like a caricature of what it could be.

Sixty years ago, some of these complaints could be heard just as loudly. Politicians were widely seen as corrupt, busily lining the pockets of themselves and – to stay in power – their supporters. But there was no superpower indifference. On the contrary, this was a time and place where a new world order was being worked out. Europe was being ever more rigidly divided between east and west, but much of the Middle East, in the eyes of Moscow and Washington, was up for grabs. Lebanon was a gateway to a part of the globe becoming more interesting and influential by the week.

The closure of the Palestinian ports after the creation of Israel meant Beirut became the main West-facing port of entry to the Arab world, and increasingly the city was favoured over Cairo as a base for journalists and intelligence services. Nasser’s Egypt, with its fiery rhetoric and stoking of anti-Western passions, was becoming a less and less welcoming place to be. The West’s financial big hitters saw Beirut as the safe place to tap into the new Arab oil wealth, and the wealthy themselves used it as a place of fun to fritter their small change, away from the disapproving eyes of their compatriots. Beirut became the place to be.

And Kim Philby inserted himself brilliantly into its most influential circles. From postings in Washington and elsewhere, he knew many diplomats, most of whom mixed happily in what they regarded as a playground away from home. The British and American embassies were well established, and the legacy of French rule ensured that French culture – from high fashion to upmarket restaurants and hotels to agreeable cafes on the city’s palm-lined pavements – was well represented in the most accommodating of climates.

And the nightlife was a magnet for those with money to spend. Venues like Les Caves du Roy, where the well-heeled could enjoy dinner and dancing, would attract the likes of Sidney Poitier and, later, Shirley Bassey. Other venues, like the Kit Kat Club, offered opportunities for those in search of even more time-honoured entertainment.

Philby was often to be found exploring the hills around Beirut with fellow diplomats and their families. Picnics were a speciality, often at historic sites like Byblos and Baalbek, where there was watercolouring or archaeological exploring to be done. The buttoned-up British ambassador, Sir Ponsonby Moore Crosthwaite, who was to play a key role in Philby’s eventual unmasking, was particularly generous in making available his almost regal embassy car, a vast, bronze-coloured Austin Princess, complete with fold-down seats, for cultural trips into the countryside. Philby also ensured that he stayed good friends with his old chum from Washington, Miles Copeland, another “diplomat”, a most agreeable companion and a dab hand at destabilising national governments. Copeland and his family (including two sons who went on to huge careers in the music business) would play host to Philby on a beaten-up boat and potter up the coast to Tabarja at weekends.

That was downtime – not that the watchful Philby, however much he drank, was ever truly off duty – but what really distinguished Beirut in that era were its hotels, where the powerful would meet in agreeable surroundings to drink, haggle and apportion influence. The most notable of these, and subject of a superb book (soon to be republished) by the late Said Aburish, was the St Georges, on Beirut’s Mediterranean waterfront. If you were part of its charmed circle, you only needed to enter its orbit every few days to be topped up with the latest high-grade gossip, only some of which reached the newspapers.

The bar of the St Georges was spook central. Those who were not known to the staff were treated with great but finite courtesy, whereas those in its charmed circle were greeted like royalty (which sometimes they were). Its cast of characters invited speculation as to their true loyalties. At around this time the US State Department had grown nervous that conventional US diplomacy was being compromised by the covert and often unlawful activities of the CIA, generally performed using the cover of the embassy. While there would always be a degree of overlap, it sought to minimise the number of “funnies”. “Suddenly PR firms, consultants, marketing companies in Beirut mushroomed, as all the spies changed their cover stories,” remembers Afif Aburish, brother of Said. One of the most absurd attempts not to look suspicious was that of a Yugoslav spy who claimed he was in Beirut selling bicycles. How many bicycles he sold to the well-heeled and generally chauffeur-driven clients of the St Georges has never been established.

One distinctive habitue of the St Georges bar was the well-connected Sam Pope Brewer of The New York Times, whom Philby had known since, as a journalist, he and Brewer had covered the Spanish Civil War two decades earlier. He and his wife and daughter appreciated Beirut’s safe and easy-going ways, ideal for a stress-free family life. Stewart Copeland (son of Miles and drummer of the band The Police) recalled few constraints, remembering hitchhiking, when still not even in his teens, from his parents’ house in the hills down to Al Burj, Martyrs’ Square, in clapped-out Mercedes taxis. “Nobody ever worried about us wandering free.” For anyone coming from a boarding school in England, for example, “it must have been heaven on Earth”.

It was Sam’s custom to visit the St Georges most mornings. Always smartly dressed, usually with a bow tie, he would stop at the concierge’s desk to collect his mail and cables, fold them tidily into an armful of newspapers and stride purposefully towards the bar for his usual, a Gibson – a dry martini garnished with a small onion. There was no disapproval in the fact that he was a co-chairman of the hotel bar’s renowned Ten a.m. Club. This was an age when a steady, steadying intake of alcohol during the day was unremarkable, and among journalists its absence would have been considered positively eccentric.

The distinction between gossip and intelligence, rarely sharp, can never have been foggier. Few relationships were pure and exclusive, although some were known to be particularly close to certain intelligence services. So mysterious were the movements and motives of Miles Copeland, Philby’s boating chum, for example, and so commonly was it assumed that he was a spy that one St Georges contemporary, Wilton Wynne, of Time magazine, said Miles was “the only man who ever used the CIA for cover”.

Sam’s co-chairman of the Ten a.m. Club was his friend Bill Eveland, a senior figure in the CIA, although this was never spelt out. He, among many on the CIA’s payroll in Beirut, was among those expected to keep an eye on what Philby was up to, although in the Beirut of that epoch, a formal tasking might have seemed otiose. Nobody was just a diplomat, just a spy or even just a friend. But their bosses would have expected them to pay attention.

And, almost as if he felt a need to trump even the intrigue that swirled around smart Beirut, as if he was not already a figure of sufficient mistrust and suspicion, Philby piled the stakes higher still. Within weeks of arriving in Beirut, he began an affair with his old friend Sam Brewer’s wife Eleanor. Now… there’s a book in that.

Love and Deception: Philby in Beirut was published on September 30 by Corsair

Updated: October 7th 2021, 4:34 AM