I Spy: John Le Carré

Intellectual, author and a thoroughly elegant individual, David Cornwell, a.k.a ‘John Le Carre’, is a discreet and intriguing Rake icon.
Spy novelist David Cornwell, whose pseudonym is John le Carre. Photo by Horst Tappe/Pix Inc./The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images.

Has ever an occupation been as inextricably linked to sartorial elegance in popular culture as spycraft? At least in popular culture - and the reality, one feels, may be rather different - espionage is everything one hopes to be when getting dressed up: mysterious, romantic, dangerous. And it’s for this reason that so often are the spies of our big and small screens co-opted as sartorial icons. Yes, James Bond - painfully obvious. But look further: Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s Notorious, Michael Caine’s bespectacled and trenchcoated Harry Palmer from The Ipcress File, Robert Redford's stylishly bookish (or is that bookishly stylish?) CIA analyst in Three Days of the Condor, even Colin Firth’s Huntsman-sporting spy from the recent Kingsman: The Secret Service. Rakish gentlemen all, and the list could easily go on.

The cinematic pinnacle of this form however, for this author, is a film that focuses not on the glamour of tradecraft, but rather on the realism of the profession, on the details, the minutiae. Those qualities that one might celebrate in a piece of fine tailoring. I’m speaking, naturally, of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - arguably one of the best dressed (and just best) films of recent years. It’s one of many excellent adaptations of work by master spy fiction writer John Le Carré - real name David Cornwell - however Le Carré himself is as fascinating a character as any of his creations. Born in Dorset, England, Le Carré’s youth was by all accounts not a particularly pleasant one, not least of which because his father, Ronnie Cornwell, was a consummate fraudster and prominent associate of the Kray twins. Abusive, frequently bankrupt and occasionally incarcerated and even more occasionally a list MP, Ronnie was less of a father and more of an anti-father, actively undoing or preventing the young David’s childhood through his behaviour.

Le Carré did, however develop what might be called a ‘grudging appreciation’ for his near bottomless capacity for duplicity. After becoming a successful novelist, Le Carré ran into Ronnie at New York’s 21 Club, who, after discovering his son was now famous, had wheedled flights over out of Le Carré’s editor and, short on cash, begun selling copies of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold- ‘signed by the Author’s Father’. “Try being Ronnie for a moment, as I have done too often” wrote Le Carré later of the event. “Try standing alone on the streets of New York, stony broke. You’ve tapped whoever you can tap, milked your contacts dry. In England you’re on the Wanted list and you’re on the Wanted list here in New York. You daren’t show your passport, you’re using false names to hop between apartments you can’t pay for and all that stands between you and perdition is your animal wit and a double-breasted pinstripe suit from Berman of Savile Row that you home-press every evening. It’s the kind of situation they dream up for you at spy school.”


February 2017


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