Kim Philby in Beirut


Avenue des Français, Beirut, 1950s.

General Gamal Abdel Nasser once told his CIA contact Miles Copeland, ‘I picture Beirut as being one big night club.’ In the late 1950s, Copeland and his family lived in the hills overlooking the city. Copeland was keeping an eye on Kim Philby, who had just been cleared in another internal investigation by MI6.

Philby was sent to Beirut by the SIS to monitor political events. He had never been completely free of suspicion after his friend’s defections in 1951. His cover was his work as a stringer for the The Economist and the Observer. He lived in a fifth floor flat on the Rue Kantari with Jackie, a pet fox trained by her master to drink whiskey and use the toilet.

Philby was newly widowed. ‘A wonderful escape,’ he told the correspondent Richard Beeston. He spent a lot of time in the bar of the Normandie Hotel on the Avenue des Français, drinking gin with his sources and writing messages like, ‘Deeper in love than ever, my darling… xxx from your Kim’ on small pieces of paper he extricated from his cigarette boxes.

The tiny love notes were for Eleanor Brewer, ‘a rangy, steady-drinking American who looked tough and sophisticated.’ Eleanor was married to Kim’s friend Sam Pope Brewer from The New York Times.

Kim’s face was bloated and his cornflower blue eyes were glassy and red. ‘Slowly deteriorating and losing confidence in himself,’ was the verdict of Kim’s father, the explorer, author, and cartographer Sheik Abdullah, who’d changed his name from Harry St. John Philby upon his conversion to Islam. Sheik Abdullah thought the rumours about his son being the third man were a load of nonsense.

Sheik Abdullah–who had not divorced Kim’s mother–had moved to Beirut with his second wife and toddler sons after falling foul of the House of Saud. He’d become a celebrity in Britain after mapping the 350-mile Empty Quarter of the Saudi Interior, the largest body of sand in the world. The Daily Mail‘s Anthony Dave Brown often watched the spy and his septuagenarian father–‘potbellied and satanic-looking’– carousing at the Lido and the Kit Kat Club.

It was Sheik Abdullah who’d encouraged his son to confront Eleanor’s husband. Sam Pope Brewer was nonplussed when Philby told his friend that Eleanor wanted a divorce so she could marry him.

‘Well, that sounds like the best solution,’ he said. “What do you make of the situation in Iraq?’