Title:                      The Man Who Was George Smiley

Author:                 Michael Jago

Jago, Michael (2013). The Man Who Was George Smiley: The Life of John Bingham. London : Biteback Publishing

LCCN:    2013376151

UB271.G72 B566 2013


Date Posted:      April 26, 2016

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

“There are currently two schools of thought about our Intelligence Services. One school is convinced that they are staffed by murderous, powerful, double-crossing cynics, the other that the taxpayer is supporting a collection of bumbling, broken-down lay-abouts.”[2] And so began John Bingham’s most famous book, The Double Agent, published in 1966. Bingham’s comments, suggests author Michael Jago, were directed at his onetime protégé, John Le Carré for le Carré’s “brutally inhuman” characterization of MI5 and MI6 in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold[3] (1963) and The Looking Glass War[4] (1965). Accurate or not, Bingham continued, “They could do no good to either service … and only encourage the enemies of democracy.” (p. 191) Despite the harsh critique, Bingham’s friendship with Le Carré “was not irreparably damaged,” (p. 193) The Man Who Was George Smiley explains how Bingham became Smiley.

When David Cornwell— Le Carré—joined MI5 in 1958, he found John Bingham leading a double life as a respected agent handler and a successful author writing under his true name. These unusual circumstances, Jago explains, were the one constant in Bingham’s life. Born in 1908 into an aristocratic family-he would later become Lord Clanmorris—he watched his parents squander much of the family fortune. His public school education didn’t lead to university, so he traveled to Europe to learn French and German, necessary qualifications for the Colonial Service. While there, he acquired both languages, a mistress, and a wife who was not in favor of service in the colonies. Through connections, he tried his hand at journalism, eventually becoming a successful but low-paid humor columnist. To add income, he joined the Royal Engineers. As war approached, Bingham decided to apply to MI5, though as Jago writes, he never told how he did it. He did reveal that he was interviewed by a legendary agent recruiter, Maxwell Knight, known as “M,” who became a valued friend.

Guided by Knight during the war, Bingham did well. But he was only a reserve officer, and when the war ended, MI5 had no full-time positions. Thus he spent two years interrogating ex-Nazis and POWs in Europe before returning to London and journalism. But he wasn’t happy, and in 1950, as the Cold War intensified and MI5 expanded, he contacted Knight. The extraordinary arrangement they worked out allowed Bingham to pursue a writing career and serve as a full-time agent handler. He had found his calling. Jago tells of one agent that Bingham ran successfully for 20 years. This was the John Bingham that Le Carré later acknowledged served as a model for George Smiley. Others argued that Smiley was based on MI6 officer Maurice Oldfield, an allegation Le Carré vehemently denied and, for reasons not explained, Jago does not mention.[5]

Bingham’s wife, Madeleine—she also worked for MI5 and was herself a writer—knew Le Carré well and always insisted her husband was the sole model. But, as Jago notes, Smiley possessed qualities that Bingham did not. The added qualities were supplied, he suggests, by the Rev. Vivian Green, whom Le Carré had known at Oxford.[6] (p. 251)

The Man Who Was George Smiley reveals that Bingham performed occasional tasks for MI5 after he retired in 1979, while still pursuing a writing career that turned out to be less successful than it was in his early years. After a slow decline into dementia, Bingham died in 1988.

This is a very interesting account of an unusual man, and it provides a link between espionage fiction and reality.

[1] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 2, Fall/Winter, 2013, p. 133). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov. (https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol-57-no-3/intelligence-officer2019s-bookshelf.html#Historical%E2%80%93non-US)

[2] Bingham, John (1966, 1967). The Double Agent. New York: Dutton

[3] Le Carré, John (1964). The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. New York, Coward-McCann

[4] Le Carré, John (1965). The Looking–Glass War. London, Heinemann

[5] Hoffman, Tod (2001). Le Carré’s Landscape. Montreal; Ithaca, NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp. 46-47. David Stafford suggests that David Cornwell himself was a convincing model for Smiley; see Stafford, David (1988, 1989). The Silent Game: The Real World of Imaginary Spies. New York: Viking, p. 198.

[6] Hoffman cites an article by George Plimpton in the Paris Review (39, 1997), which quotes Le Carré as agreeing that Green also served as a model for Smiley.


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