Graham Greene’s chance encounter with a model spy

Ian Thomson – The Times (London)

Copyright The Times
“Estonians are nocturnal people and like to stay out all night. However, it is generally not wise for His Majestyís Vice-Consul to stay at cabaret restaurants after 2 a.m., since incidents sometimes occur.”
(Report on Personal Aspects of Life in Tallinn, Estonia. Foreign Office Circular despatch, April 28, 1937.)
Graham Greene first visited the Estonian capital of Tallinn, some 250 miles west of St Petersburg, in the spring of 1934 ñ ìfor no reasonî, he writes in his memoir Ways of Escape, ìexcept escape to somewhere newî. His fellow passenger on the flight from Riga was an ex-Anglican clergyman installed in Tallinn as a Foreign Office diplomat. The two men happened to be reading a Henry James novel in the same edition, and they struck up a conversation. They later spent ìmany happy hoursî together in Tallinn, Greene records, ìwhen I was not vainly seeking a brothelî. (The brothel in question had been recommended to the novelist by Baroness Budberg, a Baltic exile living in London and a mistress of H. G. Wells. It was famed for its great antiquity and discretion.) Greene described his chance encounter as one of ìthe most pleasantî in his life.
Though the diplomat is not named in Ways of Escape, Foreign Office files identify him as Peter Edmund James Leslie, appointed His Majestyís Vice-Consul in Tallinn on February 12, 1931. By any standards, Leslieís had been an exotic life. Prior to the First World War he was Curate of the Church of the Ascension in East London, a turreted red-brick building down by Victoria Docks. The Diocesan Yearbooks for 1916 list ìReverend Leslieî as an Anglican army chaplain; at the warís end, however, he converted to Catholicism and joined a munitions firm (William Beardmore & Co) as a commercial salesman. Though not wealthy, he moved among patrician circles and had shares in a diamond mine in South Africa. One could imagine him as a spy in an Eric Ambler novel and, it seems, he may have been a spy for the British government.
During the 1930s, Greeneís brother Hugh was a journalist on the Daily Telegraph in Nazi Berlin; Greene called on him there en route to Tallinn in 1934. It is not known what the novelistís movements were in Hitlerís Germany. On May 4, however, Greene caught the midnight train from Berlin to the Latvian capital of Riga, and from there, on May 12, he boarded a small propeller plane to Tallinn: Vice-Consul Leslie was on the same plane. On arrival in Tallinn, Greene had tea with Leslie in the British Consulate at 17 Lai Street, and afterwards explored the Old City, or Vanalinn. Tallinnís medieval guildhalls, Russian orthodox onion domes and twisting cobbled streets enchanted Greene. Baroness Budbergís directions, however, must have been inadequate as the novelist failed to find the bawdy house she had recommended. Later that evening Greene treated Leslie to a vodka-fuelled supper, before wandering back to the Golden Lion Hotel on Harju Street where he was staying. From his room he wrote a slightly tipsy letter to his wife Vivien:
“. . . Iíve been very lucky here. The train takes 10 hours to go the 100 miles from Riga, & as to fly only costs 25/- I flew, a pretty flight along the edge of the Baltic. My luck was to share a taxi to the aerodrome with the Vice-Consul at Tallinn. I had tea with him when we arrived. A charming rather disappointed character, a Catholic who reads nothing but Henry James! I noticed when he unpacked his suitcase that he was carrying The Ambassadors with him. So we more or less fell into each otherís arms. . . . He has lived in Tallinn for 12 years with an interval when he was a commercial traveller in armaments. I gave him dinner tonight and tomorrow Iím having dinner with him. Itís all amazingly cheap here. We had dinner, the two of us, 6 vodkas, a delicious hors díoeuvres, 2 Vienna schnitzel with fried potatoes, & two glasses of tea. Total bill in one of the swell restaurants 3/6d . . . .”
Greene concluded: ìGood night, dearest dearest heart, Iím going to bed early being sleepy after the vodkasî, and signed off ìYour Tygî.
On his return to England that spring of 1934, Greene recommended the British diplomat to his brother Hugh. ìLeslie, the nice Vice-Consul in Tallinn, wrote to ask me for a line of intro. to you. Heíll be passing though Berlin while you are on holiday, so I suggested he might find you on the way back to Estonia.î The evidence suggests, however, that the ìniceî Leslie was Greeneís first (and possibly inadvertent) contact with British Intelligence. Tallinn was known to be a centre for espionage, infiltrated by White Russian intriguers intent on blocking Stalinís access to the city. By controlling the Estonian capital, Stalin could protect the Soviet Union against assault from North-west Europe and command all Baltic territories. A Foreign Office clerk (name illegible) notes: ìLeslie is one of the best representatives [the SIS: the Secret Intelligence Service, or M16] have got in Eastern Europeî. (London Public Records dossier PO 369/1757.)
A film sketch conceived by Greene shortly after the war, ìNobody to Blameî, concerns a British sales representative in Estonia (ìLatesthiaî) for Singer Sewing Machines, who turns out to be an SIS spy. The film was never made, as it poked fun at the Secret Service; yet it contained the bare bones of what was to become ìOur Man in Tallinnî, later Our Man in Havana (1958). In 1988, anticipating my first vist to Tallinn, I had written to Greene asking why he moved Our Man in Havana from Estonia in the 1930s to Cuba in the 1950s. Greene explained that a Secret Service comedy about a Hoover salesman who gets sucked up into espionage would be more credible in pre-Castro Havana, with its louche nightclubs, than in Soviet-occupied Tallinn. He concluded: ìI already knew Cuba and my sympathies were with the Fidelistas in the mountains . . . . One could hardly sympathise with the main character if he was to be involved in the Hitler warî.
Of course Cuba could not be more different from Estonia. Yet Wormold, the Hoover salesman in Greeneís Cuban ìentertainmentî, is not unlike Leslie, the former munitions salesman in the Baltic. While Wormold is said to be ìuninterested in womenî, Leslie (in Ways of Escape) is actually ìscared of womenî; both men are old-fashioned merchant-scholars, moreover, with a taste for vodka and books.
Peter Leslieís last posting was to Damascus, after which he retired to Norwich. (His few surviving acquaintances there recalled a gentle, bookish man who collected stamps, was probably homosexual, and according to his travel agent wore double-breasted chalkstriped suits ìalmost green with ageî.) After Tallinn, Greene lost sight of Leslie and assumed he had disappeared in 1940, when Stalin invaded the Baltic outpost. In fact, when Soviet tanks rolled into Tallinn, Leslie had been made responsible for British interests in the city and afterwards fled to safety across the Gulf of Finland. (The British Consulate in Tallinn was subsequently turned into a Soviet blood transfusion centre.) Some thirty years later ñ out of the blue ñ Greene received a letter from him. It was written in the summer of 1969; Leslie had then just finished reading Greeneís five essays on Henry James in The Lost Childhood, and these prompted a distant memory of the Baltic. Greene was sixty-four years old and about to publish his twenty-first novel, Travels with My Aunt. To his astonishment the ex-Vice-Consul wished to pass on his first editions of James. After a thirty-year silence, Leslieís seemed an extraordinarily generous offer. So began a delightful exchange of letters, five in all, over a period of eleven weeks, in the course of which Greene emerges as a sociable and considerate man, not at all the sternly introspective Catholic of his public image. Until now the GreeneñLeslie correspondence has not been seen (it is held in the John. J. Burns Library, Boston College, Massachusetts).
Turret Cottage
66 Bethel Street
Norwich NOR 57E
19 August 1969
Dear Graham Greene,
A few months ago I read for the first time the volume of your essays, entitled The Lost Childhood. It brought back vividly to me the occasion of our encounter on a journey from Riga to Tallinn in the year 193-(?) Between the Rom Hotel, Riga, and the Airport we shared a taxi, and discovered that we were both devoted to the works of Henry James. I remember that you told me you had not read some of his books ñ notably In the Cage ñ because you were saving them up for your old age. My reply was that I hoped to continue to enjoy them as old friends when I was old.
The object of this letter is to ask whether you would care to have a few first editions of the earlier works of Henry James. These are A Passionate Pilgrim (1875), Transatlantic Sketches (1875), The American (1877) and French Poets and Novelists (1878). I believe these are all first editions. I have also The Portrait of a Lady (1882) in one volume. It was originally published in two volumes. All these books were originally the property of Mrs Julia Revillon, a niece of James Whistler. She died in 1930, and I inherited them on the death of her son Joseph Whistler Revillon in 1955. [Julia Revillonís son Joseph, a civil engineer, was in contact with a number of Whistlerís associates and admirers, among them Peter
Leslie.]
I have never taken any interest in first editions as such; but I would like to pass them on to someone who would appreciate them. I have also Foreign Parts (1883), Portraits of Places (1884) and A Little Tour in France (1885) in the original Tauchnitz editions. I would be very glad to send you all of these, if you would care to have them. I have now reached the advanced age of 86, and none of my surviving friends are readers of Henry James, so I thought I would write to you.
Yours sincerely,
Peter Leslie
P.S. I am on the point of leaving England for ìcuresî in Austria and Romania; but if you would reply with a nine-penny stamped letter, it would be forwarded, and I would send you the books on my return to Norwich early in October. P. L.
Three weeks later, on September 3, 1969, Greene replied from a flat on the Boulevard Malesherbes, Paris, where he was then living.
My dear Leslie,
How very nice to hear from you after all these years. I always remember the moment in the plane between Riga and Tallinn when we saw that we were reading a volume of Henry James in the same pocket Macmillan edition. Alas you were never able to find for me that brothel in Tallinn recommended by Moura Budberg which had been in the same family for 500 years.
It is very kind indeed of you to offer me those first editions. I have a number of Jamesís firsts ñ including In the Cage, but not the ones you mention and I can assure you that they will have a good home. I am living in France now but I wonder if you wouldnít mind sending them to my secretary, Miss Reid, at 9 Bow Street, London, W.C.2., as I move around so much. I wonder whether there is any chance of your looking in on me in Paris one day? I am astonished to hear that you are eighty-six. I am just reaching sixty-five and I never realised there were so many years between us.
Yours sincerely,
Graham Greene
P.S. As a poor return for the Henry Jameses I am asking my secretary to send you the volume of Collected Essays which came out the other day.
Having returned from his mud-bath rheumatic cures abroad, Leslie wrote to Greene on October 16, 1969:
Dear Graham Greene,
Thank you so much for your kind and friendly letter of 3rd Sept. It was forwarded to me in Austria. I am glad that you remember so vividly our encounter in the Baltic States. The one mistake you make is about the 500 year old brothel: it may once have been as Moura Budberg says, but in my time was merely a chemistís APOTHEKE in Radhaus Platz [The chemistís is still standing in Raekoja Plats, as the square is known in Estonian. For ten generations since 1585 it had been owned by the same Hungarian family]. I am delighted to know that you are living in the Boulevard Malesherbes. I like to imagine that it is in the same flat in which Chad Newsome lived, and that you hang over the balcony, like Little Bilham, watching the stream of Paris life go by. It is good of you to suggest my looking in on you one day. I have avoided Paris of late years owing to the high cost of living, and have usually travelled to Austria, which I visit every year, via Harwich and the Hook, thus avoiding London too.
This year I have been further afield and after my chest cure at Bad Gleichenberg in Styria, flew on to Bucharest, where I stayed for the second time in the Clinic of Dr Anna Aslan, undergoing REJUVENATION treatment. I think it did me a lot of good, though I am still stiff in all the wrong places. [Dr Aslanís controversial ìrejuvenationî clinic in Bucharest claimed to slow down and sometimes even reverse the ageing process.]
I have just written a line to your secretary, Miss Reid, advising her that six volumes of Henry James are being despatched to her by Mr Crowe, an Antiquarian Bookseller, who is my near neighbour.
I also acknowledged the receipt of your latest publication ñ The Collected Essays ñ for which I thank you very much. I shall value it greatly.
I note that you move around a lot. So do I. I reckon to be about six months in the year in Turret Cottage. I am most likely going for the winter to South Africa (where I have some money). But I have done nothing about it yet; and must now get busy. So I am unlikely to be in Paris this year.
If you ever come to Norwich, I can put you up in my little house, if I am in residence.
All good wishes.
Ever
Peter Leslie
In his reply to Leslie of October 18, 1969, Greene marvelled at Dr Aslanís claims to ìrejuvenateî the ex-diplomat. It was then common knowledge that Somerset Maugham had been left confused and senile after a Swiss doctor, Paul Niehans, injected him with lamb foetus cells. (The doctor had apparently complimented Maugham on his ìlovely soft testiclesî.) Greene also took the opportunity to display his knowledge of the 1874ñ1914 French ìFantÙmasî detective series by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre.
Dear Leslie,
Thank you for your letter. And I look forward enormously to receiving the books. I had quite forgotten that Chad Newsome lived in the Boulevard Malesherbes. I am sure that it would have been somewhere up this end near the Parc Monceau which is also the scene of many of the crimes of FantÙmas.
I was in Romania a few years ago and heard much of Doctor Aslan, but after seeing what happened to Somerset Maugham at the hands of that Swiss quack I am reluctant to think of rejuvenation! However I am sure that Doctor Aslan is far better than the man [Dr Niehans] whose name I always Freudianly forget.
I have a brother Hugh who lives in East Anglia, and so who knows perhaps one day I shall be able to call on you in Norwich.
All good wishes,
Yours,
Graham
According to the Essex records, Peter Leslie died of ìcongestive heart failureî on December 11, 1971, in a private house in Colchester. Greeneís final communication with him, dated November 8, 1969, was sent from Antibes:
Dear Leslie,
Your six Jamesís arrived safely at Antibes and I have reconstructed my book-shelves to house them with proper dignity. They join ten other first editions so that now I have got a really good array. I canít tell you how grateful I am. A curious coincidence ñ soon after I got your letter about your Jamesís I got a letter from an old friend of mine in America who was once my agent asking me whether I would like a signed photograph of James which had been given by him to her husbandís father. I hope this flow of James material will continue to set in my direction.
I am off for ten days now to Anacapri, but I do hope that one day fate will take you in the direction of either Paris or Antibes.
What happy days I had in Estonia. I had quite a quarrel with my Communist guide once in Leningrad when I accused his leaders of colonialism. I would hate to go back [to Tallinn] now.
Yours ever,
Graham
Sadly Greene never was reunited with the Tallinn ex-Vice Consul. Peter Leslie had died, at the age of eighty-eight, before the novelist could visit him. Graham Greene himself died twenty years later ñ six months short of his eighty-seventh birthday.
This piece is taken from Articles of Faith: The collected Tablet journalism of Graham Greene, edited with an introduction by Ian Thomson, which is published later this month.


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