Celebrities, by definition, live life out in the open. Spies, on the other hand, are happiest in the shadows. But rules are made to be broken. In this True Spies trilogy, Sophia Di Martino tells the stories of three spies whose fame and fortune were no obstacle to their espionage. Whether they used their notoriety to their advantage, or operated in spite of it, these glamorous part-time spooks had a hand in the clandestine history of the 20th century. In Part One, we'll follow an author, The Third Man screenwriter and MI6 spy Graham Greene, on a mysterious mission to 1950s Vietnam where an important appointment with communist leader Ho Chi Minh awaits.
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True Spies, Episode 148 Celebrity Spies, Part 1: The Dangerous Edge Of Things

NARRATOR: This is True Spies. The podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies, from Spyscape Studios.

RICHARD GREENE: At some point, British intelligence gave him a letter, presumably from the Foreign Office, and he was to go to Hanoi.

NARRATOR: Celebrity Spies, Part 1: The Dangerous Edge Of Things.

RICHARD GREENE: He had written a number of articles about the situation in Vietnam that referred to all sorts of named people. And a particular general did not like the way he was described in one of the articles. And the message got to Graham Greene: “Do not leave Saigon. Do not leave there, especially at night, because they will come for you.” 

NARRATOR: This week’s true spy takes us back to the early, explosive decades of the Cold War, a period when the major superpowers were locked into a relentless game of spycraft to gain the upper hand. Hungry for intelligence, the various Secret Service agencies sometimes recruited operatives from unlikely places. Alongside an anonymous, invisible army of agents and double agents stealing, selling, or exchanging secrets, a certain class of gentleman spy was employed, often on an ad-hoc basis. One such spy was the iconic British author Graham Greene. The year is 1955. The French have almost lost control of the region known as Indo-China in SouthEast Asia to insurgent Communist forces led by the charismatic Ho Chi Minh - a region listeners will know better as Vietnam. Fearful of losing their precious colony for good, the French have persuaded the British and American governments to support their efforts to defeat the nationalist forces. It is into this dangerous and ever-changing geopolitical furnace that Graham Greene arrives, in the early 1950s under the cover story that he was writing articles for the US publication Life magazine. 

RICHARD GREENE: He had to go to all sorts of dangerous places or where undercover people were operating.

NARRATOR: In reality, Greene was carrying out a series of missions for the British Intelligence Agency MI6. However, Greene officially resigned from MI6 in 1944. So why was he now back, risking life and limb for his country, engaged in propping up a cause - French colonialism - for which he had little sympathy? The answer is as complex as the man himself. In this week’s episode, we get under the skin of the best-selling novelist and travel writer, and discover why this particular gentleman spy liked to take himself to the ‘dangerous edge of things’ - and how an audience between the author and Ho Chi Minh might have influenced the history of the region.

RICHARD GREENE: Most of his books are set in what some critics call 'Greeneland', an impoverished, seedy, almost depressive landscape, usually not in the first world. In those impoverished places, there is an urgency about human affairs. 

NARRATOR: Our guide for this story of one man’s obsession with intrigue, betrayal, and danger is biographer Richard Greene - no relation to the famous author. Graham Greene was born into upper-middle-class privilege in 1904. His parents were moderately wealthy. His father’s family had connections to the famous Greene King brewing company. But it was his mother’s lineage that offered a better prediction of things to come. She was a second cousin to the author of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson. Greene’s father was headmaster of a boy’s boarding school in Berkhamsted. The other boys at his school immediately mistrusted Graham Greene and assumed that he must have been placed there as a spy by his father.

RICHARD GREENE: He was probably revealing their secrets to him and getting them all in trouble and so he was bullied.

NARRATOR: It was this harsh confrontation with childish cruelty that framed Greene’s sensibilities as an artist until his dying day. Greene soon developed ‘manic depression’, a condition we now refer to as bipolar disorder, which afflicted him for his entire life. So much so that, as a young boy, he began to self-harm, an obsession that reached its peak when he went to Oxford University. Carrying with him a revolver he stole from his older brother, legend has it Greene would often take himself off to play Russian Roulette alone. But death was not to come so easily. Encouraged by a psychoanalyst while still in his teens, Greene started to write. Despite some success with his first novel, The Man Within - published when he was only 25 - Greene failed to make a decent living in these early years. Married by the age of 23, Greene and his wife lived in a cottage without electricity. Desperate for cash, he turned to the closest thing he had to a family trade: spycraft.

RICHARD GREENE: His uncle, Sir Graham Greene, was an associate of Churchill and had a hand in the founding of Naval Intelligence. His sister, Elizabeth, was in MI6. Her husband, Rodney Dennis was a very senior figure. I think he was head of station in Paris, which is a huge appointment. What I'm getting at is half a dozen spies in that family. 

NARRATOR: After several attempts to be recruited, Greene finally came to the attention of MI6 after he published an acclaimed travelog Journey Without Maps. The book details the 21-year-old Greene’s trip to Liberia in West Africa in 1935, where he was investigating rumored modern slavery practices carried out under the jurisdiction of US rubber companies. Impressed with his courage - vast areas of the region were genuinely still uncharted at this time - and his ability to extract information from unusual sources, Greene was enrolled in MI6 in 1941. True Spies fans will be fascinated to learn that Greene’s handler at the Agency was none other than Kim Philby - the same Kim Philby who went on to defect to Russia as part of the Cambridge Five, the notorious cell of Soviet agents who infiltrated the very heart of the British establishment during the Cold War. Philby, who by then was already sending intelligence to Moscow, posted Greene to Sierra Leone in 1942, where he was to set up his first official mission as an MI6 operative. But before he went, Greene needed training in spycraft. 

RICHARD GREENE: The usual stuff, how to make secret ink out of bird droppings, all that language we get in John le Carré. Well, he also learned codebooks. Codebooks interested him a great deal.

NARRATOR: Greene was also taught how to set up agents, censorship, and the safe use of telephones. He was instructed in interrogation techniques, a practice he employed only once and loathed. From the get-go, Greene was something of a mischief-maker. On one occasion, he tried to convince MI6 to fund a brothel which, he argued, was an excellent location to lure foreign officials and garner intelligence between the sheets. His request was denied. In reality, Greene’s time in Sierra Leone was mostly spent monitoring the movements of the German Navy.

RICHARD GREENE: His role was important enough because with the Suez Canal closed, a lot of shipping had to go south and Freetown was an important port of call. And so he would be on the lookout for industrial diamonds, which were contraband - he didn't really find very much in that way - and also looking for spies who might be aboard the ships passing through.

NARRATOR: Greene was now establishing himself as a writer and adventurer forever drawn to the most threatening places on earth. It was at the ‘dangerous edge of things’ - a phrase taken from the author Robert Browning - that he returned to again and again, to describe where he felt most at home. Where he would seek out the characters who would inspire his greatest work. These dangerous foreign places were where he would go to both lose - and find - himself again and again. Anything, it seemed, to stave off the suicidal ‘boredom’, as he described it, that was always waiting in the shadows. 

RICHARD GREENE: After about a year and a half, he was recalled to London.

NARRATOR: Back home, Greene returned to a more humdrum lifestyle and marriage that was already failing. Still in need of regular work, he continued working for MI6’s Section Five.

RICHARD GREENE: He was analyzing human intelligence, signals intelligence from the enigma decrypts. Things relating to Portugal and Spain were sensitive because they tended to sympathize with Hitler but they hadn't actually entered the war so they had to be watched. They had to be very careful not to provoke them. And that was what he did. 

NARRATOR: Greene by this time had become friends with Kim Philby but this wasn’t his only contact with traitors offering secrets to Soviet intelligence. While stationed in London, he befriended John Cairncross, who would eventually be unmasked as the last member of the Cambridge Five.

RICHARD GREENE: He and Greene struck up a conversation on a train where Greene spotted him reading one of his books. They became very good friends. Cairncross was delivering to the Soviets all sorts of information from the Enigma decrypts, and they were trying to keep the Enigma decrypts unknown to the Russians because if they lost that source - if the Germans ever picked it up - it would change the direction of the war.

NARRATOR: Greene seemed to be drawn to these complex characters, men often classed as traitors, broken reeds clawing their way toward some kind of redemption. It was easy to see the link between these real-life traitors and the characters that populated ‘Greeneland’. The Philby connection is perhaps most visible in Greene’s script for the 1949 classic film noir, The Third Man. Considered by some to be the greatest of all British movies, The Third Man is set in post-War Vienna, a city controlled by the victorious Allies and the Soviets. The legendary film actor and director Orson Welles plays Harry Lime, a racketeer peddling faulty drugs to the poorest and most needy of the city’s population. After the first two Cambridge spies - Burgess and Maclean - broke cover and defected, rumors started to circulate that Philby had tipped them off. The authorities suspected there were not two, but three double agents embedded in British Intelligence. Philby, when questioned, was asked whether he was the ‘Third Man’. He strenuously denied the accusation, but many were quick to make the connection between real-life treachery and the plots of Greene’s stories. Was Greene simply writing down what Philby had told him? How much did our writer-turned-spy really know about his fellow agents and their turncoat activities? Some people started to speculate as to whether Greene was in fact one of them. Another recruit to the Soviet cause. These rumors would follow him wherever he went. Then, in 1944, Greene suddenly announced he was quitting MI6. 

RICHARD GREENE: His reasons for leaving certainly present bad optics. He left almost exactly at the moment of D-Day, and there was a year of the war yet to fight. And so you have this very trusted intelligence officer who's handling material relating to two large neighboring countries. And the person he's working with is later known to be the worst of the defectors, Kim Philby. 

NARRATOR: It didn’t look good. 

RICHARD GREENE: So what was going on here? And for a time, I entertained the notion that maybe Kim Philby tried to get Greene to come over. And rather than do that, he resigned. 

NARRATOR: Well, that’s the noble explanation. But perhaps the truth is more mercenary. Greene may have formally turned in his badge, so to speak, but this was most likely to allow him to exploit a lucrative deal offered to him by a Hollywood studio. For what is now known, and has only really come to light in recent years, is that Greene never really left MI6.

RICHARD GREENE: He remained on the books.

NARRATOR: In fact, he remained active with British intelligence to the end of his life. If he was a Soviet agent under suspicion, it seems like an odd choice to keep him on the books at MI6 - unless he was being played by the very people he sought to betray. As I said, the truth is complex. It’s at this point that another important player in the Graham Greene story walks into his life: Alexander Korda. Like Greene, Korda straddled the worlds of entertainment and espionage. 

RICHARD GREENE: He was a Hungarian who had a very nasty experience with the fascist regime there and was briefly imprisoned just before Hitler's time. And so he fled the country and became a very big deal in moviemaking. 

NARRATOR: Korda produced The Third Man and the two men became firm friends.

RICHARD GREENE: And once he got to England, it was quite clear that he was working with all sorts of influential intelligence people. There was a thing called 'the private detective agency' working out of the Cabinet Office and he was involved with that. And as the years went by, he did many jobs for them

NARRATOR: Some of Korda’s missions involved Greene himself. 

RICHARD GREENE: There was one occasion when he and Greene were on his private yacht filming the coast of Yugoslavia and they had a great cover story. He was a film producer. What else would a film producer be doing except filming? And so the idea was not to get this B-roll, as they call it, for films. It was to look at gun emplacements and strongholds along the shore in case of a military confrontation.

NARRATOR: It’s clear that Greene was drawn to intelligence work for the sheer thrill and fascination it offered him. But there were also more practical motives.

RICHARD GREENE: One of the things Greene liked was that the payment was in cash - and he referred to it as a ‘large currency allowance’ - because remember, there were currency controls in place at the time and SIS could operate without regard for that. 

NARRATOR: But to know Greene is to know that there was always more than one thing calling him to any of these adventures. While he loved money, and tax-free money most of all, a gentleman spy like Greene would never be so vulgar as to let it be his only reason to seek out the dangerous edge of things. Which brings us back to Vietnam. By the early 1950s, it was clear that the French colonial occupation was in severe jeopardy. The United States realized they had no choice but to offer assistance. The British also were quick to deploy agents on the ground - agents like Graham Greene. 

RICHARD GREENE: In the midst of it, he gets briefings from MI6 that there are important things going on in Vietnam. “You had better get there.” And the long and the short of it is that he was working with another MI6 veteran named Trevor Wilson, whom he had known at MI6 headquarters, and the two of them were pursuing a line of inquiry for the British that is a search for an alternative leadership in Vietnam, one that wasn't communist and also wasn't colonialist. 

NARRATOR: This concept of an alternative leadership for Vietnam, neither colonial nor communist, was known as the ‘Third Force’. It was being actively pursued by the Americans behind the backs of the French. Why? Because to the US Intelligence operators, it was clear that France was on a losing streak.

RICHARD GREENE: By early 1954, they got themselves into a terrible battle at a place called the Dien Bien Phu, where they constructed a kind of fortress. And the Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp had figured out how to defeat these tactics. Hidden artillery blew the place to pieces and they conducted a siege of the French until they surrendered. This horrible defeat for the French led to peace talks in Geneva which were advantageous to Ho Chi Minh but it resulted in the partition of the country, which is something that remained in place, I think, until 1975.

NARRATOR: What we now know is that British intelligence was also interested in exploring the concept of the Third Force. Greene’s mission, then, was not just to find out as much as possible about US strategy, but to explore other options potentially favorable to the British. Between 1951 and 1955, he made multiple trips to the troubled region. And it was clear that these missions were at the behest of MI6, via his old friend Alexander Korda. In a letter to his lover, Catherine Walston, he wrote: “The old firm has asked Korda if I will do a job for them.” The job he was referring to in such an off-hand manner was to climax with one of his most dangerous and unorthodox missions: to seek an audience with Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the nationalist rebellion. On the face of it, Greene would seem an unlikely candidate for an intelligence operation in South East Asia. However, in his memoir, Ways Of Escape, Greene describes the deep affection he has for Vietnam and its people. And he’d also found a new distraction: opium. Smoking anywhere up to eight pipes a day, he seemed to find its numbing, calming oblivion the perfect antidote to the sometimes crippling depression and, by this stage, the heartbreak he was experiencing. Having dedicated his novel The End of The Affair to Catherine, he had provoked her husband into intervening and their relationship was essentially over. 

RICHARD GREENE: He was writing articles for major magazines on the situation in Vietnam and these were very important. He was one of the early journalists to say, ‘This is not a winnable war for the French. We need to come up with a sensible solution here.’ And of course, another thing that was happening in the background was he was building up material and then writing his war novel, The Quiet American, which came out in 1955. 

NARRATOR: And there was one more reason for Greene to embed himself in Vietnam: his religion. In his early 20s, Greene had converted to Catholicism. Initially, he had done this to facilitate his marriage to a devout believer. After a trip to Mexico in the late 1930s, where he had witnessed firsthand the persecution of Catholics at the hands of the Communists, he had found himself drawn more deeply to the faith. Which of course seems at odds with a man willing to publicly flaunt his relationship with a married woman - but that’s Graham Greene for you.

RICHARD GREENE: Something like one tenth of Vietnam at the time was Catholic and had been so for 400 years.

NARRATOR: So Greene’s deep insight into the region, his understanding that a Third Force was necessary, and his ability as a journalist and travel writer to move freely between the different factions, made him an ideal candidate to conduct intelligence for the British. But it was not going to be a smooth ride. The French authorities were quickly onto him. Greene and his fellow agent Trevor Wilson were discovered carrying out covert intelligence gathering. When the French learned of this, they had Wilson removed from his post and Greene quickly came under suspicion of being a spy despite his repeated denials that he was only there as a travel writer. By 1955, when he was sent to meet with Ho Chi Minh, Greene had essentially been blacklisted. Added to this, his cover story was also proving hard to sustain. 

RICHARD GREENE: He was not supportive of the French war in a clear way. He didn't think it was winnable. And Life magazine was committed to a fairly conservative editorial position. And so in the end, this article that he wrote was spiked. 

NARRATOR: Seen in this light, his trip to meet Ho Chi Minh, the sworn enemy of both French and US regimes, was starting to look like a suicide mission. He made his situation even worse when he suggested that the CIA was responsible for a handful of terrorist atrocities that publicly were being blamed on the Viet Minh, the nationalist forces. The reason the CIA was doing this was, Greene claimed, to justify a full-scale military intervention. His accusations, which appeared in both articles and the thinly veiled fiction of his novel, The Quiet American, had made him persona non grata in some circles. The Americans retaliated by accusing Greene of being a communist. Why else would he be so critical of the occupying forces? The sensitivity to Greene’s criticism was exacerbated by the fact that the US attempts to prop up the French regime had clearly failed.

RICHARD GREENE: The situation for the French had largely collapsed.

NARRATOR: The United States had initially been reluctant to intervene in Vietnam because Ho Chi Minh’s nationalist movement was supported by communist China. Any US involvement could be interpreted as a direct provocation which could turn the Cold War into a hot war. On the other hand, the free world was determined to stop the advance of communism, and a victory by the Marxist forces in Vietnam would represent a major setback in that effort - which brings us back to Greene and the Catholics. South of Hanoi lay a Catholic diocese in a place called Phát Diệm. Although they pledged loyalty to the nationalist regime under Ho Chi Minh, Phát Diệm was more like a nation within a nation. It possessed its own 3,000-strong army and had proved to be a powerful force, not always benign, in the region. Remember, Greene had witnessed the oppression of his faith in Mexico during the religious purges at the hands of communists in the 1930s. He was concerned for the well-being of the bishop and his people at Phát Diệm should the communists take over. He was also intrigued by the possibility of the Catholics providing the elusive Third Force. But if he was going to survive and complete his mission, Greene had to ingratiate himself with what remained of the French occupation. Otherwise, they could bar him from entering the country - or worse. 

RICHARD GREENE: It took a long time for Greene to get back in the good books of the French.

NARRATOR: The question remains as to why the British wanted Greene to meet with Ho Chi Minh at all. And as pertinent, why he accepted the mission. It seems that the British motivation for sending him was quite simple. Rumors had been circulating that, as Ho Chi Minh got older, he had lost his grip on power and become more of a figurehead. Were he to die, there could be important repercussions for US and British plans. It was vital then that Greene assess the state of the communist leader and investigate whether there was any truth to the rumors that his power was waning. The second reason was personal. The Catholic purges in Mexico still haunted him. He was there to seek assurances from Ho Chi Minh that should the communists be victorious, they would not harm the Catholics.

RICHARD GREENE: Ho Chi Minh was not always a communist and in a lot of ways he could have been a friend to the West if American policymakers had been more sensitive. In the mid-40s, I believe he reached out many times to the Americans going back to the end of the First World War when he wrote to, I think, Woodrow Wilson.

NARRATOR: By the time Greene reached the major seaport of Hai Phong in the communist-controlled north, he could expect no such goodwill from the nationalist leader. Indeed he could expect no guarantee of a response to his request for a meeting. Every day that he spent waiting for an invitation, he was increasingly at risk. He was at the dangerous edge of things once again.

RICHARD GREENE: If he was identified as a British spy wandering around Hai Phong, it would take very little for someone to do him in. And of course, once he got to Hanoi, he had no protection whatsoever. It was just him and the goodwill of his hosts. 

NARRATOR: Greene was clearly a marked man. 

RICHARD GREENE: He was such a hot potato that the Papal representative in Hanoi wouldn't meet with him. He could have been knifed in the street if he was identified as a spy or if the French finally had too much of him.

NARRATOR: Isolated, lonely, and in danger, Greene nonetheless decided to stick things out. Finally, the invitation came. 

RICHARD GREENE: He was brought into the presence of the old man, Ho Chi Minh.

NARRATOR: What followed next remains undocumented to this day, bar a few sketchy details. 

RICHARD GREENE: He sat down and had tea with the old man and handed him the letter.

NARRATOR: Greene barely spoke of the incident and the contents of the letter remain a mystery, still protected by British intelligence protocols.

RICHARD GREENE: I can offer a guess as to what was in it. It was a proposal for the relief of the Catholics in the north, possibly something that defended the French because Ho asked the question, ‘What will the French think?’ And that's about all we know about this mysterious episode where Greene was sent as a courier to one of the important figures of Asian history in the 20th century.

NARRATOR: With no other account to guide us, we can only speculate as to what was in the letter and what, if any, effect it had on Ho Chi Minh’s plans.

RICHARD GREENE: When he returned from Vietnam on that occasion, he wrote three articles for The Times of London. But he specifically said, “I can't tell you what occurred in the conversation.” So, he described Hanoi. He described the war. He described Ho Chi Minh's personality and his political position. He described the setting, going to the meeting but what was said he explicitly couldn't repeat. Greene had heard him referred to as “pure as Lucifer” and Greene was interested in that. But he didn't see him as Lucifer. What he saw, I think he used the expression “one who solved an equation”, that he was too sure of his theory and too confident of the way things are.

NARRATOR: That was the last time Greene went to Vietnam. While it’s tempting to see Greene’s involvement with British intelligence as just an elaborate escapism from his fraught home life, this overlooks the fact that he was a man driven by strong political principles. 

RICHARD GREENE: Over the years, his involvement in Vietnam was, again, searching out what was essentially a problem of freedom in a former colonial country. What form should freedom take and how is it being interfered with by outsiders such as the United States? He had quite strong beliefs in human rights and in a democratic process. And, in another way, there was a religious element in that. And this mixture of motives between a personal urgency and a moral compass led him to places where most of us wouldn't go. 

NARRATOR: But the question of his politics - and more pressingly, his loyalty to Kim Philby and others associated with the highest forms of treachery - was going to come back to haunt him. After his defection, Philby penned a memoir called My Silent War. The foreword was written by none other than his old friend and colleague Graham Greene. Comparing Philby’s devotion to his cause to that of Catholics persecuted under the reign of Elizabeth I, Greene provoked an uproar. And by suggesting that loyalty to a friend trumped loyalty to a nation, he was sure to provoke enemies old and new into condemning him for good. Even supporters of Greene, including that other celebrated spy-turned-author John le Carré, had no time for Greene’s attempt to rehabilitate a traitor. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could hurt Greene who, by the time he wrote his defense of Philby in 1968, was both wealthy and celebrated globally.

RICHARD GREENE: He did not like the idea of a simply binary Cold War with the Americans faced off with the Russians or Nato's fate in confrontation with the Warsaw Pact. He thought that, in a way, was closing your eyes to most of the world, most of the suffering in the world. 

NARRATOR: But Greene did have an Achilles heel: his mysterious relationship with communism. Two things counted against him. First, his brief but publicly documented membership of the party while an undergraduate at Oxford. Secondly, his vocal attacks on US foreign policy. As well as his criticisms of US activities in Vietnam, Greene had a specific loathing for Senator Joseph McCarthy, who led the witch hunt against communism in Hollywood and the wider entertainment industry. There was one more explosive detail that was to provide ammunition for Greene’s enemies. Philby had revealed that Greene had a codename assigned to him by the KGB. The codename, Loran, was never explained. But when Greene resurrected his friendship with Philby in the late 1980s, he was welcomed with open arms by none other than the wife of the Soviet leader, Raisa Gorbachev. The rumor mill went into overdrive. Was this confirmation that Greene was a Soviet spy after all? Had Philby managed to recruit Greene to the cause, all those years ago when they worked together in Section Five?

RICHARD GREENE: It's unlikely that Kim Philby would attempt independent recruitment because he had tried that a few years before and his controllers were irate and they very nearly cut him loose over it. They regarded him as an asset of such importance buried deep in British intelligence that he should not be doing anything of that sort. 

NARRATOR: It was clear that whatever the rumors, Greene’s critics would find it hard to pin anything on him that would really hurt him. One of the issues being Greene’s fearlessness. A man accustomed to surviving in the world’s most dangerous places was surely unassailable by this stage. It turns out there was one thing they could do to hurt him. Greene loved the fame and vast sums of money he earned writing what he called his ‘entertainments’. But he also craved the respect afforded to ‘serious’ writers. When the possibility of a Nobel Prize entered the frame, Greene was of course bewitched by the prospect of such an elevated honor. Finally, he was to be acknowledged as not just a popular writer but a great one.

RICHARD GREENE: I think of all the prizes the Nobel was the one he wanted. He went to Sweden and met with the secretary of the committee, and made a number of return visits. He always hoped for it and it didn't come his way.

NARRATOR: Greene was devastated by this snub which was, undoubtedly, in response to his support for Philby and equivocal views on communism. But, being Graham Greene, he probably wouldn’t have had it any other way.

RICHARD GREENE: Yes, of course. What could be worse than a happy ending? 

NARRATOR: Despite losing out on the Nobel Prize, Greene’s legacy as a writer remains unequivocal. His contribution as a spy is harder to pin down. It’s hard to know if his meeting with Ho Chi Minh made any significant difference to the outcome of what was to become the Vietnam War. But perhaps the trick is not to separate the spying from his writing. He lived to write and wrote to live, and the two worlds crossed over continually throughout his career. While there is no question that he was an MI6 operative for much of his life, the question of to whom he was really loyal, is perhaps the wrong question to ask. Greene’s most important mission was, it seems, to beat the depression, the so-called ‘boredom’ that had hounded him since childhood. ‘The dangerous edge of things’ was where he felt most alive. That is not to say he was without compassion. It bleeds from every page of his books. But this compassion was, in the end, bound up with a particularly Catholic idea of the redeemability of ordinary, flawed men and women. His Catholicism was more detectable in the last breath of the Whisky Priest in his masterpiece, The Power And The Glory, than it was to be found in the cathedrals of Rome. Redeemable if repentant. He craved his own redemption. But that didn’t stop him from evading, contradicting, and misdirecting anyone looking for a simple answer to the question of who Graham Greene really was. He defied this kind of definition right up until his death in 1991. He still defies it today. 

RICHARD GREENE: It was like he was the last of a generation of giants, the great writers of the mid-20th century.

NARRATOR: Richard Greene is the editor and author of two works connected to this week’s true spy. The first is Graham Greene’s letters, and the second is his brilliant biography published as Russian Roulette in the UK and The Unquiet Englishman in the United States. I’m Sofia Di Martino. Join us next week for part two of our Showbiz spies trilogy. You’ll meet Sterling Hayden - actor, sailor, spy, and so much more.

Guest Bio

Richard Greene is the author of The Unquiet Englishmen: A Life of Graham Greene. He is not related to Graham.

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