Review – A Spy Named Orphan: The Enigma of Donald Maclean by Roland Philipps

Throughout history, humans have motivated their will to exist through purpose. Some go the extra mile through leaving a legacy, whether it is one of prestige or one of disgust. But for some, it can be a great inconvenience to have left a legacy at all, especially one that consists of a tragedy akin to one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Ever since Donald Maclean, one of the members of the infamous ‘Cambridge Five’, defected to the Soviet Union through his dramatic exit in 1951, his own legacy became synonymous with treachery. A more vitriolic conclusion has been made of Maclean’s fellow traveller Kim Philby by John le Carré, who described Philby as being “driven by the incurable drug of deceit itself”. Maclean, because of his own practice of colluding with the enemy, has himself been associated with an addiction to deceit like Philby, along with his abuse of alcohol and cigarettes that contributed to his death by cancer in 1983. It had once been said by the writer Rebecca West that the reasons of why one betrays is because they are “unworldly and alcoholics”. Maclean was therefore a degenerate to the Western public when they became aware of his true allegiances to communism, especially through his association with fellow spy and escapee Guy Burgess, a promiscuous homosexual who defied all convention and ate garlic with all his meals, ranging from porridge to Christmas pudding. But Roland Philipps’s biography of Maclean, A Spy Named Orphan, defies the negative caricature that has surrounded Maclean and instead offers a sympathetic, albeit realistic, account of a man many people associate with treachery but know little details as to why he spied for the sake of his ideology.

Philipps had two significant reasons as to why he wrote the book last year. In 2015, documents by MI5 and the Foreign Office concerning Maclean were released by the National Archive; an appropriate time for Philipps to write a book on a man he was greatly interested in. Such a fascination was derived from Philipps personal connection to his subject. His maternal grandfather Roger Makins, the British Ambassador to the US in 1953-56, was a colleague of Maclean’s in the Foreign Office and one of the last men to see Maclean before he embarked on his narrow escape to the Soviet Union. Another personal connection for Philipps’s biographical venture was through his other grandfather Wogan Philipps, an artist who, like Maclean, became disillusioned with the capitalist system and converted to communism. This was due to witnessing the brutalities of the 1926 General Strike whilst he was serving as a mounted police officer, later serving in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.

This being a personal topic for Philipps makes his biography an even greater read. His masterful narrative is one which shows the great contradictions and anxieties within Maclean’s psyche. The ability for one to spy for the enemy country and withhold secrets since their university days for nearly twenty years (or in Philby’s case, thirty) is a Olympian feat for one’s mental stability and doubly so for Maclean. Unlike Philby, who saw espionage as “a source of thrilling power”, Maclean thought the job involving such deceit was “like being a lavatory attendant”. Because of this, Philipps’s constant theme with Maclean is one of sensitivity. This is shown by Maclean’s constant need for reassurances by his handlers for his efforts, especially through his first handler Arnold Deutsch (who was the cousin of Oscar Deutsch, the founder of ODEON Cinemas) who identified Maclean’s “infantile need for praise and reassurance”. Maclean’s extreme work ethic, instilled by his temperance father but rarely congratulated by him, further emphasised Maclean’s dire need for recognition for his efforts. It is no coincidence for Maclean to be first christened as ‘Orphan’ as his codename for the Soviets and to later be gifted with the successive names of ‘Lyric’ and ‘Homer’ as he progressed in his clandestine service to them.

Philipps also shows the problems and assurances Maclean provided for himself through his love life and the speculation revolving around Maclean’s sexuality. His religious upbringing and exposure to Gresham’s School’s ‘Honour System’ shows further the emotional sensitivity Maclean possessed that lay hidden underneath his ascetic exterior. This was further damaged by the likes of Burgess, an unreliable narrator who once bragged about having a one-night stand with Maclean, a rumour that was to later haunt Maclean again when he and Burgess shared a cabin on the SS Falaise during their escape. This was also followed by a complex friendship with Philip Toynbee (the son of renowned historian Arnold J. Toynbee) who went ‘swimming’ with Maclean during a drinking binge in London. He would later smash up a flat in Cairo with Maclean during one of the latter’s worst psychological periods.

But beyond the rumours did Maclean find solitude with at least three women. The first being a brief affair with a married Frenchwoman called Marie, which amounted to little compared to his future partners. The second was his own handler in London, Kitty Harris, an older woman and fellow Communist who would also join him in Paris. But knowing that nothing long-term would come from it, especially when Harris nearly jeopardised her and Maclean’s work relationship with Moscow Centre, it ended once Maclean found his third and final partner, Melinda Marling. Philipps shows that despite the more Machiavellian reputation associated with Melinda (especially due to her affair with Philby and feigning innocence from Maclean’s activities after his escape), she was nevertheless the sinews for Maclean’s ability to cope with his dual life. It was only once when Maclean no longer needed his double life that great doubts came into effect over the coupe’s marriage being sustainable.

The many anecdotes provided by Philipps also shows the extent to how much accessibility Maclean had to the deepest depths of the world network. This included having access to the AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) without needing an escort (which even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover required) and supplying the private exchanges between Roosevelt and Churchill for Stalin’s eyes to see and use for the Yalta Conference. Maclean’s associates and his encounters with them described by Philipps also show the colourful and intriguing life Maclean experienced, from being a family friend of the Bonham Carters (its matriarch, Violet Bonham Carter, being one of the evaluators of Maclean’s interview for the Foreign Office) to getting into two arguments with the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. In his altercation with Berlin, Maclean “grabbed his colleague by the lapels and had to be pulled off him” which was briefly amended, only to later resurface due to Berlin’s quip of US Vice-President Henry Wallace having “a screw loose”. Maclean, having admired Wallace’s socialist values, was greatly insulted by Berlin’s comment and departed from their lunch together in unamicable circumstances.

But the contradictions of his position within high society and his true beliefs made him uneased with his life. Despite his secret allegiance to the Soviets, he was nevertheless a staunch British patriot, seeing his role as a spy as a pacifist one. This was under the justification of allowing the Great Powers to have equal capabilities in order to maintain peaceful equilibrium. Another contradiction would be his hatred towards Americans, despite being married to one. This lack of balance would only exacerbate his mental health whilst he was unknowingly being tracked down by the secret Venona program led by Meredith Gardner. Stories of Maclean being treated by Erna Rosenbaum, a former student and colleague of Carl Jung, and Maclean attacking tree branches out of paranoia show the fragility of Maclean’s psyche. But he nevertheless persisted and reached the Soviet Union before he was caught. This, as outlined by Philipps, was mainly due to bad cooperation between the US and UK intelligence services, a relationship which was only worsened by Maclean’s and Burgess’s defections.

Before I read this biography, I was already well acquainted with the Cambridge Five through reading the summaries of each individual, especially Philby who’s autobiography My Silent War I have read and a man I have a fascination with. Philby’s account of his own life, whilst greatly intriguing, gave skeletal details, largely due to the KGB censoring much of its material upon publication. Contrary to Philby, Maclean had no desire to leave his own mark through his own words. The only book he ever wrote was on British foreign policy in the years between 1956 and 1968. Within that does Maclean leave little evidence of his personal thoughts. Even in a phone interview with the BBC about the book did he also refuse to talk about his suspected nostalgia for his British homeland.

Despite his integration into Soviet society, one cannot help feel but pity for Maclean due to his life’s narrative consisting of tragedy, a narrative firmly delineated by Philipps. Maclean’s superb intellect, stimulating lifestyle, and extreme work ethic caused many of his friends and colleagues to affectionately name him ‘Sir Donald’. But despite all these qualities, he chose to put his principles before his own career. He could have reached the crème de la crème of the British government’s echelons. Instead, he disgraced himself and disillusioned those who had originally admired him. Once he reached the Soviet Union, he received little reward; his wife eventually leaving him and his children abandoning the Soviet Union, a privilege he had lost through his defection.

But whether one agrees or not with Maclean’s actions or his political beliefs, one cannot help but have admiration for the man despite his many flaws. The same could be said for Kim Philby or for any other spy within the ring (all of them declined receiving payments or pensions offered by Moscow for their services). But what distinguishes Maclean from the rest was that he lacked any euphoria from his secret service to the Soviet Union, merely seeing it as his duty to work for their utopian cause despite his distaste for espionage. This is much like his father’s teetotalism to show his faith towards Christianity; a dedication (albeit through very different methods and purposes) that is common between father and son, something which Philipps constantly references. The covert discipline required for such espionage makes this ever more significant. Maclean being the epitome of such durability makes me hope that Philipps’s biography will help some reconsider what Maclean’s legacy should be – that of a traitor or one that represents a man’s dedication to a cause he thought noble. I would highly recommend reading A Spy Named Orphan for anyone who wishes to learn more about the man himself and what motives one to betray his kinsmen. It is thanks to this book that I intend to read Maclean’s own book on foreign policy and Andrew Lownie’s biography of Guy Burgess; mainly to understand further the meaning and motives behind treason and to understand the viewpoints of those who are traditionally portrayed as our enemies.

Featured image credit: “London” by neiljs is licensed under CC BY 2.0