January 2, 2006 | Open Republic Institute

Kim Philby Was Here

Richard Carlson is Vice Chairman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism. He has experience in journalism and diplomacy and is a former United States Ambassador.

Beirut has morphed from the post civil war ruins of the ‘80's and ‘90's — crumbled mansions and blown-out hotels, dead dogs on the sidewalks — to a recreation of Ottoman-style buildings of polished granite, sandstone and marble. Memories of Philby linger like brazier smoke.

Harold Adrian Russell Philby — nicknamed Kim by his father from the title of the Rudyard Kipling book — was one of the most successful penetration agents ever to work against the West for Stalin and the KGB. In the early 1930s, Philby secretly joined the Soviet intelligence service and then became a reporter for The Times of London for which he covered the Spanish Civil War. Within a few years he was recruited from his scribe's day job into Britain's MI 6 and quickly (and ironically) rose to head their Soviet counter-intelligence directorate. Later, reporting to the KGB, he moved to Washington as the British liaison to the FBI and CIA. He even dined at J. Edgar Hoover's home in Northwest Washington. His active covert service for Soviet intelligence — 1934 to 1963 — was during some of that agencies' most murderous years.

Philby arrived in Beirut in the summer of 1956, a few weeks before the Suez crisis exploded. He had been fired from MI6 in 1951, under suspicion as the “third man” who had warned the British traitors Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean that MI 5 had them under surveillance as Soviet spies. Shortly before they were to be arrested they fled to Moscow.

In Beirut, Philby was under waning suspicion by the British of being a Soviet agent. Philby was very pro-Arab and equally anti-Israel and had arrived in Beirut as a correspondent for the Economist and the Guardian of London, though he maintained his connections with British intelligence and was given intelligence assignments by MI 6.

For his first months in Beirut, Philby lived with his father, St. John Philby, then a famed Arabist and explorer. St. John had converted to radical Islam — he had become a Wahabbi and called himself Hajj Abdullah — and at 71 was living with his young Saudi mistress “Rosie” and their two sons Khalid and Faris in a white stone villa in the mountain village of Altajun, twenty minutes west of Beirut.

St. John (pronounced by the British as “Sin-Jin”) had gone to the Arabian desert after WW1 and had explored it by camel. He befriended a desert warrior named Ibn Saud, who later seized all the arid land from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, made himself king and named the new country Saudi Arabia, after his family. St. John Philby renounced England and helped King Saud create friendly relations with the US government and a consortium of American oil companies.

St. John's mistress was one of two teenage sisters, both slaves from Balucchistan, who King Saud had given him as a gift in 1948. (Philby kept one and sent the other back, as the pair bickered, he complained.) St. John's wife of forty years, Kim's mother Dora, remained in an alcoholic haze back in England, and she ultimately died from drinking.

St. John's small villa was called “Mahalla Jamil” (beautiful place) and was crowded with servants and Kim's half-brothers, about five and six old, and the plump stepmother Rosie, who wore the same bathrobe and slippers all day, knew no English and whose hobby, or so Kim complained to friends, was painting her toenails and wolfing down candy by the sack full.

By the fall of 1956, Kim had moved downtown to his own quarters and taken up with Eleanor Brewer, the wife of his old friend, the New York Time's Beirut correspondent Sam Pope Brewer. They had met at the bar of the St. George's Hotel.

Eleanor Brewer was from Seattle, Washington and had a young daughter with Brewer, who was covering Nasser in Egypt and traveling a great deal in the region. By the time Brewer discovered he had been cuckolded Philby's wife had died in England from general craziness fueled by alcohol, like his mother. Philby confronted Brewer, who was suspicious, and announced the affair. He told Brewer Eleanor wanted a divorce and that they planned to marry. Brewer's response, according to accounts Philby gave to friends, may contain a clue as to Brewer's emotional commitment to Eleanor. He said to Philby, “Well, that sounds like the best solution. What do you make of the situation in Iraq?”

Kim and Eleanor and Kim's pet fox “Jackie”, who he had raised from a cub (and had trained to use a toilet, and to drink Scotch whiskey, as he himself did every morning) moved to a fifth floor flat about 500 yards from Kim's “office” at the bar of the Normandie Hotel where he daily chatted-up journalist friends and intelligence officers, read the French and British papers, drank uncountable liters of whiskey and gin, and presumably worried about being caught for the serious deceptions in which he had engaged for more than two decades.

Fears of being exposed were legitimate. In January of 1963, Philby learned that he himself was again under strong suspicion by MI 6 of working for the Soviets.(He had been privately accused of treachery some years before in London but had successfully denied the allegations.) Soon, Philby was confronted in Beirut by an old British intelligence colleague, the MI6 officer Nick Elliot, who had specifically flown in to accuse Philby of treason. Philby gave Elliot a written confession of a sort, promised to discuss it further over the next few days, and then fled to the USSR; probably aboard the Russian freighter Dolmatova which left the Beirut port so quickly its cargo remained scattered on the dock. (Although others have said that Philby, aided by the KGB, was whisked to Syria in a truck and then taken on foot through Armenia into the Soviet Union, that the Dolmatova's quick departure was a ruse.)

Kim was later joined in Moscow by Eleanor Brewer but, true to his life's pattern, he abandoned her for Melinda MacLean, the American wife of his fellow British spy Donald McLean, who himself had defected to Moscow in 12 years before. (Philby later also abandoned Melinda. To paraphrase the writer Phillip Knightley, who spent much time with Philby, he loved deceit, all those lonely years.)

The Normandie Hotel on Avenue des Francaise is long gone, bulldozed into landfill. So is Kim and Eleanor's apartment building on the Rue Kantari. Jackie the fox was killed in a fall from the building's roof in 1962. There was speculation that Jackie was drunk. Philby, who betrayed his country and his friends and his lovers had deep feelings for his pet. Eleanor told friends that he mourned its death for weeks.

The St. George Hotel where Philby first met Eleanor Brewer is an empty shell, its façade heavily damaged in the explosion which wiped former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 19 others from the Beirut waterfront last February.

Eleanor returned to the US from Moscow and died in Seattle in 1968. Our friend Nigel West, the British author and expert on espionage, told us at lunch in London recently that Melinda MacLean, who had left her husband for Philby and had then been dropped by him for a young Russian woman named Rufina, is still alive. Melinda is very old and lives in seclusion in New York City. Rufina Philby, now his widow, and well debriefed by various intelligence agencies, is seen occasionally in and out of London. She has written a surprisingly good book about her life with her husband with some help from a Western intelligence officer friend.

Nick Elliot, the British intelligence officer who confronted Philby in Beirut died a few years ago. Elliot had privately denied the rumor that MI 6 used him to stampede Philby into defecting to avoid the scandal of a public trial, although there is no question that the British government, which had had its Profumo/Christine Keeler scandal, very much wished to avoid further bad publicity. Elliot said privately that Philby did sign a confession shortly before he defected and that Elliot had been authorized by the British Attorney General to grant Philby immunity in return for a full confession — but much of what he said turned out to be heavy with lies, particularly the names of fellow MI 5 and MI 6 officers who he falsely claimed were part of his Soviet spy network.)

St. John Philby, who had previously fallen out with King Saud, mended that fence in 1957 and returned to Saudi Arabia with Rosie and their boys Khalid and Faris. St. John died the next year; Rosie, if she were alive, would be about 70. She and the boys have disappeared into history's dustbin.

But St. John's old mountain villa remains. We drove to the village on Mount Lebanon looking for it. Ajaltun is now a mid-sized town, with much new construction. We found the mayor and a half dozen of his cronies lounging in the sunny town square. Only one of the men had ever heard the name Philby, “The spy” not the father, and one knew of a house named Mahalla Jamil. But there is a street with that name “beautiful place” — the mayor said and sketched a map. We canvassed houses along the narrow road that looks out over Beirut.

“I remember them,” said Salim Ghnem, a cheery and dignified 65 year-old engineer. “I used to live nearby. The old man, with the beard, was not popular with the neighbors.” Mr. Ghnem piled into our car to show us the house about a half-mile away.

Mahalla Jamil, a two-story hillside house of white stone, is larger than it was when St John and Rosie and Kim and the hired help and the small boys Khalid and Faris were there. A new addition has been added, said Mr. Ghnem, who didn't know the current owners, who weren't at home. He doubted they knew anything about the house's past. He walked nearby and fetched Nicholas Mrad, an electrician who was home for lunch and who has lived two houses away up the hill since he was born in 1951.

Mr. Mrad said he remembered the Philby family: the father was an old fellow with a white beard; the neighbors, mostly Christian didn't like the man and sometimes threw rocks at the house because the old man was a Muslim and frequently “spanked” his young wife; the oldest son was a middle-aged man who visited frequently and sometimes spent the night. Mr. Mrad said he was then about the age of the two young boys and was very friendly with them, one of them in particular.

Mr. Mrad trotted up the hill to his house. He returned with a black and white photo. He pointed to himself, age six, wearing a cowboy suit, posed with two women and two other boys wearing costumes. He identified “the mother.” “Everyone called her ‘Rosie”,” he said, and the other woman was the “family cook.” And the two boys in sailor suits? He couldn't remember the name of one of them. “But this was my friend,” he said and placed his finger on the boy's chest. “His name was Khalid,” he said.

Philby died in Moscow in 1988 and was buried there, less than four years before the USSR, to which he had devoted his entire adult life, ceased to exist.