POLITICS AUGUST 15, 1994
The options were these: (1) hustle Rufa Philby, Kim's Russian widow, into the bar at the Savoy, get her swacked on Negronis and make her an offer she can't refuse, or (2) go berserk with a sword-cane in the Grosvenor Room and smash up all the KGB paperweights until they hand it over. Option three, which was not technically on the list, involved fulminating helplessly over the news that, under pressure from the right-wing British press (also known as the British press), Sotheby's had pulled from its sale of Kim Philby's effects some of the items that could possibly be deemed frivolous, including his homburg, his pipes and the Holy Grail of the cold war era, his martini shaker.
Gin or vodka? How elegantly that question sums up the choice offered Philby throughout his spectacular career as the highest-placed Soviet spy to infiltrate the British Secret Service. Elegant, but not very useful for Philby himself, who was born an English gentleman and died a Soviet citizen, when all he really wanted was to be a secret agent. The London dailies were in an uproar over the auction, but I felt no allegiance to the betrayed country, only the manner of betrayal: what's inside is not important. The shaker is.
Defecting from the West to the East is not a simple decision; it's surprising the kind of totems that make that leap easier. On the last night of our crossing from Los Angeles, my hometown, to Washington, my husband and I stopped in a used bookstore and bought--no one can remember why--a copy of Philby's KGB-sanctioned autobiography, My Silent War. The attachment deepened. There was the pilgrimage to Philby's former residence on Nebraska Avenue. And then there was the dream that I was inside the house at a big party with spies. I had to phone my contact, but there were hundreds of numbers and I was forced to scupper the mission. The partygoers just laughed--mission, schmission--and called for more cocktails.
So it is that we're flying to London in tourist season, the Sotheby's catalog open on the tray table, our Philby tomes in the bin above. The customs man at Heathrow asks after the purpose of our visit, and allows a bemused smirk to play across his face at the answer. I know what he's thinking. He's thinking: you won't get the shaker.
On Sunday afternoon Philby biographer Philip Knightley shows up for tea. I'm hoping he can answer a question not addressed in any study of Cambridge spies: What did Philby do with his days? Sit at his desk, open the mail, make a few phone calls? What? Knightley notes that, for all his research, this teen-mag info is what readers want. "Yes," I say. "I came for the shaker." Knightley laughs as if it was a joke. It is not a joke.
It's the day before the auction and we can't leave the hotel room, having put in calls to Rufa and to John Philby, Kim's oldest son and the closest to him. Neither of London's Mayfair Hotels has heard of a Rufa Philby. I put down my copy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and commence snapping pictures of the pansy-burdened window boxes across the way. My husband says, "I wouldn't do that if I were you." John Philby never returns the call.
Inside the Grosvenor Room the mood is giddy. Camera crews bray in the manner of techies everywhere, bodies pack the aisle and line the walls. We're on the lookout for spies, or at least Ml 5 monitors, but the audience is mainly dealers. I wonder if I'm in the same room as The Shaker. "Scotch, a bloody great big one," says Philby stand-in Bill Haydon in Tinker, Tailor at the moment of his unmasking. I can almost taste it.
After a soporific hour of Churchilliana, the room snaps to attention: Lot 360 is finally up. Necks crane, children hush, cameras begin clicking. And there it is, and it's junk. A gaudy green plastic globe topped with a spy satellite and other rococo touches goes for about $8,000 (estimated sale price, $1,800-$2,300). The brass model of a Soviet tank takes in twice its estimate. By the time the auctioneer's assistant holds up a red throw-rug stitched with the head of Lenin, the audience is snickering. Sporting a game smile, a man in red braces seated on the floor behind me snaps it up--a steal at $1,500. And this from an auction house that thinks a solid English cocktail shaker is frivolous.
Knightley stands with his arms crossed, enduring a battery of interviewers. How much better off would Philby have been spying for someone with taste, like the French? Knightley shudders a little and agrees, "Hideous stuff." The dealers stream into the mews beside the building, carrying forest-green plastic shopping bags with the gold Sotheby's logo. The sight of top-form collectors brown-bagging it down the alley with their precious tchotchkes and manuscripts is unutterably depressing.
Then again, the regime for which Philby worked his whole unconscionable life ended months after his death. So a parallel devaluation in the country he betrayed makes for a kind of rough justice. Aside from the brilliant story, what is Philby's tangible legacy? Bad Graham Greene, the pointless vituperation of the British press, choking on "the spectacle of Mrs. Philby decamping gleefully to Russia with her fat cheque." Obscene literary feuds in which writers claim that the West won the espionage war, or that there was no war at all. Perhaps Philby is better off not knowing that the copy of Alex Comfort's The Process of Aging that he gave to his lover Melinda, wife of fellow spy Donald Maclean, sold for more than $7,000 because of his smutty inscription. I no longer want a cocktail. We trudge away from Bond Street and huddle in a pub, where I ask for a Guinness. A bloody great big one.
By Arion Berger