David Cornwell, later known as spy novelist John le Carre, is born on this day in Poole, England.
Le Carre’s father was a charming, dishonest con man who ran up millions of dollars in debt, snookered friends and family on phantom deals, and spent time in jail for embezzlement. Charismatic and delightful company, Ron Cornwell kept up an extravagant show of wealth and sent his two sons, Anthony and David, to an upper-class boarding school.
David went abroad at age 16 to study German. He became involved in the British intelligence service in Austria before attending Oxford. After Oxford, he taught French and Latin at Eton, then joined the British Foreign Service in West Germany in 1959. Meanwhile, he married, had three sons, and wrote about his experiences in the foreign service. He published his first spy novel, Call for the Dead, in 1961. The novel, like his second, A Murder of Quality (1962), featured spy George Smiley. After the success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), which was made into a movie in 1965, Cornwell quit his government job to write full time.
Cornwell’s 1974 bestseller, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the first of a trilogy including The Honorable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1980), also featured George Smiley. His 1986 novel, A Perfect Spy, was the first of his novels not submitted to the British government for approval and possible censorship, which had previously been required of him, given his former intelligence status. It was also the one that most closely paralleled Cornwell’s own life: The plot featured a charming con man as the protagonist’s father.