John Le Carré Biography

Author (1931–)
British intelligence agent turned writer John Le Carré is the author of such acclaimed novels as 'The Spy Who Came in from the Cold' and 'A Perfect Spy.'


John le Carré was born David Cornwell on October 19, 1931, in England. He joined MI6 as a teenage student in Switzerland, and continued his association with British intelligence both during and after his years at Oxford. Le Carré published his first novel in 1961, but he truly established himself as a master of the spy genre in 1963 with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Many later works, including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and The Constant Gardener (2001), were adapted for television and the big screen.

Early Years

Author John le Carré was born David John Moore Cornwell on October 19, 1931, in Poole, Dorset, England. His dad, Ronnie, was a con man and social climber, his dealings resulting in wildly fluctuating periods of wealth and austerity for the family. Le Carré was 2 when Ronnie was imprisoned for fraud, and he was 5 when his mom, Olive, left home. 

Le Carré spent much of his childhood and adolescence in boarding schools, an experience he recalled for the beatings administered by faculty members. At 16, he left England to attend the University of Bern in Switzerland. 

University and Intelligence Service 

While studying German at Bern, John le Carré attracted the attention of a British foreign intelligence agent. He went to work for MI6, eventually being used to interrogate defectors from the Eastern Bloc. 

After enrolling at the University of Oxford in 1952, le Carré remained involved with British intelligence. This time, he was charged with keeping tabs on the school's far-left community for MI5. He graduated from Oxford's Lincoln College with a first-class honors degree in modern languages in 1956. 

Le Carré taught at Eton College for two years before rejoining MI5 in 1958, and then transferring to MI6 in 1960. Meanwhile, he was busy crafting a novel that drew from his experiences with the intelligence world, a work that was ready for publication in 1961. 

Literary Success 

Call for the Dead featured the introduction of John le Carré's most famous character, British foreign intelligence agent George Smiley. It also featured the debut of the author's nom de plume, as MI6 would not grant him permission to publish under his given name, David Cromwell. 

Le Carré struck it big with his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). A Cold War thriller about the pursuit of an East German agent, the book was hailed for its intricate plot and the moral ambiguities of its would-be heroes. The first of le Carré's novels to be adapted for film (1965), with Richard Burton in the role of protagonist Alec Leamas, its success enabled the author to retire from government service and become a full-time writer. 

Le Carré returned to the character of George Smiley for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), the first of the "Karla trilogy." The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley's People (1979) followed, with all three adapted for a highly acclaimed BBC series that starred Alec Guinness

In 1986, le Carré made waves with A Perfect Spy, an autobiographical novel about an agent seeking to reconcile his complicated feelings for his father as he writes his life story. It was widely viewed as a masterpiece, with fellow writer Philip Roth proclaiming it “the best English novel since the war.” 

The dwindling of the Cold War seemingly sparked a change of settings in le Carré's books, but he continued to produce gripping stories of espionage and covert operations in such novels as The Night Manager (1993) and The Tailor of Panama (1996). 

Later Years 

John le Carré continued to enjoy success into the new millennium, with works like The Constant Gardener (2001), A Most Wanted Man (2008) and Our Kind of Traitor (2010) all adapted for the big screen. Similarly, Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy was repackaged for theaters in 2011, with Gary Oldman in the role of George Smiley. 

In 2013, le Carré churned out novel No. 23, A Delicate Truth. In 2015, his long-awaited biography hit bookshelves, with author Adam Sisman unraveling much of the mystery surrounding the writer's childhood and years of government service. 

With interest in le Carré's works remaining high, The Night Manager aired as a miniseries in the spring of 2016. That summer, it was announced that similar plans were in the works for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Le Carré has fathered four sons from his two marriages. He lives with his second wife, Jane, outside of the port town of Penzance in southwestern England.

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