The Chance Encounter That Created an Iconic Fictional Spy

   Tamás Mészáros / Pexels


Tamás Mészáros / Pexels

He was the James Bond of the very depressed. He was the Jason Bourne of the somber and hardly sober. He was Alec Leamas, personification of the dark, destructive nature of life in a secret world as created by espionage author John Le Carre. And, it turns out, the famous spy was thought up by Le Carre after an extremely brief encounter with a stranger in an airport bar.

Leamas is the protagonist from Le Carre's immensely popular 1963 novel "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold." In the novel, Leamas is described as an aging, lonely and desperately cynical British intelligence agent tasked with a final mission to trick Britain's Cold War foes into believing he is ripe for defection. To that end, he purposefully tears down what little of him he has left -- physically, financially and psychologically.

"The process of going to seed is general considered a protracted one, but in Leamas this was not the case. In the full view of his colleagues he was transformed from a man honourably put aside to a resentful, drunken wreck -- and all within a few months," the book reads in a chapter titled "The Decline." "... Rather to people's surprise, Leamas didn't seem to mind being put on the shelf. His will seemed suddenly to have collapsed... He took less care of his appearance and less notice of his surroundings, he lunched in the canteen which was normally the preserve of junior staff, and it was rumoured that he was drinking. He became solitary, belonging to that tragic class of active men prematurely deprived of activity; swimmers barred from the water or actors banished from the stage."

Fifty-three years after the publication of that novel, Le Carre revealed in his 2016 autobiographical book "The Pigeon Tunnel" that his famed character Leamas was built on a stranger Le Carre happened across in an airport bar in London.

"[A] stocky man in his forties plopped onto a barstool beside me, delved in his raincoat and poured a handful of loose change in half-a-dozen currencies onto the bar," Le Carre recounts, as quoted in a review of "The Pigeon Tunnel" in the CIA's Studies on Intelligence [PDF]. "With a fighter’s thick hands, he raked through the coins till he had enough of one currency. 'Large Scotch,' he ordered. 'No bloody ice.' It was all I ever heard him say, or so I now believe, but I fancied I caught a whiff of Irish in his voice. When his glass came, he ducked his lips to it in the practiced movement of a habitual drinker and emptied it in two gulps. Then he shuffled off, looking at nobody.

"For all I’ll ever know, he was a commercial traveler down on his luck. Whoever he was, he became my spy, Alec Leamas."

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