Mistress of novelist John le Carré says affair was like a war mission

‘Without any notice at all, flowers would be delivered with a card that said: Fancy caviar and sex at 12.30?’ Mistress of spy novelist John le Carré says he conducted their secret affair as if it was a Cold War mission

  • Writing as the pseudonym Suleika Dawson, spills on her affair with John le Carre 
  • Lying in his house, Ms Dawson, said the author read her pages of his new novel
  • After ending the affair the woman said did not see the writer for at least 14 years 

David was waiting for me at St John’s Wood Underground station in North London. There was exhilaration in his expression. He seemed oblivious to the whipping winter cold. ‘Hurry up and come with me,’ he said. ‘I want you to see my new pad.’ We raced along hand in hand and turned into a side road off the high street, then into a small courtyard.

It might once have been an old mews or a merchant’s yard, but now it was new and shiny and residential. David unlocked an outer door and geed me up three flights of stairs to the apartment on the top floor.

‘Here!’ he said, excitedly turning his latchkey and flinging the door wide. ‘This is it!’

Inside was even colder than outside. The flat was small and neat but an unfinished shell, with nothing except painted walls and new carpet throughout. David’s new bolthole.

Suleika Dawson in Lesvos, Greece in 1983 

‘You’re the only one I’m ever going to let in here,’ he declared, and kissed me to set the seal on it. Within minutes we were lying on the factory-fresh wool twist carpet, doing what we did best – better than anybody ever, even fully clothed in the tomb-like cold, overcoats and all.

‘It’s hard to imagine it without you,’ he said as we left.

The next time I saw the flat, the magic wand of money had been waved over it. In the weeks since our chilly but heated session on the carpet, the place had been plumbed in, wired up and fully furnished.

As I arrived for lunch that day, David kept the front door to the flat open, smiling proudly. I was supposed to notice something, I realised. A thousand guesses wouldn’t have got me close.

‘Bulletproof!’ David declared happily and rapped his knuckles on the door, generating a hard metallic ring. ‘Solid steel facing, a quarter-inch thick.’

There was a spyhole, too – naturally – and when he shut us inside, the door closed with a heavy jailhouse clunk, which seemed to please him tremendously. There was champagne along with caviar and other goodies chilling in the fridge, but it all had to wait while we christened the new rug.

After that we had a picnic on the rug and after that we needed to launch the bed. Then I lay with my head on the crook of David’s arm while, for the first time, he read me the pages of his latest novel that he’d written there that morning. It was thrilling – astounding, in fact – to be so close to the man and to his process as he created what he was determined should be his finest book yet. I asked whether he had a title.

‘Yes,’ David answered contentedly. ‘It’s called A Perfect Spy. It’s going to be wonderful. I’m finally writing the book I want to be buried with.’

That evening, after we’d anointed the new and – I trusted – newly Scotchgarded sofa, we ate at a nearby Chinese restaurant.

As we sat with our menus, David said how wonderful it was to be free, to have finally escaped. ‘No one knows us here,’ he said with a sigh of real relief. ‘It feels like sanctuary at last.’ But he’d been tempting fate. David had been doing his usual room-scanning over the top of his menu when he suddenly gave a whispered exclamation. ‘Christ! It’s Freddie!’

I looked up and, sure enough, there was Frederick Forsyth. He and his wife Carrie had just walked in.

‘And he’s just clocked me,’ David added. ‘This should be interesting.’

I feel I should point out that if David hadn’t been sitting so that he could scan the entrance, Freddie would probably never have noticed him. There was a self-perpetuating aspect to David’s paranoia. ‘Good Lord!’ boomed the unmistakable phoney-colonel voice across the restaurant, as the author of The Day Of The Jackal made a beeline for our table. ‘David, old man – we meet at last!’

John Le Carre pictured in Zurich at the time of his affair with Suleika Dawson in 1984 

Other diners were turning to stare. Somewhere in the midst of it all I wasn’t quite introduced, but it didn’t appear to matter. Freddie was all for David and Carrie was all for me, saying that she was so pleased to meet me and whatever brought us here to their local? ‘What’s the betting they ask us over to their table for coffee and then back to their schloss for brandy and liqueurs afterwards?’ whispered David.

Chez Forsyth was a Spanish-style villa in one of the lusher St John’s Wood avenues, and Freddie and Carrie were very proud of it. They hadn’t had the house for very long and were thrilled to ribbons to be entertaining the Great Man. They seemed pretty thrilled to be entertaining me, too, which didn’t make sense at first, but after a few minutes the reason became clear.

‘Brandy, David?’ Freddie asked at the drinks trolley. ‘Thanks,’ he said.

‘What about you, Jane?’ This was the name of David’s wife. ‘Just a small one,’ I replied.

Freddie declared he wanted to pump David on his views regarding the state of the world’s secret services, though from the way their conversation progressed, it was apparent that what he actually wanted was to expatiate on his own views. Carrie, meanwhile, wanted me to tell her ‘everything about your lovely house’ – meaning David and Jane’s – ‘in Cornwall’.

It was all I could do to stop myself from inviting them down.

‘This is our place, my darling,’ David told me on virtually every occasion we were at the flat. I wasn’t going to commit the folly of believing there was any true substance to the claim. But I liked to hear him say it, all the same.

I saw it as a sign he was still taking steps towards a freer, easier and less encumbered existence than the one in which he was currently, by his own phrase, ‘banged up’. Whether he managed to achieve it by staying married or getting divorced didn’t matter to me.

We would meet often, but almost never without one or two dates being cancelled or rearranged first. Sometimes, with no notice at all, flowers would arrive first thing with a card that read: ‘Fancy caviar and a f*** at 12.30?’

This erratic on-off-on scheduling caused me a kind of semi-permanent background anxiety. But it was counterweighted by the wonderfully restorative order of events whenever we did meet.

I loved and adored David completely and utterly. Yet somehow he was always able to find ways to make me love and adore him even more after he had previously let me down.

If you remove the element of sex, this may also have been how a secret agent, a ‘Joe’, was run. Ensuring the continued acceptance of uncertain terms and conditions by offering treats and praise. In short, by turning the hazardous secret meetings into encounters of irresistible seduction.

It became my lingering suspicion that David was running me. Even when I wasn’t physically with him, I could still feel his control.

He started testing me. If I arrived while he’d stepped out to get something from the high street, he would leave his papers on his table arranged in such a way that he would know instantly if I’d looked at them.

I wonder now whether he left the flat deliberately to expose me to the temptation. He would have his protagonist Magnus Pym do the same thing in the new novel, to catch his wife out when they’re staying in their little house on Lesbos. But it wasn’t any temptation, since I knew David would read me whatever he wrote. He’d already shown me the most interesting items he kept in the flat: his collection of current passports, two dark blue British ones and three or four others in different colours, all in his name.

Being the secret mistress of the world’s foremost espionage novelist and a former MI5 and MI6 spy may naturally have coloured my vision in all this. Perhaps, back at my own flat, I was only imagining the strange new buzz on my telephone line whenever I picked up the receiver.

A short time into my relationship with David, I understood the first rule of Spy Club: deny everything. I’d once asked David what he would do if his wife Jane ever found out about us and he’d replied with exactly the same formula he’d used when she actually had challenged him about a previous lover: ‘I’d deny you – I’d deny you utterly.’

In the middle of May that year, David wanted me to go down to his place in Cornwall for a few days. He was waiting for me at Newquay airport and seemed really pleased that I’d made the effort. For the rest of that day and night, things were good between us.

We were talking easily over mid-morning coffee when the phone rang. David answered it where we were sitting. I soon gathered it was Jane. His voice acquired a tone of pained endurance and they seemed stuck in for a long exchange. I didn’t like the thought of hearing what was going on between them, so I took myself out of earshot into the sitting room, getting comfortable on the big red sofa in front of the fire.

The call ended and David came through to where I was sitting. I suppose I was anticipating a few words of appreciation for not hanging around to fag-end on their conversation. Or we might have started to make love on the sofa, as we had on every occasion I’d been at the house. But instead of moving in like a lover, David suddenly sprang on to me like an assailant.

He thrust me against the cushions, pinning me down with his whole body, his forearm pressing hard and rigid just underneath my throat. ‘You did that deliberately, didn’t you?’ he hissed in icy fury, his face close and savage, his eyes piercing. I had no idea what he thought I’d done or what he thought he was doing. He had me so I couldn’t move. I couldn’t respond for shock.

‘She heard you!’ he continued through bared teeth. ‘She heard your footsteps across the floor. “You’ve got someone with you,” she said. “I can hear her heels on the flagstones.” ’

His breathing came fast and shallow as he snarled out his wife’s accusation. ‘You knew she’d hear you if you walked away!’

I genuinely hadn’t given the possibility a thought. I’d been sure I was quiet. But in the insanity of the moment I was too stunned – and fearful – to be sure of anything.

Had my heels made a noise? Or was it simply that after a generous decade of David’s infidelity and denials, Jane had developed bat-like sonar to detect frequency changes at her husband’s end of a telephone line? I was out of my depth. I had no comprehension of the world he and his wife lived in.

I still hadn’t answered him, and in a quick expert shift of his body David inched his forearm up to my throat. ‘I was just trying to give you some privacy,’ was all I managed to say. He continued to rake his eyes over mine. ‘Your credibility hangs by a thread,’ he said at last, and let me go.

I can’t explain how we got through the rest of that day and the night that followed, or why I didn’t call for a taxi to take me to the airport or station or all the way back to London. I don’t know now why I stayed on and I absolutely didn’t know then. If there is any explanation then, as I’ve written before, it was that David’s hold over any situation was so absolute that it was as if he could bend reality, and one’s own reactions, to his will. This never happened again, but it was telling that it happened at all.

After spending much of the summer of 1984 with his family in Cornwall, David wanted to see me all the time. He managed to make things lovely again – so lovely that I once turned up at the St John’s Wood flat wearing nothing but my Burberry raincoat and high heels, to make it as lovely back for him.

‘And you really came all the way on the Tube like that?’ David repeated in awe after I’d told him, as if it were the most wondrous erotic notion ever.

We went together to Dawlish, the coastal town in Devon that David said he needed to get the feel of for the book. He met me off the train at Exeter St David’s and we drove the rest of the way, finding a room in one of the less jejune B&Bs.

We fell straight on to the bed for an Olympian session, the intensity of which surprised even David. In the evening we had an early pub supper of scampi and chips and went back to the B&B for further acrobatics. ‘If you ever take another lover, you’d better not let me find out about it,’ David told me as we finally turned out the light. ‘I’d know, anyway.’

He slept peacefully, his ghosts for once slaked, and woke me at dawn for round three. When we checked out – we may have been the only guests – I was puzzled to see the proprietor look sheepish and red-faced behind the front desk. David saw it, too.

‘Do you know what, my darling?’ he said as we walked to the car. ‘I reckon that fellow had a spyhole in the wall and was watching us. That’s why he couldn’t look me in the eye when I paid the bill. I think he rather felt he should be paying us.’

On the drive to Teignmouth station, where I was to catch the train back to London, David said how amazed he was by our sex life. ‘It’s just so different with you, my darling. Everything about the sex is so different, so much freer and truer. Everything in me is so much more willing. When you get a rotten little duty f***, you surrender very little.’

I’d never thought about it till then, but now my latest worry was that he was still availing himself of these when he wasn’t with me.

I asked him later why he still shared a bed with his wife. He sounded puzzled by my question and his answer only made my worry worse. ‘Then there really would be no point to the marriage,’ he said.

FOR the rest of the year, David was extraordinarily attentive. We saw each other all the time, frequently spending nights together at the flat. David said it was a new beginning, a new way forward. ‘Wait until the spring,’ he said. ‘That’s all. I’ll have done the book and then we can sort ourselves out. It’s not long, is it?’

He bought a new item for the flat – a cheval glass – and put it in the bedroom, strategically positioned by the bed. It was just what we needed to be even more narcissistic in our lovemaking – and for me finally to become his looking-glass whore.

David wanted one last getaway together before resigning himself to the family Christmas holiday in the Swiss Alpine resort of Wengen. In the middle of December we went to Zurich for four nights, staying at our usual hotel, the Dolder Grand.

After a wonderful evening in the city, we shared the most tender and truest lovemaking either of us had known in our lives.

The next morning, I woke early. David was lying beside me on his back, completely still, and I knew instantly that something wasn’t right.

In the semi-darkness I could see his eyes were open and staring blankly at the ceiling.

For one terrible moment, I thought he was dead. I reached out and laid my hand on his chest. But he gave no response to my touch.

He didn’t move. He was still staring at the ceiling. His voice was flat and empty, a terrible void. ‘You have to go back,’ he said. ‘I can’t be this happy.’

I didn’t go back, but I only know this because my diary entry gives the date of my return to London, alone, three days later. We must have done things together in that time, walked around together, had meals and drinks together. We must have had sex. But I have no recollection. I only know that for the first time in my life, I experienced a state of absolute despair.

And yet we continued to see each other. Whenever he and I were together over the next few months, which was often, at his flat or mine, he was loving and caring and solicitous and kind. I still loved him as much as ever, still wanted to go on loving him and knew he still loved me, perhaps even more than ever. He was still the most wonderful lover. And he talked about himself more than ever, as if desperate for me to understand him – not recognising that the problem was I already did.

However hard he tried to present the best of himself, after Zurich he just couldn’t revive the part of me he’d just shot out of the sky. Turning the happiest time ever into the worst, simply because it WAS the happiest time ever, was a paradox too far. He’d hung a sword of Damocles over our being that happy again and I didn’t think I’d survive it, if it ever fell. We made it through to the following summer. The book was finished and who knows what David may have had in mind for us next. I never found out.

I took no conscious decision to end things. But when we were at the flat one time, my body took the decision for me. I couldn’t hack the sex. It had always been the most extraordinary union, right from the first night.

Now it made me feel as if I were one of those unlucky addresses that keep getting burgled. Only there was nothing left to steal. That was when I knew I couldn’t go on. It was over.

I would not see David again for another 14 years…

  • Adapted from The Secret Heart: A Intimate Memoir by Sulika Dawson, published by Mudlark at £25. © Suleika Dawson, 2022. To order a copy for £22.50 with free UK delivery, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937 before October 30.

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