Family Life, Friends, and Espionage: The Graham Greene Papers Re-Opened

The papers of British author Graham Greene are now open to the public after careful reprocessing. Researchers will find the collection streamlined, with a more in-depth and detailed finding aid available online. Prior to this work, the collection was described in segments with finding aids only available in the Library. Now anyone interested in Greene or his papers will be able to see the complete story of the fascinating life of the writer of Our Man in Havana, The End of the Affair, and the classic film The Third Man.

Here are a few of the interesting aspects of Greene’s life represented in our collection, including his childhood and family life, his personal and professional relationships with famous actors, and his friendships with real-life spies.

Greene’s childhood and the School House Gazette

Graham Greene was born in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, England, in 1904. His father, Charles Greene, was a schoolmaster. Greene was one of six children. His family participated in many activities, including theatrical productions. Greene’s siblings also created a family newspaper entitled the School House Gazette. Though Greene was too young to participate much in the writing of the paper, which was “published” from 1911-1912, he appears occasionally in its pages in reports of family life, as the subject of mocking poems, and on the staff page where he is credited as “the office boy.”

Greene family in theatrical production, 1910s. Box 68, Folder 6, and The School House Gazette, Box 85, Graham Greene papers. MS.1995.003, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Relationship with famous actors

Greene’s works were adapted into films, musicals, plays, radio programs, and television shows. He made many acquaintances with people from the theater, film, and literary world, including actors, authors, directors, playwrights, and screenwriters. One famous person he formed a friendship with was actor Sir Alec Guinness.

Guinness first worked with Greene on Our Man Havana (1959), the same year Guinness was knighted. Guinness worked with Greene twice more: in The Comedians, a 1967 film adaptation of Greene’s book, directed by Peter Glenville, and Monsignor Quixote, adapted into a 1985 TV production directed by Rodney Bennett. Although their correspondence suggests that their paths crossed often, they did not work together again due to scheduling conflicts. Regardless, the two became friends. Greene regularly sent Guinness copies of his new books, and Guinness always wrote back.

Even if Greene and Guinness had never worked together they still would have been connected through the world of spies. Guinness played George Smiley in a TV mini-series of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979, directed by John Irvin).  The book is roughly based on the life of famous spy Kim Philby, with whom Greene worked during his years at the Secret Intelligence Service. While Guinness claimed in a note he sent to Greene that his performance in the film was not based on Philby, the 2011 remake of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy directed by Tomas Alfredson is said to take inspiration from Philby’s life and escapades.


Ephemera from the film Our Man in Havana. Bottom left: 1959 photograph of (left to right) Reed, Greene, and Guinness. Top left: Columbia Pictures press release announcing the film’s world premier. Top right: formal invitation to the premiere from Columbia Pictures to Greene. Bottom right: letter from Greene to Reed about script changes (1959 May 26).

Letters from Our Man in Havana film: correspondence, Box 58, Folder 18, and photograph credited to the National Film Archive from Our Man in Havana film: negatives and photographs, Box 68, Folder 41, Graham Greene papers, MS.1995.003, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Real-life spies

In 1941 Greene was recruited by the SIS (Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6) on the recommendation of his sister, Elisabeth, who worked for the organization. Greene was positioned in Sierra Leone and worked with Kim Philby, an SIS agent who was secretly spying for the Soviet Union. Though Great Britain and the Soviets were allies during the World War II, Britain did not trust their Russian allies enough to share many intelligence secrets with them. Soviet spies placed within the British government passed information along, most notably “the Cambridge Five” ring, of which Philby was a member. Philby, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1963, served as the inspiration for the character of Harry Lime in Greene’s The Third Man.

During his career as a spy Greene also befriended John Cairncross (whom he nicknamed “Claymore”), another intelligence agent who was later alleged to be “the Fifth Man” of the Cambridge spy ring. Cairncross, who recently appeared as a character in the film The Imitation Game, confessed to being a spy in 1951, but his status was not commonly known until the 1970s. Greene maintained correspondence with both Philby and Cairncross even after the revelations of their statuses as double agents. Ironically, Greene also corresponded with the author David Cornwell, better known by his pen name, John le Carré, who worked for MI6 to hunt out Soviet spies in the 1950s; they apparently had a dispute over Kim Philby, which Cornwell later apologized for in a letter.


A letter from Philby’s wife thanking Greene for his support for her husband; sheet music to Greene’s The Thrid Man theme; an exchange between Cairncross and Greene following reports of Cairncross’s role as a spy: “None of my friends seems worried about the stories, except possibly my excellent Swiss neighbours who want to be reassured that I am not continuing(sic) my metier d’espion,” Cairncross joked.

Letter from Eleanor Philby to Greene, 20 April 1968, Box 65, Folder 60; Letter from Greene to John Cairncross, 22 February 1980, Box 13, Folder 33; Letter from John Cairncross to Greene, 8 March 1980, Box 64, Folder 49; and The Third Man Theme sheet music, Box 61, Folder 10, Graham Greene papers, MS.1995.003, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
To learn more about the fascinating life of Graham Greene and about the Graham Greene papers, please consult the updated catalog record, read the new finding aid, or contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or
  • Annalisa Moretti and Xaviera Flores, Processing Assistants, John J. Burns Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

Located in the original Bapst Library building on Boston College's Chestnut Hill campus, the John J. Burns Library offers students, scholars, and the general public opportunities to engage with rare books, special collections, and archives.
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