In the autumn of 1993, author David John Moore Cornwell, known to the world by his pen name, John le Carré, received a fan letter from a reader in Los Angeles, who had been prompted to read The Night Manager after seeing him talking about it on television. She deplored the fact that such a serious novel should be stocked in the ‘mystery’ section of the bookstores. In his reply, he thanked her for writing “so interestingly … I was very touched by all you had to say, and fascinated by many of your insights.” She wrote again, and a correspondence began that would last more than two years. Because they lived so far apart, their relationship was almost entirely epistolary, but it quickly became intimate. Though David’s first letter was typed, all his subsequent letters were handwritten, most of them early in the morning, or late at night, often with a glass of whisky at his side. What she had written had piqued his interest and made him want to continue the contact. “You write a lovely letter,” he told her. “I really enjoy knowing you. Are you safe? Who are you?”
She was Susan Anderson, a museum curator and published poet with ambitions to write fiction herself, successful in her career but discontented in her marriage and ready for an adventure. I was unaware of her existence until I came across two letters David wrote to her in the collection edited by his son Tim and published in 2022. I made contact with her by email, and subsequently we had several long conversations via Zoom. It cannot have been easy for her to discuss her intimate past with a complete stranger, and I was impressed by her frankness, articulacy and insight.
She told me that she had never before read John le Carré when she happened to catch the episode of the Charlie Rose show in which David was interviewed for an hour, talking both about The Night Manager (then recently published) and more generally about what he would write now that the Cold War was over. By this time in his early sixties, he looked healthy and relaxed, wearing an open-necked denim shirt which contrasted with the suit worn by his interviewer. As always he spoke fluently and eloquently, in a soft, mellifluous voice. To Susan he appeared both vital and handsome. She had been delighted by the progressive views he expressed, especially his disparagement of empire.
Though normally snooty about “thrillers,” Susan had been persuaded to buy his book, and had read it on a trip to the Caribbean, where much of the action of the novel was set. By the time she returned, she was “a bit obsessed.” She had just turned 40, which seemed to her a landmark in her life. She longed to be a mature, desired woman, “like Jeanne Moreau: no longer girlish, but ripe, alluring, and wise,” as she would say. Her letters have not survived, but she kept all of his, which makes it possible to trace the history of their relationship in detail. They show how tightly his work and his emotional life were intertwined; and how much his composure depended on his ability to write.
Most of David’s letters to Susan are quite long, often six or seven pages in extent. He wrote to her on average once every three weeks, sometimes more frequently, sometimes less. At least one of his early letters was put aside unfinished and resumed several weeks later. In them he told her about his work, his life in Cornwall, and aspects of his past that helped to explain why he was the way he was. “I like talking to you, & you’re a great talker back, and your letters are in my memory locked, & you alone have the key to them,” he wrote in his third letter, dated 7 February 1994; and made “one serious request,” that she would give him the same assurance. “Sometimes just writing to you unlocks me, like writing to my muse … But sooner or later we must peek through the keyhole in the confession box, & find out who we are, I suppose …”
In his early letters he seemed to have been probing the boundaries of their relations, testing the limits of what was acceptable. “I don’t want to ask you whether you’re married, though I sense that you are,” he continued: “actually I don’t want to ask you anything ordinary at all, whether you are sixty or thirty or long or short or white or black … I want to ask you for a photograph, but that would be too like casting.” (Soon afterwards she would send him a photo, revealing that she was, as perhaps he suspected, a woman of color, with luxuriant curling dark hair.)
In the same letter he confessed that on a recent brief visit to Los Angeles to meet the director Sydney Pollack, to discuss making a movie of The Night Manager, he had contemplated telephoning to ask her out to dinner—“but then I fretted and thought I might embarrass you—or something, I don’t know, & maybe that there just wasn’t the space, & maybe writing is what we like better. Does that feel like a great betrayal or a great relief?”
“Yours was a very sexy letter,” he added in a postscript, and asked her to write in future to a different address, “because it’s more private for me”: c/o John Miller at Sancreed House. “That’s my dead letter box for really disgraceful correspondence.” He instructed her that letters to him should be sealed inside an envelope addressed to Miller.
This method of communication incurred delays, and the intervals between posting a letter to the other side of the world and receiving a response led to several misunderstandings. To mitigate this danger he began to use an express postal service called Swiftair, though this necessitated a visit to the post office each time he wanted to communicate with her. He was reluctant to talk on the telephone “because (1) I hate the phone and (2) something changes – I need to see you, touch you, once I have heard your voice … the phone will definitely unsettle both of us.”