Catherine Walston: The Beautiful Inspiration for “The End of the Affair”

As we discussed on the podcast, Graham Greene’s masterpiece The End of the Affair had a real-life basis: Greene’s affair with Catherine Walston, an American beauty whose “zeal for Catholicism was matched only by her insatiable lust.” (Quite a description!)

And of course, the Hollywood versions of Sarah (the character inspired by Walston) do justice to her beauty. Julianne Moore is perfectly cast: attractive, sure, but also smart and sensitive. Her beauty is a thinking man’s beauty, if that’s the right way to put it. She has depth. Character. Soul. That’s perfect for Sarah, who’s both pure and impure.

What about the real-life Catherine Walston? Can she measure up?

I’ll let you be the judge:


Good lord! She looks improbably beautiful. How was she not herself a movie star?

Here’s a side-by-side of her and Greene:


So beautiful, so doomed, so much heartbreak and sadness.

Look, I know this is superficial…but even so…it’s hard not to be swayed by superficiality sometimes.  We unbeautiful, uninteresting people sometimes need to just sit back and marvel at the lives led by others.

It’s okay. [Sigh.] It will all be okay.

Listen to our conversation about Graham Greene’s life and works or check out the other installments in the History of Literature podcast.

Graham Greene and…the Dalai Lama?

dalailama              greene

Hmm…I’m not sure I’m buying what Pico Iyer is selling here

Q: What is it about Graham Greene? If you put the Dalai Lama on one end of a continuum, Leonard Cohen would be somewhere nearby and Graham Greene would be way over on the other end.

A: An honest sinner. Many people are very shocked when I say that I see him in the same sense as the Dalai Lama. He’s someone who was straining for belief, failing to find it, but wanting to exercise kindness and conscience as much as possible in the world. Even though he failed you could see the respect he has for those qualities. He was a reluctant victim of his own hedonism. But I think deep down much more than most English writers of his time he was trying to make sense of the world and he was trying and failing to lead a better life.

I suppose his central question is … we’re on the streets in Haiti, a revolution has just broken out, somebody whom we’ve just met is asking for our help. He puts you right in the thick of a moral conundrum.

Huh. Is the Dalai Lama an “honest sinner”? Is he “straining for belief”? “[F]ailing to find it”?

You may have your own answers to those three questions. (Mine are not really, no, and not at all.)

Sorry, Pico! But the consolation prize: I think you nailed Greene, which is probably closer to what you were trying to do in the first place.

(And yes, I deliberately chose the word nailed there. Greene would have approved.)

Listen to our conversation about Graham Greene’s life and works or check out the other installments in the History of Literature podcast.

To Catch a Spy: Graham Greene’s Deathbed Revelation

It’s one of the great mysteries of Graham Greene’s life, and it may have cost him the Nobel Prize. I alluded to it in the podcast that Mike and I did on Greene’s life and works.

Philby_My_Silent_WarPart of it isn’t a mystery at all, of course. We know that Greene worked for Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI-6. (He was recruited there by his sister.) And we know that while he was there, he worked for Kim Philby, the real-life Third Man, the notorious double agent – probably the most notorious spy of the twentieth century.  And we know that after Philby defected to Moscow, Greene supported him. He wrote an introduction to Philby’s memoirs in which he depicted Philby’s treason with sympathy, suggesting that his devotion to Communism was a higher morality than loyalty to his country.

Those are all facts. We know that those things happened.

But did Greene get it right? Did he have the information he needed to make a solid judgment? Or was Greene being played by Philby?

It seems nearly impossible to imagine now, but there were whispers at the time: Philby wasn’t just a double agent working for the Soviets…he was a triple agent, secretly posing as a traitor in order to penetrate the KGB in Moscow. And this grand theory wasn’t just concocted by a salacious press or some idle screenwriter with time on his hands…the KGB itself thought it might be true.

What would that mean for Greene? Ron Rosenbaum, writing one of his typical magnum opuses in 1994, speculated on the consequences:

Imagine Greene’s distress, then, at the possibility that Philby had been not a Soviet double agent but a British triple agent. Greene had gone out on a limb to portray Philby as a passionate pilgrim, a sincere devotee of the Marxist faith — radically innocent rather than radically evil. But if, in fact, his friend had all along been an agent of the Empire, a hireling of Colonel Blimp, it would mean that Philby had been laughing at Greene. Not merely laughing at him, but using him, using him as cover. Graham Greene would turn out to be Kim Philby’s final fool.

“As a matter of urgency,” Cave Brown told me, “Greene summoned up enough energy to send for his papers, for all his literature relating to Kim and certain letters from him.”

Fascinating. Why would Greene want to read those letters? Certain letters? That definitely sounds like a man wanting to know the truth, wondering if he’d been deceived, hoping to find the answer. Rosenbaum again:

Cave Brown believes that Greene spent those last hours playing detective, sifting the literature and his memories of Philby for clues to the hidden truth about the role the ultimate secret agent played in the secret history of our century. And that Greene was preparing to respond to Sherry’s query with his last word on the Philby case. It would have been Greene’s summa, his ultimate espionage thriller. With little time left to live, Graham Greene was in a race against the clock.

Rosenbaum thinks he finds the answer through some marginalia in some manuscripts. As is so often the case with Ron Rosenbaum pieces, he promises a lot that he doesn’t deliver, and he takes thousands and thousands (and thousands and thousands) of words to get there. So I’m not going to send you to the piece and tell you to read the whole thing. I’m going to violate that particular rule of Internet etiquette this time.

Instead, I’ll jump to the end. Rosenbaum’s not sure if Greene ever satisfied himself that his assessment of Philby had been correct, or if he went to his grave wondering if he had been duped. Rosenbaum simply doesn’t know. But he posits an interesting theory, one consistent with Greene’s status as the great chronicler of the human side of espionage.

Perhaps the single most telling instance of Philby’s last great disinformation operation can be found in correspondence between him and Graham Greene over Greene’s novel “The Human Factor.” It was a book Greene wrote in the 60’s but didn’t publish until the late 70’s because it came so close to the Philby affair.

Many found resemblances to Philby and his predicament in Greene’s protagonist, a mid-level mole named Castle. Apparently, Philby did too. Greene had sent him a copy of the manuscript before publication, and Philby had made particular objection to one passage, at the very close of the book, when Castle, like Philby, has escaped to Moscow and is trying to adjust to his ambiguous position there.

The passage Philby objected to depicts Castle in a tiny, depressing apartment, amid stained, secondhand furniture, insisting over his malfunctioning telephone to his wife in London, that he’s quite content: “Oh, everyone is very kind. They have given me a sort of job. They are grateful to me. . . . ”

Philby wrote to Greene urging him to change this impression. It was misleading, melancholy. And, by implication, not at all like his circumstances in Moscow. Greene wrote back thanking Philby for the helpful suggestion, but he would not change the bleak mood.

Greene must have had the novelist’s sixth sense from this exchange that the melancholy portrait of the lonely mole in his Moscow apartment, vainly boasting how “grateful” everyone was, had struck home with Philby. That there was a truth to it Philby recognized, a truth about himself that all the tacky ribbons and trophies he gathered from his “grateful” fraternal K.G.B. comrades could not obscure.

Shortly after Graham Greene’s funeral, his biographer, Norman Sherry, visited the room where Greene had died. On a table next to the empty bed, he found the letter he’d written to Greene, the one asking for his final thoughts on Philby. Members of Greene’s family said that they had found no reply.

If Greene took a Philby secret to his grave, it might have had nothing to do with whether Kim was a double or triple agent. It might have had everything to do with the lonely man in the Moscow apartment.

Perhaps Greene saw through Philby’s last great lie, but — unlike Kim — he wouldn’t blow a friend’s cover.

Unlike Kim…and unlike Holly Martens, perhaps.

I’m referring, of course, to the great Joseph Cotten character in the film The Third Man. The one who faces a similar dilemma. A friend’s duplicity is exposed. Where do our loyalties lie? What action do we take?

Anyone who’s seen The Third Man knows how hard Greene thought about this. On the great ladder of morality, what rung does friendship occupy? Where does this good, decent quality – personal loyalty – blur into something negative…even something corrupt or evil?

Somewhere Harry Lime is back in the shadows, grinning at his friend’s discovery…and the richness of his dilemma.

Listen to our conversation about Graham Greene’s life and works or check out the other installments in the History of Literature podcast.

The Secret Diaries of Graham Greene


Here’s another fascinating story we didn’t get to during our hour-long conversation on the life and works of Graham Greene – the matter of his secret journals. I asked the President of the Literature Supporters Club to fill in the skinny:

Oh, I should have mentioned it on the podcast. Just a delicious detail. He kept parallel journals to HIDE HIS ADULTERY FROM HIS WIFE, one journal that he ‘allowed’ his wife to find, and another that he kept very hidden.

From the NY Times article “Damned Old Graham Greene”:

Aware that he led a hidden life, Greene developed a habit of evasion, an almost pathological inability to come clean. His secretiveness led him at times to keep a parallel diary, in which he might chronicle two versions of his day, one rather sober and preoccupied, the other perhaps detailing a frolic with a prostitute.

Listen to our conversation about Graham Greene’s life and works or check out the other installments in the History of Literature podcast.

Graham Greene and the Lolita Controversy

We talked for an hour, and yet we still barely scratched the surface of Graham Greene’s incredible life. Here’s one we didn’t get to: his role in bringing Lolita to the literary world’s attention – and inadvertently triggering the ban (which probably helped sales in the long run). Maria Popova has more:

When Lolita was first published in Europe in September of 1955, its first printing of 5,000 copies flew off the shelves, but the book remained largely under the radar of the literary establishment. It wasn’t until December of that year that Graham Greene catapulted it into public attention by declaring it one of the year’s three best books in a piece for London’s Sunday Times. And because rivaling publications thrive on provocation and at the heart of all cultural controversy is a powerfully charged battery of approval and disapproval, the editor of London’s Sunday Express went vocally against Greene, calling the novel “sheer unrestrained pornography” and “the filthiest book I have ever read.” The controversy stirred frantic alarm at the UK Home Office, which instructed customs agents to begin confiscating all copies of the book entering the United Kingdom.

Listen to our hour of conversation about Graham Greene’s life and works or check out the other installments in the History of Literature podcast.

The History of Literature Episode 39 – Reconsidering Graham Greene


Jacke and Mike reconsider the life and works of the great twentieth-century British novelist Graham Greene.  Works discussed include The End of the Affair, The Power and the Glory,The Quiet American, Babbling April, and The Third Man.


You can find more literary discussion at and more episodes of the series at

Contact the host at or by leaving a voicemail at 1-361-4WILSON (1-361-494-5766).

Music Credits:

Handel – Entrance to the Queen of Sheba” by Advent Chamber Orchestra (From the Free Music Archive / CC by SA).

Reconsidering Graham Greene


We have a good episode of the History of Literature coming up soon… a reconsideration of Graham Greene, one of the best novelists of the twentieth century – and also one of the most important.

During the recording I fumbled for this quote, but it still stands out:

For me one of the best, most true and moving novels of my time, in anybody’s language.

That’s William Faulkner, writing about Greene’s masterpiece The End of the Affair.

And here’s a treat. One minute and six seconds of heaven. Well, my kind of heaven, anyway:


Simply gorgeous.

You can subscribe to the History of Literature Podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. Or search for “History of Literature” in your Podcast app and subscribe that way.

Onward and upward, everyone! Happy Thursday!

The History of Literature Episode 38 – Great Literary Duos (Part Two)


When are two artists or characters more than the sum of their parts? How is that magic created? And what does it mean for the rest of us? Part two of a conversation with host Jacke Wilson and his guest, the President of the Literature Supporters Club, on great literary duos.


You can find more literary discussion at and more episodes of the series at

Contact the host at or by leaving a voicemail at 1-361-4WILSON (1-361-494-5766).

Music Credits:

Handel – Entrance to the Queen of Sheba” by Advent Chamber Orchestra (From the Free Music Archive / CC by SA).

“Sweeter Vermouth” by Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0


Female Action Movie Stars… in the 1910s!?!?

Wow. It has been a long time since an article has made me think (and rethink and rethink) as much as this piece in The Atlantic, The Forgotten Female Action Stars of the 1910s. I can’t get over it.

Just take a look at this publicity shot from 1918::


Here’s the description:

A city editor orders an armed female reporter to chase down a con man and “get the story.” A railroad telegrapher seeks vigilante-style justice against two robbers who attacked her. An adventure-seeking heiress outruns a giant boulder Indiana Jones-style … decades before Harrison Ford was ever born.

What? Did you know that this existed? Me neither!

More please!

In the current movie landscape, female action heroes tend to be so few and far between that their mere existence seems like an accomplishment (think: Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars, or the four stars of the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot). But more than a century ago, before women had even won the right to vote in many countries, actresses headed up some of the U.S’s most popular and successful action movies—even if they performed stunts in skirts that ended only a few inches above their ankles.

Incredible. So what happened? How did this come about?

And more importantly: why did it end?

The author of the piece, Radha Vatsal, has some ideas.

I invited Radha Vatsal onto the History of Literature podcast to discuss the article. She has her own book coming out, too: a murder mystery with a plucky female journalist at the center. In New York City. In 1915. What a fantastic idea – I can’t wait for my copy of the book to arrive (it’s available now for pre-order at

Radha and I talk about her research process, the rise of female journalists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the changes in the film industry, and developing the character of Kitty Weeks. Oh, and she picks four book recommendations. We discuss those too.

I’ll be posting the episode the first week of May. In the meantime, check out the Atlantic article. And imagine a time when Hollywood didn’t quite have such a stranglehold on the industry…and we could see different kinds of movies…maybe in the past…maybe in the future…

Sneak Preview: More Literary Duos!

Will the great Beatrice and Benedick make the list? Stay tuned!