Home | Sitemap | Books | Poems | Recordings | News | Notes | Criticism | Links | Newsletter | Archives | Members | Copyright | Search

Clouseau Investigates Auden

By Edward Mendelson

(The following note was prompted by the many press reports on the release of the files from the MI5 archive about Auden's possible connection with the flight of the Soviet spies Burgess and Maclean in 1951. Most of the reports took MI5's suspicions seriously; a fairly mild example may be found on the BBC web site.)

None of the documents in the MI5 file on W. H. Auden, released to the public in March 2007, is signed by Inspector Clouseau, but his handiwork is visible everywhere - both in the file itself and in the headlines that announced, "Auden evaded MI5 quiz", "How Auden may have helped Burgess flee Britain", and "Auden fled to avoid Cambridge spy interrogation". The headline-writers are less at fault than the MI5 operatives who decided that Auden had gone underground, precisely when he was more in the public eye than he had ever been before.

If MI5 had switched on the radio while searching for Auden, they might have heard him being interviewed at the premiere of Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress, for which he and Chester Kallman had written the libretto. If they had opened a newspaper, they might have seen pictures of him bowing from the footlights in Venice. MI5, in its desperation to locate the elusive Auden and interrogate him about the flight of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, never noticed that the Italian press had been reporting for weeks on the rehearsals for The Rake in Milan, where Auden was coaching the La Scala chorus in English pronunciation. Inspector Clouseau's notes report only the highly suspicious circumstance that during these weeks Auden had decamped for a "prolonged absence in the North of Italy."

Much of Auden's MI5 file concerns a telephone message that Burgess left for Auden at Stephen Spender's house, where Auden had been staying in May 1951, a few days before the two diplomats fled to the Soviet Union. Auden never returned Burgess's phone call, and Burgess later told Tom Driberg that he had phoned - before he realized that he would need to flee together with Maclean - in order to arrange a holiday visit to Auden's summer home in Ischia, a visit proposed by Burgess when he had spoken with Auden in New York a few months before.

Burgess and Maclean left England on 25 May 1951. MI5's contacts in Italy reported that Auden, having left London, arrived in Ischia on 28 May 1951. This raised suspicions that Auden had gone to Italy in order to help Burgess hide away, although, as MI5 could have learned from any of a dozen people, Auden had returned to Italy at the end of a long-planned three-week visit he had made to the UK partly to help with the rehearsals for a BBC broadcast on 21 May of his translation of a play by Jean Cocteau - another event too obscure for MI5 to discover.

Spender reported to MI5 (or to an informant) that he had told Auden about Burgess's call, and that Auden had responded that Burgess must have been drunk. On 29 June, however, MI5 noted that the Italian police said that Auden had denied having heard about Burgess's call. Another informant reported that Auden "reluctantly admitted that Spender was probably right" in saying that he had told Auden about the call. At this point, someone in MI5 noticed that Auden had in fact gone public about the matter two weeks earlier, when the Daily Express reported that Auden said Burgess had called but that Spender had not immediately told him about it. Many memos in the file raise the question whether Spender or Auden was lying, although it was noted that Auden had been drinking heavily when Spender claims to have told him about the call. Someone at MI5 noted that telegrams had been received from MI6 "clearing up these divergent views, but for the moment I cannot put my hand on them."

What probably occurred is that Auden was drunk when Spender told him about the call and forgot it the next morning, but remembered it when asked about it later. Inspector Clouseau, meanwhile, began filing memos demanding to know whether Burgess had phoned Auden on Ischia on 24 May - when, as MI5 knew perfectly well, Auden was still in London. The Naples police were insisting that Auden had indeed taken a call in Ischia from Burgess on that date, despite the physical impossibility of his receiving a call in Italy while he was in London. MI6 again provided a note of sanity by suggesting that the Italian police must have been mistaken.

Meanwhile, MI5 perceived Auden's further movements in Italy as suspiciously evasive. Following Auden's "prolonged absence in the North," when his whereabouts were known to newspaper readers and BBC listeners but unknown to MI5, Auden was now recorded as having returned to Capri for "only two days prior to leaving for the United States." MI5 was wrong again. Auden had returned to Ischia, not Capri, and stayed there for a week before returning to New York in late September - following exactly the same schedule that he had followed at the end of the three previous summers. His departure for New York was scarcely the attempt at evasion that recent news reports suggest: his address was listed in the Manhattan telephone directory, where it presumably could have been found by the FBI (which, as MI5 noted, wanted to interview him).

In August 1951, while MI5's agents were exchanging urgent messages about Auden's left-wing political sympathies, the first newspaper reviews of Richard Hoggart's Auden: An Introductory Essay were publicizing Auden's rejection of his Marxist views of the 1930s and his return to Christianity around 1940. At this time MI5 was also hard at work trying to identify Auden's "younger brother," a mythical figure who was reported to have left a telephone message for Burgess at the Reform Club in 1946. Auden in fact had no younger brother, but MI5's summary of its findings identifies him as one Arthur G. Auden, a name otherwise unknown to history, whom an alert agent had uncovered in the London telephone directory. The whole story was told twenty-five years ago in Humphrey Carpenter's W. H. Auden: A Biography, but the reporters who rushed into print with "new revelations" from the MI5 file understandably refrained from mentioning this fact.

In 1953 MI5, having concluded at last that Auden had nothing to do with Burgess's disappearance or anything else worth their attention, cancelled its order to track his arrivals in the UK. Inspector Clouseau had evidently been transferred to the Sūreté.

February 2007

©2007 Edward Mendelson

Return to the list of notes or to The W. H. Auden Society home page