Cedric Belfrage — Hollywood promoter, superstar film critic, newspaper proprietor, philanderer and consummate self-publicist — was the unlikeliest of Soviet spies.
A trove of newly declassified documents, released on Friday by the British security service MI5, reveal him as a “sixth man” to stand alongside the notorious Cambridge Five spy ring that sat at the heart of British intelligence during the second world war and the early years of the atomic age.
Unlike the more famous quintet of his contemporaries, however, Mr Belfrage has been almost lost to history. He never defected to Moscow and he was never prosecuted for his crimes.
Details of his life, contained in nine volumes comprising hundreds of official top-secret documents, shed fresh light on the extent of the Soviet Union’s infiltration of Britain’s wartime spy networks — and the bloody-minded determination of British officials not to believe it.
They also paint a picture of a character even the most fanciful of espionage authors might struggle to invent: a Cambridge dropout who took his own manservant to college; a fixer for the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn; the highest-paid celebrity journalist in Britain; an award-winning translator of South American fiction; and author of more than half a dozen autobiographies.
Most importantly, though, from 1942 until 1944, Belfrage was employed by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) as the right-hand man of William Stephenson, who, as head of British Security Co-ordination (BSC) in New York, was the most senior British intelligence officer in the western hemisphere.
It was during this time that Belfrage was active as one of the USSR’s most prized assets. Indeed, for a period, according to Christopher Andrew, MI5’s former official historian, Moscow valued his output more highly than that of his contemporary Kim Philby, who went on to become arguably the most successful Soviet spy yet known.
Such a career is all the more remarkable, given his already colourful and politically active life, for Belfrage was a spy who hid in plain sight.
He was a member of the Communist party in the 1930s, set up a pro-communist newspaper in the 1940s and, during the height of the McCarthyite show trials in the US in the 1950s, was denounced by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
By his own design, he became a cause célèbre for the leftwing intelligentsia, which was under heavy surveillance. “I am not mysterious. There is absolutely nothing up my sleeve. To [Senator Joseph] McCarthy, [HUAC chairman Harold] Velde and the immigration service, I suppose I appear as a sort of sphinx,” he wrote in an exculpatory pamphlet after he was kicked out of the US in 1955.
It took British counter-intelligence years before they even began to worry about their former employee. “I note Belfrage was employed by your service,” BA Hill, a senior MI5 counter-terrorism official, wrote to his counterparts at MI6 in 1955, shortly after Belfrage was deported from America for communist sympathies, “and therefore almost certainly had access to a wide range of material?”
Hill was correct: US decrypts later revealed that Belfrage had passed highly sensitive information to his Russian handlers, including summaries of briefings with Winston Churchill.
It was only bad luck in the end that disrupted his activities.
In 1943, his handler, the Soviet agent Jacob Golos, known by the cryptonym “Sound”, died suddenly of a heart attack. Belfrage fell out of touch with Moscow. Then, in 1945, Golos’s replacement, Elizabeth Bentley, decided to defect to the US, taking the identities of 30 agents with her.
In 1947, Belfrage was picked up by the FBI for questioning. He freely admitted passing documents to the Soviets, but he had a cunning defence: he told US agents that although genuine, the documents — including a Scotland Yard guide to breaking and entering, with contributions from “prominent burglars of England” — had been meaningless bait. He was working on MI6’s orders, he said, to entice the Russians into giving him back even more valuable information.
When the FBI sought clarification from the British, they hit a brick wall. MI6 insisted it could not give up any information on Belfrage that could be “actionable”, as this was contrary to their intelligence-sharing principles.
Others detected less high-minded motives. “It might be embarrassing even to give a reply [to the FBI] since it would mean that we should have to admit that [MI6] has employed a man with a known communist interest in their organisation in the USA,” noted an official telegram from MI6 to MI5.
As would prove to be the case with Philby, British spymasters feared rupture with their American counterparts more than facing down the truth of their own vulnerabilities.
They had missed plenty of red flags. In 1943, the files reveal, Belfrage pushed his boss hard to employ Samuel Landon Barron at BSC. Barron failed his vetting as he was a suspected Russian agent.
In 1946, Belfrage came across MI5’s path again when he left his wife for a year in order to have an affair with a translator at BSC, Trude Gangadharen. Undercover agents watched him meet her underneath the clock in New York’s Grand Central station for a tryst. Mrs Gangadharen was being watched because she was suspected of being a Russian spy.
After his deportation from the US, nothing ever came of the case against Belfrage. MI6 remained reluctant to reveal what it did and did not know. MI5 kept surveillance tabs on him for years later, but to no avail.
Though feted as a celebrity and courted by Britain’s Communist party for speaking events and articles, as far as the agency’s watchers could tell, he never made contact with Moscow centre again.
He died in Cuernavaca, Mexico, looked after on his deathbed by his fifth wife, in 1990.
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