Cover 9781785907883

Sex, Spies and Scandal is the story of John Vassall, a civil servant who was unmasked as a Soviet spy in 1962. Having been photographed in compromising positions while working at the British embassy in Moscow in 1954, Vassall was blackmailed into handing over secrets from the British Admiralty to his Soviet handlers, both in Moscow and in London, for more than seven years.

There has been a rash of successful recent books and film adaptations on the Profumo, Thorpe and Duchess of Argyll affairs. The story of John Vassall, who was responsible for a far more serious intelligence breach than Profumo, is ripe for retelling. It has got the lot – a honeytrap, spying on an industrial scale, journalists jailed for not revealing their sources, and the first modern tabloid witch-hunt, which resulted in a ministerial resignation and almost brought down Harold Macmillan’s government.

With access to newly released MI5 files and interviews with people who knew Vassall from the 1950s until his death in 1996, this book sheds new light on the neglected spy scandal of the early 1960s. Despite having been drugged and then raped by the KGB in Moscow, as a gay man John Vassall was shown no mercy by the British press or the courts. Sentenced to eighteen years in jail, he served ten years despite telling MI5 everything about his spying. Outside, he found that many of his old friends and lovers had been persecuted or dismissed from the civil service in Britain, the US and Australia. Unlike the Cambridge Five, who courted attention, on leaving prison Vassall had to change his name to avoid the press and lived quietly in London.

Including atmospheric detail on Dolphin Square in the 1950s and ’60s – a hotbed of political intrigue but also a safe haven for members of the LGBT community – this is an explosive tale of sexual violence, betrayal, cover-up, homophobia and hypocrisy that blows open some of the British establishment’s darkest secrets.


“John Vassall’s impact on official attitudes towards the queer community cannot be overstated, not least in the armed forces, where it led to decades of cruel oppression. Alex Grant’s biography is a detailed and gripping account of a man forced into treachery and a must-read for those interested in the Cold War.”

Duncan Lustig-Prean, former Royal Navy Commodore and LGBT+ campaigner

“Alex Grant understands John Vassall better than he ever did himself.”

Richard Davenport-Hines, author of An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo

Sex, Spies and Scandal is a long-overdue biography of a largely forgotten British spy whose significance has been overshadowed by more exotic scandals of the 1960s. Alex Grant has written an important, illuminating and sympathetic account of a victim of vicious Soviet blackmail and British homophobia. John Vassall was a lonely and hopelessly naive gay man whose impact – political, diplomatic and social – thoroughly belies his description as a lowly Admiralty clerk.”

Richard Norton-Taylor, author of The State of Secrecy: Spies and the Media in Britain
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  • Hardback, 352 pages
  • ISBN: 9781785907883
  • 23 January 2024
    Available to pre-order
  • £20.00

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  • ISBN: 9781785908286
  • 23 January 2024
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