Sex, Spies and Scandal The John Vassall Affair
By Alex Grant
In September 1962, John Vassall, a clerk at the Admiralty in London, was unmasked as a Soviet spy. After being photographed in compromising positions while working at the British embassy in Moscow, Vassall was blackmailed into handing British defence secrets over to his Soviet handlers for seven years.
While there have been several successful books and film adaptations about the Profumo, Jeremy Thorpe and Duchess of Argyll affairs, the story of John Vassall, who was responsible for a more serious intelligence breach, is ripe for retelling. It has everything: a honey trap, industrial-scale espionage, 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 a neglected spy scandal. Despite having been drugged and sexually assaulted 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. Once released, he found that many of his old friends and lovers had been persecuted or dismissed from the civil service in Britain, America and Australia. Unlike the Cambridge Five, who courted attention, after leaving prison Vassall changed his name to avoid the media and lived quietly in London.
Including atmospheric detail about Dolphin Square – a hotbed of political intrigue but also a safe haven for members of the LGBT community – in the 1950s and ’60s, this is an explosive tale of sexual violence, betrayal, conspiracy, snobbery, homophobia and hypocrisy that blows apart some of the British establishment’s darkest secrets.
“What an eye-opener! Meticulously researched with no stone left unturned.”Nigel West, author of Classified!, Operation Garbo and MI5 in the Great War
‘‘John Vassall’s treachery was far more damaging than the Cambridge Spies or the Profumo affair, yet his story is underplayed in spy books of the era. Alex Grant reveals the layers of hypocrisy, homophobia and an establishment cover-up in this gripping biography of a man we should understand better.”Helen Fry, historian of intelligence and espionage
“Alex Grant’s biography of Vassall, Sex, Spies and Scandal, is a sympathetic telling of this largely forgotten cold war episode ... Grant’s biography is good on the anti-gay paranoia that gripped British institutions in the 1950s and 1960s, wrecking lives and causing misery.”The Observer
‘‘John Vassall’s impact on official attitudes towards the queer community cannot be understated … 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 officer, chairman of Rank Outsiders, LGBTQ+ campaigner and motivational speaker
“Alex Grant understands John Vassall better than he ever did himself.”Richard Davenport-Hines, historian and author of The Pursuit of Oblivion, An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in The Age of Profumo and Enemies Within
“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.’’Richard Norton-Taylor, former security editor of The Guardian and author of Blacklist: The Inside Story of Political Vetting, The State of Secrecy: Spies and the Media in Britain and Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry
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- Hardback, 464 pages
- ISBN: 9781785907883
- 23 January 2024
- ISBN: 9781785908286
- 23 January 2024