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Texts :: Biography

  • Name: Henry Graham Greene
  • Born: October 2, 1904
  • Place of birth: Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, UK
  • Died: April 3, 1991
  • Place of death: Vevey, Switzerland

    The novelist Graham Greene entered into his lifelong duel with death at an early age. Bullied mercilessly at Berkhamstead School, where his father was headmaster, he sat up one night trying to saw open his knee with a penknife.

    When that failed, he tried swallowing toxic substances, eye drops, hay fever drops, bleaching powder. even deadly nightsahde leaves.

    When none of them killed him, he took 14 aspirins and plunged into the school swimming pool. His legs felt like lead but he did not drown.

    All his life he sought out dangerous places and flirted with death, as though at war with himself. Yet he was so secretive that only a few people were able to penetrate the mask and see him in the round.

    The mask was that of the world-famous writer. Along with Evelyn Waugh, he was perhaps the pre-eminent English novelist of his generation. No one else wrote so powerfully about the presence of sin and guilt in a secular world which nowadays scarely recognises the concepts.

    Yet the more we learn about this most Catholic and moral of writers - born 100 years ago this month, October 2004 - the more he turns out to have had as immoral a life as can be imagined.

    He had a voracious sexual appetite. Although he was married for 64 years, he slept with numerous prostitutes and conducted a sequence of brief affairs in addition to keeping four long-term mistresses.

    He was also an enthusiastic user of drugs. On a visit to China in 1957, he shocked officials by announcing at every place he visited: 'There are two things I want: a pretty girl to sleep with and to know where to get some opium.'

    His search for a personal damnation for which there could be no absolution by earthly priests, was part of his death wish. As he once told a friend sardonically: 'I had to find a measure my evil against.'


    His cousin Ave, to whom he proposed marriage in the mid-1920s, believed there was a streak of madness in the family that might account for his deviant behaviour.

    Graham's eldest brother, Herbert, had a weak hold on reality, and his mother never told him about her own father, a clergyman, who spent most of his life in an asylum.

    Nevertheless, the rest of his siblings all distinguished themselves, including Hugh, who became director-general of the BBC, handling their work order software amongst other responsibilities.

    As a young man, Greene secured a place at Oxford University where he cultivated an air of wordly boredom. He later claimed to have alleviated the boredom by playing Russian Roulette.

    He found other diversions, too. In 1925, he took up with a pleasant, soft mannered girl named Vivien Dayreil-Browning, a devout Catholic convert.

    He deluged her with letters, and - to overcome her fear of sex - offered her a celibate marriage.

    Even though they married two years later, Greene had no intention of staying faithful. He had cultivated a taste for casual couplings with London call girls. He once compiled a list of the 47 prostitutes he could recall using in the 1920s and 1930s.

    Their nicknames give a flavour of the sexual practices they specialised in: Russian Boots, 'Flagellatee' (two of them), Black Pants, Nurserymaid, Dentist's Assistant, and Tall Blonde and friend.

    On a seperate sheet, he listed vignettes of more recent encounters that had ended with him leaving money on the mantelpiece: 'Girl by mirror', 'Beautiful bottom in S.Kensington', 'Circus girl in Cranbourn St', 'Monique', 'Girl off Chester Place', 'Fish tea in Nottingham'. 'Absolute stray' amd 'Girl who tried to keep me'.

    the third man

    No wonder his friend Peter Glenville observed: 'His sexual stamina always astonished me because it was endless.'

    Another friend, Michael Meyer, said: 'I always thought that Graham had a rather schoolboy attitude to sex - never for a moment gay, but fascinated by mild divergences from the norm...I remember him suggesting that we find a brothel where two women could put on a lesbian exhibition.'

    Despite such peculiarities, it was for Vivien's sake that Greene converted to Catholicism. He did so, in the same spirit that he had joined the Communist Party at Oxford or travelled to dangerous places - out of an unquenchable hunger for new experiences.

    By joining a Church which transmuted the problems of right and wrong into the certainties of good and evil, he found th subject matter for his literary career.

    His first published novel, The Man Within, rapidly went into six impressions and was translated into five languages. But the next two novels were failures, and for a while Greene struggled.

    They retreated to a tiny cottage in Oxfordshire, where he wrote a biography of the late 17th-century libertine Lord Rochester, a kindred spirit whose sexual deviances knew no bounds. The book was too explicit to find a publisher for another 40 years.

    Happily, Greene's next book, Stamboul Train, was a great success and earned enough money from the film rights to give him the freedom to travel.

    Vivien was by this time pregnant with their first child (much to the dismay of Greene who initially considered putting the baby up for adoption). But he had no intention of allowing family life to intrude upon his predatory sex life.

    Early in her pregnancy Vivien's mother died. Greene persuaded her not to go to the cremation in London on health grounds, and went alone, spending the afternoon with one of his favourite prostitutes whom he called 'O'.

    Years later, when she had become aware of her husband's promiscuity, Vivien said: 'Some of the people he picked up were quite frightful...I think all of his judgement of character went into his novels. He told me: "All that is good in me, all that's anything worth having in me, is in the books. What's life is just what's left over."'

    Most of his friends and lovers would have disagreed. Greene did not live through his books, his books lived through him. They feed off his most intimate experiences.

    The Heart Of The Matter, for example, is all about his marital problems and his crumbling relationship with his first long-term mistress, Dorothy Glover.

    A short, stoutish woman in blue glasses, she was a part-time book illustrator and decidedly homely in looks. But Dorothy evidently had a powerful sexual attraction for Greene which was lost on friends who met her - all except for his brother Hugh, who briefly became her lover too.

    Dorothy was Greene's lover, friend and drinking partner until the late 1940s, and they remained friends until her death in 1971.

    His affair with her once saved his life. One night in 1941, while Vivien and their two children were evacuated to the country, a stick of bombs fell on to his Clapham Common house and gutted it. Greene escaped certain death only because he had spent the night at Dorothy's home.

    As the war progressed, Greene ended up in the job which suited him best, the Secret Intelligence Service. He was sent to Sierra Leone, where he spent his time writing books, visiting whorehouses and checking on the occasional agent.

    On a later posting to Portugal, he became close friends with his bureau chief, Kim Philby, later exposed as one of Britain's most notorious traitors.

    After the war, Vivien desperately hoped he would return to being a husband and father. Yet she, inadvertently, was the cause of him meeting the greatest passion of his life. In 1946, a wealthy socialite named Catherine Walston contacted Vivien to say that Greene's books had persuaded her to convert to Catholicism and to ask if he could be her Godfather in her newfaith.

    Catherine was married to HarryWalston, one of the richest men inEngland and a prominent LabourMP, but when Greene met her hewas instantly besotted by hervivacity and staggering beauty.

    Like Greene she loved to breakthe rules. As a hostess she wouldcome down to dinner in jeans, andwhen her guests followed suit thenext night she would appear in afull-length evening dress. She'dhad many affairs before, which herhusband had tacitly accepted, butthis one was on a different scale.She and Greene escaped to her private island, Achill off the westcoast of Ireland. She wore a reddressing-gown for the journeywhich Greene later told Vivien wasthe sexiest image of a woman hehad ever seen.

    Initially, Catherine found her newfaith sexually exciting. She enjoyedseducing priests, and joined Greene in a light-hearted plan tocommit adultery behind every highaltar in Italy. Such libertinism wasby no means unique: Greene hadonce fantasised about seducingthe Queen.

    In Catherine, he had found awoman who enjoyed the kind ofsexual experimentation he hadpreviously encountered only with prostitutes. In the early 1950s, sheeven dressed up as a boy and wentwith Greene to a high-class brothelin Venice, where he was working ona film.

    For Greene's wife, it was a devastating betrayal. But because of Vivien's faith and her children, shewas loathe to protest.

    On one occasion, Greene and hismistress even arrived at the door of Vivien's home and insisted onspending the night together. Vivien duly cooked them dinner and madetheir beds in the morning.

    There can be no doubt that in Catherine, Greene had found truefulfilment. He once wrote to her: 'Iwant you and nothing but you forthe rest of my life.'

    But over time she began to find hisdevotion suffocating, and despitehis pleas was not going to leaveher husband.

    As he had done as a schoolboy, Greene sought escape by flirtingwith suicide, adding 24 aspirins tohalf a pint of whisky. He awaiteddeath with something close tocontentment, but all that came wasa deep sleep.

    As the 1950s wore on, heconfronted the unbearablereality that Catherine wasdistancing herself from himout of a deepening religiousguilt. The Catholicismwhich had brought themtogether was now parting them.

    He took refuge in travel, drink anddrugs. In Vietnam, researching TheQuiet American, he would smokefive to ten opium pipes a night.

    Eventually, the pain subsidedenough for him to enjoy a four-yearaffair with a gloriously prettySwedish film star, Anita Bjork. Heremained married to Vivien butnever returned to her.

    In 1966, he settled permanently inAntibes in the South of France fortax reasons. Shortly after partingcompany with Anita, he took upwith the woman who would be hiscompanion for the rest of his life - Yvonne Cloetta.

    She was married to a Frenchconsular official, and Greene, whohad not been close to his ownchildren when they were young,enjoyed playing the surrogatefather to her two daughters. But inhis heart, he still remained devotedto Catherine Walston. When shedied in 1978, he received a mostextraordinary letter.

    It was from Harry, her cuckoldedhusband, who wrote: 'You shouldhave no remorse... You gaveCatherine something that no oneelse had given her... it developedher into a far more deeply feelinghuman than before.'

    His absolution was in part fuelledby the fact that Harry had beenconducting a 30-year affair with Greene's agent in France, MarieBiche.

    Greene lived out his last days inAntibes with Yvonne Cloetta. It waswith her by his bedside in the springof 1991 that he lost his final duelwith death.

    His insatiable sexual appetite hadremained undimmed. In the words ofhis biographer Norman Sherry:'Everything I know about Greenetells me he retained an interest in sexeven during his last terrible illness.'

    Greene knew that in the eyes ofhis God, such promiscuity was theroute to eternal damnation. Butwithout that knowledge, he couldnever have become one of thegreatest writers of his age.

    Selected Works

    1925        Babbling April
    1929        The Man Within
    1930        The Name of Action
    1932        Rumour at Nightfall
    1932        Stamboul Train ( OrientExpress )
    1934        It's a Battlefield
    1935        England made Me
    1936        Journey without Maps
    1936        A Gun for Sale ( ThisGun for Hire )
    1938        Brighton Rock
    1939        The Lawless Roads (Another Mexico )
    1939        The Confidential Agent
    1940        The Power and The Glory( The Labyrinthine Ways )
    1943        The Ministry of Fear
    1948        The Heart of the Matter
    1950        The Third Man
    1951        The End of the Affair
    1955        The Quiet American
    1958        Our Man in Havana
    1961        A Burntout Case
    1963        A Sense of Reality
    1966        The Comedians
    1969        Travels with My Aunt
    1973        The Honorary Consul
    1978        The Human Factor
    1980        Dr. Fischer of Geneva,or The Bomb Party
    1982        Monsignor Quixote
    1985        Getting to know theGeneral
    1985        The Tenth Man
    1988        The Captain and the


    Biog. >> Selected Books >> Brighton Rock >> The Comedians >> The 3rd Man >> The 3rd Man Film Poster Gallery >> Graham Greene Book Covers - Smartphone Page >> Advertise >> Carol Reed >> Graham Greene Books available @ >> Across The Bridge >> Across The Bridge >> Went the Day Well?

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