5 Things You Didn't Know About Graham Greene


I'll start with a full disclosure: Graham Greene is one of my very favorite writers. While his work runs the gamut from weighty explorations of human evil like Brighton Rock to genuinely funny farces like Our Man in Havana, there's just something consistently mesmerizing about his crisp prose and ability to work a moral or philosophical dilemma into even his espionage thriller "entertainments." Let's take a look at five things you might not know about the moralist/novelist:

1. He Wasn't Big on School

Going to boarding school can be tough on anyone, but it was particularly rough for Greene, possibly because his father was his headmaster. Greene's status as an introverted misfit at school led to a number of botched suicide attempts, including drinking chemicals, eating nightshade, and attempting to drown himself in the school's pool after eating handfuls of aspirin.

Obviously none of these attempts worked, so Greene resorted to running away in 1920 at the age of 16. He didn't get too far, though, and when his family regained custody of their wayward son, they sent him to live with a London psychoanalyst for six months. Greene later called this period of psychoanalysis one of the happiest stretches of his life, but it didn't cure him of his suicidal tendencies. Just a few years later he would begin playing Russian roulette after the end of a love affair.

2. Shirley Temple Probably Wasn't Buying Up His Books

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Even after his novels started selling well, Greene worked as a freelance journalist, often writing film reviews. One of the films Greene reviewed for the magazine Night and Day was the 1937 Shirley Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie. Greene cut into the movie and its star with characteristic zeal. At one point in the review he wrote, "Her admirers—middle-aged men and clergymen—respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire."

Yes, Greene basically theorized that the nine-year-old Temple's appeal was primarily sexual and accused her fans of being dirty old men. No, that didn't sit too well with Temple's managers or her film company, 20th Century Fox. They sued Greene, Night and Day, and the magazine's printers for libel for suggesting that Temple was being trotted out for prurient reasons.

The case ended up in court in March 1938. Greene was to be tried in absentia while he was on assignment in Mexico. Temple's counsel quickly worked out a settlement with the magazine for around 3500 pounds, but because Greene was in Mexico, the judge couldn't extract any cash from him.

Things didn't turn out so well for Night and Day; the huge financial blow helped force the magazine to fold a few months later. Greene did a bit better for himself; the exile in Mexico helped give him the setting for the masterpiece The Power and the Glory.

3. Caribbean Dictators Weren't Huge Fans, Either

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When Greene wasn't grappling with Catholicism, he was usually writing about espionage or some sort of political intrigue. This subject matter didn't always win him friends in the countries in which he set his novels. Fidel Castro didn't like the light comic tone of Our Man in Havana because it downplayed just how repressive his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, had been.

Castro's whining was nothing compared to Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier's reaction to The Comedians, Greene's scathing 1966 novel about Duvalier's Haitian regime. The book displays the brutality of Duvalier and the Tonton Macoute, the despot's personal secret police, and Duvalier was none too pleased to have his dirty laundry aired by such a well-known novelist.

Duvalier launched an unsuccessful counteroffensive by going on a pamphlet-writing smear campaign against Greene. In his autobiography Ways of Escape, Greene recalled that Duvalier accused him of being, "'A liar, a cretin, a stool-pigeon... unbalanced, sadistic, perverted... a perfect ignoramus... lying to his heart's content... the shame of proud and noble England... a spy... a drug addict... a torturer.' (The last epithet has always a little puzzled me.)"

4. He Had Firsthand Espionage Experience

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Greene's novels are set all over the world, from Cuba to Haiti to Vietnam to Africa, and he'd been to all of those places. His reputation as a jet-setting journalist and novelist made it easy for Greene to get in and out of various countries, a trait the British intelligence office prized. MI6 recruited Greene as an agent during World War II and stationed him as an intelligence agent in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The arrangement worked out well, as the British government got intelligence and Greene got the setting for The Heart of the Matter, one of his very best novels.

Interestingly, Greene's spymaster supervisor and close friend within the agency was none other than Kim Philby, the infamous double agent who fed sensitive information to the Soviets for nearly three decades. For a lot of people, finding out their buddy was possibly the most notorious mole in intelligence history would have ruined the friendship. Not for Greene. He kept in touch with Philby after the double agent went into exile in Moscow and even wrote the foreword to Philby's 1968 memoir My Silent War, a show of support that some speculate may have cost Greene a shot at the Nobel Prize.

5. He Wasn't Raised Catholic


If you've read much Greene, this one's the real shocker. Although he always argued that he was a novelist who engaged Catholic themes rather than a Catholic novelist, Greene's probably the first name that pops into your head if you have to name a Catholic novelist. (In a 1978 interview, Greene said, "I've always found it difficult to believe in God. I suppose I'd now call myself a Catholic atheist.") His most overtly Catholic novels, The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, Brighton Rock, and The Heart of the Matter all rank among his best known and strongest works.

Surprisingly, Greene wasn't raised in a Catholic family, though. He didn't convert to Catholicism until the age of 21 in 1926. What made him convert? Well, a woman had a hand in it. Greene's transformation into Catholicism was partly influenced by Vivien Dayrell-Browning, the woman who would become his wife. (Vivien had some writing chops of her own; when she was 16 she had published a book of poetry with an introduction by G.K. Chesterton.)

Greene ended up leaving Vivien and their two children for a mistress in 1947. As strict Catholics, the Greenes never divorced and remained married until Graham's death in 1991.

Vivien didn't just sit around and weep about her departed husband, though. She filled her time by becoming one of the world's foremost authorities on dollhouses.

She began collecting 18th- and 19th-century English dollhouses during the 1940s, and after buying her first house at an auction and toting it home on the bus, she was hooked. Vivien began traveling the world in search of dollhouses and eventually built up a collection of 1500. She also published two scholarly works on the subject, and her collection became so well known that Graham helped subsidize an addition to her Oxford home that she transformed into a dollhouse museum.

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.

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