Perspective | My two weeks with John le Carré: What I learned about writing, fame and grace when I showed him around Miami in 1991. – The Washington Post

These days, when a famous person you know dies, you hear about it the same way everybody else does. Through an alert on your phone. That is how I heard about David. Then the calls and emails came. A former high-ranking U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent. A former high-ranking U.S. Customs Service agent. The former federal prosecutor who indicted Manuel Noriega. My former city desk editor at the Miami Herald. They all wanted to recall the time we spent with David, two weeks in the summer of 1991 in Miami.

What bound us together with the 89-year-old from Cornwall-with-an-A, England, named David Cornwell-with-an-E?

He may be better known to you as John le Carré. John the Square. A French pseudonym he chose when he was writing his first spy novels in the late 1950s, when he was still unknown and still a spy himself. The name stuck. He told me that story himself. Then he told me he had told so many stories about the name that he was not exactly sure which one was right anymore. But he was always just David to me. I never called him John.

I spent hours a day with him, every day, for that two weeks. He had the grandest manners. And the keenest apparatus I ever saw for studying and sizing up people. And the most penetrating insight, in general, into any given thing. I was lucky enough to see it up close, and to get to know him personally. Little things about him, like the fact that he had two whippets, Whisper and Mach.

Back then, I thought I had a pretty keen apparatus myself. I was 34 and had been an investigative reporter for years at the Miami Herald, covering the drug trade during the “cocaine cowboys” era of the 1980s. I spent my days and nights with drug agents and drug prosecutors, federal, state and local, and I had a Rolodex containing 200 of their names and numbers. I liked to think little moved in that world without me knowing about it. When I got my hands on the U.S. government’s secret draft indictment of Raúl Castro and the Cuban government for drug smuggling, I told the startled spokesman at the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of Florida: “I don’t need you to confirm it. I just want to let you know, as a courtesy, that we’re going to publish what’s in it.” I heard the spokesman’s nickname for me was “The Jackal,” after the English assassin in the Frederick Forsyth novel “The Day of the Jackal.” I liked to think it was a compliment, but maybe not.

In those days, Miami was known as the Casablanca of the Caribbean, the nexus of drugs, spies, arms and cash for innumerable conspiracies and plots, a dark underworld beneath a sunlit, pastel-toned, tropical glamour. “In the Air Tonight,” Phil Collins’s moody, brimming-with-menace anthem, was our theme song, and “Miami Vice” provided our style guide. In my mind, it was all spy vs. spy. The drug agents and prosecutors pursued the smugglers, the good guys against the bad guys, but everybody seemed to switch sides at some point. The smugglers got caught and became government informants, the prosecutors went into private practice and took the drug lords as their clients, and agents became private investigators, sometimes working for the bad guys. And I got to expose it all: the murk, the intrigue, the moral ambiguity. I fancied myself something of an intelligence operative myself.

In 1989, my partner, Guy Gugliotta, and I had written “Kings of Cocaine,” a book about our two-year investigation that exposed the murderous Medellín Cartel to the world. Heck, I had even named them “the Medellín Cartel,” in an article I wrote in November 1985. I had started tracking them 11 months earlier, before I knew who they were, fascinated by the codes — like “007” and “CIA” — that they scrawled on their kilos of pure cocaine powder, tightly wrapped in waterproof covering and known as “footballs.” I wanted to crack the codes and follow the drugs to the source. Spy vs. spy. Two years later, I got the federal government to seize Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s $1 million mansion on North Bay Road in Miami Beach and his $10 million apartment complex in Broward County, after finding his signature, “Pablo Escobar Gaviria,” on warranty deeds that had been masked by Panamanian corporations.

And all that is why David came to see me.

Jeff Leen in 1983, during his time covering the drug trade at the Miami Herald. (Family photo)

One day, the phone rang on my desk in the Herald city room. If you’ve seen the movies “The Mean Season” or “Absence of Malice” you’ve seen that newsroom, which has since been torn down.

“Jeff?” The voice was British, upper crust. “This is David Cornwell. Do you know who I am?”

I did know the name David Cornwell. I had read “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “The Little Drummer Girl,” “Smiley’s People,” “The Honourable Schoolboy,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” I cannot count how many times I had invoked his nom de plume to describe the Miami drug world. “It’s just like a John le Carré novel,” I would say, over and over again.

David said he wanted to learn about the Miami drug world and had been told I could help. Did I want to meet for lunch? I was out of my seat and on my way before I had hung up the receiver.

We met in the elegant dining room of Coconut Grove’s luxurious Grand Bay Hotel, a monument to ostentatious splendor in the shape of a Mayan pyramid with overhanging bougainvillea. Valet parking cost $13, a fortune back then. I met a New York Times reporter there once who told me that if what we had written in the Herald had appeared in the Times, everybody in the country would know our names.

David was 60, white-haired, distinguished, seemingly at the peak of life. He looked like the most authoritative judge you had ever seen. The British accent. The height of sophistication. He was unfailingly polite, kind and engaging, yet you never forgot the size of his reputation. I fell in love with him immediately.

I knew what he wanted. I had sat across from fellow journalists, magazine writers, book authors, Hollywood screenwriters, directors and producers, congressional investigators, talent bookers, all wanting to extract secrets about the Miami drug world. I was careful with the information. I gave interviews and whatever general insights I had to other reporters and investigators, but the good stuff, the particulars, the real details — I was saving that for my own book. Not “Kings of Cocaine,” but a novel I intended to write called “Highs in the Eighties.”

David was not so interested in the tech, the calibers or the weaponry. He wanted the feel of the relationships between the characters, the casual talk, the unexpected detail that resonated or revealed new depths.

But David wanted the good stuff. And I could not resist him. Partly because he was so charming and so blindingly famous, and I wanted to impress him, to get him to like me as much as I liked him. Partly because he was so indirect about it, so careful to lay the groundwork and prepare me for my confessions. (A good interview is like a seduction, somebody once said.) And, maybe most important of all, because I knew he would understand and appreciate it as much as I did. Being understood is perhaps the ultimate vanity.

So, I told him everything I knew, slowly at first, but with increasing acceleration as time passed. I told him about DEA 6s and FBI 302s, the internal reports that are so hard to get your hands on. I told him about the codes on the footballs and how they represented the secret structure that hid the cartels, and how the drug trade was, when you got right down to it, nothing but a transportation business, wholesalers connecting manufacturing to retailing. I told him that the hardest job of all was laundering the money, because it weighed so much and it mildewed and rotted when left too long, or the rats would eat it. I told him about how bodies in canals always float face up, because of the gases that collect in the chest cavity. And I told him about the worst of the Colombian calling cards left at homicide scenes: the Cartagena necktie, wherein the throat is slit and the tongue pulled through the opening. Some of the material he used and some he discarded, but if you check in “The Night Manager,” you’ll find the necktie.

I was a long-term investigative reporter, with the freedom to roam and find my own stories, not tied to a beat or the constant thrum of breaking news. It was summer, the dead time for newspapers in those pre-Internet days, and I could afford to meet David every day and take him on field trips to meet my sources at the DEA, Customs, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the U.S. attorney’s office, the Metro-Dade Police Department’s organized crime bureau and elsewhere. Besides, I was never not working; while he gathered information for his book, I gathered information for my newspaper, from the same sources.

I became his guide to the Miami drug world. My sources were thrilled to meet him. When I first took him to the DEA, to one of the smartest agents I knew, I introduced him only as David Cornwell. The agent was polite but unimpressed. Finally, I realized my mistake. I caught the agent alone and told him, “Don’t you know who this is? He wrote ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.’ ”

That’s John le Carré! Well, why didn’t you say so?”

The agent opened the vaults, showing David things he would have never shown me in a hundred years. Agents managing a wiretap. The most unobtrusive and secretive listening devices. The latest M-4 assault rifles that made M-16s look like relics. Ready rooms for DEA undercover groups full of walkie-talkies, bulletproof vests, blue raid jackets, link charts, color-coded files.

When we were leaving, we ran into the senior agent who had managed the Noriega investigation. We introduced him to David Cornwell, who we said was a writer.

“You look like a judge,” the agent told him.

David was not so interested in the tech, the calibers or the weaponry. “That’s easy to get, and I can fill that in later,” he told me when we were alone. He wanted the feel of the relationships between the characters, the casual talk, the unexpected detail that resonated or revealed new depths.

After one meeting with a powerful senior agent, David remarked on the man’s “dorsal muscles,” and how they revealed his inner tension, power and control, all in conflict and all finely balanced, as if on a knife’s edge. Another time David pointed out that one agent he had just met really disliked another at the meeting, his boss. It was all communicated through the body language, the tone and the silences that hung in the air. It was only years later that I saw the enmity between them emerge and I realized David had been right.

I arranged a dinner with a retired agent who I knew had gone on to do contract jobs for what we called “the agency,” or what the retired agent called “the Christians In Action.” You get the abbreviation. The master spy of the literary world would meet a real spy of the drug world. They got along famously in a lavish dinner that progressed to cigars and cognacs. David was paying and the cognac flowed freely, snifter after snifter. I no longer drank and lost count of how many they had. Six, eight, 10? They were impossibly drunk, but David still seemed as sober as a judge, if a bit more emphatic and red-faced. Even tight, nobody was more genial or better at extracting information. He was still in control.

Finally, the retired agent launched into an elaborate story about the time he was shot, on duty, in the stomach. I had never heard the story.

“He shot me!” the retired agent kept exclaiming, over and over, his foremost emotion being surprise. He was wide-eyed and slurring his words, so it came out, “He chopped me, he chopped me!”

Suddenly, I was seized by a fit of uncontrollable laughter, and the more I fought it, the worse it got. Apologizing all the way, I gave over to it, dissolving into mirth at my friend’s account of his near-fatal stomach wound.

David did not so much as blink. He and the retired agent, fortified by $1,000 of cognac and wreathed in cigar smoke, simply paid me no mind. David knew not to interrupt a good story.

Miami police arrest a suspect during a 1987 drug raid. (Anthony Hammond/Shutterstock)

In the many hours we spent together, we talked of cocaine, espionage, journalism, the craft of writing. Looking back, I can see now that our conversations always centered on the nuances and where the nuances led you. He spoke of how he liked in his writing to begin indirectly, then work toward the center of things, from the nuances to the universal, from the particular to the general. When Karla drops the lighter at the end of “Smiley’s People,” so much has come before — so many nuances, all those particulars — that not just a silence shatters, but a world.

One anecdote from our time together aptly illustrates David’s love of nuance. He had wanted the novel to turn on an epic arms-for-drugs deal, with his main villain a European billionaire arms dealer trading state-of-the-art weaponry for enough cocaine to make it worth his while. The problem was the finances did not make sense. The kind of heavy arms David was talking about — helicopters and such — would outweigh the value of even tons of cocaine.

This would be apparent only to people who really knew the drug trade. From newspapers and Hollywood, which was almost always wrong in its depiction of cocaine smuggling, the public got a very inflated impression of the value of cocaine. Large cocaine busts of 1,000 kilos or more were always described as being worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The problem was that the media was using the street price of a gram of cocaine, or rather the retail price, which only applied after the drugs had changed hands several times and had been cut by street dealers. At $50 a gram, cut to 50 percent purity, that would translate to $100,000 a kilo, and nearly $100 million for a ton, but the wholesale price of a kilo in Miami was about $20,000 back then, more like $20 million a ton.

About 910 pounds of cocaine lies on the dock at the U.S. Customs office on the Miami River. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press/Shutterstock)

Mel Gibson played a drug dealer in the 1988 film “Tequila Sunrise,” one of the more accurate drug movies of the time. (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

LEFT: About 910 pounds of cocaine lies on the dock at the U.S. Customs office on the Miami River. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press/Shutterstock) RIGHT: Mel Gibson played a drug dealer in the 1988 film “Tequila Sunrise,” one of the more accurate drug movies of the time. (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

David’s villain did not have a drug distribution network to reap any retail profits; he would be buying in bulk and selling in bulk, like a wholesaler. No big-time smuggler got more than the wholesale price, unless he cut the drugs and sold them on the street himself. As the drug dealer played by Mel Gibson sarcastically said in “Tequila Sunrise,” one of the more accurate drug movies of the time, when he heard a TV news broadcast describe a cocaine load as being worth in the millions on the street, “Yeah, whose street?”

But even that $20 million a ton was gross, not profit. Your profit after transportation costs, what you paid for the cocaine and expenses would probably be less than half of that. And a single Blackhawk helicopter cost more than $20 million. David wanted a deal involving hundreds of millions in arms. The number of tons of cocaine you would need to make a deal like that worth it to a man like David’s villain would be considerably larger than the largest cocaine seizure in U.S. history, which was then and still is about 21 tons.

The arms dealer would be better off keeping his arms and selling them at cost instead of taking a loss or taking on the risk of drug smuggling. How to make the numbers work? Finally, I noticed that the deal could make sense if David’s villain sent his own freighter loaded with arms directly to Colombia, cutting out the middleman, and obtained the cocaine at the manufacturer’s price, about $3,000 a kilo, known as the “airstrip price,” before it is flown into the United States and before any transportation fee or markup was attached. David’s eyes lit up. Look in “The Night Manager” and you will see a fleeting reference to airstrip prices. That was the kind of attention to detail that defined him.

As I drove him from appointment to appointment in my white Honda Civic, he would occasionally reveal what he was feeling. His favorite of his own novels was “A Perfect Spy,” because it was about his father, who had been a con man. David described having a lot of money as like having a big pile in the backyard, and every now and then you go get a chunk. Fame opened a lot of doors, but people tended to want to leave their mark on you in some way. It became wearying. You tended to tire of people, even people you liked who had once been fruitful collaborators. You were always in search of new ones.

I was astonished by his energy, his drive, his ability to go out there every day and trundle through the hours of interviews, lunches, dinners. I was a little more than half his age and I was exhausted. He never appeared tired, never was less than sharp and penetrating. He already had half a dozen No. 1 bestsellers and more money than he could ever spend. Why did he want or need another one? What kept him out there, what was the engine that drove it all?

I have known only one other person who combined such an overwhelming drive with such preternatural powers of perception. No surprise, that person is equally successful: Bob Woodward, who has a dozen No. 1 nonfiction bestsellers.

Being an English literature major, I wanted to talk to David about how Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene had influenced him. But he had his eye on what was happening today, in 1991, and he spoke of John Grisham as if he was his real competition. He was impressed with Grisham’s command of plot and suspense, but even as he said it he radiated the knowledge that he, David, had more depth. Still, he talked of casting “The Night Manager” movie (he knew there would be one) with Daniel Day-Lewis and Julia Roberts. David referred to the actor simply as “Day-Lewis,” just as he referred to E.L. Doctorow as “Ed Doctorow,” as if he knew them in a sphere in which we did not, which he did.

At first it seemed beneath the author of “Smiley’s People,” a bit going Hollywood. The previous movies made from his novels had been carefully constructed art films. Then you realized that Grisham was the best-selling fiction writer on Earth and Day-Lewis was the best actor and Roberts the biggest actress, and that David’s ambition was not only literary, but ambition writ large, with a capital A. He already had all the literary acclaim one could want or need, and now he wanted the rest, whatever that was. It kept him going, and — it took time, but finally I realized it — you need that kind of ambition to be Conrad, to be Greene, to be le Carré.

Le Carré looked like the most authoritative judge you had ever seen. (Monty Fresco/ANL/Shutterstock)

At our last lunch after two weeks crisscrossing Miami, along the Dolphin and Palmetto expressways, down Biscayne Boulevard and up U.S. Route 1, from Calle Ocho to Ocean Drive, David gave me some free literary advice pertaining to my book, “Kings of Cocaine.” Early in our relationship he had praised it unreservedly. Now, with our friendship developed, he gave me the gift of candor.

“It would have been better if you had focused it on a single character, and told it like a narrative,” he said.

I could not disagree. We had turned it into a survey of the cocaine world. Or as David put it in his immortal words: “Otherwise, one tends to get … and then there is Albania …”

And then there is Albania, I thought. Sometimes the harshest criticism is the best.

He asked me if I was going to write another book. I said I was so busy at the newspaper that I was not planning to, at least not right away.

“Your pen is at rest,” he said. Another stab in the heart. Another harsh truth. But he generously left open the possibility that I might pick it up again. That, indeed, I had a pen, in his opinion.

I was astonished by his energy, his drive, his ability to go out there every day and trundle through the hours of interviews, lunches, dinners.

Eighteen years later, I published my second book. I made it a narrative focused on a single character, a wrestler who had been the first female athlete to earn a million dollars. I called it “The Queen of the Ring.” I never did finish my drug novel.

My most lasting memory of David came a few months later, after his research was done. He came to Miami one last time and invited my wife and me to dinner. I told him regretfully no, that my wife’s mother was in town. Bring her along, he said.

When we arrived at the elegant dining room of the Grand Bay Hotel, he was alone in a blue blazer with gold buttons, a button-down Oxford shirt and a regimental tie. Dapper.

My wife’s mother grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in the 1930s and ’40s, had left school to marry at 16 and was in some ways his exact opposite. She was petrified.

I will let my wife finish the story: “The complete gentleman with those immaculate British manners, he sat her to his left. He asked if she liked lobster and she said she’d never had it. ‘Well, you must have the lobster then,’ he told her, then ordered for her. He regaled us with stories of his adventures doing research for his books, including a bold and risky trip into Palestine to meet with Yasser Arafat. I will never, ever forget how kind and courtly he was with Mother, not once condescending to any of us. She was like a little girl in her thrill, as was I.”

A year after his visits to Miami, David showed me the manuscript of “The Night Manager.” He said he liked to have five trusted readers for every book. Sydney Pollack, director of “Three Days of the Condor” and “Out of Africa,” was usually one. Now, I was one for this one.

Seeing a writer’s raw manuscript is always a bit unsettling. It comes at you unadorned and newly born, without the imprimatur of cover art, blurbs and type set into familiar fonts. If the writer is famous, it is like hearing a new song from your favorite band and immediately measuring it short. My first impression of David’s manuscript was unease; it was not as good as “Smiley’s People” or “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.” It was jarring to see my gritty Latin drug world full of cowboy American drug agents described by an upper-class Englishman who had studied at Oxford and taught at Eton. My unease edged into despair. What if I didn’t like his book?

But as I read, that transformation took place that always happens with writers like David. Slowly the book cast its spell on me and sucked me in. It was miraculous. The characters were alive, the world they occupied was real, and I cared deeply about what happened to them. The plot was thrilling and the suspense was unbearable. Maybe not “Smiley’s People,” but good, very good.

Now I had another dilemma. What could I say to improve it? It had the elegance and solidity of a monument, and my notes were like graffiti. Nonetheless, I marked it up, bringing whatever expertise I could to it, trying to help him as much as possible. I caught only a few little things. I corrected “Bar Harbour” to “Bal Harbour.” Bar Harbor is in Maine, Bal Harbour is in South Florida. He mentioned a revolver when it should have been an automatic. He wrote Miami Bar Association when it was Dade County’s. He wrote Central America when it should have been South America. He referred to Miami Naval Hospital when there was no such thing. He talked about making a homemade silencer out of a can of ping-pong balls instead of tennis balls. But overall, it was a polished and clean manuscript.

I noticed certain lines and smiled at seeing my words reflected in his prose: “Dopers were like anyone else in the transport business, he said: they hated to ride home without a load.”

Le Carré in 1991. (Fremantle Media/Shutterstock)

An inscription from le Carré to Leen inside a copy of “The Little Drummer Girl” next to a copy of “The Night Manager.” (Jeff Leen/The Washington Post)

LEFT: Le Carré in 1991. (Fremantle Media/Shutterstock) RIGHT: An inscription from le Carré to Leen inside a copy of “The Little Drummer Girl” next to a copy of “The Night Manager.” (Jeff Leen/The Washington Post)

I did object to one scene. The hero, the former Swiss concierge and eponymous night manager, finds himself embroiled in a situation meant to win the confidence of the arms-dealer antagonist. The British agents were working with the hero to fake an attempted kidnapping of the arms dealer’s son. The agents, playing roles as bad guys, hold the boy at gunpoint until he can be rescued by the hero.

Government agents would never point weapons at a child, I told David. That would come out at trial and the case would be thrown out of court.

“Oh, Jeff,” David said, in our only disagreement. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to give me some license here. You have a lot more trust of government than I do.”

He kept the scene in. If you watch “The Night Manager” miniseries, you can see it, though the location of the story has been transplanted to Europe and there is no cocaine in it anymore.

David signed six books for me and paid me a generous research fee. I would have done it for nothing. In my copy of “The Little Drummer Girl,” he wrote, “For the great Jeff with thanks.” Well, thank you, David. For the glimpse at true greatness.

Jeff Leen is the editor in charge of The Washington Post’s investigative unit.

Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Monique Woo.