Drinking, the Pope & John Le Carre

January 9, 2012

Like most people who have been around a long time —actually, who have been around, period — I have a few stories, tales to tell, things that happened a long time ago.

The memory of one came back the other day, when I saw the movie made of John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor etc and I’m going to tell it for no other reason that it makes no sense at all. It’s a travel tale.

It was the fall of 1979 and I was living in Tallahassee, Fla., the state capitol, and traveling to our nation’s capital often for business. Sitting in the airport in Washington D.C. one afternoon, I was scribbling on a yellow pad to pass the time before my flight. It might have been something for work or it might have been a journal entry; it was a long time ago and I don’t remember exactly.

A disheveled man in a stained and wrinkled black raincoat carrying a battered brown leather briefcase caught my attention as he walked unsteadily across the gate and sat himself down one seat away from me. The pungent smell of alcohol wafted across my personal space. People seated nearby got up and moved to seats further away.

Why does this always happen to me? I wondered. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him open his briefcase. In it were some papers and a hairbrush, one of those white boar-bristled kinds you might find on a vanity. He pawed through them, muttering to himself. I looked back down at my yellow pad.

Then, he spoke: “Are you a writer? I see you are writing.”

I looked up. He was addressing me.

“I am,” I said, turning back to my writing pad to discourage him.

“I’m a writer, too,” he said, slurring his words. He was definitely tipsy. Everyone else at the gate was avoiding eye contact with him.

I looked up again and gave him a small smile.

“Here,” he said, pulling out some stapled pages from his leather bag. He handed them to me. “I’m working on this.”

I glanced at them. The title had the word “Hegemony” in it, and that’s all I remember. Mostly because at the time, I had no idea what it meant. I handed him back the pages.

“I’m John Le Carre′,” he said, stuffing the pages back in his valise.

I smiled again, thinking to myself, right, and I’m the Queen of England.

“Actually, that’s not my real name. My real name is David Cornwell.”

He was still talking to me. This guy would not be shaken.

Oh, just go with it, I told myself. He’s probably a drunk academic, and that’s a scholarly paper he just showed you.

“Really.” I said it more as a statement than a question.

“Yes, and I just got out of jail,” he told me.

I’m sure you did, I thought.

“I threatened to kill the Pope.”

I perked up. Pope John Paul II was visiting D.C. The White House to be exact.

“Really?” This time it was a question.

“Yes, they put me in jail because I threatened to kill him.”

“They did, huh.” Now he had my full attention. Before I could ask the obvious question–why? — he spoke again:

“Do you know who Laurence Rockefeller is?” He pulled his raincoat closer around his body.

“I do.”

“He’s a friend of mine. I had to call him to get me out of jail. And so I got out and here I am. I’m going to visit him now.” He snapped his case shut.

“That’s good.” I said. Ha! I thought. I’ll bet Laurence Rockefeller would love to know this nutcase.

Just then, my flight was called. I stood, nodded a goodbye and headed toward the doorway. Poor delusional guy, I thought as I found my seat on the Eastern Airlines jet.

Perhaps a month later I was in another airport. Passing a newsstand, I saw a familiar face on the cover of a magazine on display. It was the drunk guy I’d seen in the D.C. airport.

I zig-zagged into the shop and grabbed the magazine off the rack.The cover story was about Smiley’s People, which had just been published that year. Inside was a profile of the man I’d met. I scanned it.

“John Le Carre′ is his pen name, but his real name is David Cornwell,” it said.

And me? I must be the Queen of England, after all.

Got a better airport story? Tell it in the Comments here or at the original post.

8 comments on “Drinking, the Pope & John Le Carre
  1. Gary Presley says:

    Three things:

    1] Geez, I wonder why he wanted to kill the pope?

    1a] My mother’s name was Pope, but I’m sure Mr LeCarre has nothing against my family.

    2] He’s still alive. Must be alcohol agrees with his constitution.

    3] I suppose recalling this you would like to have a “way back” machine in your garage. What a treat it would be simply to sit and chat with him!

    3a] He was apparently still somewhat under the influence, and so the chat would have been candid and open, probably so much that you’d still be corresponding.

  2. You’re right, Gary. I’d love to sit and chat with him now! Even though I am not a fan of his genre at all. But what a fascinating guy!

  3. Julia says:

    What a fascinating encounter! Oh to go back in time, eh?

  4. Wow, great story! Didn’t know Le Carre was a drinker, although not surprised.

  5. ryder ziebarth says:

    NO topping that one. Wow.

  6. Risa says:

    Well, it would be hard to top that story! I did get busted at the airport in Orange County for possession of Sterno, singing, and generally acting like a teenager (which I was at the time). The Sterno was a private joke among the friends I was with, who were also singing, barefoot, and acting like teenagers (which they were). I missed my flight because a security guy was trying to figure out if Sterno was something you could use to sniff and get high. I guess it wasn’t. Loved reading about this chance encounter with the tipsy author!

  7. Diane says:

    Great story! I have no stories about airports. Except that I was once in an airport with Pierce Brosnan. Okay, it was at totally different times. In fact it may not have even been on the same day. But it was the same airport!

  8. Lana says:

    The only famous? person I’ve talked to in an airport is Nicole Richie, and that SO pales in comparison to your encounter that I hate to mention it. Great story!

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