ROBERT CECIL was the archetypal diplomat: erect, urbane, a man of wide interests and sympathies, writes Andrew Lownie. As a writer he is most likely to be remembered for his perceptive biography of the Soviet agent Donald Maclean, A Divided Life, which drew admiring reviews and demolished many of the myths surrounding the Cambridge Spy Ring. To the book Cecil brought his experience as a Whitehall insider (apart from this service in the Foreign Office he had been an assistant to the head of SIS in 1943-45), a personal acquaintance with the personalities involved and a conversance with the diplomatic files.
Cecil had known the Maclean family as a child and followed Maclean first to Cambridge and then to the Foreign Office. The two were colleagues in the Washington Embassy immediately after the war, whence they would regularly journey to New York; Cecil to attend the lectures of the Russian mystic and philosopher PD Ouspensky, Maclean to meet his Soviet controller.
He could write about Cambridge in the Thirties because he had studied there then. He could explain Foreign Office reaction to the Disappearance beause he had been in the American Department when it happened. He could stand back and place the whole bizarre chapter in context because he was an historian. Colleagues of Maclean were prepared to speak openly to Cecil, whom they liked and trusted, when they would have refused other biographers. The result was a book that brings Maclean and the period vividly alive.
But some would say that Cecil's close, if innocent, association with Maclean cost him the promotion to the highest echelons of the diplomatic service which his talents merited.