British military historian, cookery writer, graphic artist, and novelist Len Deighton was born 18 February 1929 in Marylebone, London, in 1929. His father was a chauffeur and mechanic, and his mother was a part-time cook. At the time they lived in Gloucester Place Mews near Baker Street. His interest in spy stories may have been partially inspired by the arrest of Anna Wolkoff, which he witnessed as an 11-year-old boy. Wolkoff, a British subject of Russian descent, was a Nazi spy. She was detained on 20 May 1940 and subsequently convicted of violating the Official Secrets Act for attempting to pass secret documents to the Nazis.
After leaving school, Deighton worked as a railway clerk before performing his National Service, which he spent as a photographer for the Royal Air Force’s Special Investigation Branch. After discharge from the RAF, he studied at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London in 1949, and in 1952 won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, graduating in 1955. While he was at the RCA he became a “lifelong friend” of fellow designer Raymond Hawkey, who later designed covers for his early books. Deighton then worked as an airline steward with BOAC. Before he began his writing career he worked as an illustrator in New York and, in 1960, as an art director in a now defunct London advertising agency, Sharps Advertising. He is credited with creating the first British cover for Kerouac’s On the Road. He has since used his drawing skills to illustrate a number of his own military history books.
Following the success of his first novels, Deighton became The Observer’s cookery writer and produced illustrated cookbooks and wrote and drew a weekly strip cartoon-style illustrated cooking guide in London’s The Observer newspaper – Len Deighton’s Cookstrip. At least one of the strips is pinned up in Deighton’s spy hero’s kitchen in the 1965 film of his novel The IPCRESS File. In September 1967 he wrote an article in the Sunday Times Magazine about Operation Snowdrop – an SAS attack on Benghazi during World War II and The following year David Stirling was awarded substantial damages in libel from the article. He also wrote travel guides and became travel editor of Playboy, before becoming a film producer.
After producing a film adaption of his 1968 novel Only When I Larf, Deighton and photographer Brian Duffy bought the film rights to Joan Littlewood’s stage musical Oh, What a Lovely War! Deighton wrote the screenplay and was an uncredited producer of the film but he had his name removed from the credits, however, a move that he later described as “stupid and infantile”. That was his last involvement with the cinema. Deighton left England in 1969 and briefly resided in Blackrock, County Louth, in Ireland, only returning to England apart from personal visits and media appearances, his last one since 1985 being a 2006 interview that formed part of a “Len Deighton Night” on BBC Four.
Several of Deighton’s novels have been adapted as films. His first four novels featured an anonymous anti-hero, named “Harry Palmer” in the films and portrayed by Michael Caine. The first trilogy of his Bernard Samson novel series was made into a twelve-part television series by Granada Television in 1988, and Quentin Tarantino has since expressed interest in filming the trilogy. Deighton also wrote a World War II historical novel Bomber about an RAF Bomber Command raid over Germany is and also reportedly began an unfinished Vietnam War novel, a portion of which appeared as the story First Base in his short story collection Declarations of War. He also wrote Len Deighton’s London Dossier (1967), a guide book to Swinging Sixties London with a “secret agent” theme – contributions from other writers are described as “surveillance reports” and his 1977 novel Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain was said by Albert Speer (once Hitler’s Minister of Armaments) to be “an excellent, most thorough examination”.