For readers of Cold War espionage novels the truly fascinating story of Lewisham born Noel Field will no doubt hold a grim fascination, writes Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries.
The main protagonist was a Harvard educated Quaker, who became a committed communist, spied for Stalin in 1930’s Washington, was later imprisoned without trial for five years for being an alleged American secret agent and who died in exile in Budapest in 1970.
Noel Havilland Field was born at his maternal grandparents house at 20 Mayow road, Forest Hill in 1904, a spacious property called ‘ Sunnyside’ . His father was a prominent American Quaker and Scientist, Dr.Herbert Havilland Field who had met his mother, Nina Eschwege in Switzerland.
The couple married at St Paul’s Church, Forest Hill in 1903. He spent his formative years living in Zurich (Switzerland), where his father was director of an International Scientific Institute and where he later met his future wife, Herta Vieser. The family moved to the US following the death of his father in 1921.
After completing doctoral studies in political science at Harvard University, he worked for the US state department, before joining the League of Nations as a delegate in the disarmament division in Geneva.
By this time, Noel had become ‘radicalised’ by what he viewed as some of the more egregious injustices in US society (notably the famous case of the Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti who were executed in 1927) and later the damaging impact of the depression on ordinary US citizens and the rise of fascism in Europe.
Deeply moved by the civil war in Spain and the role of the Soviet Union in fighting fascism, he started to hand over state department information to his ‘Soviet handlers’ and thus started on his path to treason.
It was also during this period that he befriended the American government official Alger Hiss (who was later accused of spying for the Soviet Union). He then undertook some ‘courageous’ work with his wife Herta saving the lives of innumerable refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Marseilles.
With the end of World War Two he returned to Geneva and helped with the repatriation of refugees to Eastern Europe as well as providing humanitarian aid.
In 1949 he was arrested in Prague (his wife and brother would also soon find themselves in captivity). He was subjected to gruelling interrogations, held in solitary confinement and only released in 1954. He was reunited with Herta, who had undergone her own period of harsh confinement unaware of her husband’s fate.
Such was his singular devotion to the communist cause that his first words to his wife after their enforced separation were recorded as being ‘Have you remained faithful to the party’?
The tragic fall-out of his lengthy interrogations meant that any past association with the name Noel Field sent many dozens of his former comrades to their untimely deaths, most notably the former Hungarian Foreign Minister, Laszlo Rajk, who was executed after a political show trial in 1949.
Remarkably ,the couple were granted political asylum in Hungary, settling in Budapest. They did not condemn the Communist regime or waver in their political convictions as true believers even after years of torture, privation and imprisonment.
Noel’s arrest for being a US spy it was said was personally ordered by Stalin’s chief henchman, Lavrenti Beria. His adopted daughter Erica had been sent to Moscow’s notorious Lubianka prison to be executed (she was released after Stalin’s death).
Indeed the ‘needy and naive idealist’ or ‘delusional and devious’ spy who came in from the cold, entitled his last written article before his death in 1970 ‘Hitching Our Wagons to a Star’! He was buried with full Soviet honours. Herta died in 1980.
Kati Marton’s gripping biography ( 2016) tells Noel Field’s story. Her parents were Hungarian journalists, who covered the 1949 purge trial that led to the execution of László Rajk, a high-ranking Hungarian Communist, on charges that he had been recruited as an American spy by Field.