Rupert Cornwell, an award-winning British journalist who covered financial scandals at the Vatican, the fall of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and who was the half brother of renowned spy novelist John le Carré, died March 31 at a Washington hospital. He was 71.
The cause was colon cancer, said his wife, Susan Cornwell.
Rupert Cornwell began his career in Europe with the Financial Times, then joined the London-based Independent newspaper at its founding in 1986 as its Moscow correspondent.
“It was an exciting and hopeful time,” Cornwell wrote March 2 in one of his final columns for the Independent. “The young and charismatic Mikhail Gorbachev had become leader two years before, with the explicit mission of revitalizing the country after a succession of geriatric leaders and the ‘age of stagnation’ over which they presided.”
Instead of a revival of the Soviet Union, Cornwell found himself chronicling its collapse as voices for democratic changes began to be heard. His coverage won him Britain’s Foreign Correspondent of the Year award in 1989.
Cornwell’s journalistic approach, combining deeply sourced reporting with a confident analytical voice, helped define the tone of the fledgling Independent.
“Rupert understood in real time the meaning of the events he was covering,” Andreas Whittam Smith, the paper’s founding editor, said in a statement released by the Independent. “He knew the relevant history so he could provide illuminating context. And he wrote an impeccable English prose.”
In 1991, Cornwell came to Washington for the first of two stints for the Independent. After four years in London from 1997 to 2001, he returned to Washington, where he spent the rest of his career.
On Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists flew hijacked jetliners into the Pentagon and New York’s World Trade Center, Cornwell worked at breakneck speed to compose a 2,200-word story summarizing the attack and its potential reverberations in the coming years.
“You struggle for historical comparison,” he wrote. “The closest surely, in the American experience, was Pearl Harbor in 1941, another sneak attack that sent thousands to their death, and briefly overwhelmed those who had to cope with it. But Pearl Harbor happened on a remote Pacific island, not at the very nerve centers of U.S. government and business. And just like the Japanese attack on Hawaii, this was an act of war – but a war conducted by unseen assassins, who have inflicted a shattering blow.”
Earlier in his career, when Cornwell was based in Rome for the Financial Times, he happened on a case of international intrigue that could have been taken from the pages of one of his half brother’s novels.
In 1982, the body of Italy’s most powerful private banker, Roberto Calvi, was found hanging from London’s Blackfriars Bridge.
In a 1983 book, “God’s Banker,” Cornwell explored the financial scandal surrounding Calvi’s bank, which had deep links to the Vatican and Italian political figures and was billions of dollars in debt.
Among other details, Cornwell suggested that Calvi may have been murdered, possibly in a ritual fashion foreshadowing “The Da Vinci Code.” He belonged to a Masonic lodge whose members called themselves frati neri, or black friars.