History’s Greatest Spy and Fleming’s Inspiration for Bond – An Interview with Author Larry Loftis

Cover Art for Into the Lion's Mouth

Cover Art for Into the Lion’s Mouth

Introduction and Interview by Jack Lugo:

Larry Loftis’s upcoming nonfiction book takes a close look at real life World War II spy Dusko Popov.  The book is a fascinating and well researched account of Popov’s life as a double agent who worked with both MI6 and the United States government to deceive the Germans and feed his German contacts false information.  It’s a true tale fraught with danger, suspense, beautiful women, and a fateful summer encounter at a certain Casino Estoril in 1941. If any of this sounds familiar to you as a Bond fan, it very well should.  Loftis makes the strongest case yet for why Bond fans should consider Popov as Fleming’s true inspiration for Bond meticulously detailing how the lives of these two gentlemen intersected.  On one hand, we have Commander Ian Fleming who went on to write “the spy thriller to end all spy thrillers.”  On the other hand, there is Agent TRICYCLE – Dusko Popov- a man who lived the true life of a spy strikingly similar in both appearance and narrative to Fleming’s fictional counterpart, James Bond. Larry Loftis’s book is called Into the Lion’s Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov: World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond.  It is available for purchase as of June 14th.  The following is an interview I conducted with Loftis via email.

JL: Please tell us a little about yourself. When did your Bond fandom begin and why did you begin taking an interest in the history of espionage?

LL: I’m a corporate lawyer by background and stumbled upon WWII espionage about four years ago.  I was working on an espionage novel in early 2012 and wanted to research what real spies had accomplished.  I started digging up everything I could find for “greatest spy ever.”  All roads led to Dusko Popov. The more I read, the more amazed I was.  This MI6 agent did more in real life than I was making up for my novel.  In short order, I dropped the fiction and decided to write about Popov in a narrative nonfiction format. It was during this research that I learned that Popov was Ian Fleming’s inspiration for James Bond.

JL: What is your favorite James Bond film and who is your favorite Bond actor and why?

 LL: Sean Connery is my favorite Bond; he was the first and the best.  One could make a strong argument that Connery made the franchise, at least on the film side.  Dr. No is my favorite film but From Russia With Love is my favorite Bond novel.

JL: Was there one piece of evidence that absolutely convinced you that Dusko Popov stood out amongst some of the other names that have been mentioned as possible influences for Fleming?

LL: Keep in mind the distinction of these two questions: 1) who inspired James Bond; and 2) what individuals did Fleming borrow from across 13 Bond novels and two short stories?

Both questions can be answered with certitude. Dusko Popov was Fleming’s inspiration for James Bond, the hero we see in Casino Royale, Ian’s first Bond novel.  Over the 11 years following Casino Royale, Fleming drew on countless individuals, including his own tastes, to fashion additional Bond traits.

As a lawyer, I’m trained to sift and evaluate information and there wasn’t any one piece of evidence that convinced me that Popov was Bond.  Rather, it was the constant drumbeat of item after item that pointed to Popov.  In particular, I investigated what Popov claimed after the softening of Britain’s Official Secrets Act in 1972 (Fleming, who died in 1964, was gagged by the Act so he could never even hint at who Popov was, or did), and whether those claims were confirmed by historical records (i.e., hotel registrations for he and Fleming, Ian’s correspondence and travel schedule, what information Fleming would have gathered on Popov and how, etc.) and the extant MI5 files for Popov and Fleming. Next, I made a list of Bond’s physical description and traits found in Casino Royale, and compared that to the men suggested to have been the model for Bond (which list can be found in the back of my book, INTO THE LION’S MOUTH).  Not only did everything match for Popov, no one else even came close.  In my book, you’ll see that the Palacio Hotel (where it all began) and the Fleming family (albeit tacitly) agree with my conclusion.

JL: Can you tell us a little about how Popov became a double agent first having been recruited by his close friend to work for the Abwehr but then going on to work for British Intelligence (SIS or MI6) to deceive the Germans?

LL: I could but that would be a spoiler, wouldn’t it?  Suffice it to say that the transition was dicey.

JL: One of the common criticisms of Bond is that real life spies are not playboys with extravagant proclivities and that they must also disguise their identities from the enemy to avoid blowing their cover, yet Dusko Popov seems to have operated as spy in a way that defies this real world pre-conception. Was this simply because Popov was a double agent and used his reputation to maintain his cover or was Popov exuding these Bond-like characteristics because they were a part of his real identity?

 LL: Both.  Popov was that “one in a million virtuoso,” to borrow from what “C” (Fleming’s “M”) inferred during his initial conversation with Dusko, who could wear all masks—spy, counter-spy, businessman, playboy, socialite, gambler—and move from

Dusko Popov

Dusko Popov

one role to the next in seamless transition.  He used his reputation as a sybarite to his advantage with everyone—the Germans, the British, the Americans. To pull off what Popov did—particularly when his cover was blown—required a unique set of skills found in few: intelligence, intuition, street-smarts, confidence, savvy worldliness, courage, and ice-water calm.

JL: One thing I enjoyed about your book is that I got a better sense of the importance of the surrounding European countries that weren’t part of the Allies or Axis and yet played vital roles for intelligence gathering.  Can you talk a little about how important Spain and Portugal were to the war and as a theater for espionage at that time?

LL: Because Spain and Portugal were officially neutral (Spain keeping close ties with Berlin and Portugal playing both sides against each other), Madrid and Lisbon were the control centers of WWII espionage.  The British and Germans had hundreds of “diplomats” in each city, as well as in the surrounding areas.  In his memoirs, Nazi foreign intelligence chief Walter Schellenberg states matter-of-factly that he had a small army of spies and code specialists in the German embassy in Madrid, for example. But it wasn’t just the embassies; in Lisbon and Madrid, spies and informants from many nations could be found in hotels, restaurants, and bars.  One journalist at the time stated that the languages he heard in a Lisbon cafe were English, German, Russian, Japanese, and Romanian.

JL: Both Fleming and Popov were in Lisbon / Estoril during part of the summer of 1941. In your book you contend that when Fleming spoke of his experience at the Casino at Estoril during one of his oft-cited interviews that he was actually basing this story on observing Dusko Popov who had just successfully completed an operation called Plan MIDAS, which may have been part of Fleming’s assignment. Can you tell our readers a little bit about this timely connection between these two men?

Casino at Estoril

Casino at Estoril

LL: No, quite to the contrary.  Fleming didn’t base his public casino story on Popov—which could have landed Ian in prison for violation of the Official Secrets Act—he made it up, as Fleming biographer John Pearson noted in 1966.  Fleming didn’t create the casino scene in Casino Royale from playing against Germans on his outbound layover to the U.S. in May 1941, but rather from watching MI6 agent Popov on his return layover.  In my book I set forth the details (dates, venues, accommodations, what they were doing, why Popov was at the casino with MIDAS money, how Fleming knew of Popov’s role in MIDAS, Fleming’s memos to Admiral Godfrey, etc.).  While Fleming’s fabricated story for the BBC doesn’t match Popov’s antics at Casino Estoril, Fleming’s story in Casino Royale matches it exactly.

As for MIDAS, Fleming had no role in the operation (he wasn’t an agent), but may have been asked by his boss, Admiral Godfrey, to “watch the money.”  Or, as I point out in the book, Fleming may have done this of his own accord, or may have shadowed Popov just to see what an MI6 agent actually did on the job.

JL: Popov was eventually transferred to work as an agent for the United States prior to the establishment of the CIA.  We know that Fleming played a role as a liaison for the O.S.S. (Office of Strategic Service).  Popov, however, fell under the jurisdiction of the F.B.I and J. Edgar Hoover.  Can you tell us a little bit about some of the obstacles Popov faced with this new assignment?

LL: Technically, Popov was “on loan” from MI6 to the FBI.  British Intelligence informed J. Edgar Hoover that Popov was one of their double agents and had done a spectacular job up to that point.  The Germans were so impressed with Popov’s work, the British informed, that the Abwehr wanted Dusko to set up an entire espionage network in the U.S., and to investigate the defenses at Pearl Harbor.  What the British didn’t know was that Hoover didn’t trust foreigners and despised playboys.  Hoover wanted Popov in the U.S. for one reason only—as bait to catch German spies.  I’ll let the book fill in the rest so as not to spoil the story.

JL: Popov’s German questionnaire made specific reference to Pearl Harbor as a likely target.  Why do you think Hoover and other government officials ignored this threat? Why do you think similar lapses in Intelligence sharing across different government agencies continue to happen considering that the 9/11 Congressional Report cites such a lapse in Intelligence sharing between the F.B.I. and the C.I.A.?

 LL: Pearl Harbor wasn’t shown as a “likely” target; it was the target.  It was the only base specifically mentioned and a full 40 percent of the questionnaire pertained to the Pearl Harbor naval base defenses.  And no other government officials saw it, only the FBI.  Hoover quarantined the information and none of the FBI agents who saw the document—Earl Connelley, Percy Foxworth, Charles Lanman, and the lab technicians—were allowed to tell anyone.  Simply stated, Hoover buried the information. Why?  Again, I’ll let the book give the details so as not to spoil the story.

JL: Do you think the story of Dusko Popov would make a great film or television series?  If so whom would you cast as Popov and what part of Popov’s story aside from his connection to Fleming and Bond would you like the film /series to focus on?

Dusko Popov skiing

Dusko Popov skiing

LL: Of course.  Popov wasn’t just WWII’s greatest spy, he was—I believe— history’s greatest spy.  As for the actor most suited to play Popov, I haven’t the foggiest.  A few years back the answer would have been easy—the late Paul Walker.  Walker had Popov’s good looks and piercing blue eyes, and was a fabulous actor.  In addition, if you saw his role in Into the Blue, you’d see that Walker also had Popov’s lean, tan, athletic body. Popov was a first-class water-polo player and Walker came across in the movie as a great swimmer. So, for my money, I’d love to have seen Walker swim Into the Blue, and then straight to Into the Lion’s Mouth.

 

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