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Winnipeg tycoon`s special bond with Ian Fleming

10-Oct-2008 • Literary

Secret donations to Winnipeg charities made in 2001 in memory of James Bond creator Ian Fleming are being revealed now to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the author's birth, reports Canada.com.

The money was raised when Winnipeg business tycoon Albert D. Cohen had his personal correspondence with Fleming and autographed first-edition copies of his books sold at auction by Christie's in London.

"I'm probably the only Canadian who knew Ian Fleming as a friend," said Cohen. The low-key, media-shy mogul agreed to talk about the gifts now as an homage to his late friend, who would be 100 were he alive today.

Cohen met Fleming through a mutual friend, Winnipeger William Stevenson who -- coincidentally -- served with William Stephenson, code-named Intrepid, in the British secret service.

Cohen met Stevenson in Japan, who was writing for Maclean's Magazine and the Globe and Mail. He was at the foreign correspondents club in Tokyo when he met Cohen, who had opened an office there.

Stevenson told Cohen to look up Fleming the next time Cohen was in London, and gave him the novels Dr. No and Casino Royale.

In an era before passenger jets, Cohen had plenty of time on his flight back to Winnipeg to read the books and established a bond with Bond . . . James Bond.

Later, Bond's creator would become intrigued by the mild-mannered Manitoba businessman. Cohen's globe-

trotting wheeling and dealing in places like Tokyo and his adventures in Soviet-era Eastern Europe inspired the author to inscribe a first-edition copy of Thunderball: "To Albert D. Cohen -- Man of Action. From Ian Fleming."

When Cohen first met Fleming in 1959, it was after Cohen and his Czech-born wife Irena escaped from behind the Iron Curtain during a visit to Prague.

A decade earlier, a 20-year-old Irena had fled the country before migrating to Canada and marrying Cohen. She stayed in touch with her parents in Czechoslovakia and when it seemed the Communist regime was opening up to the outside world, Cohen started doing business there.

"They needed hard currency," he said. Cohen was able to establish a business relationship that he hoped would help his wife get back to the country to visit her family.

Before making the trip, though, Cohen checked with the Embassy in Ottawa and was told that Irena, by now a Canadian citizen, would have no trouble visiting the Soviet regime.

They took their three-year-old son Anthony with them to Prague where Irena saw the family she hadn't seen in more than a decade.

They had to surrender their passports at their hotel, where their phone calls were monitored. When it was time to leave, Irena's passport was withheld. She was told the police wanted to see her. They were scared.

Cohen had been warned by another official in Ottawa about visiting Prague with Irena.

"Don't ever let your wife enter an office without you being there -- they'll snatch her, and you'll never see her again," Cohen was told. If that happened, Cohen was to get in touch with the official in Canada and use the code word "Red River."

At the police station, officials did try and take Irena into an office away from Cohen, who refused to leave her side. He told the police that her passport was the property of the Canadian government, and they would get into trouble if they took it. "They told us we had 24 hours to get out."

They did, and flew to Paris, where Cohen contacted Fleming who sent a car to meet them at the airport in London. At his home, the author welcomed the Cohens who were total strangers and still shaken from their trip to Prague. "Ian said, 'You don't know how lucky you are -- you stuck your head in the lion's mouth and you got out'," Cohen recalled.

He and Fleming kept in touch over the years, the businessman and the spy novelist reveling in each other's successes. "He saw something in me that I didn't," said Cohen. Cohen saw something in Japan that others didn't and made a fortune bringing Sony products to Canada.

Sony of Canada Ltd. evolved from General Distributors, an importing distribution firm formed in 1939 that was later renamed Gendis. Cohen and his four brothers negotiated early distribution of Sony's first transistor radio, the TR55, in 1955. In 1995 the company sold its 51 per cent stake in Sony of Canada to the Sony Corporation of Japan.

At the age of 95, Cohen is still working as chairman, president and CEO of Gendis Inc. He golfs 18 holes, carries his own clubs, and will still strap on the speedskates for a few laps around the oval.

Fleming, a smoker and a drinker, died in 1964. In 2001, Cohen sent the books Fleming gave him and their correspondence to Christie's in London. At auction, the collection fetched $10,000. Cohen donated the proceeds to the Health Sciences Centre Foundation, the Victoria General Hospital Foundation, St. Boniface General Hospital Research Foundation and the Winnipeg Free Press collection for the Christmas Cheer Board in memory of Ian Fleming.

At the time, the recipients wanted to publicize the gift and where it came from.

Cohen refused, but when he heard about celebrations in the U.K. honouring the centenary of Fleming's 1908 birth, he wanted to share the story.

Fleming, whose creation James Bond stopped nuclear wars and busted bad guys in exotic locations, also did some good in faraway Winnipeg, said Cohen.

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