Fleming And Popov
28th May 2017
Larry Loftis examines Ian Fleming's time in Portugal during WWII and a possible inspiration for the 'Casino Royale' plot and the character of 007
By Larry Loftis
As we celebrate the birth of Ian Fleming, we would be remiss not to also celebrate the birth of James Bond. To do so, we must hark back to what Lieutenant Commander Ian Lancaster Fleming did during World War II, and retrace how events seventy-six years ago at Casino Estoril (Portugal) inspired Fleming's 'Casino Royale', his first Bond novel.
In 1941, Fleming was personal assistant to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence, and was returning with his boss from a trip to Washington. On the layover in Lisbon, Ian decided—or was ordered—to stay a few weeks. The question is, why? British Naval Intelligence had no office in Portugal, and Godfrey returned immediately to London.
In February I visited Portugal, and the Palacio Hotel, the Spy Bar, and Casino Estoril – all particular haunts of the 007 creator.
During the war, only two men sat on both governing bodies (W Board and XX Committee) overseeing British double agents: Brigadier General Stewart Menzies, head of MI6—"C" as he is called (or "M" for Fleming's novels)—and Admiral Godfrey. Godfrey, Bond fans, is the link between Lisbon, Ian Fleming, Casino Estoril, and one very special MI6 double agent—Dusko Popov. In the summer of '41, Godfrey approved a counterespionage plan called MIDAS—Popov's audacious scheme to steal the Germans blind—and knew when Popov would receive $40,000 (roughly $600,000 today) from his German controller, Abwehr Major Ludovico von Karsthoff.
Godfrey also knew that Popov was a notorious playboy and bon vivant. Was there a risk in turning a sybarite spy loose on the town with a king's ransom in his pocket? Without question. In all likelihood, Godrey explained MIDAS to Fleming and asked Ian to follow the money until Popov delivered it to MI6 Lisbon chief, Colonel Ralph Jarvis.
While I was in Lisbon, I stayed at the luxurious five-star Palacio Hotel. Fleming had stayed at the Palacio on his U.S. outbound layover, and Popov was staying there the night of their encounter the first week of August, 1941.
Equally important, the Palacio was home to Fleming and Popov's favourite watering hole, known today as The Spy Bar. The Palacio is proud of this heritage, and the bar menu highlights the Fleming-Popov-Bond connection, including hotel registrations of both men.
I spoke with the two employees who have been at the Palacio the longest—bellman Jose Alfonso (54 years) and concierge Jose Diogo Vieira (37 years). While neither was at the hotel in 1941, they noted that two bartenders they had worked with during their early employment had been. "That was Fleming's table," Jose Diogo told me as we strolled through the bar. "The bartenders told me that Fleming and Popov favoured it."
On August 1, 1941, the London end of the MIDAS exchange was initiated and days later Popov received from von Karsthoff—in Lisbon—$38,000 (the German keeping $2,000 as his "commission"). That night—sometime between August 3 and 8—Popov decided to keep the money on him as he hit the town. When he exited the Palacio elevator around dinner time, a sharply-dressed man was waiting in the lobby: Ian Fleming.
The man took a particular interest in him, Popov noticed, and followed him to a bar and then to a restaurant. After dinner, with Fleming in tow, Popov headed to Casino Estoril.
What happened next should sound familiar. Fleming watched with keen interest as Popov humiliated—with the MI6 money—a bête noire holding the bank at a baccarat table. The man, whose name was Bloch, was a wealthy boor from Liechtenstein who was fleeing the Nazis. Twelve years later, on April 13, 1953, the scene was re-created with the publication of Casino Royale. Popov became Bond, Fleming became Mathis, and Bloch became LeChiffre (fleeing the Russians). Bond's bankroll? From MI6, of course.
The full story of Popov, the British double agent, is told in Larry's 2016 book. Order 'Into the Lion's Mouth'. on Amazon (US).
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