What's the secret of sex appeal? Countless studies for years have confirmed that confidence is the most alluring trait of a man. Add to that Hollywood attractiveness, money, charm, and intelligence, and the recipe for animal magnetism is said to be complete. Yet, while all of these attributes in one man are uncommon, they are not rare. So what was it about the man who inspired Ian Fleming's James Bond—MI6 agent Dusko Popov—that made him absolutely irresistible to women? He was handsome, yes, but no Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan. What was it, then, that separated Popov from the playboy pack?
1. Swagger. Somewhere between the vague contours of confidence and arrogance is swagger, and Popov had it in spades. Shortly after the war, one of Dusko's friends complained of pursuing a beautiful girl with little success. To show his friend how it was done, Dusko invited the girl to dinner, telling her casually to bring her passport. When the girl arrived, he whisked her off to Rome, dining at the famed Alfredo's. Afterwards, they toured the city in a romantic carriage. "I have reservations on the plane back," Dusko told her upon return to the restaurant, "but I also have booked a room at the Ambassador's Hotel." Naturally, the girl opted for the Roman holiday.
2. Savoir faire. There is something unmistakably appealing about a man with class, a man who can hold his own, regardless of company. Dusko Popov spoke five languages, had a professorial knowledge of world history, traveled internationally, and could critique the finest wines and whiskeys. It was this gentlemanly worldliness—that he could mingle in the highest circles of society—that made Popov such an attractive spy for German and British intelligence. And such a delicious date for damsels.
3. Bonhomie. Good spies—at least those who work among the enemy during wartime—are trained killers, and Dusko was. He survived the secret SOE commando school in Scotland, and was trained by none other than William Fairbairn, father of hand-to-hand combat. Yet, one of his MI5 case officers wrote in a report of Dusko's "natural bonhomie"—his cheerfulness, his ubiquitous smile, his carefree demeanor. "I think I survived," he would say after the war, "because I didn’t take anything too seriously. I learned—if this makes sense—to be lighthearted without being superficial."
4. Manliness. Dusko Popov was a man. He made decisions quickly—and independently—without being rash. He decided to work as a German spy, and British double agent, at age 29; he did not seek advice from his father, grandfather, or brothers, or even tell them what he was doing. And he did so before his native Yugoslavia was even in the war. He was athletic, courageous, and bold. He was a doer, not a talker.
5. Courtliness. While Popov was an unabashed and steadfastly unattached playboy, he always displayed courtly manners. He was chivalrous. The MI5 wartime files contain a personal note, for example, from Dusko's beautiful sub-agent, Friedl Gaertner (which I have included in my book). She thanks him for a lovely evening and the flowers. His 1942 flame, Hollywood leading lady Simone Simon, would later remark that Dusko was always the perfect gentleman. Long after the war, Dusko's Swedish "Bond-girl" wife, Jill Jonsson, would remember how he courted her. "Every day he sent me flowers," she recalled fondly.
6. Ingenuity. That Popov was highly intelligent was obvious to intelligence agencies and women; Dusko had a doctorate in law. But more than that, he was ingenious. During the war the British were shocked to learn that Popov—whose cover was as an import/export businessman—had brokered a $14 million (around $200 million today) ship deal in Argentina. He also invented—and the British implemented—a labyrinthine money laundering scheme whereby he tricked the Germans into funding MI5's entire war budget. After the war he would structure a $15 million bond deal for the government of South Africa. Whether in romance or espionage, Dusko Popov was never outwitted.
7. Mysterious. Throughout his life, Popov was a bit mysterious. British, German, and American intelligence agencies often wondered about him. Women could never quite figure him out. He was a lawyer but spent more time on international business deals. Before the war, he was out of the office by 11:00 a.m., and vacationed at least a month every year in Paris. After the war, his import/export business—which had been created as an MI6 cover—had opened offices around the world. He told no one about his war exploits, that he had been a double agent spy, or that he had been awarded an OBE by the British government. Not even his wife.
In 1965 the Johannesburg Sunday Times interviewed Dusko regarding his transaction with the South African government. In an article about this “man of mystery,” the Times journalist wrote: “He is a delightful person and for the half hour of our interview he charmingly told me practically nothing that I wanted to know. Then he showed me to the door and returned to his world of millions and mystery.”
Larry Loftis is the author of INTO THE LION'S MOUTH: The True Story of Dusko Popov—World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond (Berkley, June 14, 2016).