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The Model and the Mirror

MI6 agent Dusko Popov and Ian Fleming's commissioned sketch of James Bond.

Today, May 28, in honor of Ian Fleming's birthday, we look at whether the novelist had a model for James Bond, and if so, the shadow cast in the literary mirror.

The most likely candidate for Fleming's inspiration, it seems, was British double agent Dusko Popov (codenamed TRICYCLE), the incorrigible playboy who spied and lied for MI5 (counter-intelligence) and MI6 (foreign intelligence) during World War II. Popov was well-known in British Intelligence circles, including Naval Intelligence, and appeared in MI5's monthly reports to Winston Churchill himself. Naval Intelligence Director Rear Admiral John Godfrey sat on the two boards which supervised Popov, and Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu (famously the mastermind of Operation Mincemeat) worked regularly with Dusko to craft suitable German "chickenfeed." Through Godfrey and Montagu, a third naval officer, Lt. Commander Ian Fleming—Admiral Godfrey's personal assistant—would hear plenty about agent TRICYCLE .

[I have previously detailed Popov and Fleming's meetings in the Palacio Hotel and Casino Estoril in early August 1941 (see blogposts posted April 13 and May 20, 2016) so I'll not repeat the information here. Suffice it to say that Fleming based the famous casino scene of Casino Royale on Popov's brash stunt in Casino Estoril.]

As one would expect in any espionage organization, MI5 recorded Popov's physical characteristics: grey-blue eyes, receded hair line, brown hair combed straight back, white even teeth, and having an athletic build with broad shoulders. His complexion, one report stated, depended on "the prior night's activities." He was a heavy smoker and drinker, and was accustomed to the company of beautiful women. He was also quite intelligent, holding a doctorate in law and fluent in five languages.

Coincidentally, the hero of Ian Fleming's first novel, Casino Royale, was also a playboy MI6 agent. James Bond had grey-blue eyes, a receded hair line, black hair combed straight back, and was quite athletic. Bond also was a heavy smoker and drinker, and was similarly accustomed to the company of beautiful women. Bond also was intelligent, and spoke three languages.

Interesting similarities. Mere coincidence?

In Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd remarks that Bond reminded her of American singer Hoagy Carmichael, who seems to bear a resemblance to Popov at the same age.

Dusko Popov in his Yugoslav cavalry uniform (approx 1938), and Hoagy Carmichael.

More telling, perhaps, was how Fleming himself envisioned his iconic character. In 1957,

the Daily Express approached Ian about adapting the Bond novels to comic strips. Initially reluctant, Fleming agreed and commissioned a sketch of James Bond (appearing at the top of this article) as a guide for the adapter, Anthony Hern. Again, we see striking similarities between Bond and the agent Fleming shadowed in Lisbon in 1941.

Was Dusko Popov the model and James Bond the mirror?

You decide.

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).

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