Hollywood, The Stork Club, and Accidentally Outing WWII's Top Spy
SEVENTY-FOUR YEARS AGO TODAY, one of America's most powerful men accidentally exposed British double agent Dusko Popov, an MI6 agent on loan to the FBI. Walter Winchell, in his nationally-syndicated "On Broadway" column, created a firestorm this day with Popov's German handlers when he wrote: "Dusko Popov (which isn't double-talk, at all) of the Yugoslavian Govt is Simone Simon's new toy."
The Abwehr, German military intelligence, knew of Winchell's ubiquitous presence and influence—his column was seen by virtually every household in the country, his radio show was the nation's most popular, he had starred in two movies (as himself), and he had an open invitation to the White House and FDR's ear at his pleasure—and his choice of words surely raised eyebrows.
Winchell had starred in 1937's "Love and Hisses" with French leading lady Simone Simon, and surely salivated about disclosing the new handsome man on her arm. In all likelihood, Winchell saw them at his favorite haunt—The Stork Club, also a favorite of Popov's.
While Popov's playboy lifestyle irritated the FBI (and was tolerated by MI6), his German masters were more than alarmed by Winchell's article. Abwehr messages intercepted by British intelligence had already warned that the Germans were suspicious that Popov was doubling. And what did Winchell mean by "and that's no double-talk"? Why would Popov's role as a diplomat suggest "double-talk"? And why was Popov cavorting with a French actress, hob-nobbing about town, when he was supposed to be establishing a German spy network?
To find out what happened, you'll have to follow Popov ... into the lion's mouth.
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).