Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

The Real James Bond Uncovered

by Mario de Queiroz

Fascinated by Popov and by the temptation of the casino, Fleming wanted to emulate his new Yugoslavian friend

(IPS) -- The wealthy Yugoslav lawyer and spy whose life was the basis for Ian Fleming's James Bond character was considered to be one of the most important British agents operating in the nest of spies in Portugal during World War II.

Dusan "Dusko" Popov, who died shortly after telling Italian journalists in 1981 that he doubted a flesh-and-blood Bond "would last 48 hours as a spy," managed to discover the Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbor months ahead of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack.

Popov traveled in person to the United States with a stack of documents in his briefcase, which he took to the New York office of the then-director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. However, the director not only ignored the whole affair but also forbade Popov to go to Hawaii to carry out a double-cross mission against Germany.

"Casino Royale," the book by Fleming that gave birth to the 007 legend, reached its 53rd birthday recently, and "Dr. No," the first film in which Scottish actor Sean Connery portrayed Popov in the shape of Bond, turned 43 this month.

As for his inspiration, Popov was born in 1912 in the Serbian town of Titel.

An expert baccarat player with a reputation for seducing beautiful women, he achieved his greatest success as a spy in Portugal.

During World War II (1939-1945), the British secret agent codenamed "Tricycle" was sent to neutral Portugal to carry out a nearly impossible mission: infiltrate the highly efficient Abwehr, the German military counterespionage unit headed by Adm. Wilhelm Walter Canaris.

Lisbon and its elegant residential suburbs of Estoril and Cascais were at that time crawling with spies from both sides of the conflict.

The Allies were closely watched by the International Police for the Defense of the State (PIDE), the secret police, but they could move about freely, thanks to a pragmatic direct order from Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (1932-1968).

Corporatist fascism had taken power in Portugal in 1926, and the regime sympathized openly with the four similar regimes in Europe: Spain under Francisco Franco (1939-1975), Germany under Adolf Hitler (1933-1945), Italy under Benito Mussolini (1922-1943) and Hungary under Miklos Horthy (1920-1944).

However, Salazar had no alternative but to turn a blind eye to the presence of numerous Allied spies, because of the constant threat of a British invasion of the strategic Azores islands, situated in mid-Atlantic between Europe and the Americas, and the additional possibility of occupation of Portugal's colonies in Africa by Britain.

The Palace Hotel, with its lush gardens, exudes an air of impressive luxury. It faces the Estoril Casino, recalling the era when dethroned monarchs, deposed dictators, Allied secret agents, Jewish refugees and Nazi spies rubbed elbows in the corridors while Europe burned up in a ferocious war that cost 50 million lives.

On Aug. 30 this year "the whispering hotel," as it was called during the war, turned 75 years old.

Its spacious rooms served as home to the Spanish royal family in exile starting in the 1930s, celebrated English economist John Maynard Keynes, French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint Exupery, and the Hungarian Jewish sisters Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor, who went on to become Hollywood movie stars.

When the war ended, the hotel provided a luxurious refuge to Hitler's major allies and monarchs expelled from several countries.

Famous spies who stayed at the hotel included Spanish double agent Juan Pujol Garcia, who conceived Operation Fortitude to convince the Germans that D-Day (the Allied invasion of occupied Europe that marked the beginning of the end of the war) would take place in Calais, not in Normandy.

Notorious British double agent Kim Philby, who has been described as the spy of the century, was also a guest at the hotel. He deceived the British for four decades, and ended his days in Moscow as a retired agent of the KGB (the intelligence service of the former Soviet Union).

Popov differed from his fellow spies in that he lived a life of luxury, drove fast cars, seduced beautiful women and bankrupted Germans -- especially spies, diplomats and PIDE "advisers" -- at the Estoril Casino.

It was at the Palace Hotel that Fleming, also an agent of the British Naval Intelligence Service headed by celebrated Adm. John Henry Godfrey, met Popov. A decade later, Fleming launched his famous character.

In Fleming's first book, "Casino Royale" (1953), Dusko Popov could discern pieces of his own story at the Estoril Casino and the Palace Hotel.

Popov and Fleming even worked together and occupied rooms next door to each other in the Palace Hotel in 1941. This closeness had the effect of magnifying the legend that 007 was based on the Yugoslavian double agent of the Abwehr, codenamed "Ivan," who was really in the service of His Britannic Majesty and whose mission was to discover the Reich's plans against the Allies.

Fascinated by Popov and by the temptation of the casino, which, he admitted, was just too strong, Fleming wanted to emulate his new Yugoslavian friend and colleague. He, too, tried to drive Nazi gamblers into bankruptcy in baccarat. He lost his shirt, and casino records show Admiral Godfrey himself had to pay his debts.

Border police recorded Popov's last exit from Portugal toward the end of the 1940s, but the possibility remains that he may have used his various passports in false names to re-enter the country. The last information about his life places him in peaceful retirement in the swanky French resort of Cannes, where he died at a well-preserved 69 years of age.

In his book "Crime, Espionagem e Poder" (Crime, Espionage and Power), Brazilian journalist and writer Flavio Moreira da Costa recaptures several moments of the spy's life. Moreira da Costa reveals that the puritanical Hoover, on hearing that Popov's pseudonym "Tricycle" was derived from his penchant for sleeping with two women at once, dismissed him as "an immoral playboy."

According to Moreira da Costa, the very real Popov replied, with an honesty that could never have come from the lips of the film character James Bond: "I'm not a spy who turned playboy, but a man who always lived that way and became a spy."

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor November 30, 2005 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.