FELIX LEITER = HENRY PLEASANTS
After discovering James Bond, and the true identify of some of Ian Fleming’s other fictional characters, I was particularly interested in Henry Pleasants, whose CIA music critic background bears a striking similarity to the fictional 007’s CIA sidekick Felix Leiter, a recurring character in many of Fleming’s stories.
Part of the riddle of Goldeneye is why Fleming based three of his characters on real people from Philadelphia – James Bond, Cummins Catherwood and Henry Pleasants.
It took me quite a while to track down Henry Pleasants, the former Philadelphia Bulletin reporter and music critic, OSS interrogator of Nazi General Gehlen, CIA cold warrior in Bonn, Germany, internationally renowned music critic and model for Fleming’s Felix Leiter, 007’s CIA sidekick.
Considering I had to criss-cross continents to find him, the idea that he had eluded my quest for over a decade only made the meeting more satisfying.
I originally read about Pleasants in 1974 in the paperback edition of “The Invisible Government,” by David Wise and Thomas Ross, who wrote, “…When the CIA was casting about for a network in West Germany, it decided to look into the possibility of using (former Nazi Army General Reinhardt) Gehlen’s talents. And while they were making up their mind about the ex-General, Henry Pleasants, the CIA station chief in Bonn for many years, moved in and lived with Gehlen for several months.”
“Pleasants, once the chief music critic of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, and a contributor to the music pages of the New York Times, was a highly literate and respected musicologist. His wife Virginia was one of the world’s leading harpsichordists. He also probably had the distinction of being the only top U.S. spy to become the center of a literary storm. He had continued to write books after joining the CIA, and in 1953 his Agony of Modern Music (Simon & Schuster, N.Y.) caused considerable controversy for its attacks on all contemporary music except jazz.*”
The * asterisk referred to a footnote at the bottom of the page that read: “As recently as April 15, 1962, while he was till the CIA station chief in Bonn, Pleasants had a by line article in the New York Herald Tribune, filed from Zurich. It told of the state theater’s production of Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete.”
That was enough to peak my interest in Mr. Pleasants to obtain a copy of his book, “Agony of Modern Music,” and take note of other books he had written. Besides being historically interested in General Gehlen and his role with the CIA during the Cold War years, Pleasants and I shared musical tastes, particularly blues and jazz.
In “Agony,” Pleasants maintains that, “Serious music is a dead art. The vein which for three hundred years offered a seemingly inexhaustible yield of beautiful music has run out. What we know as modern music is the noise made by deluded spectators picking through the slag pile.”
“…Thus jazz accomplishment is simply defined,” writes Pleasants, “It has taken music away from the composers and given it back to the musicians and their public…This is obviously something the serious composer cannot admit…For deep down in his heart he knows that jazz is modern music – and nothing else is.”
In the back of the book, under the Author’s profile, it says: “Henry Pleasants began his career as music critic as a specialist in contemporary music. Following studies in voice, piano and composition at the Philadelphia Conservatory and the Curtis Institute of Music, he joined the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in 1930 as assistant music critic. Arthur Tubbs, the paper’s veteran theater and music editor, cared little for modern music. The result was that Mr. Pleasants, as a neophyte second-string critic, got the first string assignments if modern music were involved. Thus he covered such important premiers in the early thirties as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s productions of Wozzeck, Stravinskyu’s Oedipus rex, Prokofiev’s Pas d’Acier, Chavez’s ballet H.P. Louis Greuenberg’s The Emperor Jones, etc., along with the host of experimental orchestral compositions with which Leopold Stokowski was making a name for himself as champion of modern music at that time.”
“In 1935, at the age of twenty-five, Mr. Pleasants succeeded Tubbs as Music Editor of the Evening Bulletin, and continued in that post until entering the Army in 1942. In addition to his work for the Bulletin, he was a regular contributor to Modern Music and was an occasional music correspondent for both the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune. In 1940 he collaborated with Tibor Serly on the first definitive article on Bela Bartok to appear in the United States. It was published in the April issue of Modern Music.”
“Since the war Mr. Pleasants has remained in Europe, first with the Army and subsequently with the Foreign Service, continuing his association with music as correspondent of the New York Times. In this capacity he has covered the festivals in Vienna, Salzburg,…including such premiers as…Alban Berrg’s Lu Lu…and Rolf Lieberman’s Penelope.”
Although Pleasants’ duel role as music critic and spy somehow struck a peculiar cord that rang kind of spooky, I really didn’t begin looking for him until a few years later, after I had made some even more peculiar discoveries.
With a renewed interest in Fleming’s fiction I began to read, or in some cases re-read his spy thriller novels, discovering two more characters with peculiar attributes similar to real persons, some of whom happened to be from Philadelphia.
Besides Bond, the long-time curator of birds at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, whose name Fleming acknowledge appropriating for his secret agent 007, there’s Cummins Catherwood. In Fleming’s “Hildebrand Rarity,” one of the short stories that make up the anthology “For Your Eyes Only,” the villain, Milton Krest, takes some scientists, including Bond, on an expedition seeking rare fish specimens for the Smithsonian Institute.
Like Catherwood, Krest established the Krest Foundation, which like the Catherwood Foundation, provided tax shelter for his nefarious activities.
Fleming’s use of Bond’s name and the peculiar developing pattern followed by Catherwood and Fleming’s fictional Mr. Krest, could have been a coincidence, or it could be the first insights into a larger network of Fleming’s fictional characters that are based on real people known to Fleming.
Then I came up with a third example of Fleming’s duplicity. In “Live and Let Die,” when 007 and his CIA sidekick Felix Leiter go to a black nightclub in Harlem, Leiter is quoted as saying, “I wrote a few pieces on Dixieland jazz for the Amsterdam News…Did a series for the NANA on the negro theater about the same time Orson Wells put his Macbeth on with an all-negro cast at the Lafayette. I knew my way around Harlem pretty well…..It’s the Mecca of jazz and jive.”
That OO7’s CIA associate wrote music and theater reviews and loved jazz struck the final off-key note that sent me on the trail of Henry Pleasants.
I began my quest for Pleasants at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, where as a music critic for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Pleasants had spent many an enjoyable evening. There, after a performance of blues acts B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland, I asked for the oldest usher in the house, and inquired if he remembered Henry Pleasants.
“Mister Pleasants,” he informed me, “is living in London with his wife Virginia, the harpsichordist.”
In July 1990, returning from Berlin where I covered the fall of the wall as a journalist, I found myself in London, where the peculiarities of the London phone system lent itself to my investigation. After making reservations from a pay phone in a restaurant, I had some change left from the deposit that I could use, but not receive the change. So I looked up Pleasants in the phone book and called the one on Palace Lane.
A women answered the phone, and when I asked for Mr. Pleasants, she said he was out of town at the moment but would be returning the following week. “I’m looking for Henry Pleasants from Philadelphia,” I said.
“Yes, he’s out of town now. He’s in Vienna at a music festival,” she said. “This is his wife.”
When I explained I was a journalist from the Philadelphia area seeking an interview, she said she was sure he would be glad to talk with me, and gave me an address in Vienna and their address in London, requesting I write.
Now armed with his phone number, I called Pleasants again when I got back to the States and he had returned to London from Austria. Having missed him in London, he told me he would be in New York that November to address a meeting of the Record Collectors Society, and asked that I call him at his hotel then to arrange a meeting.
“Could I attend the lecture?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Just tell them you’re my guest and introduce yourself to me before or after the meeting.”
On Friday, November 2nd 1990, I drove the two and half hours to New York, parked across the street from Christ’s Church and descended three flights of stairs to the Church’s community hall in the basement.
I was a few minutes late and the lecture had already started. Walking briskly past the first door, I stood in the back of the room, past a table where old albums and sheet music were being sold. The room was nearly full, every chair taken by over a hundred people. I glanced around and noticed they were an odd assortment of people – the Vocal Record Collector’s Society. Those who weren’t elderly were of an eccentric sort, highbrows, teachers, students, and one particularly young and gorgeous blonde who seemed out of place. Many had Tower Records bags at their side.
As Pleasants’ voice trailed off and an old scratched recording of an opera singer was played, I sat on the end of a table and picked up some leaflets that were lying there.
One was the Christ Church News, another was an order form for one of Pleasants’ books, “Opera In Crisis,” (Thames and Hudson, N.Y.) and a third gave a listening for recordings that were to be sold at live auction that night, such as “Alice Clery (M.S.) Carman: Sabanera/Seguedille AC. ZONOPHONE 83227/8 No wear, but some scratches, few clicks. She recorded only 3 sides solo. V.G. to Fine.”
Then there was a program announcing: “The Vocal Record Collector’s Society Presents ‘The CANARIES’ by Dr. Henry Pleasants.
“It will indeed be a pleasure to welcome back to these shores our good friend and fellow VRCS member, Dr. Henry Pleasants, who, for the fourth year in a row, conducts our November outing. During the last two years, he had devoted his programs to the lower region low male voices in 1988 and low female ones in 1989. In a complete turnaround, this year’s program will be devoted to The CANARIS (and we don’t mean the islands). Despite the title, Dr. Pleasants assured us that there will be some make voices on the program. Perhaps he will bring with him the famous five hundred pound canary who sings anywhere he wants to? Anyhow, that’s all we can tell you about November as, like most of our members who give programs, the good doctor wishes to keep his program contents shrouded in secrecy, the better to surprise you with. Do plan to be with us for what will be an outstanding evening.”
The recording of the opera song lasted about five minutes, and when it was over the audience politely applauded. I had never seen it before – an audience applauds a very bad recording of a dead opera star. I wondered if, fifty years from now, some octogenarian hippie would be giving a similar lecture on psychedelic rock music, playing only a five minute sample of “Inda God Da Vida.”
As the evening wore on however, I too found myself applauding as Mr. Pleasants explained that many of the recordings were originally replayed on now obsolete and somewhat extinct punctured tubes, like music boxes and player pianos, that dated to the 1890s.
Extremely knowledgeable, he also added tidbits of detail, often humorous insights into the background of the once famous and now obscure singers.
A few people arrived late, but no one left early, and some two hours later, when the lecture was over, Pleasants stayed around to mingle with the crowd and autograph copies of his books.
As Pleasants signed my copy of his book, “The Agony of Modern Music,” I introduced myself as the reporter who called him in London requesting an interview. He smiled assuredly and made a date with me for the following Thursday afternoon, when he would return to New York following a jaunt to the Midwest.
When he inquired about my interest in music I told him I wrote a weekly music column primarily reviewing live music, and had recently returned from Berlin where I had seen Roger Water’s rock opera “The Wall” performed before 500,000 people at Potsdam Platz, Berlin while the real wall was being disassembled.
The following Wednesday I took a train to New York and stayed with my friend, the same lawyer who went to Jamaica with me the previous March. The next morning I walked downtown to the Windsor Hotel, where Pleasants was staying (one block south of Central Park, near 56th Street).
Calling him from the lobby, I went up the elevator to his room, where I found the door ajar, went in and announced myself. After shaking hands he offered me a drink as he poured one himself. “Whisky and water,” he said. “It’s all I have.”
First off I told him how much I appreciated the “CARANIES” lecture.
“The audience was great!” he said enthusiastically.
“Yes, no one left early,” I quipped, before he added.
“And no one coughed.”
I explained my musical interests leaned more towards blues, jazz and rock and roll than to classical and opera, but still appreciated the lecture all the same, particularly because of his interesting background briefings.
“Tido Puente, Jr. is now playing in a rock band in Italy,” Pleasants noted, an item I found particularly amusing.
After we settled in comfortably enough, I came right to the point.
“Did you ever know or meet Ian Fleming?”
I was going to add – the British spy fiction writer, but hesitated a moment because I figured Pleasants knew who I meant.
“No he said, without too much thought, but obviously puzzled. I didn’t make him ask me why.
Pleasants was genuinely surprised when I told him that Fleming had appropriated some personal traits in creating one of his fictional characters – Felix Leiter, 007’s CIA associate in a number of stories.
“Which book?” he asked, and although unfamiliar with the particular passage, when I told him, “Live and Let Die,” he seemed to recognize it, saying, “Oh, yes.”
When I quoted the particular line, “The Mecca of jazz and jive,” and mentioned the reviews of classical pieces for NANA and Amsterdam News, he smiled and sat back on the couch, clinking the ice in his glass, he only said, “I haven’t a clue.”
As he mixed some more drinks, one for each of us, he seemed to be piecing something together in his own mind, then threw me a curve that I knew would have to be figured out later.
“But I did meet Fleming’s sister, a cellist who performed on occasion with my wife, in the same chamber orchestra,” Pleasants said, then added, “but that was in 1968, after Fleming had died.”
So he knew Fleming’s sister and when Fleming died. He was more familiar with Fleming then just the titles of his books, but there were a few clues to the mystery.
“You were CIA station chief in Bonn, Germany when you wrote, ‘The Agony of Modern Music,’ I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “but how did you know?”
“From Wise and Ross and their book, ‘The Invisible Government,” I said, as he smiled in recognition once again.
“I haven’t talked about these things in 15 years,” he said.
He preferred not to talk about Gehlen.
So I mentioned how I learned he was in London from an usher at the Academy of Music, who also recalled Mrs. Pleasants, and the days you reviewed shows for the Bulletin.
“The Bulletin,” Pleasant mumbled, as we both thought briefly of the old and now defunct Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper. I told him the Charter Company, out of Florida, which was mixed up in the Watergate scandal, bought the paper and then folded it.
“Yes, I know,” Pleasants said. “I was born in Philadelphia, lived on the Main Line, took voice and piano lessons at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and worked at the Bulletin for many years.”
“I did everything there. I worked as a police reporter in the ‘30s, from the 23rd district, a precinct that stretched from down to Front Street.”
Although the program listed him as a doctor, “I never really went to college,” Pleasants said. “But the most valuable course I ever took was in English composition,” (taught by William Haberman at the University of Pennsylvania).Besides working as a police beat reporter in center city Philadelphia, Pleasants also made time to write reviews of the popular music of the day for the entertainment section. “Often, I didn’t get paid for it, but that didn’t matter,” he said. “I loved it.”
“At the Bulletin I also worked in the news center on the radio, doing “the Voice of the Evening Bulletin,” where I learned to pronounce all of the German and Russian names. I also took a Berlitz course in Russian and I already knew some German from the time I spent in Austria.” So when the United States entered World War II, Henry Pleasants could write well enough and pronounce the German and Russian names, so served in liaison with the Russians and then made a translator and interrogator.
Joining the Army in 1942 Pleasants was stationed in Alaska as a second lieutenant and assigned to duties as a liaison with the Russians. “We were to develop a joint US-USSR offense against Japan, but that never materialized,” Pleasants related.
“In 1943 I was transferred to the European Theater of Operations after being trained as an interpreter and interrogator, and assigned to the 5th Army under General Mark Clark, in Naples, Italy.”
“I was also a specialist in the German order of battle, that I knew from memorization, which I’m good at.”
At the end of the war, Pleasants said, Clark attended the first postwar music festival in Austria and gave a speech there.
In the course of his postwar interpretation and interrogation work Pleasants dealt with former Nazi General Reinhardt Gehlen.
Although at the time Gehlen’s name was virtually unknown outside of military and intelligence circles, he probably influenced, more than any one man, the Cold War strategy that engulfed Europe for the better part of a half-century. From the German order of Battle, Pleasants knew him as the German army’s chief of intelligence for the Armies East – the Russian front.
According to Pleasants, “Gehlen was G-2 for the eastern front. He foresaw the situation at the end of the war when it became Us against Them, the United States versse the USSR. And he made a very important decision – to turn himself over to US troops and make himself and his knowledge of the Russians and his files, available to us. It was good for both. He went on to establish the German Intelligence organization that we recognized.”
“An organization that turned out to be penetrated and compromised by the Russians,” I noted.
“Yes,” he said, noting that the Russians did the same thing to the British with Kim Philby and his friends.
Pleasants said he joined the CIA in 1950 and stayed on with the agency until 1964, working at first in Berne, Switzerland and later in Bonn, the capitol of West Germany, as chief of station, until he retired.
“I knew Allen Dulles very well,” he said, and as for Gehlen, “I liked him. We were good friends.”
Pleasants pointed out that, “I wasn’t involved in covert operations. I was strictly liaison was my specialty and I was good at it.”
Pleasant didn’t mind missing the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban fiasco that ended Dulles’ career. “Thank God I wasn’t involved with that. That was a real mess. I only worked in Germany and Europe.”
When I asked him about the mysterious “Frank Bender,” from the CIA German desk who helped organize the Bay of Pigs, he looked at me suspiciously and said, “Let’s talk about music,” and I obliged.
“I left the foreign service to get back into music,” he said.
Pleasants passion for music began in Philadelphia where he first went to the theater and discovered Mario Lanza, Ethel Waters, Eugene Ormandey and many other entertainers who the regular Bulletin music editor, Ernest Tubbs, failed to appreciate.
The thing about Pleasants that struck me the most, compared to other music critics, is the diversity of his interests. And the one thing that bothered him the most, he went out of his way to tell me, is the lack of appreciation of the varied types of music in the world today.
His tastes ran the gamut from Bach and Beethoven, opera, blues, jazz and rock & roll. He considers “Serious Music and All That Jazz” his best original work, but is also proud of “Great American Pop Singers” and “The Agony of Modern Music,” of which he said, “Stands up very well today.”
“I found jazz music to be the most amiable people,” said Pleasants. “Their music often appears easy but is actually very difficult to perform. They just make the difficult seem easy. And when you ask them about it, they say, “Oh, you’re interested in the music, not my sex life? The music? Well, I’ll talk about the music.”
“I stayed with pop music through Elvis, the 5th Dimension and what’s the group – CTA – Chicago Transit Authority,” he laughed, “then as my hearing decreased, I pulled back.”
I felt that we were on the same cord when we talked about the blues, B.B. King and jazz, and felt a profound disinterest when we talked about the Cold War days. Reflecting on the collapse of Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the union of Germany and the end of Cold War, Pleasants merely said, “I have no opinion on it. I keep up with it, and I am interested, but what can you say?”
The main thing in Henry Pleasants’ life was his profound passion for music.
As I shook his hand to say goodbye, he reiterated once again his regret over the lack of appreciation for the wide variety of music in the world today. I thought then that his work as a police beat reporter in the heart of Philadelphia somehow gave him his unique perspective that prepared him to be open minded, and accept a more varied taste in music, and I sensed life.