Tuesday, November 4, 2008

James Bond & the Cambridge Spy Ring


More secrets emerged after the death of James Bond in 1989, and a few were publicized when new academic biographies of both Bond and Ian Fleming were published - The Private Life of James Bond, a profile of James Bond the ornithologist, by history professor David R. Contosta (Sutter House, 1993), and The Man Behind James Bond (Turner Books, 1995) by Andrew Lycett.

With the official approval and cooperation of Fleming’s estate, family and friends, Andrew Lycett continued to promote the false myth that Fleming began his spy novels on a lark, to take his mind of marriage, and despairingly refers to James Bond as an “unknown academic.”

Yet Lycett teases with the truth by brining the Cambridge spy ring to the table. During World War II Fleming had said he wanted to write “the spy story to end all spy stories,” and when he sat down to is desk at his Jamaican beach house in January, 1952, the biggest spy story of the century was slowly unfolding in back alleys, capitol offices and headlines around the world.

It was unthinkable that the best and brightest of England’s native sons could betray their nation’s most precious secrets to the Soviet Union, yet that was what was just beginning to be understood. One year earlier, on May 28, 1951, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess disappeared shortly before McLean was to be arrested for espionage, setting off a search for a “Third Man,” suspected of tipping them off as to MacLean’s impending doom.

Since both Burgess and Mclean attended Cambridge University, suspicion immediately fell on their former schoolmate and friend Kim Philby, the MI6 British Secret Service liaison to the United State’s CIA, former head of the MI6 bureau responsible for Soviet counter-intelligence, and one of the few primary candidates to head the British Secret Service. While the suspicions put a strain in U.S. – British relations, it also strongly affected Ian Fleming, a Philby colleague whose generation of friends and associates were caught exposed and vulnerable by the betrayal their own friends, associates and countrymen.

Four months after Burgess and Maclean escaped to Russia, Ian and his wife Ann visited their friends Prime Minister Anthony Eden and his wife Clarissa. According to Lycett, “The Prime Minister was unwell, largely as a result of the anguish he was experiencing about the enduring subject of the ‘Missing Diplomats’. A White Paper on Burgess and Maclean’s defection to Moscow had just been published and the government was being forced to lie about the case, falsely denying that the two traitors’ colleague Kim Philby was the ‘Third Man’. Clarissa Eden begged her guests not to mention any of these names in front of her husband. When they were alone, Ian and Ann asked her for more details.”

The subject was also taboo when Fleming sat down with his old friend and mentor, Sir William Stephenson [The man called INTREPID], reports Lycett, as “Curiously, Ian did not mention…the intelligence-related matter which obsessed the chattering classes of the time – the disappearance in May of two senior Foreign Office officials, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who were suspected of being communist spys. When Ian and Ann had entertained Cyril Connolly and Noel Coward in September, they had spoken of little else. How could such pillars of the Establishment nurtured an ideological commitment for Marxism?”

Connolly was actually with Maclean on the day before he fled, and [in Douglas Southerland’s The Fourth Man – The Story of Blunt, Philby, Burgess and MacLean, Arrow Books, 1980], Connolly is quoted as saying, “…I knew them both and actually
Lunched with Maclean the day before he disappeared. The point I wanted to mention to you was that on that day I am sure he had no intention of leaving the way he did. He spoke to me so normally as to his private affairs…this makes me feel that, subsequent to meeting me on May 24th, he received some warning that he was under suspicion, and immediately left the country with Burgess. It may be, therefore, that someone in the Foreign Office told him….” Now we know that person was Kim Philby.

The Sunday Times had commissioned Cyril Connolly to write a story on the missing diplomats, and Fleming wanted to expand the article into a book for his publishing house, Queen Ann Press, whose offices share the same Queen Anne’s Gate underground stop with those who work at the offices of the British Secret Service.

While mocking Fleming’s actual intentions and motives, Lycett acknowledged that Fleming’s first novel was inspired by the betrayals of the Cambridge syps when he wrote, “What raised Casino Royale out of the usual run of thrillers was Ian’s attempt to reflect the disturbing moral ambiguity of a post-war world that could produce traitors like Burgess and Maclean. Although Bond is presented like Bulldog Drummond with all the trappings of a traditional fictional secret agent (such as his Bentley), in fact he needs ‘Marshall Aid’ from Leiter to enable him to continue his baccarat game with Le Chiffre. Bond is rescued from his kidnappers not by the British or the Americans but by the Russians, who complete the job he should of done of eliminating Le Chiffre. Bond does not even get the girl: [ Vesper ] she has been duplicitous throughout, betraying not only him personally but all Western Intelligence’s anti-Soviet operations. No wonder, feeling let down and abandoned, he fails to conceal his bitterness at the end and spits out, ‘The bitch is dead now.’”

Casino Royale was Ian Fleming’s response to the betrayal of the Cambridge spy ring, portraying the women who loved James Bond as the sexy snake who actually worked for the opposition, much like the sexual ambiguity and background of the Cambridge spies. After writing Casino Royale in Jamaica in January, Fleming and his wife returned to England for the birth of their son Casper.

After dropping her off a the hospital, Fleming visited an old friend from school days, the American born Whitney Straight, chairman of the BOAC airlines. Both Whitney Straight, described as a playboy race driver, and his younger brother were personal friends of Guy Burgess and according to Lycett the case of the Missing Diplomats is what they discussed.

Ian Fleming’s father had established the family banking interests in America with J. P. Morgan, a firm that included Whitney and Michael Straight’s father, and with whom Fleming himself was affiliated with for a while. Both Whitney and Michael Straight attended Cambridge, where they knew Guy Burgess from the hunting and drinking social set at the Pitt Club. Straight considered Burgess an “alcoholic adventurer, a name dropper and a gypsy.” At Cambridge Michael Straight, was recruited into the Cambridge spy cell by art historian Anthony Blunt, the Fourth Man.

Although a reluctant Soviet spy, Michael Straight retained his friendship with Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean. As editor and publisher of the New Republic Michael Striaght published some of Philby’s commentaries from Lebanon, where he was exiled to in 1956.

Ian Fleming even went so far as to reach out to Burgess and Maclean, after they defected, asking his friend and associate Dick Hughes, the Far East correspondent, to try to contact them. Hughes, also a character in Fleming’s novels, introduced both Fleming and Somerset Maugham to the intricacies and lifestyle of Tokyo, as reflected in their novels. Hughes, one of Fleming’s Mercury team, obtained the first ever interview with Burgess and Maclean in exile, by urging the Russians to produce the two defectors before a planned summit conference. In February, 1956, Burgess and Maclean met Hughes in the lobby of a Moscow hotel and handed him a statement, the first acknowledgement that Burgess and Maclean were spys, had defected and were living comfortably behind the Iron Curtain.

The summit itself was interrupted in true Flemingesque fashion, when a frogman, “Buster” Crabb, was sent into the Thames to inspect the hull and propellers of the Russian cruiser that brought diplomats to London. When Crabb failed to surface, and his headless body later washed ashore, exposing supposedly secret operations, heads rolled at St. James Gate. The subsequent public scandal became almost as significant as the U2 incident that later cancelled the Eisenhower-Kruschev summit. Nicholas Elliot was second in the chain of command on the operation, and had personally selected Crabb as the frogman. So that stain on Elliot’s career, and his steadfast faith in Philby, would set him up to put an end to the Philby problem. It was Elliot, Fleming’s primary contact with MI6, who was selected to confront Philby when evidence of his duplicity would be undeniable.

Although you wouldn’t know it from reading his official biographies, which promote the real James Bond as an “unknown academic” and the 007 novels as being written, in ornithological terms, “on a lark,” Ian Fleming was actually in the thick of the double-agent duplicity.

In November, 1956, Sir Roger Hollis of MI5 visited Washington D.C. to brief the Americans about the missing diplomats and Third Man affair. Driving Hollis around Washington, Richard Helms of the CIA asked Hollis, “Who’s this writer Ian Fleming?” Helms mentioned the recently published book Live and Let Die, but Hollis simply replied, “Don’t know.”

A few days later it was revealed that Prime Minister Anthony Eton had flown to Jamaica to spend some time at Fleming’s Goldeneye beach house, sparking Helms to assume “The man lied. Hollis must have cleared the prime minister to stay with Fleming,” writes Tom Bower [in The Perfect English Spy – The Unknown Man In Charge During The Most Tumultuous, Scandal-Ridden Era In Espionage History], a biography of Sir Dick White.

Bower also notes, “Michael Straight, an accomplished American whose family boasted East Coast wealth and influence, had known Anthony Blunt in 1934 while studying at Trinity [College, Cambridge]. Already inclined towards socialism, Straight had become immersed in Cambridge’s communist movement. Before returning to America in 1937, he had been invited to join Blunt and Burgess’ conspiracy but had refused. Even thirteen years later when he met Burgess again in Washington, he volunteered that he had never betrayed his friends. But in 1963 Straight was offered a government post and, apparently fearful of exposure, he had spent June closeted with FBI officers….By any measure, the confession was a major breakthrough. Not surprisingly, the MI5 officer returned to Britain excited about the disclosure. The molehunt had been legitimized.”

Michael Straight kept his secret knowledge of the Cambridge spy ring until John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, wanted to appoint Michael Straight director of the National Endowment for the Arts, which he first accepted and then turned down when confronted with an FBI background check.

According to John Costello (Mask of Trechery – Spys, Lies and Betrayal, Warner Books, 1988), Straight confessed to the FBI and told them about his attempted recruitment while a student at Cambridge. Costello, who died suspiciously while writing about these things, Straight “…was given a list of eighty-five Americans who attended Cambridge University between the years 1930 and 1934, from which he picked out one American, who he knew casually at the Department of State. He then named two more Americans with whom he had studied at Cambridge between 1936 and 1937 and whom he knew to have been Trinity cell members or Communist sympathizers…The FBI representatives in the U.S. embassy in London recommended a full review of all Americans who studied at either Oxford or Cambridge before the war.”

As head of the FBI, responsible for counter-intelligence in the United States, J. Edgar Hover inexplicitly, according to Costello, balked at “the political repercussions of an investigation of over 500 American citizens with no basis for such an inquiry in fact…”.

The CIA however, had no such qualms, and says Costello, “as a result, the records of nearly six hundred American who had attended either Oxford or Cambridge before World War II were carefully compiled, examined and scrutinized,” among them James Bond, who not only attended Cambridge, but was a member of the exclusive Pitt Club.

Born in Philadelphia on January 4, 1900, Bond attended the exclusive St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, but because Bond’s father had business in England and eventually married an Englishwomen, James Bond attended Harrow and Cambridge, before returning to America and embarking on his ornithological pursuit and survey of birds that led to the publication of his book Birds of the West Indies.

It was not the first time the American intelligence agencies had taken an interest in James Bond. During World War II Bond went to Haiti on an ornithological expedition to a remote area of the island country, where he encountered a German on Morne La Selle mountain, a recluse who maintained an airstrip. Bond told his friend Brandon Barringer about the German, and Bond was subsequently interviewed by Army and Navy Intelligence investigators at his office at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. According to Mrs. Bond, “The intelligence people asked a lot of foolish questions and seemed far more suspicious about Jim’s reason for climbing Morne La Selle than about the German’s activities.”

As one of the American students at Cambridge before World War II, James Bond was one of the over 500 such students who fit the profile of those being investigated, although Bond was there a decade before the Cambridge spy cell was first organized. If recruited by a professor however, others students could have been to Cambridge, been recruited and left without being uncovered, and remain as sleeper agents in high government offices.

With Michael Straight’s confession to the FBI and then to the British MI5, Philby could no longer bluff his way out of being exposed at the Third Man after all. Chosen to go to Beruit to confront Philby and get his confession, Nicholas Elliot was Ian Fleming’s contact at MI6, where Fleming’s older brother Peter also worked as a special agent.

Nicholas Elliot’s father, Charles Elliot, was the headmaster at Eton, where the old school ties began with the original “C,” Sir Stewart Menzies, and continued with other Etonians, including Ian Fleming and Guy Burgess. As Maclean lunched with Cryil Connolly on the day before he fled, Burgess returned to his old school and visited with a former history professor, ostensibly to discuss the biography Burgess was writing about the Earl of Sandwich.

Their defection would spark Philby’s relocation to Lebanon, where Philby would remain in Beruit until confronted by Elliot, and finally acknowledge his betrayal. But before Philby was allowed to flee on the heels of Burgess and Maclean, Fleming himself visited Beruit.

Before the civil war, Beruit was the jewel of the Mediterranean, with hotels, casinos and a bustling nightlife. When Fleming arrived he immediately checked in with Elliot. According to Lycett, “Their conversation ranged over a variety of intelligence-related topics, including Kim Philby, a key participant in the Missing Diplomats affair, who had been working in Beirut as a newspaperman since 1956. Ian told Elliot that he had his own minor freelance intelligence assignment to perform: the then NID chief Vice Admiral Sir Norman Denniung had asked him for information about the Iraqi port of Basra…Ian did not delay…. he asked to leave, saying he had a rendezvous with an Armenian in the Place de Canons in the center of town.”

“Perhaps,” speculates Lycett, “Ian was meeting Philby,” But again belittling the situation, he writes that, “Elliot had the distinct impression his dinner guest had arranged to see a pornographic film in full color and sound.” Shortly thereafter, Philby, like Burgess and Maclean before him, disappeared, only to surface a few months later in Moscow, sending back postcards, from Russia, with love.

Whether Fleming went to Beruit to see a porno film or meet with Philby, the betrayal of the Cambridge spy cell weighted heavy on Fleming, and undisputedly affected his work, both professionally and his literature, and by extension, the mass market movies based on his stories.

In Die Another Day, the last James Bond film starring Pierce Brosnan, 007 stops at a cabana beach bar in Cuba where he orders a drink while perusing a book, which if you look closely, is clearly Birds of the West Indies by James Bond.

“I’m here for the birds,” 007 announces, as Halle Berry walks out of the water in a scene from the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, in which 007 masquerades as an ornithologist, and Ursula Andress emerged from the surf as the first “Bond Girl.”

The next movie, a throwback to the original Casino Royale, Daniel Craig will portray the new 007 in the 21st Bond film, which reportedly will return to Fleming’s original portrayal of James Bond, without all the “guns, girls and gadgets,” that came to dominate the later movies.

In a fictional “biography of James Bond,” Fleming’s original, official biographer, John Pierson, claims that in the course of his researching the life of Fleming, he discovered the existence of the real James Bond, who he met in the lobby of an island hotel. Pierson wrote that Fleming’s real purpose in writing the James Bond stories was to make James Bond such a comic book super hero that the Russians would fail to take the real James Bond seriously, allowing him to continue his secret work anonymously.

Such a secret, literary psychological warfare operation was not unique, as Jim Hougan demonstrates [in Secret Agenda – Watergate, Deep Throat and the CIA (Random House, 1984) ], where he mentions that Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt is also, “The author of more than four dozen pulp thrillers and novels of the occult.”

According to Hougan, “Hunt left the agency in furtherance of a counterintelligence scheme that revolved around his literary efforts. The purpose of the scheme, according to government sources familiar with Hunt’s curriculum vitae at the agency, was to draw the KGB’s attention to books that Hunt was writing under the pseudonym David St. john. These spy novels alluded to actual CIA operations in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, and contained barely disguised portraits of political figures as diverse as Prince Norodom Sihanouk and the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy. It was the CIA’s intention that the KGB be led to believe that the books contained security breeches, and towards that end the agency created a phony ‘flap’ that was capped by Hunt’s supposedly ‘forced retirement.’…”

Hunt’s literary scheme, that “contained barely disguised portraits of political figures” was unoriginally based on Fleming’s success with James Bond, and a web of fictional characters based on real people whose stories wove a web of intrigue that is more incredible than the novelized account.

In retrospect, unlike other mythical super heroes like Sherlock Holmes and Superman, whether purposely contrived or by coincidence, its kind of reassuring that there was a real James Bond. A James Bond who really was an anonymous hero, who did go far into the field and discover something new, reported what he learned, and as a proficient naturalist, made the world a better place to live.

And that’s more important that the idea he may also have been a secret agent who played a major role in cold war double-agent duplicity, the Bay of Pigs, Cuba and Grenada. Now, in days of equally impearling crisis, where is James Bond, now that we really need him?


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