Bond. James Bond.
007 is a masculine film icon. He’s handsome, debonair, and dangerous. He completely epitomizes the French idea of savoir faire — the ability to know what to do in any situation.
Bond is so damn manly, it’d be easy to think that he was purely the creation of author Ian Fleming’s imagination. But in fact, Bond was inspired by a real-life WWII spy, and his life and career was even more Bond-like than James Bond himself.
My guest today has written a biography of the real-life inspiration for James Bond. His name is Larry Loftis and he’s the author of the book Into The Lion’s Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov: World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond. Today on the show we talk about Dusko Popov and his career as a double agent during WWII. Larry and I discuss how Dusko got involved with spying, the insanely dangerous missions he went on, and the real-life encounter between him and Ian Fleming that inspired one of popular culture’s most iconic characters.
- How Larry stumbled across the amazing, true-life story of Dusko Popov
- How Popov became a double agent for the UK during WWII
- Why being a spy is one of the most dangerous jobs to have during war
- How Popov was reporting to six different agencies from three different countries at the same time
- Why Popov took the enormous risk of becoming a double-agent
- Dusko’s Bond-like personality and charm
- Why Lisbon was a hotbed of espionage activity during WWII
- Ian Fleming’s career as a naval intelligence officer
- The real-life backgammon bet that Ian Fleming saw Dusko partcipate in that inspired Casino Royale
- Popov’s mission in the United States
- How J. Edgar Hoover made Popov’s job of keeping his German cover difficult
- How Walter Winchell nearly blew Popov’s cover by writing an article about his relationship with movie star Simone Simon
- Why returning back to Lisbon by orders of the Germans consituted Dusko’s “jumping into the lion’s mouth”
- Popov’s training with famed combat fighters William Fairbairn and Eric Sykes
- Popov’s life after the war
- Life lessons on being a man from Dusko Popov
- And much more!
Resources/Studies/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Dusko Popov
- Johnny Jebsen
- Ian Fleming
- British Naval Intelligence
- Double Cross Committee
- Casino Royale
- Comparison of Dusko Popov and James Bond
- Simone Simon
- Captain Ewen Montagu
- William Fairbairn
- Eric Sykes
- My podcast with Chris McDougall that talks about William Fairbairn’s and Eric Sykes’ combat fighting techniques
Into the Lion’s Mouth is a history book that reads like a fast-paced spy thriller. You’ll learn a ton about WWII espionage while anxiously wondering what’s going to happen next to Dusko. The perfect summertime read.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Bond, James Bond, 007 is a masculine film icon. He’s handsome, debonair and dangerous. He completely epitomizes the French idea of savoir faire, the ability to know what to do with any situation. Bond is so darn manly. It would be easy to think that he was purely the creation of author Ian Fleming’s imagination, but, in fact, Bond was inspired by a real-life World War II spy, and his life and career was even more Bond-like than James Bond.
My guest, today on the show has written a biography of the real-life inspiration for James Bond. His name is Larry Loftis, and he’s the author of the book, “Into the Lion’s Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov: World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond.” Today on the show, we talk about Dusko Popov and his career as a double agent during World War II. Larry and I discuss how Dusko got involved with spying, the insanely dangerous missions he went on and the real-life encounter between him and Ian Fleming that inspired one of popular culture’s most iconic characters. A really fascinating show. When you’re done, check out the show notes at AOM.is/bond for links to explore more into this topic. Without further adieu, Larry Loftis and Into the Lion’s Mouth.
Larry Loftis, welcome to the show.
Larry Loftis: Thank you, Brett.
Brett McKay: You have a new book out that was just a fantastic read. It’s an actual … It’s a true story, but it read like a thriller. It’s called “Into the Lion’s Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov: World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond.” I had no idea this guy existed. When I finished the book, I was like why don’t more people know about this guy, because he contributed so much to the Ally cause during World War II. I’m curious, how did you get started researching Popov’s espionage career, and his connection to Ian Fleming’s James Bond?
Larry Loftis: Well, I actually stumbled across it. I was working on an historical fiction novel, and wanted to do espionage, because I liked the area, I liked the genre, and so I thought, I better do some research to find out what actual spies did so that my story is believable. I started Googling and researching “best spy ever, greatest spy, most daring spy,” and all roads led to Popov. His name just kept popping up again and again, so then I started focusing on him and researching him, and I quickly found out, “Holy cow, this guy did more in real life than I’m making up for my fictional character,” so, I switched then just to focusing on him and then my fiction novel basically became a non-fiction, but, he did so many unbelievable things, so many cool things, that it does read like a thriller novel.
Brett McKay: Right, I mean, it reads like a James Bond movie script. There’s scenes in it that’s like that’s just straight out of James Bond, how it happened.
Larry Loftis: There’s a reason for that, which I know we’ll get to in a moment.
Brett McKay: Right, so, let’s get some background on Popov, because he’s an interesting character. He was a double agent for the United Kingdom and for the Germans, but he was primarily working for the United Kingdom, the Allies, but he was this Serbian playboy from Yugoslavia. How did he end up becoming a double agent during World War II for the Allies and for the Nazis?
Larry Loftis: He was not a double agent for the Germans. He was a straight agent for the Germans. He was a double agent for us, for the U.K., and then for the U.S. when he came over here. He came from a wealthy family in Yugoslavia, and like us, he was a lawyer. He earned a law degree at the University of Belgrade, and then went to Freiburg in Germany to get a doctorate in law, and when he was there, he meets his best friend, Johnny Jebsen, a German who is brilliant and becomes basically his best friend. They both hated the Nazis, and they just hit it off well together. Johnny was very wealthy. He came from a very wealthy shipping family, which still exists today, the Jebsen family.
Then, Popov was expelled from Germany right after he graduated in 1937. He was expelled for making derogatory remarks against the Third Reich, and so he was kicked out of the country and when war breaks out, he suddenly gets a telegram from Johnny that says he needs to meet immediately and Johnny is coming to Yugoslavia to meet with him and says, “meet me,” on this date, and basically lays out the cards and says, “I’m recruited, I’m a German recruited, I’m in Abwehr, which was the military intelligence for the Germans, and he said, “I need your help,” and this is best friend. He said, “I need your help, it won’t be a big deal. I need you to do a little work for me. Just go to some cocktail parties, gather some information.”
Popov was torn. He despised the Nazis, but he knows that Johnny is stuck, because if you’re in Germany and you’re German, you either join the military or you’re executed for treason. He knew his best friend was in a bind, so he said, “OK, I’ll help you,” so, he was essentially recruited by Johnny into the Abwehr, as a German agent, and then immediately goes to the British and says, “Hey, I’ve just been recruited. I’m a German spy, how would you like all of my information. I’d love to be a British double agent.” That’s what happens. He goes to the embassy, and they said, “Yeah,” and then they sent him to London and he gets vetted, and from there on, it’s history.
Brett McKay: It’s history, and that’s when all the exciting adventures happen. One thing I thought was great about the book is I learned a lot about espionage during World War II, because I think that’s an overlooked aspect of the war, or most wars, actually. Everyone knows about the Battle of the Bulge, Normandy, Midway, but those battles relied on intelligence.
Larry Loftis: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Can you tell us about the status of spies during World War II, or any war, actually, and why that status made the job so dangerous.
Larry Loftis: It’s critical, number one, and you’ve seen recent, there are a lot of books out about even the spies that George Washington used, and how critical that was in the revolutionary war. The spies are useful because you need information. You need accurate information so you know where to send your troops, where to keep your troops out of and so forth, and when it gets messed up like Dunkirk, then people die. The spies, every side always uses spies. They try to be under the radar, and invisible, but they’re out there, and if they’re caught, of course they’re tortured for their information and then executed.
Spies are not covered under the Geneva Convention, they’re not covered, so they’re on their own if they get caught. Popov and every other spy, if you agree to become a spy, you are taking on the most dangerous job ever, because it’s not just that they’re going to kill you. They are going to kill you, but they’re going to torture you to get all of your information, all of the codes, all of the other spies that are involved so that they can go after your whole network.
On the German side, and he ended up working for so many different agencies … On the German side, he’s recruited as an Abwehr agent, which is the German military intelligence, but then you also have, as soon as he joins later, when he’s in Lisbon, the Gestapo want to use him, and the SD, the Sicherheitsdienst, it’s a long German name, but that’s the Nazi intelligence, they want to use him. Essentially, even on the German side, he has three masters. On the British side, he has two masters, he has MI5, which is counter-intelligence, kind of like our FBI, but, it’s counter-intelligence, domestic, and then you have MI6, which is straight foreign intelligence. Later, he comes over, he’s loaned by the British to the U.S., and he works for the FBI as an agent, essentially. Not a formal agent, they called him an informant, but for all practical purposes, he’s an agent. He ends up essentially having six masters, if you will.
Brett McKay: What was the incentive for these guys to become spies, if it was so dangerous and they weren’t protected by the laws of war?
Larry Loftis: For Popov, it was all about patriotism, and that’s why it was in the title, World War II Spy and Patriot, because he’s from a neutral country. Yugoslavia is neutral when World War II breaks out. He’s got Germany on one side, he’s got the U.K. on the other side, and his best friend is German, he just came from Germany, he was expelled, he actually despises the Nazis, and he saw what Churchill saw, and everyone else who was paying attention that this is a madman. Hitler is a madman, and if he’s not stopped, millions of people are going to die. Popov sees that, because he was there, he was in Germany when they started to crack down. He was arrested by the Gestapo, he was thrown in prison, and he would have been executed, but for something that, and I won’t spoil it in the book, something happens that springs him out, but, had that not occurred, he would have rotted in prison and probably died there or probably been executed.
Brett McKay: Did Popov sort of have, did his personality suit, was there something about his personality that was like, yeah, this is exactly what I do, it’s dangerous, I love risk? Was there something about-
Larry Loftis: Oh yes, there’s no doubt about it. It was the perfect storm to create the perfect spy, because you’ve got a guy, and it’s not just that he’s patriotic. Essentially, it’s easy for us, you have good and evil and Hitler is evil so you’re going to fight against Hitler, but, his country is neutral, he doesn’t have to do this. He could just stay in his neutral country. He had a wonderful life. He was a lawyer, he had a great law practice, he had great clients, he came from a wealthy family, he had a very nice yacht.
He didn’t have to do this, but part of it was patriotism and he wanted to stop the evil that he saw in Hitler. Then, the other part if he’s going to do it, what better way to do it than as a spy, because this guy was brilliant. He had a doctorate in law, he spoke five languages, he was cultured. The Germans and the British both loved him because he was so cultured, he could go into any setting, any society setting, he could meet with Prime Ministers, he could meet with kings and did, the King of Yugoslavia.
He was a guy, but he had ice water in his veins, and so he could pull it off, and did, but, he was so cultured, he was a great athlete, he was a world class, I don’t know if he was world class, but, he was a top notch water polo player, horseback rider, he’d won two shooting contests, he was a good boxer, this guy just had all of the skills to be the perfect spy, and actually he liked danger because it was exciting. He wanted to do something … He was a lawyer, but he wasn’t really all that crazy about it because after a while, office work becomes drudgery, and he wanted excitement and he got it in spades.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s starting to sound like James Bond a bit, and the guy was also good lucking and he had his-
Larry Loftis: Charming, incredible, and this is all over the MI5 files, which used to be classified and now are declassified, but it’s all over the files, all of his personality. He was incredibly charming, he was handsome, again, he was athletic, highly intelligent, but he knew how to treat women, he knew how to charm women. He was socially, extremely socially skilled. Again, he was James Bond before James Bond, that’s why Ian Fleming based it on him.
Brett McKay: He started doing these missions for the Germans and the British, but he ended up in Lisbon and Portugal, which played an important role for both German and British spies, why is that?
Larry Loftis: Both, during World War II, there’s really only two countries that are neutral, ostensibly neutral on continental Europe, and that’s Spain and Portugal, and Spain was really ostensibly neutral, because Hitler had actually provided Franco with military equipment and planes, and so forth during their civil war, so they were really secretly siding with Germany. Portugal was completely neutral and Lisbon and secondly, Madrid, those were the two hubs where every country sent their spies and diplomats. In both cities, Lisbon and Madrid, you would have hundreds of diplomats that were really spies, diplomats and spies embedded within the diplomats.
I got the actual embassy list of the personnel from the, it was in the Portuguese secret police file. It shows the actual embassy list of both sets, the German set and the British set that are in Lisbon, and I’m going down the list and “this guy’s a spy, this guy’s a spy, this guy is Gestapo, this guy is SD, this guy is Abwehr,” Popov’s supervisors on the German side, Von Parsov, he’s listed there basically as an attache. It was the hub. It was where all of the countries sent spies, we sent military people there. There would be military attaches there, diplomats, spies, and they were all, it was the bottleneck, that’s where they all went.
Brett McKay: Also, Lisbon was the perfect background, adding to the sort of spy mystique, it’s kind of an exotic, romantic place. There’s casinos, fancy hotels.
Larry Loftis: Oh, no question. Actually, if you look at the map, you’ll see Lisbon, which is a beautiful city, and then you’ll see, just to the west of it, you’ll see Estoril, which is a suburb, and the best way to describe it is just think of the French riviera. It is essentially the Portuguese riviera and it was built that way. It was a small fishing town, Estoril was, that they decided around the turn of the century to build into this beautiful resort area that would compete with the French riviera and they did. They built the Palacio, which is a world class hotel, still is.
They built this massive casino, which was the biggest in Europe at the time. You’ve got the ocean there, so they’ve got the beautiful beach. You’ve got a castle right there on the beach, you just have the beautiful climate, you just had all of these things that really made it the perfect destination, and they built shops and restaurants and so forth. A lot of royalty were going there to vacation, so they built these beautiful homes for the royalty to stay in. It was an incredibly romantic place for espionage to happen. There were a couple of books that I used that gave me the background on Lisbon, and it’s just fascinating.
Brett McKay: In Lisbon, this is where Ian Fleming bumped into Popov, correct?
Larry Loftis: Correct.
Brett McKay: How did, so, I guess it’s interesting. A lot of people don’t know that Ian Fleming, before he was a spy writer was actually part of Naval Intelligence, I guess, for the British.
Larry Loftis: Correct, and British Intelligence, you really have three groups. You have MI6, foreign intelligence, MI5, domestic intelligence, and then you have the British Naval Intelligence. The Naval Intelligence director was Admiral John Godfrey. Godfrey, there were two boards that supervised Popov and all of the spies. There was the planning board at the top, which was called the W board and that had Admiral Godfrey on there, and Steward Menzies who was the MI6 director which Ian Fleming would call M but he went by C. Fleming, of course, had to change it, but he went by C.
You had this overarching supervisory board that does the planning and then you had the second board which was called the Double Cross Committee, which was much more involved and basically handled the day-to-day affairs of these guys, so, everything Popov did on a daily basis, the Double Cross Committee knew about it and had planned, and so forth. Admiral Godfrey was one of only a couple of people that was on both, the W board and the Double Cross Committee, so, Godfrey knew everything about Popov. He had to OK it, he was in the decision making group for both boards there. Fleming was his personal assistant, he was his secretary.
As his personal assistant, he was his right-hand man, Fleming was the ear for everything that Godfrey heard. In the summer of 1941, Godfrey is going to go over to the United States to meet with President Roosevelt and try to persuade him to start a foreign intelligence, basically like to mimic MI6 because US doesn’t have one. All we have at the time is the FBI, and Hoover wanted to control everything including foreign intelligence and the British said “That’s idiotic,” and they didn’t trust Hoover anyway. Godfrey went over to meet with FDR to persuade him to start a foreign intelligence like the MI6 which became for the US, the OSS, which was the forerunner to the CIA.
When he takes this trip, of course, he takes his right-hand man with him, Ian Fleming. Fleming goes with him and Fleming meets with the other underlings, and Fleming writes the charter to the OSS, which becomes our CIA. Most people don’t realize that Fleming had a connection to our intelligence as well. When they come back, both going over and coming back, they stay in Lisbon on a layover, and when they come back is when Fleming runs into Popov.
Godfrey knows Popov was involved in an incredibly labyrinthine scam to basically steal the Germans blind through money laundering, if you can believe it. As part of this scam, Popov works this incredible feat to essentially steal all this money from him, which he does. Of course, Godfrey had to approve this. It was called The Midas Plan. Godfrey knows all about it, and presumably informed Ian Fleming what was going on. Popov gets the money right as Fleming is coming back and when Fleming is staying in Lisbon on the way back, he knows that Popov just got all of this money, and it was $40,000 which in today’s would be be like $600,000, in cash.
Fleming follows Popov and Popov kept it on him because he couldn’t trust that amount of money in a safe, in the hotel safe, and he couldn’t trust leaving it in his room, because his room was always searched by different countries, different spies and so forth, so he kept it on him. He is followed by Ian Fleming. This is about August 1, that this happens, 1941. He follows Popov from the Palacio where Fleming had stayed in the Palacio on a prior trip, and there’s this hotel spy bar that’s kind of famous where they both went. He follows him from the Palacio then to get a drink, and he’s just shadowing him. Popov notices, hey, there’s this guy following me, and then to dinner and to the casino. When he’s in the casino, he knows that Fleming is watching. If I can segue back to Casino Royale, have you read that?
Brett McKay: Yeah, I have.
Larry Loftis: If you look at Casino Royale, it is a thinly veiled recreation of what actually occurred in Casino Estoril in 1941. Casino Royale just mirrors everything that actually happened. The town, Royale, is essentially Estoril, and the Brittany cliffs are the Cliffs of Cascais and the Splendid and the Palacio and the Parque, and they both have fountains, and they are decorated the same and they both have red curtains and they both have a casino next door, and they both have majestic gardens out there. All of that was recreated, identically from Casino Estoril to Casino Royale. It continues right to what happened in the same as Casino Royale scene, which is the heartbeat of the story. That was recreated.
Fleming is Mathis, and Popov is Bond, and Le Chiffre was a gentleman names Block. Both in the real life and the fictional version, the British agent is a MI6 agent, James Bond, Dusko Popov, the agent watching is Mathis, who is really Ian Fleming and then of course, the villains. In the book version, Le Chiffre is fleeing the Russians. In the real version, Block was fleeing the Nazis, and the money that is bet in real life was MI6 money and in the story was MI6 money. It all matches identically what happened in real life to what happened in the fictional version of the novel.
Brett McKay: I thought that was really interesting. Also, too, you look at the way Ian Fleming originally imagined James Bond. It sort of looked like Popov, dark skinned, dark hair, not like the James Bond we think of today.
Larry Loftis: Everything matches. In fact, if you look in the back of my book, there’s a chart, and I compare all of the people through history, the most common names that have been suggested as a model or as an inspiration for Bond, so I include what we see from Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel to these potential agents who he could have based it on, and only one matches everything, and that’s Dusko Popov. You start with the physical appearance, which is you have this dark hair, combed straight back.
I actually had a blog article where I showed a picture of Dusko Popov having dinner, he’s in a tuxedo with Ian Fleming’s commissioned sketch of what James Bond looked like, and they’re identical. It looked like the artist was looking at Popov as he was drawing it. He’s got black hair combed straight back, short cropped, both have blue-grey eyes, not just blue or not just grey, but blue-grey. Both have blue-grey eyes. They’re clean shaven, they’re both athletic, they’re both good with their hands, Popov speaks five languages, James Bond speaks three, James Bond is a good shot, Popov had just won two shooting contests. It just mirrors it all the way down, so there’s no question this was the guy he was basing it on.
Brett McKay: That’s right. After Lisbon, Popov ends up in the United States for a while. He was sent there by the Germans, correct?
Larry Loftis: Yes. The Germans sent him to New York … This is almost hard to believe. He was Britain’s greatest agent and he was Germany’s greatest agent, or so they thought. They thought he was so successful. MI5 when he goes to visit his controller, his supervisor in Lisbon, Major Von Karstoff. MI5 is creating all of these documents and false maps and things, that look good, and it’s just that either the information was old, it was already published, or they made it just a little bit incorrect. That was obviously to deceive them, but, to the Germans, it looked fabulous, and Popov, the Germans, one of the Colonels on the other side said “It looked like the work of 10 men,” saying that, this is as Jebsen gives him $10,000, he’s so pleased, Admiral Piekenbrock said it looked like the work of 10 men, and Dusko had to be smiling and thinking, It kind of was 10 men that worked for MI5.
He was their best spy, so they decide we’re going to use him to set up a whole network in the United States. They send him to New York to start a spy network there, number one, and secondly, to investigate the defenses of Pearl Harbor, which Japan had been asking the Germans to do this for some time, and so they figure they’ll kill two birds with one stone, and send Popov to do both tasks. That’s how he ended up in the United States.
Brett McKay: While was there, he really wasn’t doing anything for the Germans, it seems like he was just spending their money.
Larry Loftis: You mean when he was in New York?
Brett McKay: Yeah, when he was in New York.
Larry Loftis: If you read my book, you’ll see he was really frustrated because his hands were tied. He’s the star agent the British are just drooling over because he’s so good, and they’re thinking, “God, this is great, we’ll get him to do the same thing in the United States.” The problem was, Hoover had every character trait that made it impossible. He was xenophobic, he hated foreigners, he hated spies, so he doubly hated double agents, he didn’t trust them, he didn’t trust Popov, and while Hoover assisted in bringing him in by contacting the state department to help get his visa, once Popov was in, all he wanted to use him for was bait, to catch real other German spies, not to do counter espionage, just simply as bait.
Popov just hated that. You’ve got a thoroughbred, and you’re basically using him as a walking horse. Popov couldn’t sent messages, they wouldn’t let him send radio messages, they had the FBI do it. Popov couldn’t see it. It was just the worst case scenario. They weren’t sending any good information. MI5 worked really hard to send good information to the Germans though Popov that looked absolutely wonderful, it was just wrong, but, it wasn’t wrong by a lot, it was just again, information that happened the day before, so they can’t really use it, but when they first see it, it looks brilliant. Hoover wanted no part of doing any of that. The Germans obviously figured out, this guy, his work really got bad all of a sudden.
Brett McKay: Right, and then you get into the book, and this is kind of interesting, we won’t get into the details, that spoils it, but J. Edgar Hoover’s obstructionism with Popov possibly played a role in Pearl Harbor, and I think that’s completely fascinating, had no idea that this went on.
Larry Loftis: Yeah, and I’ll just again, you’re right, we don’t want to spoil the ending or even the middle, but what people don’t know and if you look on the back of the book, there’s a blurb that I had from Admiral James Lyons who is a four star Admiral and former Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, actually, I have two blurbs from two admirals like that. Lyons is the Admiral that’s actually giving the 75th Pearl Harbor anniversary address this year on December 7, and he knew nothing about this. No one does, basically, but he knew nothing about this, so I’ve been advising him and giving him the documents.
The short version is that Popov warned the FBI on August 18, 1941, almost four months before Pearl Harbor that the Japanese were planning to attack Pearl Harbor. I won’t get into the details, it’s all in the book, the documents are in the book. The main document has never been seen before in public, but one that I actually copied out of the FBI files from the National Archives. Admiral Lyons had not even seen that and knew nothing about it, because Hoover kept it buried. It was all classified. Hoover kept everything buried throughout his entire life and went to his grave with none of this information coming out. There were eight Pearl Harbor investigations. Not a one knew anything about this document, anything about Popov’s meeting or anything Popov.
Brett McKay: It’s interesting, yeah, and when you get into the details, it’s really fascinating. While he was in America, Popov’s cover was potentially blown, because he’s living up to the playboy spy stereotype that he lived, he started a relationship with a movie star named Simone Simon.
Larry Loftis: Right.
Brett McKay: The famous journalist Walter Winchell wrote an article about this and at this time, too, Popov’s information he was supplying to the Germans was getting pretty crappy, so the Germans were calling him back for an accounting. This is where the title of your book comes from. You said that this is when Popov was jumping into the lion’s mouth. Why was it so dangerous for Popov, and what was it about his personality that he was able to jump into the lion’s mouth but then come out unscathed?
Larry Loftis: In fact, people always ask, “Where does the title come from, into the lion’s mouth?” If you look in the front of the book, between the copyright page and the table of contents, there are two quotes there. The top one, this is where the title comes from, the top one is from Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu, also with British Intelligence, a colleague of Ian Fleming, they had the same office rank, Lt. Commander. Montagu was essentially one of his case officers.
He would meet regularly with Popov to craft what they called “chicken feed,” false information to feed to them, for example, like around Britain, which were wrong, but not wrong by a lot. If you’re bringing a ship in and you think a mine is here and it’s not, you avoid this area, and then they’re, of course, showing an open area where there actually are mines. Anyway, he worked real closely with Ewen Montagu, and Montagu said about Popov this quote, “He had the steel within, the ruthlessness, and the coldblooded courage that enabled him to go back to the German Secret Service headquarters in Lisbon and Madrid, time and again when it was likely that he was blown. It was like putting his head into the lion’s mouth.” That’s where the quote comes from.
Yeah, you’re right, essentially the biggest thing that blew his cover was the FBI would not let him send his messages to the Abwehr, which he was supposed to do. They were sending it on his behalf, but they don’t know all the details, because they don’t know all the codes. He’s been working for them now for a year and he’s got all of these codes, and the way he responds and the information, and so they botch it. They botch a lot of the information. Hoover doesn’t trust him to send codes, he thinks he might be a real German agent, so he never gets to even see the transmitted radio messages going back and forth.
The FBI botches that and combine that with the fact that they’re getting no valuable information, they’re like, “Something is wrong, because he was brilliant for us right up until he went to America, and then all of a sudden it just all drops off. Now, let’s see, he’s got this girlfriend over there, he’s dating this movie star, he’s going to all of these parties, because he shows up, as you mentioned, Walter Winchell has this very interesting short blurb in an article. He was nationally syndicated, so this was everywhere about Simone Simon dating, her new toy is what they called a Yugoslav diplomat, and he had a caption, “And, that’s no double talk,” which the Germans said, “What is that all about?”
The Germans figured out something happened, and they’re pretty sure that he’s gone to the other side, in other words, become a double agent. The British intercept two messages that show he’s blown. The British said to him, when they found out, and it was time, the Germans said, “You need to come to back and report to Lisbon,” the British knew at that point he was blown and if he went back, he would be tortured and executed. They said, “You can’t go back, you’re blown.” He said, “Well, I have to.” We know, in time, that he’s the only real great agent that the British have to deceive the Germans, and they would eventually need to him to deceive the Germans about D-Day. Popov is so courageous and he says, “Well, I have to go back.” “They’re like, no, no, no, seriously, you can’t. You’ll be tortured, do you understand? You’ll be tortured and executed.” He said to his case officer, Ian Wilson and his supervisor for MI5, Robertson, Colonel Robertson, he said to them, “Well, they won’t kill me right away. His case officer said, “You might wish they had.”
Brett McKay: Right.
Larry Loftis: That’s pretty chilling.
Brett McKay: That is, and I mean, it just shows me again, it’s that sort of James Bond Devil’s May Care attitude that he had.
Larry Loftis: He was just confident. He had so much confidence, he was so charming, he was so smart, that he just believed that once he got back, he could talk his way out of it. He just believed it. He had such confidence and if he got killed, he got killed, you know. He just knew, look, my job is to help win the war. If I die, I die, so be it, but I’ll die in a great cause. Just ice water in his veins, this guy had.
Brett McKay: He did make it out of the lion’s mouth. We won’t tell how, because that’s really … The story is great of how he is able to do that. Going back to some more of this cool spy stuff, you also talk about the OSS, is it the OSS, or British Secret Service where they had this camp in Scotland where they bring in William Fairbairn, this hand-to-hand combat expert. Can you tell us about Fairbairn and the training that Popov did under him?
Larry Loftis: Sure. The British decided, this is before there were any commandos or any agents like that that were trained to be commandos. The British decided that they needed basically a fast action, sort of like our Navy Seals. Some group that they could drop in anywhere that would be these great warriors that could just withstand anything, and so they asked a gentleman by the name of Colonel Govens to start this hit squat commando group, which originally was only going to be about 500 soldiers. It eventually grew from there, but, they said, “Start this great commando group that we can drop in anywhere.” Churchill definitely wanted this, so they founded what was called the SOE, the Special Operations Executive, which is essentially like Navy SEALS, just a fast action, get in, get out, wreak havoc, destroy something, capture somebody, kill somebody.
They set up this very secret, ultra secret training in the middle of nowhere, which was a little town in Scotland, and you can actually pull it up online and see … The building that they were housed in is still there. In fact, I had some friends who had their daughter married in that building. The building is still there, but, it’s literally in the middle of nowhere. Govens needed the best of the best for both instruction in hand-to-hand combat and in armaments, rifles, weapons, knives, pistols, machine guns.
He brought in as his main two instructors, the first one was the hand-to-hand combat guy, William Fairbairn who was in short, the baddest man on the planet. He headed the Shanghai Police Department, which Shanghai, back then, was this lawless city with gangs and thugs. The word was, my research, at least, estimated that at that point, he had been in 600 street fights, knife fights, and had scars all over his body, scars on his hands from knife fights, I mean, he was just the baddest guy on the planet. He had gotten a black belt from the founder of Judo, and Kanō Jigorō was the founder of Judo, got a black belt from him, the first westerner to do so. He took lessons in jiu jitso and Aikido, and boxing, all these other things. He was just a walking lethal weapon.
That’s who they brought in to train the commandos in hand-to-hand combat, which they did for Dusko, and then they brought in Eric Sykes, who Fairbairn had recruited. He worked for Remington at the time, and Fairbairn recruited him into the Shanghai Police Department who was the weapons expert. He was the guy that would teach them about every single weapon you could find in the battlefield, all the German weapons, the Czech weapons, Polish weapons, everything, Russian, and so they learned how to fire literally, any machine gun, pistol, rifle. Then the two instructors, Fairbairn and Sykes developed a commando knife called a fighting knife, and it’s called the Fairbairn Sykes Fighting Knife which is basically used by most military and commando groups, even today. That was the knife that they created for them to participate in knife fights. That was the guy that trained Popov, and there’s a chapter in the book called “The art of the silent kill,” and I won’t detail how that was done, but it’s in the book. Fairbarin’s specialty was to silent kill using your bare hands, and he taught Popov how to do that.
Brett McKay: This is where Popov learned to be a 00.
Larry Loftis: Exactly. In the epilogue of the book, I explain that he earned that 00, the way that Fleming envisioned it.
Brett McKay: Popov had an amazing career. He played a role in D-Day. We won’t get into the details of that, because it’s fascinating. Like we said earlier, this book is a historical book, but it reads like a thriller, that’s why we’re being kind of coy with the “Hey, we don’t want to spoil it,” because it really does spoil it if you know the ending.
Larry Loftis: I’ll just say that D-Day, Popov was unsuccessful in the U.S. using information about Pearl Harbor because Hoover ignored it, but he was very successful with D-Day because he did deceive the Germans, about, and we’ll not spoil exactly how he does this, but he deceived the Germans about D-Day so that they thought we were attacking at Calais instead of at Normandy where we did, and they thought that it was going to come in July because that’s what Popov told them, and of course, it comes on June 6. He asks for the location and the time. Popov did this, because the Germans are very thorough, so they sent to Lisbon, to grill him, their best interrogators, SD, Gestapo, Abwehr, their best seasoned interrogators to interrogate him about the Allied plans for the invasion of France. These interrogations would go on five, six, seven, eight hours at a time, and Popov didn’t miss a beat.
Brett McKay: Didn’t miss a beat. Popov had this amazing career as a spy. He learned how to kill people with his bare hands, did these crazy missions, having to be duplicitous with the Germans, betting tens of thousands of British money on Baccarat, lots of relationships with women, just an amazing, action-filled life. What did he do after the war?
Larry Loftis: Let me just add one thing about it, because you mentioned women. We haven’t talked about this. One of the things that James Bond is known for is his suave and successful way with women and womanizing and all of that, Ian Fleming said in a BBC interview, when he was asked about that, he said, “My character, James Bond really only has one girlfriend per book. He only really has one girlfriend per year.” Popov in real life had two, three, four girlfriends in every city that he went to, Lisbon, Madrid, New York, Rio, everywhere, and I know because it’s in the files. There are names, there are love letters.
There are all of these love letters, because remember the British would intercept all of the mail to see if they were German secret messages, so they’re opening it. They would get letter after letter. In the file, and a couple of these, I know I put at least one in the book, but, you’ll see these love letters that are in there, and they’re like, “Who is this?” There were so many, and when he went to New York, MI5 would give him a letter from a girl, and Popov couldn’t even remember who it was. He thought it was a German spy girlfriend, but he couldn’t even remember. That’s how many girls this guy went through. Anyway, back to your question.
Brett McKay: He had this exciting career during World War II. What did he do after the war?
Larry Loftis: Here’s the … Let me give it to you in two parts. His cover during the war is as a businessman, as an export/import businessman, and he did it in real life, and unlike if you read Dr. No, you’ll see that James Bone coincidentally happens to have the same cover, import/export, which he never does, but in real life, Popov did, he actually had to affect business on a day-to-day basis as a businessman and in the book I talk about some of the deals. Some of them were huge. There’s a $14 million ship deal. After the war, he continues his business in export/import in real life and builds this global company where he travels all over the world, still doing his business. He’s involved in South Africa and helping their government, doing a bond deal. He did some really high powered stuff.
The second part is well, did he continue as a secret agent, and I’ll leave that to let people read at the end of the book, because I address it at the end of the book.
Brett McKay: Very good, well, Larry, this has been a great conversation and we’ve gotten a pretty bird’s eye view of Popov’s career. I’m curious. As you researched and wrote about Popov, did you gleam any life lessons from him on being a man?
Larry Loftis: Absolutely. There are, I guess I would say probably about four or five different areas where, and a lot of it overlaps to things that you have put in blogs and so forth. I would just say number one, courage. This guy, a man has courage even when he knows that there are great risks of danger to himself, and sometimes bodily harm, and Popov was just one of the most courageous characters that I’ve ever read about. Like we talked about earlier, he goes back to Lisbon so that he can help defeat Hitler, even though he’s been told “You’re going to be tortured and executed.” That takes some chutzpah to do that, so he’s willing to give his own life for the cause, and so the first lesson on being a man is courage.
The second, and this is all over Popov’s career and all over the book, decision making. A man makes decisions, and Popov was very independent. He was his own man and had his own mind, and I think that’s important for men to do is do your own research, figure it out, do the hard work and make a decision. This is not a guy that would take a poll. He would not really ask anyone, “What’s your thinking, what’s your thought?” He would do his own research, and make up his own mind, and make a decision, and that’s a very attractive trait, and something that we as men really should be doing is being able to make a decision, and he did that. One of the reasons he was a perfect spy was because he could make a snap decision, on the spot, with the pressure on, and be right. That would be the second one, just decision making.
The third is, he was a gentleman, he was chivalrous, he had manners. Did he bait all of these women? Yes, some of them actually were German spies and they were trying to get information from him, so, they were using women as bait, and of course they don’t do it. He’s a gentleman, he knows … In our day, you open a door for a woman, you stand when a woman comes to the table, and so forth. Those were things that were just ingrained to him.
He was a perfect gentleman and Simone Simon, who was this famous movie star that he dates, she was one of the top stars in Hollywood at the time, and she was absolutely crazy about him. In her interviews and things, she would talk about her mom. She lived with her mother. She had an apartment in New York, and she stayed in the Beverly Hills Hotel in Hollywood. When she was in New York, she stayed with her mother. Dusko was dating her and has to go to talk to mom while Simone is getting ready, and mom loved him.
Even though he’s this James Bond, dates all of these women, he was a perfect gentleman with Simone and Simone’s mother and Simone’s mother loved him. He was a gentleman, he was chivalrous, and that’s something that we want to aspire to be as men as well. As I mentioned, he was very well rounded, he spoke five languages, he was cultured, he was adept at society, he was a great athlete, he was a reader, he was good with his hands, he could take care of himself. In fact, there is a story years after the war, he went to the Bahamas, for an interview, and there was a “bad guy,” that showed up that was harassing them and the journalist that I got this information from said Popov in a calm, but very confident manner basically told the guy, “You need to disappear or else,” and the bad guy did. I guess Popov was so confident and it was clear that he did not … or criminals, and the journalist said “I was just stunned, because Popov ran him off just by talking to the guy.”
Lastly, I would say part of being a man, he was extremely confident without being arrogant, and there’s often a fine line there between being confident and being arrogant, but all the files, and all of the information that I saw in my research and interviews, and so forth, he was extremely confident without being arrogant.
Brett McKay: That’s a hard line to balance on. Well, Larry, this has been a great conversation. Where can people learn more about “Into the Lion’s Mouth?”
Larry Loftis: They can, just for some of the details, and so forth, they can look at my website, larryloftis.com, or easier to remember, realjamesbond.com. The book is on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Walmart, the book is everywhere, so they can go online and get it. All of the review boards and stuff are on there, so they can see all of that on Amazon, so, any of those places.
Brett McKay: Excellent, well, Larry Loftis, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Larry Loftis: Likewise, Brett, thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Larry Loftis. He’s the author of the book Into the Lion’s Mouth. You can find that on amazon.com. Go check it out. Really, it’s a historical book that reads like fast-paced spy fiction. You can find out more information from the book at larryloftis.com. Also, make sure to check out the show notes at AOM.is/bond.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com, then, if you enjoy the show, I’d appreciate it if you’d give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. As always, I thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.