Monday, April 9, 2007

Sidney Reilly, the "Ace of Spies"

On the phone one evening my sister was telling me about the latest James Bond movie, and how good Daniel Craig was as the "new" 007.

"There was a real 'James Bond,' you know, " I mentioned.

"There was?"

"Yes, just google 'Reilly, Ace of Spies.'" She did and so the research began. Sidney Reilly, of Slavic Jewish descent, fluent in several languages and accents, transformed the British secret service from a gentleman's club for amateur sleuths into a cunning organization capable of infiltrating the highest echelons of Soviet power. Reilly intially married a wealthy Irish lady and henceforth passed himself off as an Irishman. Reilly was involved with many women, including the Catholic writer Caryll Houselander, before her conversion. The fact and fiction of his life has been the subject of some recent books, including one by Andrew Cook. In a review of Cook's book, it says:
Sidney Reilly, fluent in Russian, French, German, and English, was the British secret service agent who plotted to overthrow the Bolshevik government, but in 1925 was caught, interrogated, and executed. He is buried in the inner yard of the Lubyanka secret police headquarters in Moscow. A gambler and a womanizer, Reilly enjoyed the lifestyle of the monied class, but he was no James Bond. He was an opportunist, a flim-flam man, a likeable scoundrel and, most likely, a murderer. Many of his deeds were of his own invention, but his future biographers recorded them as truth.
Reilly was a master spy, con artist, serial bigamist, and also a man of mystery. Several books and magazine and newspaper articles have been written about him. Reilly was also the inspiration for Ian Fleming's James Bond series and the subject of a 1983 BBC miniseries, Reilly: Ace of Spies.
Another article has more about his colorful, often sordid, career:
Born in Russia and educated in Britain, Reilly's exploits ranged from saving diplomats in the jungles of South America to infiltrating the German High Command during World War I. In New York City in 1914, he bought munitions and helped counter German sabotage of American factories supplying the Allies. He also obtained German naval secrets for Britain, reputedly made and lost several fortunes during his life, and had many love affairs and several wives. Born the illegitimate son of a Jewish doctor in Odessa in 1874, Reilly changed his name from Sigmund Rosenblum to Sidney George Reilly. Toward the end of his life, one of Reilly's main goals as a British spy was to topple the Bolshevik regime in his homeland. In May 1918, he had to flee Moscow when his plans were foiled. He is believed to have secretly entered the Soviet Union several other times until he was arrested and reportedly executed in November 1925, shortly before Joseph Stalin came to power.
And here is more about the "real James Bond."

Once again, truth is stranger than fiction. I find the prototype of the Bond character to be immensely more interesting than anything in that genre of films.



Anonymous said...

Interesting! I've enjoyed watching Bond movies whenever they're on cable TV.
Ian Fleming added a few personal touches of his own with his fictional James Bond. I've also seen Fleming's Bond novels being reissued.

elena maria vidal said...

They are fun films. I like the old ones with Sean Connery.