On a cool August evening in 1941, a Serbian playboy created a stir at Casino Estoril in Portugal by throwing down an outrageously large baccarat bet to humiliate his opponent. The Serbian was a British double agent, and the money which he had just stolen from the Germans belonged to the British. From the sideline, watching with intent interest was none other than Ian Fleming.
We welcome Larry Loftis in from the cold to talk about this seminal encounter, which provides the backbone to his new book about Dusko Popov, the inspiration for Fleming’s Bond in Casino Royale.
What set you on the path to write this book and how long did it take to write?
In early 2012 I started work on an espionage thriller. To begin my research, I started digging up everything I could find for “greatest spy ever.” I wanted to find what the best of the best did, and how he did it. All roads led to Dusko Popov (right). The more I read, the more amazed I was.
This MI6 agent did more in real life than I was making up for my novel! In short order, I dropped the fiction and decided to write about Popov in a narrative nonfiction format. His actions as a WWII double agent were so fast-paced (many have compared my book to a Vince Flynn novel) that I scratched my thriller itch, yet I was dealing in real history. It was the perfect storm for a thriller-espionage junkie.
It took three years to research and write INTO THE LION’S MOUTH.
Did you uncover anything new in your research and where did it take you?
Indeed, I did. Aside from the James Bond connection, about which some cognoscenti have heard, Popov was a principal agent in perhaps the two most significant events in WWII—Pearl Harbor and D-Day. On August 18, 1941, at the Commodore Hotel in New York City, Popov warned the FBI—with tangible evidence—that the Japanese would be attacking Pearl Harbor. J. Edgar Hoover told no one. Later, during the investigations, Hoover quashed the information, burying it deep within FBI classified files (where it remained for decades).
Regarding D-Day, Popov was the most important figure in the Allied deception campaign. While GARBO (Juan Pujol – right) has received the lion’s share of the credit in recent books, Pujol was merely an energetic and (with his case officer, Tomas Harris) creative agent of imaginary espionage. Pujol dealt only in notional sub-agents and wrote and sent radio messages to Berlin from the safety of London. Popov, on the other hand, had real sub-agents and had to undergo intensive cross-examination by seasoned interrogators from the Abwehr, SD, and Gestapo.
Many of those exams lasted six or seven hours and the Germans often put their finger on fictional information MI5 had planted, or Popov had dreamed up on the fly.
You state in your book that the baccarat scene in Casino Royale is based on a night at Casino Estoril, with Ian Fleming present as Popov’s shadow. Did Fleming directly speak about this evening?
I have an entire chapter in my book about this event. I detail it because, while a few Bond fans have heard that Fleming drew the event from Casino Estoril, almost no one knew that he was shadowing Popov. In an interview with the BBC shortly before he died, Fleming stated that he drew the casino idea from a night he had played against Germans during the war in Casino Estoril. This, of course, was untrue, as Fleming’s biographer (John Pearson) noted in 1966.
In Casino Royale, Fleming merely re-created what he saw in 1941 in Casino Estoril: James Bond becomes Popov, Mathis becomes Fleming, and Le Chiffre becomes Bloch – a wealthy Jew from Liechtenstein fleeing the Nazis – Popov only gives his last name, but it was one of two brothers, either Dr. Lippmann Bloch or Dr. Albert Bloch.
In 1964, the year Ian died, all officers of MI5, MI6, and Naval Intelligence were under the iron fist of Britain’s Official Secrets Act. If Fleming whispered one word of what really happened, or even that there WAS an MI6 agent code named TRICYCLE, he’d have been prosecuted under the Act, fined, and likely imprisoned. So while Pearson knew that Fleming had made up the story of playing against Germans, he had no idea of what actually happened, or where Fleming came up with the scene. Those details would not even begin to trickle out until the Official Secrets Act was gradually relaxed, starting in 1972 and continuing for another decade.
What are the Casino Estoril and Palacio Hotel like today?
During WWII, Casino Estoril was the largest casino in Europe, and the rich and royal fled to the resort’s glitz and glamour to escape the Nazi onslaught. One might think of today’s Monte Carlo and its famous casino to understand the grandeur and fame of 1941’s Casino Estoril. The casino still exists, of course, but it no longer carries the world renown now cherished by casinos at Monte Carlo and Las Vegas.
As for Estoril’s Palacio Hotel, it has only enhanced its reputation over the years. Built in 1930, it was a world-class hotel in 1941 (when Fleming and Popov were there). Since that time, however, the hotel has continually upgraded and remains one of Europe’s finest hotels. Interestingly, Portugal was the first country to buy the foreign rights to my book, and will be hosting me in Lisbon/Estoril for a book signing and event. The reason? They know.
In my book I include the Palacio Hotel registrations of both Fleming and Popov. I had also originally included part the hotel’s current bar menu but my publisher had only a limited number of spots for photos and images so it was cut. Interestingly, the first and last pages of the “Spy Lounge” menu contain photocopy images of three former guest registrations: Ian Lancaster Fleming … and two for Dusko Popov. There’s more, of course, but I don’t want to spoil nice surprises in the book.
Apart from Casino Royale, what are your favourite Bond novels?
Since Dr. No was the first Bond novel made into a movie, it has to take precedence. There’s a certain verisimilitude that occurs when you read about Bond and Honeychile Rider and your mind’s eye visualizes the iconic beach scene with Sean Connery and Ursula Andress. Naturally, you have to imagine Honey as Fleming described her in that scene.
“Into the Lion s Mouth” is a globe-trotting account of a man s entanglement with espionage, murder, assassins, and lovers including enemy spies and a Hollywood starlet. It is a story of subterfuge and seduction, patriotism, and cold-blooded courage. It is the story of Dusko Popov the inspiration for James Bond.
Larry Loftis is also an attorney, author, and adjunct professor of law.
INTO THE LION’S MOUTH: The True Story of Dusko Popov—World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond (Berkley) will be out on June 14, 2016.
Visit Larry’s website for more information and to read a preview.