The Real Spies Who Inspired James Bond Are Far More Fascinating Than the Big Screen 007s

The Real Spies Who Inspired James Bond Are Far More Fascinating Than the Big Screen 007s
From piloting an underwater Lotus to fighting in space with laser guns, the James Bond we’ve seen in the movies is a figment of Hollywood imagination. The character as he was originally imagined by author Ian Fleming is much more grounded in reality. In fact, though Bond is not an actual historical figure, the agent does happen to have some real-world inspirations. Even his 007 designation has some historical significance.

It all goes back to Fleming. Before creating Bond in 1953, Fleming served as a commander in the British Naval Intelligence during WWII. The author was a personal assistant to Admiral John Godfrey, the director of the Naval Intelligence Division for the U.K. Many of the characters in Fleming’s stories are said to be based on his colleagues during the war–including Godfrey, who is widely speculated to have been the inspiration for the MI6 director in the series, M (and apparently, Godfrey wasn’t too happy about that, according to A Brief Guide to James Bond by Nigel Cawthorne).

The author drew influence from prominent ornithologists (yes, bird experts) and, of course, legendary spies from across the world. The Guardian reports that Auric Goldfinger, for instance, was inspired by the well-known Hungarian architect Erno Goldfinger, who Fleming apparently disliked. When the real Goldfinger found out he was the bad guy in Fleming’s novel, the architect tried to sue the book’s publisher. They settled out of court, but Fleming was so mad he nearly changed the name to “Goldprick” in response.

Today, the Bond canon extends far beyond the writing of Ian Fleming. But the characters he created, including Bond himself, still bear some striking resemblances to the super spies and government sleuths that Fleming met in his time with British Naval Intelligence back in the mid 1900s.

Ian Fleming

James Bond–the Real James Bond

The real James Bond wasn’t a super spy. He wasn’t even a government employee. James Bond, or “Bond, James,” as you’d find him in the stacks of your local library, was an American ornithologist. A published authority on birds. He wrote the book Birds of the West Indies. Fleming, an avid bird watcher himself, loved the book as a kid. But that’s not why he chose the name “James Bond.” Fleming once said “I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, “James Bond” was much better than something more interesting, like “Peregrine Carruthers.” Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure – an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.’” He liked the name “Bond” because it was boring.

There’s also some geographical significance to James Bond’s bird book. Fleming was smitten by Jamaica, the island country of the West Indies where he would take up residence in his famous “Goldeneye” estate. The author wrote many of his most beloved Bond stories in Jamaica. Philly Voice writes that Fleming even hosted the real James Bond at his estate for lunch on one occasion. Apparently the real Bond was actually a rather dashing fellow, being described in the Voice article as having “Sean Connery” looks, charming, a real gentleman. And he went by Jim. Jim Bond.

Luxury vehicle, Vehicle, Car, Automotive design, Personal luxury car, Vehicle door, Mid-size car, Suit, Performance car, Concept car,

Sean Connery as James Bond.

Faherty/Danjaq/Eon/Ua/Kobal/Shutterstock

0-0-7-0

Bond’s 007 spy designation isn’t just a random number either. Daily Beast reports that the legendary string of digits may actually has some huge historical significance for British Intelligence. Fleming was a student of spy history while serving in WWII. The author discovered a German diplomatic code that British codebreakers snagged during the First World War: 0-0-7-0. It’s known as a triumph in military intelligence.

Like a lot of the details Fleming lifted for his espionage stories, the code got altered a bit. He gave it that shiny Bond polish. It became simply 007. Double O Seven.

Document Released by Public Records Office

A Certificate of Registration of Yugoslavian spy Duskov Popov know as double agent Tricycle, released, by the Public Records Office along with other documents. * Dusko Popov, a Yugoslavian recruited by British intelligence as a double agent after first been approached by the Germans, was codenamed Tricycle, who according to documents released today, lead the life of a playboy.

Tim Ockenden – PA Images

Dusko Popov

Now, there are a lot of super spies in history that are cited as the “real” James Bond. But it’s hard to confirm who, exactly, served as the chief inspiration for Fleming, other than the ornithologist whom he found so perfectly boring.

There’s Dusko Popov, a Serbian international man of mystery whose gambling legends may have inspired the big bets in Casino Royale. That’s the very first Bond book. USA Today says Popov was ruthless, seductive, and played a killer game of Baccarat. Fleming apparently took notice of Popov’s command of the Baccarat table. Popov wasn’t just a fearless gambler, though. His wild life story includes legends of working for MI5, MI6, German Abwehr, the FBI, gaining knowledge of Pearl Harbor but being ignored by J. Edgar Hoover, and even tricking the Nazis about D-Day–at least, that what USA Today reports is written about in a biography of the spy, Into the Lion’s Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov.

James Charles Bond

Then there’s a dude named James Charles Bond from Wales. He was a spy who served under Fleming in WWII, meaning the author must have been aware of the guy’s “Bond” last name. A BBC article from April 2019 reports on James Charles Bond’s family’s decision to put “007” on their grandfather’s tombstone. A family member tells BBC, “Grandfather took my cousin Jenny when she was a teenager by the hand one day saying, ‘Believe me when I tell you, I am the real James Bond’. Nothing more was said and no questions were asked.'”

Sir William S. Stephenson Receiving Nation's Highest Civilian Honor

Gen. William J. Donovan, wartime OSS chief, presents medal for merit to Canadian-born Sir William S. Stephenson, who was director of British Security Coordination in the Western hemisphere from 1940-45. Looking on during ceremony in Sir Williams’ suite at the Dorset Hotel are (left to right) Col. Edward G. Buxton, assistance director of OSS; Robert Sherwood, noted playwright, and Lady Stephenson.

Bettmann

A Canadian Bond and the many other “real” Bonds

There’s even a Canadian Bond! Sir William Stephenson. He’s another Popov type with an unbelievable, almost absurd history. This Canadian-born guy was boxing champion, WWI ace pilot, inventor, and millionaire businessman. He later became a super spy for the Brits. You can read all about him in this archived NY Times obituary.

It doesn’t stop there, though. There are so many articles, books, documentaries, and TV specials about real spies who should get all the credit for being James Bond. Do a Google search for “The real James Bond” so you can see for yourself. Some think Bond is based on a spy with the codename “White Rabbit.” Daily Mail says this guy escaped from a Russian captivity in World War I, and “evaded evaded capture by the Nazis by hiding in a hearse.”

“Biffy Dunderdale” is another name you see come up a lot. He was another eccentric British operative who is said to have been a close friend of Fleming. There’s an insane story in the Sydney Morning Herald that depicts Dunderdale emerging from the ocean, peeling off his wet suit to reveal a tuxedo, just like the famous scene in Goldfinger. I really hope that one’s true (sounds fishy to me though–sorry for the pun). I also wish we lived in a world where Fleming had named Bond “Dunderdale. Biffy Dunderdale.”

A lot of these spy stories are alluring, but don’t be fooled by the headlines that say “This is the REAL James Bond.” Fleming was clearly influenced by a wide swath of legends in British and international intelligence history–not just one dude.

Dom Nero is a staff video editor at Esquire, where he also writes about film, comedy, and video games.

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