The real James Bond
October 18, 2006 5:16 PM   Subscribe

The real James BondSidney George Reilly, the shadowy 'Ace of Spies' and inspiration for Ian Fleming's 007, was born Shlomo/Sigmund Georgievich Rosenblum in Ukraine/Poland in 1874. Perhaps illegitimate, dapper Sidney was a tireless self-promoter, patent-medicine chemist, world traveller, and high-stakes gambler (not only at the tables: he married four women but divorced none.) A Czarist Okhrana informer as a Parisian student, he was hired as an undercover agent in the late 1890s by M of Scotland Yard. Reilly worked both sides of the Russo-Japanese War, influenced British oil interests in Iran, brokered World War I arms sales, and volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps in Canada. Sent to Russia by C of Britain's SIS in 1918, he joined a plot to overthrow the Bolsheviks: it failed, but he escaped to London. Returning to Russia in 1919 to help the White Army, he was later awarded the British Military Cross. A staunch anti-Communist, Reilly schemed against them throughout his career. Lured back to Russia by agents of the 'Trust' — an anti-Bolshevik trap set by the Soviet OGPU — Sidney was arrested, interrogated, and shot in 1925.
posted by cenoxo (14 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
A straight-up biopic would to be worlds more exciting than any of the Bond movies. I say this having only seen about half of them.
posted by ®@ at 5:25 PM on October 18, 2006

Actually, there is one.
posted by vhsiv at 5:35 PM on October 18, 2006

The BBC/PBS produced series series with Sam Neill, while clearly fictionalized, doesn't whitewash him at all. It's a fantastically dark and unaffectedly atmospheric series.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:37 PM on October 18, 2006

You know, this sounds as if it might have provided Moorcock with the basis for his Colonel Pyat books.
posted by mwhybark at 6:03 PM on October 18, 2006

[this is a good post]
posted by NationalKato at 6:17 PM on October 18, 2006

Bah, ®@. I doubt Casino Royale will change your mind, but at least give it a try. I can say that Bond does "exciting" much more than "gripping", while Reilly, Ace of Spies was very much at the latter end of the scale. But a man can like both.

That series had me hoping that Neill would get the 007 nod one of these days, but apparently the timing wasn't in it.

As for Fleming, Reilly is only one possible model for Bond. (As author Cook says, "James Bond being a composite of five or six people, of which the biggest is Ian Fleming himself, it’s his ultra [alter?] ego." Fleming was trained as a spy himself and ran certain major operations against the Axis, so it's not like he needed received knowledge to come up with his stories. Nor did he ever pretend they were anything more than what they were, which is part of their genius.

(Funnily, I was just watching The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which features M/Melville.)
posted by dhartung at 8:50 PM on October 18, 2006

This post traverses decades of history and connects some dots between fact and fictionalized fact! Bravo!
posted by Strawman at 12:26 AM on October 19, 2006

I once wrote an article on Russian émigrés in London, and spent some time looking into Reilly's life. I came to the conclusion that not much could actually be said, for certain, about his espionage activities, as a lot of the more colourful stories come either from Reilly himself, who was a compulsive liar, or from OGPU sources, who had an obvious interest in exaggerating the skill and cunning of the enemy.

One of the sillier stories about Reilly is that he was the forger of the Voynich Manuscript. However, there is reason to believe that he was the lover of Ethel Voynich (wife of the bookseller who discovered the Voynich MS), who may have put him into her novel The Gadfly. I would like to believe this is true, as it would be such a nice historical irony if The Gadfly (which went on to sell 2,500,000 copies in Soviet Russia) should turn out to be based on the life of an anti-Bolshevik agent.

This is an interesting post, but was it really necessary to put in so many links -- including a link to a 'multimedia history' of the First World War? Sometimes less can be more.
posted by verstegan at 1:31 AM on October 19, 2006

Great post! Yeah, there are too many links (the "007" one is particularly useless), but that's entirely forgivable when there's so much of substance. I wound up reading the whole John W. Long article (linked at "plot to overthrow"); for the curious but lazy, here's the executive summary:
With the notable exception of the true role of Sidney Reilly, the history of the Lockhart Plot now stands more or less fully revealed. To begin with, an actual, if pitiful, Allied plot to overthrow the Soviet government really did exist in revolutionary Russia in the late summer of 1918. However, this plot, which was concocted (or perhaps deliberately provoked) by the megalomaniacal Sidney Reilly in likely collusion with the eager but inexperienced Bruce Lockhart, was easily penetrated and manipulated by the cunning leadership of the Cheka in the persons of Dzerzhinsky and Peters. In the practised hands of these veteran revolutionaries, the Allied conspiracy was gradually transformed into a sweeping counterintelligence operation that finally resulted in the entrapment and near destruction of the entire foreign and domestic counterrevolutionary network in Soviet Russia. In these circumstances, beyond expanding the extent of Cheka orchestration of the conspiracy, any future substantiation of duplicity on the part of Sidney Reilly will not essentially alter its history.
Which just goes to show how ultimately useless most of these "master spies" turn out to be, no matter how brilliant, dapper, and magnetic they are.
posted by languagehat at 6:41 AM on October 19, 2006

Verstegan said: ...was it really necessary to put in so many links...

The first three links in the FPP are to various Sidney Reilly biographies, each of which paints a different picture — real, imagined, or storied — of the man. The other links illustrate how his life moves in and out of focus, touching on so many historical events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The problem I had with Reilly's story was drastically reducing it to what you see. Even you have added yet another facet WRT the Voynich Manuscript. You probably also know that he may have forged the Zinoviev Letter^, which changed the outcome of a national election.

True, the WWI link is broad, yet the world feels its aftereffects nearly 100 years later. Western powers are still mucking about in the Middle East, Russia isn't in her grave yet, and governments still don't have a clear picture of what's going on. It's déjà vu all over again: explore at your leisure.

The 007 novels and big screen films have created a composite picture of a fictional spy, one that's probably less than Fleming intended. Yet there existed (can we be sure?) a real spy whose life never stays in focus.
posted by cenoxo at 8:13 AM on October 19, 2006

Bond. Shlomo Bond.
posted by bpm140 at 7:47 PM on October 19, 2006

Wait, so the inspiration for James Bond was actually Jewish? Like Israel Bond?
posted by soyjoy at 7:48 PM on October 19, 2006

Ah yes, Agent Oy-Oy-Seven and his "license to wound" -- I haven't thought of those books in years! Now I want to read Matzohball again...
posted by languagehat at 5:39 AM on October 20, 2006

Plenty of candidates for the inspiration of James Bond.

As to Reilly- I've read at least one story that he was not executed at all, but died a natural death after years of service to his new masters. No footnotes for this POV (I read it years ago), and it fails Occam's razor, but for those who enjoy Stalinist era mystification, something to chew over.

Good post, by the way
posted by IndigoJones at 6:11 AM on October 20, 2006

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