TORONTO – One of the world’s greatest spies was an operative for England with an affinity for martinis, a suave rapport with elite power players, and an uncanny ability to infiltrate and eliminate threats.
This isn’t the fictional James Bond we’re talking about, but the real-life Sir William Stephenson – a quiet Canadian code-named Intrepid who many believe inspired author Ian Fleming to create his over-the-top British spy hero.
“Without doubt, Fleming’s idea of James Bond is based on Sir William,” says Cord Hart, a former CIA operative and U.S. Army colonel who got to know Stephenson through intelligence circles in the early ’80s.
With the latest instalment in the bombastic 007 franchise, “Spectre,” hitting theatres Friday, descendants and admirers of the late Winnipeg-born war hero say Stephenson’s impressive exploits are too little known.
“I always tell people he’s the most famous Winnipegger of all time,” says Heartland Travel and Tours owner Don Finkbeiner, whose tours include a stop at a bronze life-size statue of Stephenson near the Manitoba legislature.
“Nobody even comes close. And I would suggest he’s the most famous Canadian of all time.”
Of course, the fact that many of Stephenson’s activities were clandestine makes for murky claims to the Bond title. Not to mention the fact Fleming has said he based the character on several people he met throughout the course of his wartime naval career.
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But advocates seize on Fleming’s oft-cited comment that Bond was “a highly romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing, the man who became one of the great agents of the (Second World War) is William Stephenson.”
Stephenson’s third cousin, Gary Solar, is convinced that Fleming drew inspiration from the man, who rose from humble working-class roots to a wide variety of achievements: lightweight boxing champion, First World War flying ace, millionaire inventor and entrepreneur, adviser to former U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, confidante to former British prime minister Winston Churchill, and chief of an elaborate British spy operation based in New York.
Finkbeiner says it all started in 1897, when Stephenson was born in the hard-scrabble neighbourhood of Point Douglas.
When the First World War broke out, Stephenson joined the Canadian Army and earned commendations for his prowess as a fighter pilot.
After the war, he married a U.S. tobacco heiress and became a millionaire himself by developing a method of transmitting photos by radiowaves. He grew his fortune even more as he worked his way into a variety of other industries, including automotive manufacturing, aviation, construction, the hotel business and the movie business. Those varied successes garnered him entry to the upper echelons of corporate and political circles, access he would use liberally in secret missions for the British government.
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It was while trying to buy raw materials for his factories that Stephenson noticed Germany was scooping up steel and iron supplies. He suspected they were preparing for war and alerted then-MP Churchill, says Finkbeiner.
When Churchill became prime minister, he turned to his pal Stephenson for help in recruiting United States firepower, sending him to New York in 1940 as head of the British Security Coordination Office to wrangle informants, quash German sympathizers and pressure Roosevelt to join the fight against Hitler.
This was all done under the guise of running a passport office, says Solar.
His methods were not always above board, adds Finkbeiner.
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“He falsified a document about how Hitler was going to divide up the Americas and he got it in the hands of Roosevelt,” he says of Stephenson’s supposed tactics in pushing the U.S. to war.
“He took the typewriter that he had used to do this document and threw it in Lake Ontario so nobody could every trace it. This is how thorough he was. Amazing stuff. When I talk about it from a tourism point of view for Winnipeg … I say if he was an American, everybody would know about him. (But) very few Canadians know about this.”
Hart says Stephenson was also “a man of action.”
“He could, on the one hand, entertain and regale people using his formal title and position … and at the same time, he could disappear, blend in with the crowd and go out and do some pretty wild things. Some violent things,” says Hart.
“If he came across, for example, a German sympathizer who looked like he might have been in a position to help Germany, Sir William would go for him (and) that would be the end of the guy. He’d be found floating in New York Harbour. That’s it.”
It was around this time that Stephenson also formed Camp X, a spy school in Whitby, Ont., where many Canadian, U.S. and British agents were trained in the art of espionage and cool gadgetry, says Solar, also president of the Intrepid Society, dedicated to honouring the memory of Stephenson, who died in 1989.
That’s where Fleming befriended Stephenson and was impressed by his achievements.
“They were very close,” Solar says of the ensuing relationship.
“They lived together, they bought property together in Jamaica and … Fleming used to visit Sir William in his offices in New York.”
Solar suspects Fleming’s novel “Goldfinger,” featuring a plot to steal gold from Fort Knox, was inspired by a scheme Stephenson apparently had – but never enacted – to steal billion-dollar gold reserves from the French colony of Martinique.
And then there is Bond’s code number 007, which Solar says was drawn from Stephenson’s longer regimental number: 700758.
“If you were going to write a book would you say, ‘OK, I’m going to call this double-O seven?’ There had to be some linkage, right?” says Solar, who lives in Winnipeg.
Stephenson’s accolades are extensive – he was knighted by King George VI, was awarded the U.S. Medal for Merit, and was a companion of the Order of Canada.
But the extent of Stephenson’s influence on Fleming remains up for debate, allow his champions.
Ivar Bryce’s book “You only live once: Memories of Ian Fleming” makes no mention of Stephenson in the chapter about James Bond’s origins, notes Hart.
And as Solar acknowledges, much about Stephenson remains unclear.
“Like any spy, who knows? And that’s the difficulty. We’re piecing together parts of Sir William’s life, which was never really recorded all that well.”
Nevertheless, Hart says, “he had one hell of a life.”
Hart has read all of Fleming’s Bond books, which he calls “very entertaining” but hardly realistic.
“The intelligence business is both darker and far more complex than what Hollywood put out,” says Hart.
“I spent almost 20 years in clandestine service for the CIA and I can tell you that hardly five per cent of my time was spent in James Bond-type stuff. A lot of it is, as one should imagine, just bureaucratic time.”
Finkbeiner says maybe Stephenson was just too good at covering his tracks.
“He was brilliant and extremely secretive. He was the ultimate of somebody in espionage who could get away with something without anybody knowing about it.”
Including being the inspiration for James Bond.