James Bond always gives his real name, never an alias. But fans of Ian Fleming’s secret agent often treat Bond’s name as a fictional alias and search for the real spy behind it.
Fleming worked in British intelligence during the Second World War, so almost any agent he met or dealt with could be a candidate. But a few names pop up on almost everyone’s “real Bond” list, and one of them had a colourful Canadian backstory.
Conrad O’Brien-ffrench was “a dashing figure [Fleming] met while skiing at Kitzbuhel in 1935,” writes Bond specialist Henry Chancellor in James Bond: The Man and His World. Apparently a louche businessman, O’Brien-ffrench was a British spy, sleuthing out Hitler’s military buildup along the border and in southern Germany. But his first field assignment was as a teenaged Mountie, chasing horse thieves and riding patrols in rural Saskatchewan.
O’Brien-ffrench grew up in silver-spoon fashion in an Italian villa, attended an English prep school and rode to hounds with the fox-hunting gentry.
At 17, he had a chance meeting with a man from Battle Creek, Sask., and was thrilled by what he heard about the Wild West. Like a character in a Boy’s Own adventure tale, he sailed to Canada and served two years with the North-West Mounted Police. According to his 1979 memoir Delicate Mission, he nearly died on lone patrol in a snowstorm, and with two other Mounties, made such a hard-riding chase of an escaped prisoner that one of their horses died of exhaustion. One of his last acts in a red tunic was to blast his way into the cabin of a murder suspect, only to discover the man had killed himself.
He began intelligence work while a German prisoner of war in the First World War, using invisible ink to send reports of a German aircraft design to a contact in Britain’s War Office. In the camp, he learned Russian, which led to between-war intelligence postings in Sweden, Finland, Russia and India, where he shot ibex and climbed in the Himalayas. He also studied art at London’s Slade School and in Paris. By the time he met Fleming, he had done many of the things the Reuters journalist only dreamed about, and lived the kind of deluxe, action-filled life Bond pursued in Fleming’s novels.
“To all outer appearances, I was a playboy,” O’Brien-ffrench wrote. Fleming “came for the lavish parties we threw and more particularly for the beautiful women that always attended.”
O’Brien-ffrench described Fleming as a glamorous but restless figure, envious of his more successful brother Peter, “spoiled, more cynical than funny, strong-willed and ambitious, and a first-class athlete.” Fleming nearly blew his friend’s cover by introducing O’Brien-ffrench’s wife to a German spy, who took her to lunch and bluntly asked if her husband worked for British Intelligence. She “froze, gave a nervous giggle and replied, ‘Conrad, a secret agent? Oh, no, he’s much too stupid.’”
O’Brien-ffrench deliberately blew his own cover by using a tapped phone to send back the “hot news” that German troops were crossing the Austrian border in March, 1938. He fled Germany for Switzerland with the SS on his heels.
A few years later, in 1941, Fleming had his own Bond-formative experiences in Canada, during a secret visit with Canadian spy William Stephenson. Fleming, by then a desk operative in British naval intelligence, attended Stephenson’s undercover training camp near Oshawa, where he learned some judo moves and how to use a machine gun. He also swam underwater to clamp a limpet mine on a tanker moored in Lake Ontario – an exploit recreated in more glamorous fashion near the end of Live and Let Die.
“He excelled in one exercise in which he was to plant a ‘bomb’ in a Toronto power station,” writes his biographer Bruce A. Rosenberg. “Fleming called the director, introduced himself as a visiting British engineer and easily penetrated the station grounds” – even though police had been put on alert.
“The nucleus of James Bond was probably created by the time Fleming got back from Canada,” writes Craig Cabell in Ian Fleming’s Secret War. The first novel appeared a decade later. Fleming declined to name any agent as the model for Bond, saying he was “a meld of various qualities I noted among Secret Service men and commandos.”
O’Brien-ffrench returned to Canada after his flight from Germany, living in British Columbia and near Banff, where he built a commercial lodge, raised horses and taught visual art at the Banff School of Fine Arts, alongside Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson. In a 1984 American TV interview, O’Brien-ffrench said he had been “just an ordinary agent,” made no claim to be the original Bond and had never even read the novels.
“After all, I’ve done it – the real thing,” he said. “Why should I read some spoof about it?”