Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Remembering Sidney Reilly, the Ace of Spies

The Name's Reilly, Sidney Reilly
On this day in 1925, 88 years ago, Sidney Reilly, adventurer, con-man, and British agent, the model for Fleming’s James Bond, was supposedly executed by the Soviets after being lured to Russia in a trap.  I say supposedly because much of Reilly’s story is shrouded in uncertainty, as he fabricated stories and identities as a matter of course.  

Perhaps the first true international man of mystery, it seems most likely that he was born in Czarist Russia to Jewish parents and found his way to Britain where he married a wealthy woman, freshly widowed perhaps during an affair with Reilly, and became a valued operative for the young British Secret Service.  His undercover exploits were all over the globe, including his foiling the Russians in Manchuria just before the Russo-Japanese war, stealing weapon plans from Germany before WWI, and causing much mischief in Russia for the Bolsheviks.    

Sam Neill as Sidney Reilly
I first learned of Reilly from the excellent 1983 TV mini-series Reilly: Ace of Spies, which was based the book of the same name, which I later read, by Robert Bruce Lockhart.  The music theme was a haunting melody I enjoyed so much that I recorded it from the TV speaker onto a cassette tape; I only knew it was "The Romance" movement from a Dmitri Shostakovich score for a movie called The Gadfly.  What I didn’t know until today, knocking about on Wikipedia as I am wont to do, is that this film was an adaptation of the novel of the same name, written by an Irish woman named Ethel Voynich, allegedly once a lover of Reilly’s, whose theme is revolution and romance and whose central character is allegedly based on none other than Reilly himself.    

Lockhart was a friend and colleague of Sidney Reilly.  He later worked closely in British intelligence with Ian Fleming, and Reilly undoubtedly came up in conversation.  According to the Wikipedia entry (link), “Reilly was multi-lingual, fascinated by the Far East, fond of fine living, and a compulsive gambler” – just like some other secret agent we know.

R Balsamo

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