Manitoba Historical Society
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MHS Celebrates: Manitoba 150 in the Winnipeg Free Press: Licence to Intrigue

by Dwight MacAulay
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Listen … do you want to know a secret?

With the recent death of actor Sean Connery, millions of fans worldwide stopped for a moment to quietly mourn the loss of the man who introduced the world to the greatest spy who ever lived. “Bond … James Bond.”

Few people in the world have not heard of James Bond, the British secret agent who could cheat death numerous times in each adventure and still be suave, debonair and undoubtedly remain looking like the handsomest, sexiest, coolest man on the planet while also driving the fastest, most lethal cars ever made.

Bond not only saved us from extinction or slavery, but finished each adventure enjoying a martini, “shaken not stirred,” along with some of the most beautiful women in the world.

In the seven decades since the Bond franchise first captured our imagination there have been several individuals who portrayed the character and, in each episode, saved the world time and time again from some villainous, evil mastermind bent on enslaving and destroying humanity as we know it.

Rating the various actors who played James Bond in the movies somehow reminds me a little of people’s reaction to the Beatles: Everyone has a favourite. Sean Connery was the first, and to many the absolute best Bond to have ever had the signature ID of “007.”

Ever since Ian Fleming began to create this character and put pen to paper in 1952, the world has been fascinated with agent 007. Let’s face it — every man has secretly wanted to be him and every woman wanted to meet him.

People often had two questions on their minds when reading James Bond novels or sitting on the edge of their seat in a movie theatre: How was Bond going to avoid annihilation at the hands of some conniving, evil, n’er-do-well villain and who, exactly, was James Bond? Was he purely fictional or was he actually based on a real-life individual?

Let me answer that with a question: What individual left school in Grade 6, was recognized as a hero in both World Wars, was knighted by King George VI, received the Order of Canada, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Merit (the first non-American to be awarded this honour) and has a statue in his honour in downtown Winnipeg? This same person received numerous military honours from several countries and has had numerous books written about him along with movies and several television shows documenting his life, focusing primarily on his role as a spy (for our side thankfully) in the Second World War.

Additionally, he received honorary degrees from both the universities of Manitoba and Winnipeg, has a library, a school and a street named in his honour, and was also honoured by Canada Post with the issue of a stamp. Oh, and he also invented a machine that could send wireless photos across the Atlantic. In essence, he created one of the key building blocks of what would later become better known as the fax machine.

The answer is Winnipeg’s own Sir William Stephenson. The man called “Intrepid.”

There has been, and will always be, much more to this man than we will know.

Stephenson was a hero of both world wars — although his contribution in each global conflict was vastly different.

As an underage teenager in Winnipeg, he signed up with the army in the First World War with the regimental number 700758 on his attestation papers (note the second to fourth digits). After being gassed by the Germans, his lungs were damaged, so he joined the Royal Flying Corps. It was during his time as a pilot that he was credited with shooting down at least a dozen German planes. For that, he was awarded the Military Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross and also several honours from France.

Stephenson was also shot down and taken as a prisoner of war. As rumour or myth has it, it was during his time as a prisoner of war that Stephenson developed his passion for intrigue.

After the First World War, and before the Second World War, he became a businessman and entrepreneur achieving the status of a millionaire before he was 30.

His business acumen was not without its setbacks but he did go on to be recognized as a media mogul who also ventured into business interests such as oil refining, aircraft manufacturing, coal mining and steel fabrication.

It was during his business trips prior to the Second World War that Stephenson collected evidence of German rearmament and provided it to Winston Churchill.

However, his service in the Second World War was, simply put, espionage. Almost as soon as the war broke out, Stephenson formally became involved in covert activities.

When Churchill became British Prime Minister in 1940, he appointed Stephenson to head up an arm of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI-6, overseeing British espionage for the Americas, known as the British Security Co-ordination.

Although based in New York, Stephenson’s BSC had agents in every major port in the Americas as well as North Africa. It was during this time that Stephenson became one of the single most important, pivotal and influential figures in bringing about an end to the Second World War.

It was also during the war when Stephenson helped create the Office of Strategic Services with his friend Bill Donovan. This office became the frontrunner to what would evolve into the Central Intelligence Agency.

With true spy-like intrigue, there are many stories, myths and undocumented accounts related to Stephenson’s role in helping to win the war. However, one point which has never been challenged is that he did play a major role in the Allied victory over the Germans, a role that can easily be credited with saving thousands of lives (on both sides) by bringing about an end to the conflict.

After the war, Stephenson and Bond author Ian Fleming became lifelong friends. In fact, they also became neighbours in Jamaica. However, to this day there remains much more mystery and intrigue about Stephenson than Fleming could have ever put into a book. And, just for the record, both gentlemen did enjoy martinis.

But let’s get back to the question of who was the real-life inspiration for James Bond?

Many believe the quiet, relatively small, portly man born into poverty in Point Douglas and given up for adoption because his family could not afford to keep him, was, in fact, the inspiration for the world’s most famous spy.

My take on it goes like this. Ian Fleming and Cary Grant (yes, that Cary Grant, the movie star) were both spies, and both worked for Stephenson. However, Stephenson did not look like Sean Connery, Roger Moore or Daniel Craig, so Fleming gave James Bond the adventures of Stephenson and the good looks of Cary Grant.

Truthfully, the only one who could honestly answer the question about whether or not James Bond is based on a real person was, obviously, the author himself, Ian Fleming.

Fleming once wrote, “James Bond is a highly romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing is… William Stephenson.” So, there you have it! Stephenson died in 1989 at the age of 92. He and his wife Mary French (Simmons) are both buried in Bermuda.

See also:

Memorable Manitobans: William Stephenson (1897-1989)

Page revised: 14 November 2020

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