Sidney Reilly Was the Ethically Elusive Secret Agent Who Was an Inspiration for James Bond

From a Wall Street Journal review by Diane Cole of the book by Benny Morris titled “Sidney Reilly: Master Spy”:

So many legends have been connected to the espionage agent Sidney Reilly—most famously, that the author Ian Fleming modeled James Bond after him—that it’s no easy feat to establish the facts of the life he actually led. Further muddying Reilly’s trail are the countless lies he himself spread, not only to evade exposure as a spy but also to hide his Jewish origins, slither away from his many (often simultaneous) romantic affairs and to distance himself from questionable business schemes.

“Tracing the life of a spy is always difficult,” the Israeli historian Benny Morris admits with deadpan irony in his concise biography “Sidney Reilly: Master Spy.” But Mr. Morris’s dogged research—particularly into the shadowy intrigues that Reilly immersed himself in during the years surrounding World War I, the Russian Revolution and the founding of the Soviet Union—lends impressive rigor to this portrait of an often-cryptic figure.

The biographical ambiguities are prolific, beginning with conflicting sources on when (1872 or 1874) and where (perhaps Odessa, maybe Russian-ruled Poland) baby Sigmund (also known as Shlomo or Zalman or Salomon) Rosenblum was born. It’s tempting to speculate that the uncertain identity of his biological father (likely not the man his mother married) afforded him psychological carte blanche to reinvent himself as whomever he wished, as he did in 1899 when he assumed the name we now know him by, Sidney Reilly.

Reilly could rarely be pinned down. He simultaneously pursued three separate careers as “businessman, con man, and spy,” writes Mr. Morris, and would readily slip from one role to another. Aspiring to social status (and perhaps a law-abiding cover), he relished playing the sophisticated art dealer specializing in all things related to his real-life hero, Napoleon. In need of money to support his extravagant lifestyle and his many mistresses, he posed more than once as a professional chemist purveying dubious patent medicines. As a spy, his numerous undercover identities (aided by his fluency in Russian, English, French, German and Polish) were simply part of the job, whether he was working for Russia, Japan or Britain.

Britain was his most consistent client. In the late 1890s, he signed on with Scotland Yard’s William Melville, who first employed Reilly to keep tabs on Russian anarchists in London, then sent him to Germany to steal arms secrets. When Melville went on to help found the nascent British intelligence agency, he continued to use Reilly, including for a caper known as the D’Arcy Affair. In Reilly’s version, he impersonated a Catholic priest in a ploy to persuade the Australian oil baron William Knox D’Arcy to sell his Middle East oil concession to Britain rather than France.

By the time World War I began, Reilly had become a British citizen, but the only side he appeared to be on was his own, making money as an international arms broker. Traveling between St. Petersburg and New York, he arranged lucrative deals to provide the czar’s army with American-made rifles, guns and ammunition, earning commissions, Mr. Morris notes, “from the Russian purchaser, from the foreign manufacturer, and sometimes from shipping companies and other facilitators.” Although he has been accused of being a German spy (no proof was ever found), he was, in fact, feeding intelligence about Russian and German arms deals to the British.

Then came the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Allies worried that the new regime’s exit from World War I would benefit Germany. Meanwhile, Russia was mired in a chaotic civil war between pro- and anti-Bolshevik factions. The British called on Reilly once more, swearing him in as a case officer of the British secret service and dispatching him with another agent, R.H. Bruce Lockhart, to gauge the feasibility of overturning the new Bolshevik regime.

There are multiple conflicting accounts of what actually happened in the attempted coup known as the Reilly-Lockhart Plot. The plan was to assassinate both Trotsky and Lenin, replacing them with a military regime friendly to the Allies—or perhaps with Reilly, modeling himself after Napoleon, as the new head of state. But the Cheka, the Bolsheviks’ secret police, foiled the scheme, and Reilly escaped back to London with a death sentence over his head.

That made little difference to Reilly, who by then had made it his mission to deliver Russia from revolutionary communist rule. The British Secret Service sent him to the Black Sea ports of southern Russia under the guise of a British trade representative to gather information about the possibility of supporting (or fomenting) further anti-Bolshevik activity. Nothing came of that last official mission, and by mid-1920 Reilly was no longer a member of the Secret Service.

Yet he returned to Russia one last time, in 1925, in perhaps the greatest con of his career—except this time he was the dupe. Reilly was set up by the Soviet security service, the OGPU, whose phony antirevolutionary group (called “the Trust”) convinced him that he was needed in Moscow to plan another uprising. Communist agents captured, imprisoned, interrogated and finally executed him.

Mr. Morris does not shy away from the unsavory aspects of Reilly’s life, including his probable implication in the murder of a man whose newly wealthy widow he would marry soon after. Reilly never divorced her, despite squandering her fortune and marrying, bigamously, at least twice more.

The author also pays special attention to Reilly’s deep ambivalence toward his Jewish identity, his own self-hatred second only to the pervasive anti-Semitism he had grown up with in Russia and the ubiquitous anti-Jewish sentiments among his British colleagues. Reilly thus saw “becoming a British subject and gentleman,” Mr. Morris writes, as “the ultimate negation of lowly, foreign Jewish origins.”

This, then, is the flawed figure behind the international man of mystery glorified in the 1983 British television series “Reilly: Ace of Spies,” starring a dashing Sam Neill. Such is the stuff spy novels are based on.

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.”

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