James Bond of West Vancouver
Soldier, painter, Mountie, spy, Captain Conrad Fulke Thomond O’Brien ffrench may have been the model for Ian Fleming’s fictional hero
I see David Niven in the movie role. He has the long, lean good looks, the neatly trimmed moustache, the quick, intelligent glance, the easy movement, even the right British accent. The role is perfect for him. He will play an IrishCanadian aristocrat who has been in turn a member of the Royal North West Mounted Police, a soldier, war prisoner, spy, aide-de-camp, mountaineer, spy again, painter, rancher, art teacher and philosopher. He will act the part of a man who may well have served as the model for the style — not the killings nor the wooings, but the style — of Ian Fleming’s fictional hero, James Bond. But the twist is that this hero is real. He is Captain Conrad Fulke Thomond O’Brien ffrench, Marquis de CastelThomond.
I came to know the captain by accident. During a visit to Banff, a young friend of mine took me, late at night, to see an enormous, and locally famous, log cabin — 60 feet to a side, two stories high, superbly crafted — which had, according to my friend, been the home of a real-life model for James Bond. I snorted politely, but the next day I went to the Banff Archives, where the director, Maryalice Stewart, unearthed old clippings from the time when Princess Margaret visited Fairholme Ranch — as the log castle is known — to the list of recent Canada Council grants which showed that its one-time owner, a Captain ffrench of West Vancouver, had received $1,000 to write the memoirs of his life as a Royal North West Mounted Policeman and British secret agent. Through the Canada Council, I ran Captain ffrench to ground, and before long I was cosily ensconced in his living room, admiring the view of English Bay, ogling the paintings and objets d’art that vie for wall space with long shelves of books, and listening to his story.
He is an impressive man, well over six feet in height, and looks to be about 60
Walter Stewart is an associate editor of Maclean’s and author of the recently published book, Hard To Swallow.
or 65 — in fact, he is 81. His hair is steelgrey, his face lined but still extraordinarily handsome, dominated by a powerful, aquiline nose and a thin, rather tough-looking mouth. Frankly, when he began to talk, I assumed he was a monstrous fraud, but he punctuated his adventure stories by bounding lightly from his chair to fish out documents, diaries, official papers and other memorabilia.
There were letters from Stewart Menzies, head of MI6, the British Military Intelligence branch, and the model for Ian Fleming’s “M.” There were long letters about ffrench’s activities, not, alas, descriptions of midnight trysts with slinky female counterspies, but petty quarrels over expense accounts and lost memoranda. There were the captain’s diaries, 29 of them, full of names and dates and secret meetings; any one of
these, in the wrong hands at the wrong time, could have put a rope around his neck. There were photographs and books, the most interesting of which, Invasion, 1940, was written by Peter Fleming, Ian’s brother, about the beginnings of World War II. It contained a copy of the German Security Service’s blacklist of most-wanted British war criminals. Captain ffrench appears as no. 28.
Conrad Fulke Thomond O’Brien ffrench was born in London, England, in 1893. His father, Henry, an adventurer and a bit of a bounder, had married Winifred Thursby, a strikingly beautiful Victorian maiden, at least in part because of her social prominence. The couple settled in Italy at the Villa Torlonia, in the hills east of Rome, but came back to England whenever a child was due so that it could be born under the British flag. After Conrad’s birth
Ffrench smuggled the first Communist diplomat out of Russia to England
they went back to Italy where he, his older brother Rollo and later a younger brother were brought up by a domineering governess, a clutch of servants and their sickly but beloved mother.
After private tutoring in English, French and Italian, the boys were packed off to England to complete their schooling. Papa Henry drifted off, and Conrad became increasingly dependent on his brother Rollo. But then Rollo was killed, accidentally, in a football game and Conrad’s life took an abrupt turn. He was 16, a prospective marquis with no money worries, lonely and restless.
One day during the Easter holidays of 1910, he was out walking on the Folkestone downs in Kent when he met an elderly gentleman who was a rancher and Justice of the Peace in a far-off place called Buffalo Lake, Saskatchewan. As the old man and the boy talked and walked across the downs he spun wonderful tales of the opening Canadian West. Conrad was enraptured, and when his new friend suggested that he should come out to Canada and join the Mounties he agreed at once. The next spring, he boarded a ship for Canada and, at the age of 17, he became a Mountie.
He served in detachments all over southern Saskatchewan and discovered facets of life that helped to extend his education. He chased rustlers, busted broncos, settled family disputes and performed all the multifarious duties of a Mountie until mid-1912, when a letter came from his mother. She was in England, dying of cancer, so he purchased his discharge and went home. He joined the Royal Irish Rifles and, on the outbreak of war, was sent to France just in time to take part in the battle of Mons, on August 23, 1914. He was severely wounded in the chest and shoulder almost at once, taken prisoner and, after he tried to escape despite his wounds, sent to a prisoner-of-war camp well inside Germany.
He spent most of his time, between fruitless escape attempts, in a camp containing a handful of British prisoners, some French and many Russians. The British were snobbish and the French full of cares, but “the Russians, taking things philosophically, were extremely good company.” So he attached himself to the Russians and learned to speak and read their language, a skill that would come in handy later on.
In England just before the war, he had met Cathleen Mann, the pretty and talented daughter of portrait painter Harrington Mann, and she wrote to him fre-
quently in prison camp. Cathleen had gone to work in the War Office, and he began to send her secret messages, by the childishly simple device of writing in invisible ink made from potassium iodide which he got from a hospital orderly, ostensibly to treat his wounds. Many of the prisoners in camp were pilots who had been shot down and who had vital reports about troop movements, gun emplacements, and the state of roads and bridges. Conrad ffrench sent all this information home.
After the war, Stewart Menzies, then a colonel and second-in-command of Military Intelligence, offered him ajob as secret agent attached to the British Embassy in Stockholm, with the cover of military attaché but with the real task of gathering information from Russian refugees fleeing the aftermath of the 1917 revolution. His fluent Russian fitted ffrench perfectly for the job, and in January, 1919, he arrived in Stockholm as agent ST36.
His most important assignment was to smuggle a Communist diplomat, Leo Krassin, through the ring of hostile countries surrounding Russia and out to England for an interview with Prime Minister Lloyd George. It was the first face-to-face conversation between the new Communist leadership and the outside world.
In the early Twenties, the postwar depression brought major cutbacks in the British budget, which included layoffs in the spying business. Rather than wait to be fired — tensions between Britain and Russia were easing, and there was less for him to do — ffrench quit and went back to England to chase foxes and visit friends.
Then the Prince of Wales decided to visit India; the governors of the British provinces on the subcontinent had an urgent need for aides-de-camp, so Captain Conrad ffrench dusted off his military uniform once more and caught a ship for India. While working as an aide, he took up mountain climbing, and tackled the Himalayas, where he nearly lost his life in landslides and mountain storms, and earned the title “the Eagle” for his exploits.
After the Prince of Wales left India, ffrench joined the 16th Queen’s Lancers, but developed a circulatory disorder and retired in 1926 on pension to recuperate and chase more foxes. There followed a time of traveling, mountaineering and the study of painting. He had always dabbled in art, but now took it up full time, and spent six years studying in England, France, and Jamaica. He
After the German invasion of Austria, Captain ffrench escaped to Switzerland with Nazi border guaras firing at his car
achieved only moderate success.
Conrad ffrench was now nearing 40, and the only really important thing he had ever done was to be a spy, so he went back to that. This came about in a curious way. In 1931, he married a Swedish beauty whom he had met in Rome. They honeymooned in England and Vienna, and while there ffrench organized a tourist business to take package tours across the Austrian ski country. It was centred at Kitzbühel, in the Tyrol district of west Austria. In June, 1935, Maud ffrench announced that she wanted to go back to Stockholm to have her forthcoming baby. Her husband went with her, but rather than hang about Stockholm he decided to go skiing in Lapland, where there was still snow, even in midsummer. He settled in Riksgranzen, a resort town on the railway, and he was sitting on the front porch of his hotel, waxing his skis, when he noticed that a great many trains, laden with iron ore, were passing through the town. His curiosity was piqued; with a worldwide depression on, who would be ordering such large quantities of iron? There was something fishy about those trains, so “pocketing my passport, I hopped one.” Well, naturally, wouldn’t you?
He learned that the ore was bound for the Krupp munitions plant, on the Rhine river. This was solid evidence that Germany was rearming in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles.
He sent a report directly to his old boss, Stewart Menzies, who was by now chief of Military Intelligence. Menzies was duly grateful, invited ffrench to London once more, and took him back on the payroll as a spy, stationed at Kitzbühel. He stayed there — except for one long fact-finding trip across Russia to China on the Manchurian railway —until March, 1938. when German troops marched into Austria to enforce the anschluss (union) with Germany.
Outwardly, ffrench throughout these years was a handsome playboy and sometime tourist agent with such interesting friends as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who often visited Kitzbühel after the abdication in 1936 — the Duke had met ffrench in India, when he was Prince of Wales. He was also friendly with the Fleming brothers, Ian and Peter. Conrad ffrench was not much taken by the younger brother. “That Ian was glamorous is certain; nonchalant, restless, spoiled, more cynical than funny, strong willed and ambitious, and a firstclass athlete ... He was a very complicated, imaginative and subtle character who lacked stability and staying power.
and yet was most intolerant of failure in others.”
He was also, ffrench believes, a danger to him, because he introduced Maud ffrench to a German named Markwert, a suspected Gestapo agent. Markwert took Maud out to dinner, plied her with leading questions and finally asked her point blank if the travel agent was in reality a spy. “Maud froze, gave a nervous giggle and replied, ‘Conrad a secret agent? No, he’s much too stupid.’ ”
“In a way,” the captain’s memoirs note, “Ian was a more blatant and irascible me, and I was inclined to be open with him, but after this affair I drew in
my horns. I realized how utterly alone a secret agent can be.”
Fleming went back to London to work in a stockbroker’s office and later blossomed as the author of books featuring spies who had the same dash, style and high-living graces that he had seen in Kitzbühel. Conrad ffrench does not believe James Bond was drawn from anyone in real life — “no real spy ever had those gadgets, or behaved with such wanton brutality” — but he is quite sure the manner of living Fleming described, with its background of beautiful women and carefully chosen wines, reflected his memories of Austria.
Soon after Fleming left, ffrench’s marriage broke up; it had never been sound, and the strains of his secret life finished it. He spent most of his time gathering information from a network of agents in Austria and south Germany, talking to politicians and hobnobbing with swells.
British spies were not, James Bond to the contrary, heavily bankrolled. “It was ironical that during my six years of Hitler-watching, over a large area of southern Germany, with many subagents un-
der me, I was receiving less pay than a window cleaner. At times when I would meet C.D. [Claude Dansey, his immediate superior] at, say, the Carlton Hotel, off the Haymarket, after coming from Kitzbühel at his request, there would be quibbles over my travel expenses.”
The money turned out to be well spent, however, when, on March 11, 1938, he was able to get out the first word of the German invasion of Austria. His method was direct, and rather dull; an Austrian living on the border sent the message and ffrench simply popped down to the corner and phoned Whitehall with a coded report. “I told them my aunt had arrived, and the silly ass on the other end said, ‘Right oh, good work,’ which certainly would have tipped off anyone listening.”
Figuring that the border points would be in a state of total confusion, ffrench bundled together all his secret papers and decamped for Switzerland by train; he got through without so much as having his passport stamped, although by the same time the next day Gestapo officials were ripping the soles off travelers’ shoes in their search for incriminating documents.
Later, he went back to Kitzbühel to collect personal effects and wind up his business. While there, he heard that a friend and fellow agent in south Germany wanted to see him, so he drove over the border. They were at the agent’s villa, in the midst of a long, midnight discussion, when two SS officers arrived at the front door. Conrad ffrench ducked out the back, where he had parked his car, pushed off without turning on his lights, and headed for the Swiss border “at all speed.” He reached the German frontier post just after dawn and there, he recalls, “A frontier guard came out of the posthouse strapping on his automatic and fastening his collar. He seized the car documents and my passport and carried them into the office. A minute later, I heard the telephone bell ring. One of his comrades came to the door to have a look at me, he disappeared and then a third emerged with my papers in his hand. He passed them to me through the car window, cranked up the barrier and motioned me on. Then suddenly some shots rang out behind me, and I heard shouts of ‘Halt, halt!’ I stepped on the gas . . . Once I had reached the safety of Switzerland, I began to realize my hazardous activities were over. I was more or less off the chessboard.”
As a spy, he was hopelessly compromised, so he decided to resign and go back to Canada, a land that held only happy memories. He settled first on Vancouver Island, and made several trips to the British Columbia interior while waiting with growing impatience to be offered a war job. None was forthcoming from Canada, so he went back to England and spent the rest of the war working at various nonmilitary jobs in England, Scotland and the West Indies. He married again while in England, and brought his new wife, Rosalie, back to Canada at war’s end.
Rosalie did not take to the BC coast, so the newlyweds drove to Banff, and there they found that a rare piece of freehold land was for sale within the National Park boundaries, five miles east of Banff. It was Fairholme Ranch and they bought it on the spot.
The ex-spy designed and helped to build the huge log building that caught my eye, then settled down to a life of raising horses, teaching at the Banff School of Fine Arts and bringing up a new family. (He has two sons, Rollo and John, both now grown up.) However, the second marriage, though longerlived, was not much more successful than the first. He began to spend more and more time at 100 Mile House, in the BC interior, where he became absorbed in a religion-cum-philosophy called Ontology (the word refers to the Greek for “discussion of being”), a branch of metaphysics that theorizes on the ultimate nature of being.
With the breakup of his second marriage in 1959, he moved away from Fairholme, which was sold to the Canadian government. (The magnificent log cabin was recently sold to an Edmonton man, dismantled and moved away.) He bought a home in West Vancouver, and now divides his time between painting and teaching art and Ontology, traveling often to 100 Mile House, the Canadian centre of the movement, and to Loveland, Colorado, the U.S. headquarters.
Whether due to Ontology or the simple mellowing influence of time, Conrad ffrench today appears a busy and serene man. He regards his spying past with philosophic regret. Wars, he has come to accept, are useless and wasteful, and spying, even on the right side, even working against a tyrant, is essentially a form of organized treachery. Despite this intellectual repugnance, when you ask him about those heady prewar days in Austria, a light comes into his eye, the gesturing hands come up, the head goes back, and the rich, mellow voice rolls out. The Marquis de Castel-Thomond is off, back to the high life in pre-war Europe, back to a time when he matched nerves and wits with the Nazis every day, and came away unscathed.