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Conrad Fulke O'Brien-ffrench. Artist and Spy.

Ian Fleming

A dangerous liaison


Conrad in Kitzbuhel
The Times on the slopes.

It was a sunny afternoon when Conrad arrived with Maud at the Tiefenbrunner café in Kitzbühel. Peter Fleming and his wife, Celia, were at a table with Arthur Waley and Ella Maillart.  Sitting apart, a little aloof, was a handsome young man reading a spy novel by Buchan, Ian Fleming. Accompanying Conrad and Maud was a dazzlingly beautiful young woman, Margarita Brambeck, a house guest. Ian looked up, closed his book and joined the group’s friendly badinage. When Maud announced it was time for them to leave for lunch, Ian stood up and asked “Can I come too?” Maud was delighted and, a little taken aback, said “Of course, of course. I hope you will not ‘accept’ too much?” Ian, amused by the mistaken word, said cheekily “I will accept all that I am offered!” So it was that Conrad met Ian Fleming for the first time. That a beautiful young woman drew Ian into their company was a foretaste of the younger Fleming’s rakish personality.


Peter and Ian were very different. Peter was a success at all he endeavoured; Ian was not. There can be little doubt there was an aspect of sibling rivalry, and Ian was always very much in the shadow of his ‘smarter brother’, failing as he did in a succession of potential careers. His mother was to say as much to Conrad when he met her at her home in Oxfordshire in 1944. His lacklustre performance at Eton where his name is remembered for his athleticism not his academic prowess. Then his failure at Sandhurst officer training college was a great disappointment to his mother. Ian had a chip on his shoulder. His arrogance, petulance and womanising ways – even his sadistic tendencies, perhaps – were born of this sibling inequality in the eyes of his mother. But by the same token it also made him into the irascible personality which was to create the world’s greatest fictional spy.


Much of the character of Bond is taken from Ian himself. The “Kiss-kiss-bang-bang” aspect of 007 is all Ian. But other aspects of Bond are pure ffrench. Conrad admits that in the young Fleming he sees


“a more blatant and irascible me,”  but then adds, “and I was inclined to be more open with him than I should.” (DM p. 118)


Conrad the master spy, running a network of agents and sub-agents spread across Southern Germany with confidential German contacts in the highest social and political spheres, could not help but like Ian. In him he saw a reckless and vagabond spirit. Conrad the master of discretion and subtle influence felt a certain sympathy for Ian. He disapproved of his spoiled cynical attitude and arrogance, especially where women were concerned. Nevertheless, Conrad liked him and, to some extent, had taken him into his confidence about his activities. If, as it appears, Peter Fleming was a recruit, one can be certain Ian would have more than an inkling and would have been fascinated with this real life spy in action. Certainly, a different type of spy from the grubby men skulking in shadows that inhabited the spy fiction he read. ffrench was the genuine article. Conrad was in centre field, in the spotlight, a recognised and respected character both to the Bavarians and the wealthy tourists he had brought there. Tyrolese Tours had allowed him to establish his network far and wide, it is true. But along the way he had struck deals with the best hotels and hostelries Austria and a large part of Southern Germany had to offer. He was known wherever he went. If Conrad walked into your hotel, you would be pleased to see him. His wealthy clients brought fresh money.  I sometimes wonder what Conrad’s favourite tipple was.  He was a mountaineer and a guide and, by now, an expert skier. A larger than life figure in the very heart of the European fast set; disapproved of back in the drawing rooms of Old England. An errant Lord with “New Money” living the high life abroad! But the Germans loved him. In a magazine article, Conrad remarks of Ian that “he only came for the lavish parties we threw and more particularly for the beautiful women that always attended.”  Conrad was the playboy spy – aristocratic, debonair, a superb sportsman, artist, bon vivant, host and master of ceremonies.  Conrad was in Austria for more than six years his meeting with the vagabond womaniser. But Ian almost brought his undercover career to an abrupt end. In Ian he said he saw a younger more irascible self, perhaps? But Ian was to let him down badly.  A careless act entirely in keeping with Ian’s character almost cost Conrad all. 


The Reisch’s bar was a popular haunt in Kitzbühel, and one evening Rudolfo and Conrad had joined a party of young people there, including Ian. As the evening progressed, Ian was drawn into conversation with a German called Markwert. Rudolfo, however, suspected Markwert of being a Gestapo agent, and Conrad handled him carefully. One would think that Conrad would warn his local contacts about him also. We cannot know if Ian knew of his reputation. Markwert was also a collector of rare books, one of Ian’s own abiding interests. Conrad recalls them deep in conversation about literary obscurities – a subject of little interest to him and which went over his head – and a friendly relationship developed. Conrad was called to London to meet with Menzies and Dansey, not an unusual occurrence. He was often absent for one or other reason; after all, he had a spy ring to run. On his return he discovered that Ian had introduced Maud to Markwert. He had invited her to dinner – evidently for the purpose of finding out about Conrad’s activities. She, of course, knew virtually nothing of Conrad’s covert dealings. Having tried to draw her out in conversation, Markwert eventually dropped pretence and spoke directly as Conrad tells in his book.


“What can a man like Conrad possibly be doing in this sleepy old town? Surely he is too active for retirement and too well connected?” Sensing this was dangerous ground, Maud refrained from comment. Then, with less subtlety, he came to the point, pouring her another glass of wine and leaning a little closer. He asked her if I was with British Intelligence. Maud froze, gave a nervous giggle and replied,


“Conrad a secret agent? Oh no, he is much too stupid.” This seems to have satisfied her interrogator, but it gave Maud a shock. She knew little of what I was doing and this jolted her own curiosity.” (DM p. 118)


The affair with Markwert was a sobering one. It showed Conrad just how utterly alone a secret agent was. But it was a salutary lesson too. After this Conrad drew in his horns and was never again so open; not just with Ian, but anyone other than his own contacts and superiors.


It was 1934. Conrad’s father was ill and in November Conrad was called to his bedside. He died that winter. Conrad assumed the title Marquis de Castel Thomond and his aristocratic cover became complete. That autumn, Conrad’s marriage with Maud came to an end and they separated, Maud returning to Sweden. After a tearful journey, she wrote to Conrad describing the love she felt for him but had never been able to show during their union. She was not made for marriage and did not think Conrad was either. Yet, unknown to both of them, Maud was pregnant with their daughter Christina – an unexpected turn of events which was to place him in the right place at the right time and provide him with another coup of intelligence work.

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