Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Secret Agent

Leslie Howard was perhaps Britain's best-known film star in the thirties. The red-headed star of 'Gone with the Wind' and 'The Petrified Forest' returned to London from Hollywood at the outbreak of the war against Nazi Germany and made several propaganda films. It was rumoured after his death in 1943 - his plane was shot down by German fighters over the Bay of Biscay - that he was also a spy for Churchill.
It's certainly true that he made several trips to Lisbon and Madrid during the war - overtly for cultural reasons - and no doubt did what he could behind the scenes. However, a new book by José Rey-Ximena called 'El Vuelo del Ibis' ('The Flight of the Ibis'), retraces his final visit to Madrid which was to end in the tragic death of Howard over the Atlantic.
Leslie Howard, we read, was on a secret mission from Churchill to send a message to Franco 'not to interfere in the war'. Howard's contact was an old girlfriend and actress called Conchita Montenegro (they had made a Hollywood film together called Never The Twain Shall Meet in 1931) who, by 1943, was dating Ricardo Gimenez-Arnau, head of the Falange's foreign department. Howard was officially in Madrid that May to head up a conference on Hamlet at the British Institute. He arrived in Madrid and checked into the Hotel Ritz on May 10th 1943 where he angered the head of the British Institute, Walter Starkie, by 'Howard's poor attendance' during his stay.
The author of The Flight of the Ibis was able to interview Conchita Montenegro at length before her death in 2007 about what happened during that visit to Madrid. A gypsywoman was part of the retinue of a flamenco group at the welcoming party at the British Institute. 'That man', she said, pointing to Leslie Howard 'has death engraved on his face. I can only see his skull'. When the British and their guests sat down to their evening meal, Howard reputedly jumped up and said that there were thirteen at the table and Starkie was obliged to find another person to join them.
Bad augeries aside, and with the help of Conchita and her contacts, Howard did manage to meet Franco and - with the excuse of talking about making a film about Cristopher Columbus - he was able to deliver the message.
Howard left Madrid for the Lisbon airport on June 1st and found that his plane had thirteen passengers!
The commander of the eight attack planes, Junkers 88s from Bordeaux, sent out his messages to his pack: 'Indian at eleven o'clock' and 'shoot it down, shoot it down'. The last radio message from the striken passenger plane was 'we are under attack from enemy planes'. The aircraft burst into flames over the sea near the Galician town of Cedeira.
It has been said that Goebbels ordered the attack personally - Howard had often made a fool of him in propaganda films.

There are two other books on Leslie Howard's last months, In Search of My Father by his son Ronald and Flight 777 by Ian Colvin.

El Vuelo del Ibis (ediciones Facta) José Rey-Ximena. Article in précis from El Mundo and Wikipedia

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