The Man Who Never Was

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At the appointed hour, I sought out the office of art historian Jennifer Montagu, where we were to be joined by her colleague, Medieval historian David Chambers. The winter light outside was fading fast and the darkening, south-facing room—a simulacrum, almost to the point of parody, of an absent-minded professor’s cluttered, untidy yet richly populated nest of obsessions—was extremely, not to say soporifically, well-heated. I felt as if I had somehow entered the mind of an owl (owls are opportunistic nesters): an impression augmented by Jennifer’s large, humorous brown eyes behind the lenses of her thickly-glassed spectacles.

She was something of an iconoclast herself; with a paradoxical and distinguished family history. Her father was Ewen Montagu, lawyer, judge, writer and, as the naval representative on the Twenty (XX or Double Cross) Committee during the war, had, with the secretary to the Committee, an eccentric RAF officer called Charles Cholmondeley, conceived Operation Mincemeat. Ewen’s book about the operation, The Man Who Never Was, came out in 1953. Acting on the basis of the famous Trout Memo—likening organised deception in wartime to fly fishing—written in 1939 by Ian Fleming, the British in 1943 arranged to have a dead man dressed as an officer in the Royal Marines and dropped into the sea from a submarine, HMS Seraph, so as to wash ashore near Huelva on the Atlantic coast of southern Spain.

He had a packet of official papers in a briefcase chained to the belt of his trench coat. The papers included references to plans for the imminent, though fictional, Allied invasion of Greece, the Balkans, Corsica and Sardinia—as opposed to Sicily, where the actual invasion would and did in fact take place. In the briefcase there were also proof copies of a (real) official booklet—Combined Operations, 1940-42—to which General Eisenhower was asked, for the American edition, to write a preface. In the fiction, the dead man was a courier carrying these things from London command to Allied generals in North Africa—Mountbatten to Eisenhower—and a passenger in a plane which had been shot down somewhere over the ocean. His papers identified him as Captain, acting Major, William Martin, a name and rank chosen for their plausibility, their ordinariness. There was a single black eyelash affixed to the envelope of official papers, so that, when it was returned to the British by the neutral Spaniards, they would know if it had been opened or not.

In the so-called pocket litter—a photograph of his fiancé, two love letters, a receipt for the purchase of a diamond ring, a letter from his father, bills, stamps, theatre ticket stubs, a silver cross, cash, a St Christopher, cigarettes and matches—given the dead man, Montagu manufactured an entire life history for the mythical Major; whose body was in fact that of a Welsh itinerant called Glyndwr Michael who had died of liver failure in St Pancras hospital on January 28 that year and been kept in a freezer for three months or more. He had been living rough, sleeping in an abandoned warehouse, where he got so hungry he ate crusts of bread baited with toxic paste and placed there to kill rats; and succumbed to liver failure consequent upon phosphorous poisoning.

Phosphorous, unlike arsenic, decays in the body; the corpse, even after a post mortem, could plausibly be thought to be that of a man drowned after the aircraft carrying him had crashed into the sea. Major Martin’s body was duly recovered by a local fisherman on the Atlantic shore, the German secret service, the Abwehr, was informed, the contents of the briefcase, the packet and the pocket litter read, scanned and evaluated by them in Cadiz or Seville or Madrid before being returned to the British. The Major, a Roman Catholic, was buried with full military honours in the local cemetery. This improbable deception, which reached up the Nazi chain of command as far as Hitler himself, was entirely successful.

Ewen’s younger brother, Jennifer’s uncle, was also a distinguished, if eccentric character. He was the film maker, communist, table tennis champion, wild life conservator and spy, Ivor Montagu, who in 1959 was awarded the Lenin Prize for services to socialism; but is probably better remembered as an innovative and dedicated worker towards the establishment of a genuine British film culture. He was variously a movie critic, a screen-writer, and Alfred Hitchcock’s producer in the 1930s. Both Montagu boys were members of an exceedingly wealthy family of Jewish bankers, awarded the Baronetcy of Swaythling in 1907.

Jennifer had studied political science at Oxford after the war but, because of her interest in sculpture, gravitated towards the Courtauld, where she became a protégé of Ernst Gombrich, who pointed her in the direction of French artist Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), about whom she wrote her dissertation. Did you know, Gombrich asked her, sounding very Warburgian, that there is a history of facial expressions? Le Brun had lectured in Paris on the subject. I am very unfaithful to my artists, Jennifer said, but I always keep them as friendsI like lesser-known artists, those who raise interesting problems, more so than the famous or popular ones. I am the sole survivor of the Society of the Enemies of Bernini, which I founded with Anthony Blunt. I liked her immediately. She made me laugh.

David Chambers, meanwhile, was a quiet, civilized, modest man with a razor wit which he kept mostly hidden. He had come to the Warburg as a reader in 1968: a tall figure sped into the Reading Room and bore down on me. He introduced himself as the librarian and said that he had liked my book—a slim volume boiled down from a thesis. I was struck dumb, first to meet a librarian who read books, and second to meet one who had noticed my book and could bother to come and find a mere new reader to say something nice to him. David went on to remember Joe’s abiding love of Italy; and recalled times he spent there traipsing alone by train with an empty suitcase, making personal contacts and collecting rare publications or periodicals to exchange for the Journal. He was, as the Italians say, un uomo generoso.

After David left, Jennifer and I talked on, about all sorts of things, including her father and her uncle. Ivor, she said, was definitely a spy. As for her father, she said that his book was not as good as the recent one by Ben McIntyre, Operation Mincemeat. She was one of those people with whom conversation flows in an intensely pleasurable manner which does not necessarily leave substantial memory traces behind. It was almost as if, over the twenty odd years that separated us, we were flirting, albeit decorously, with one another. I would have liked to have stayed for longer, but the room was so hot it was starting to make me yawn. I stood up, ready to go. And then I made what might have been a faux pas.

I knew someone in Wellington was writing a biography of Ivor Montagu. Russell Campbell, researching Montagu’s intelligence activities in London during the war, had sent me a few snippets of information about John Platts-Mills, who in 1943 had acted, unsuccessfully, on behalf of Dave Springhall, a communist journalist and editor tried and convicted of spying for the Russians. For some reason, I felt obliged to mention Russell’s project to Jennifer; why, I don’t quite know. After all, what could she say? She blinked behind her spectacles. Yes, she said, I have had an email from him; and that was that.

It’s a curiosity, perhaps a perversity, of biographical research that, when you come across someone who has little or no interest in discussing family matters, it is impossible not to admire them for it. We shook hands; and Jennifer gestured towards the now dark window. I think, she said, I will go out and smoke a cheroot in the car park. And after that? I asked. After that I will come back here and work until late. I do my best writing at night. She was 84, almost 85, years old. I kept thinking of her, puffing away down there in the car park, or writing in longhand in a tiny space cleared on that magnificently cluttered desk, as I made my slow way, in the cold evening air, back to Lisson Grove.

brian norton

images : cover of the 1953 edition; Glyndwr Michael before he was tipped into the sea.

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