By Vanessa Thorpe / The Guardian
The real-life model for Vesper Lynd, the alluring spy who so entranced James Bond in Casino Royale, has a new mission. Secret agent Krystyna Skarbek, who was fictionalized as 007’s lover in Ian Fleming’s novel, is now to be the figurehead of a campaign to remind Britain of its strong cultural ties with Poland.
Skarbek, who was Winston Churchill’s favorite secret agent, received the George Medal for her second world war bravery and went under the name Christine Granville in Britain. Courageous and daring, her under-recognized legacy is now to spearhead a fresh mission, officially announced next week.
The Granville-Skarbek Anglo-Polish cultural exchange will begin as an online museum and research site, run in tandem with a series of public events and exhibitions. After that, a move into a permanent physical home at the Polish Social and Cultural Association (Posk) in west London is planned.
“Skarbek was a Polish aristocrat of Jewish descent and not only the first British female agent but the longest serving of any agent,” said Julia Griffin, curator of the new project. “She and her first husband, a Polish diplomat, were in Africa when war broke out. They immediately took a ship to Southampton, and Krystyna was accepted as an SOE [Special Operations Executive] agent.”
Fleming, a former naval intelligence officer, had a short romance with Skarbek and was clearly beguiled when they met, telling a mutual friend, “she literally shines with all the splendors of a fictitious character. How rarely one finds such types.” His character Lynd, who was played by Ursula Andress and then Eva Green on screen, battled the villain Le Chiffre and was honored by Bond in the creation of the Vesper, the famous “shaken not stirred” cocktail.
But Skarbek’s real-life antics were, if anything, more dazzling. As well as skiing out of occupied Poland with evidence of Nazi plans to invade Russia, she was a crucial contact with resistance operatives, ultimately enabling the liberation of France.
“We know a lot about her now because of her biographer, Clare Mulley,” said Griffin. “Perhaps most famously Skarbek marched alone into Gestapo headquarters and demanded the release of two of Britain’s foremost agents, who were due to be executed. She posed as the niece of General Montgomery and persuaded the German chief to release them.
“She also pioneered the tactic of biting her own tongue when she was captured, using her blood to claim she had TB and prompting her release. This became standard training.”
Next month, a new portrait of Skarbek by acclaimed illustrator Andrzej Klimowski will go on show in an exhibition of his work with his collaborator and wife, Danusia Schejbal, at Posk’s gallery. Other key Polish figures in this portrait series will include Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the 18th-century Polish freedom fighter admired by British poets such as Byron, Keats and Coleridge, who also went on to become a cult figure for the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
The talent of British-Polish author Joseph Conrad will also be celebrated. The young Conrad joined the British merchant navy in 1878, gaining citizenship eight years later. His 1913 novel, Chance, finally earned him notoriety after he had already written The Secret Agent and Heart of Darkness, the work that inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now.
The dancer and teacher Dame Marie Rambert, philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, composer Sir Andrzej Panufnik and painter Feliks Topolski will be featured too.
The exchange is the first collaboration between Posk, also known as the Polish Center, the Polish Hearth Club in Kensington and the Polish Cultural Institute, and it was prompted by concerns that British links with Polish history are undervalued, particularly in comparison with Italian or French influences.
“There are so many unknown shared stories, as well as a history of the two countries enriching each other’s cultures,” Griffin said. “There have been different waves of immigration, most of them not caused by economic difficulty. That came in 2004 after Poland joined the EU. Before that came war, communism and religious persecution.”
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